01 Japanese History

#28 Bushi in the Edo Era

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When you think of Japanese history, you probably think of the bushi, or the samurai warrior. What were they like during the Edo period ?

According to data from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Japan’s population was approximately 32 million from the 18th century to the mid-19th century, or the end of the Edo period.

The bushi population was 7% of the total population, so it was roughly 2.2 million. The vast majority of the Japanese population was peasantry. As the ruling class, the bushi had high status in the society.

Among the bushi class, there was a strict division of rank from shogun to ashigaru, or foot soldier. The word “samurai” originally meant to serve others and referred to those who had masters of noble rank. Therefore, a bushi of lower status was sometimes not called a samurai.

Bushi had privileges such as having a family name and carrying swords at their waist. They were also allowed to defend themselves with a sword if they were insulted by someone. So they truly had a “license to kill”.

The sword was called “the soul of the bushi.” The Japanese sword was born in the late Heian period when the bushi rose to power, and from the Kamakura period, excellent Japanese swords were made.

However, during the Edo period, when there were no major battles, the demand for swords decreased and the role of the Japanese sword as a weapon declined.

The role of the bushi also changed from fighters to officials who ran the shogunate. Bushi not only studied the martial arts, but also Confucianism and other subjects, and lived by working in desk jobs at castles and government offices, thereby earning a salary. Bushi status was passed down to the eldest son.

With the exception of a few high-ranking bushi, most bushi lived a simple life. Lower-ranked bushi in particular were poor, and their lifestyle was no different from that of the common people.

They valued honor and hated shame. They had dignity and culture, and took responsibility for their words and actions on a daily basis so that they would be respected by the people. They risked their lives to serve their lord, and if they failed, they took responsibility with death.

Seppuku, or harakiri was an honorable death. Why did they cut their stomach to commit suicide?

In his book “Bushido (Bushido: The Way of the Samurai)”, Inazo Nitobe, an educator born in Iwate Prefecture at the end of the Edo period, explains that it was because of the belief that the spirit and affection reside in the stomach.

Thank you for reading.

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