Culture of the Samurai


ENG 1010

When one thinks of a Japanese samurai, they generally picture in their mind a stout warrior devoid of emotion, battle armor glinting, and sword poised with a silent threat. Although this image may be historically accurate, many people do not expand their thoughts past the awe-inducing thought of such a noble warrior and into the many arts within the cultural aspects of being a samurai. Their art of fighting is what made the samurai famous world-wide. Although pride and honor came before anything else in the life of a samurai, there is much more to them than common knowledge dictates.

In order to fully understand the Samurai in ancient Japan, it is necessary to take a look at the historical framework of the time. Before the early 12th century, Japan was ruled by an all-powerful Emperor who derived his power from the belief that he was a descendant of the sun goddess. Under the Emperor were small semi-autonomous tribal units called uji, who were bound together by fictitious bonds of kinship. These units were loyal to the Emperor and some, especially in the case of the Fujiwara clan during the Heian period (794-1185), even exerted dominance over the imperial family and were the ones who actually governed the Emperor\'s land. However, the beginning of the 12th century saw the decline of Imperial power and the rise of regional militias formed to protect precious land in the wake of disunity in Japan caused by the break up of the Han Dynasty. It was during this time that the Samurai class began to take shape and rise to power.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating arts that has come to be linked with the samurai is the cha no yu, or tea ceremony. Few activities in general are quite as thoroughly refined and thoughtful and yet evolved through such troubled times. Complicated and yet utterly simple, the tea ceremony in many ways could be a metaphor not only for the samurai ideal but also for the land of Japan itself.

The tea ceremony normally took place in a tearoom, the chachitsu. The guests entered through the nijiriguchi, a small square door, with samurai leaving their swords outside and the last to enter, closing the door behind him. The nijiriguchi was only about two and a half feet square. Guests therefore entered by crawling, a deliberately humbling device intended to create a sense of equality once inside. The tearoom was arranged so that those entering would first spy a scroll hanging in the tokonoma - or alcove. This scroll was normally of calligraphy, with its subject often that of a simple observation such as Honrai mu Ichibutsu (\'Originally there is nothing\'). As this scroll is carefully chosen by the host to reflect a mood or the season, the guests customarily spend a moment appreciating it before seating themselves around a small hearth in the center of the room.

At this point the host enters, and the principal guest thanks him or her for their invitation and politely inquires about the scroll or some other object in the room should one be present. However, and throughout the time spent in the tearoom, conversations and articulations are brief, and it was considered impolite to speak of things not related to the ceremony. The principle guest then serves a light meal, called the kaiseki, which was intended to be pleasing to the eye as well as the taste. At this time, a modest serving of saké, a rice wine, is also offered in shallow bowls, followed by a piece of fruit or some other light dessert. The guests then exit the tearoom while the host prepares it for the drinking of tea, replacing the scroll with a single flower in a vase. When the guests return, the host heats water in an iron kettle, then rinses and wipes the tea bowl and utensils. He places powdered green tea in a bowl with a bamboo dipper, then whips the tea with a whisk (also bamboo) until the surface is slightly frothy, then serves it to his guests.

Two kinds of tea will be served: koi-cha, which is the more formal of the two and possessed of a thicker consistency and bitter taste, and usu-cha - thinner and