The samurai dominated Japanese society for 700 years, and the vision of this class permeates Japanese culture. Ever present is the samurai’s sword — as a tool, a companion, and a symbol.
The samurai sword is both a technical marvel and a significant cultural object. As a technology, it involves a large system of craftsmen, distinct stages of and for the materials, and a long apprenticeship to develop the necessary skills. Culturally, the sword is surrounded by a history of legend, prescribed behaviors, and complex status relationships. Like a many-faceted diamond, a close examination of this one tool can give us a wide perspective on Japanese culture.
To study the relationship between the samurai and his sword, we will study the whole of samurai history. The role the sword has played has changed over time, but so have the times brought out different aspects of that many-layered relationship. The sword makes the samurai, makes him its wielder as much as he makes it his weapon.
How was the technology of the sword appropriate to the samurai, and what roles did it play? We will spend considerable time exploring the psyche of the samurai, particularly with respect to Zen anti-ideology. How is Zen reflected in the samurai and in his sword? We will also follow Japanese history as it revolves around samurai. By what fire is the samurai’s identity forged, and what of today’s society can its gleaming edge cut apart?
|1||Introduction to Japan||
Storry, Richard. Fig. 1-2 and “The Silent Warrior.” The Way of the Samurai. London, England: Orbis Books, 1978, pp. 7-17. ISBN: 9780856134043.
Suzuki, Daisetz. “Zen and Swordsmanship I.” Chapter V in Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970, pp. 89-93. ISBN: 9780691017709.
|2||The katana||Kapp, Leon, Hiroko Kapp, and Yoshindo Yoshihara. “A Craft Reborn,” and “The Sword.” The Craft of the Japanese Sword. New York, NY: Kodansha International, 1987, pp. 17-27, 53-55 and 61-94. ISBN: 9780870117985.||(PDF)|
|3||The samurai’s cultural origins||
Tsunoda, Ryusaku, William T. Bary, and Donald Keene. Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol. I: From Earliest Times to 1600. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1964.
Please read one of:
Beaseley, W. G. “Buddhism and Shinto.” In The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000, pp. 42-47. ISBN: 9780520225602.
Storry, Richard. “The Samurai Emerges.” The Way of the Samurai. London, England: Orbis Books, 1978, pp. 18-41. ISBN: 9780856134043.
|4||The code of the samurai||
Heike Monogatari [The Tale of the Heike]. Translated by Kitagawa Hiroshi and Bruce T. Tsuchida. Tokyo, Japan: University of Tokyo Press, 1975. Chapter 1, p. 5; Chapter 9, pp. 519-523; Chapter 11, pp. 676-689. ISBN 1: 9780860081883 and ISBN 2: 9780860081890.
Tsunemoto, Tamamoto. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Vol. I. Tokyo, Japan: Hokuseido Press, 1980, sections 2-5, 9 and 12, pp. 35-40. ISBN: 9780893461690.
|5||Zen and the samurai||
Please read one of:
|6||Civil war and unification||
Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko. New York, NY: Kodansha International, 1992, pp. 653-663. ISBN: 9784770015709.
Please read one of:
|7||Giving up the gun||Perrin, Noel. Chapters 1-4 in Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword. Boston, MA: D. R. Gordine, 1988. ISBN: 9780879237738.||(PDF)|
|8||The Tokugawa state||
Storry, Richard. “The Armed Mandarins.” The Way of the Samurai. London, England: Orbis Books, 1978, pp. 63-77. ISBN: 9780856134043.
Sadler, A. L. “The Legacy of Ieyasu.” In The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Shogun Tokugawa. Rutland, VT: C. E. Tuttle, 1978, pp. 387-398. ISBN: 9780804812979.
The lab for this module is to do blacksmithing (forging) in the MIT forge. After a demonstration, students sign up for four times to work on projects they choose themselves — from small household items to attempts at Samurai swords (the latter is discouraged, though, as it takes about six months to complete). The MIT crest features a blacksmith, because MIT is dedicated to the intricacies of practice, but few students have a chance to get so close to such a concrete engineering problem. Forging is delicate work, requiring both skill and an understanding of the chemistry of iron. We hope that after this lab, students have a greater appreciation for the “learning” necessary for, and part of, “doing.”