Weird History
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Myths About Feudal Japan You Thought Were True

Updated April 20, 2020 3.1k votes 683 voters 79.2k views13 items

List RulesVote up the most shocking debunkings.

Feudal Japan may conjure images of samurai fighting with finely crafted katana swords or mysterious ninjas carrying out covert exterminations while surreptitiously dangling from ropes. Whichever image persists, the period of Japanese history ranging from the 12th to 19th century appears to feature some of the most intriguing stories, individuals, and events imaginable - though the accuracy of these historical tidbits may be questionable, at best.

Plenty of lore and legend are entangled in the myths people believe about feudal Japan. From the Kamakura shogunate (1185-1333) through the Ashikaga period (1336-1573) and into the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), Japan was a military government plagued by constant struggles for power. Within that context, the status of samurai varied significantly, black-clad ninjas may or may not have existed, and society was influenced by both men and women who idealized the past.

The truth behind some of the myths you believe about feudal Japan reflects this complexity, but may leave you a bit disappointed in the end.

  • 1

    MYTH: Only Men Were Samurai

    The Reality: An elite group of female samurai, known as onna-bugeisha, trace their origins to 200 CE, according to some traditions. In the 12th-century chronicle The Heike Monogatari, the female warrior Tomoe is described as "a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors, and fit to meet either God or devil."

    Onna-bugeisha undertook the same training as their male counterparts, learning to use the naginata, a long pole with a blade attached to the end. Many women opened schools to train other female warriors and, in 1868, the Joshitai - or women's army - fought with male samurai at the Battle of Aizu. The Joshitai was led by Nakano Takeko, who perished at Aizu, and the conflict itself marked the end of the female samurai force.

    Why The Myth: The onna-bugeisha haven't found representation in history or popular culture, resulting in the myth that samurai warriors were only male. Onna-bugeisha contrasted the traditional wife and mother roles of Japanese women, which also contributed to their omission - samurai stories written by men intentionally excluded female warriors. This was especially true for works from the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century, written by Westerners and Japanese alike; women were placed in subservient roles alongside brave, loyal, and idealistic male samurai.

    Does the reality surprise you?
  • 2

    MYTH: Bushido Was A Formal Doctrine

    The Reality: Heavily influenced by Confucian thought, many samurai did develop a common set of values, though the bushido code was in no way formal. Much like the samurai themselves were romanticized during and after the Tokugawa shogunate, so was the "code" by which they lived. Samurai - or "those who serve" - were also warriors or bushi, the latter term being far more general. By developing a code for bushi based in service, loyalty, and austerity, samurai themselves created their own mythos.

    As the bushido code wasn't penned until after the samurai's military role had declined, however, it was applied to their service only retroactively.

    Why The Myth: The bushido code found its articulation from the samurai intellectuals of the 17th and 18th centuries. Samurai like Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1720) emphasized the role of bushido in the life cycle of samurai, while the values within the code itself adapted to meet the needs of samurai at various points in history. For example, the samurai of the Ashikaga shogunate were said to be far more servile than their predecessors, in large part because they experienced far less military success than those who fought before them.

    On the whole, the idealized bushido concepts cast a wide net of samurai values via hindsight.


    Does the reality surprise you?
  • 3

    MYTH: No Samurai Were Christian

    The Reality: Christianity was neither widespread nor widely accepted in feudal Japan. Active efforts sought to drive Christianity out of Japan during the 16th century, especially after disgruntled peasants purporting to be Christians rose up against the Tokugawa shogunate in 1637-1638. Known as the Shimabara Rebellion, this uprising resulted in the demise of 37,000 rebels. Military troops opposing the rebels included ronin and, while the number of Christian devotees among these samurai is unclear, they fought to the end alongside the faithful.

    A century later, according to author William J. Farge, Christians (or at least Christian sympathizers) like Baba Bunko were still present in Japan. Bunko, a samurai-turned-storyteller, was captured and executed in 1759. Farge believes this was due to his support of Christianity. Still another samurai, Takayama Ukon, was exiled to the Philippines for his Christian beliefs in 1614 and beatified by the Vatican in early 2017

    Why The Myth: Samurai tradition and the principles of what became the bushido code were closely tied to the ethnic Shinto religion in Japan, as well as Confucian philosophy. Christianity, difficult to mesh with either of these ideologies, failed to make inroads into Japan. Many samurai were Buddhist, but the warriors seldom found themselves associated with Christianity from moral or political standpoints.

    Does the reality surprise you?
  • 4

    MYTH: Samurai Never Left Japan

    The Reality: While samurai did fight for daimyo in Japan, they also outsourced their labor. Samurai fought as mercenaries during the late 15th century, fighting in the Philippines to quell a Chinese rebellion against Spanish imperialists at Manila. Ronin also served as mercenaries, and samurai like Hasekura Tsunenaga embarked upon diplomatic missions for their daimyo. From 1613 to 1620, Hasekura traveled on behalf of regional ruler Date Masamune, visiting Rome, New Spain (present-day Mexico), and several European countries. 

    Why The Myth: Samurai have become an integral part of Japanese nationalism through history. The Japanese military has often associated themselves with the bushido code and their warrior predecessors, as have politicians and industry leaders

    Does the reality surprise you?