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.
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.
The Reality: Samurai were often charged with beheading their enemies following their opponents' defeat, often to gain prestige and financial remuneration. Heads were presented to daimyo - feudal lords who were vassals of the shogun - and put on display. Such actions were perhaps preceded by a cut to the throat to end the fallen rival mercifully. As samurai's presence on the front lines decreased by the 16th century, they were unable to acquire these symbols of victory; the right of kirisute-gomen, however, enabled samurai to continue the practice, slaying anyone in the lower classes who offended their honor. The action was meant to be punitive, though samurai did have to justify these beheadings in court.
Why The Myth: Because such a rule ever existed, the notion of kirisute-gomen - which translates to "authorization to cut and leave (the body of the victim)" - became free license for samurai to perform the practice at any time without repercussions. As a result, in 1872, the Tokugawa shogunate began conscripting samurai and limiting their rights, noting they were not like "soldiers of a later period who carried two swords and called themselves warriors, living presumptuously without working, and in extreme instances cutting down people in cold blood while officials turned their faces."
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.
The Reality: Ninjas may have worn black for night missions, but they were more likely to camouflage themselves according to their surroundings. Even at night, wearing brown or dark blue was preferable to black, as deeper colors were less likely to stand out against the night sky. Reversible clothing was also common. When appropriate, a ninja would turn their clothes inside-out to appear more conventional. Layered, practical garments were also worn to thwart shrubs, insects, or any other hindrance.
Why The Myth: Ninjas, with all of their secrecy and connections to covert political exterminations, are usually depicted in popular culture as being clad in all black. This portrayal traces back to their 18th-century representations in illustrations and woodblock prints, in which they were often shown climbing ropes. Kabuki theater further contributed to this trend, frequently depicting ninjas in black costumes. Ninjas in these plays were choreographed to be relatively invisible amid the scenery and other performers.