Perhaps the only thing in this world that is certain is death. It is a concept that is universal among the world and likewise is feared by many. Many have qualms regarding the questions that surround death. Due to the complexity of these questions and the mystery that surrounds its possible answers, fear arises within people. It is said that the number one fear is public speaking, but one must wonder if death was one of the choices. Although death is frightening for many, there were particular individuals in Japanese history that were believed to be fearless in the face of death, they were the samurai.
The samurai were a warrior class that gained immense power during feudal Japan. They held high status positions in society and exemplified the power of the shoguns. Samurai often faced death on the cruel battlefield of medieval Japan. However, most interesting about the samurai is their conception of death. The samurai not only faced death much more frequently than the average man but they also had a practice of hara-kiri or seppuku, in which they took their own life. In this paper, I will look at the notions surrounding death for a samurai. I will begin by first by discussing the origins and rise of both the samurai class and Zen Buddhism in Japan. Thereupon, I will look at the samurai philosophy of bushido and in specific the notion of seppuku. My main interest will be to delve deeper into the samurai practice of ritual suicide and how Zen Buddhism may have affected the samurai ideology. Finally, I will look into if these cultural constructs emphasized in medieval Japan, can still be made relevant to Japanese suicide during World War II.
As this topic is not relatively popular among scholars, none of my sources deal directly with my area of interest. Therefore, I have used sources that deal with the lives of samurai. These include Kaiten Nukarirya’s The Religion of the Samurai and Stephen Turnbull’s The Samurai and the Sacred. Furthermore I will also be using an autobiographical account of Katsu Kokichi, a Tokugawa Samurai, known as Musui’s Story. I will also be using Suzuki Shosan’s teachings which have been translated in Arthur Braverman’s book, Warrior of Zen. Moreover, I will be using some scholarly articles such as Cameron Hurst’s “Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal”, as well as Michael Roberts and Arthur Saniotis’ “Empowering the Body and ‘Noble Death’.” I will also be using some lesser known sources that will add minor details regarding the lives of samurai.
The rise of the samurai is the one of the many reasons pre-modern Japanese history is so unique. After the collapse of the Heian regime in 1190, Japan entered a period of warring states. During this time, aristocratic families constantly fought over power with no single dominant group. Due to this constant fighting, warriors were of great importance. This gave rise to the samurai, or warrior class. Samurai became increasingly important as they held great strength,...