The first shogun


Read more about samurai history in the e-book Samurai: Ascension by A. R. Berg

  • samurai  fuji art

    Yoritomo, Japan’s first military dictator, established his own military camp called bakufu in the small town of Kamakura. It grew rapidly and became the new capital where Yoritomo secluded himself and his minions. His warriors were supposed to be loyal to him only, and his retainers were only to receive rights for their estates from him directly. Yoritomo founded a system of government which was different from court rule and included the samurai’s right to seize power by force. Thus, a military dictatorship was established where the shogun also granted the samurai estates, essentially giving them the whole nation. The daimyo were sole masters in their domains who only responded to the shogun and enjoyed almost full independence which their lord had to respect because they beared arms. Courageous, belligerent people ended up replacing courtiers and bureaucrats, and the shogun had to bend to unwritten rules which living with people of the sword demands. Primarily, the relationship was characterized by vassalage, which is thoroughly explained by N. I. Konrad: “A vassal (retainer) performed his duty to the lord, but he knew that the lord was also under obligation to him. The retainer’s duty consisted in hōshi, or ‘service’, the lord’s duty in goon, or ‘compassion.’ In reality both of these duties were indispensable for both sides, but such relation, induced by vital necessity, crystallized into a form of moral category chu, or ‘fidelity.’ The word chu did not mean ‘loyalty to the lord,’ as it was understood later, but ‘fidelity to duty,’ to one’s own duty, and the lord also had duty towards his servant.”

    The relations between daimyo and his samurai much resembled those confidential and benevolent relations of homage that existed between knights in Medieval Europe. Feudal lords strengthened their squads as much as they could; after all the warriors were the foundation of the nation’s might. Their warriors grew more loyal to their chieftains and their families who they had been serving for generations. The daimyo and their warriors and retainers shared open-hearted relationships rooted in reciprocal moral obligations, debt of honor, and loyalty. It is impossible to grasp who samurai really were without understanding the profound psychology of these special relations. For instance, the lord and his retainer stood shoulder to shoulder and shared the risks as equals in battle. The lord had to be the paragon of valor, and his warriors had to follow him and be prepared to lay down their lives defending him. The warriors were proud of their suzerain’s valor and considered it a great honor to serve him. They completely trusted and loved him like a father. He, in turn, treated them like sons.

    minamoto yoritomo art
    Minamoto Yoritomo

    The moment of battle is the instant when everything is at stake. It has a solemn, mystical aura. The union of warriors struggling for life or death arouses a feeling of spiritual commonality: anything insignificant vanishes, thoughts become exceptionally clear, and reality is perceived as if you look at it from a different dimension. There is no fear of death, only a feeling of the presence of the unknown. This is the sacramental moment where endless hours of meditation and training merge and manifest. Unless you experience it yourself, this state seems not only unfamiliar but inconceivable. And yet, it is the quintessence of a samurai’s life.
    Then, the samurai did not think they were serving the whole nation. That idea dominated later. In the medieval epoch the samurai only served their lord, and believed service was the manifestation of their lives’ highest principle, Duty, or giri.In fact, the word ‘samurai,’ or saburahi, derived from saburahu, defined in the dictionary of ancient Japanese as ‘serve a master, protect a master,’ ‘serve a great man, an upper class man.’ It was depicted in written form by a Chinese character pronounced shi. This character is made up of two elements: ren which means ‘man,’ and shi which means ‘Buddhist temple,’ suggesting that it probably referred to men who served in and guarded temples.

    miyamoto musashi art ronin
    Japanese Archer Art by Tatiana Berg | Purchase print or painting | All Artwork

    Above all in Bushi-Do were service and loyalty to the lord. “…Our duty is to guard the interest of our Lord…This is the backbone of our faith, unchanging and eternally true. Never in my life have I placed mine own thoughts above those of my Lord and Master. Nor will I do otherwise in all the days of my life. Even when I die I will return to life seven times5 to guard my Lord’s House…Every morning make up thy mind how to die. Every evening freshen thy mind in the thought of death. And let this be done without end.” (Hidden by the Leaves)
    The samurai considered it a special honor when their remains were placed inside the foundation of the Lord’s castle, because they believed their spirit would continue protecting him after death. Some samurai even committed harakiri so that the castle’s foundation would be infused with their loyalty to the lord. The lord upheld his part in the ‘Loyalty for Loyalty’ rule and... read more about ronin in the book

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    This is a chapter from Samurai: Ascension by A. R. Berg
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