The samurai of feudal Japan and the medieval knights of Europe had underlying similarities and differences. The comparison between these two elite, aristocratic warriors can be shown through their honour, military technology, and challenges a typical warrior had to face on an everyday basis. Their purposes as well as the basic concept of their codes, chivalry and bushido, were almost exactly identical. Furthermore, Samurai and knights both faced trouble against new modern technologies such as the arquebus, even though the samurais’ deftness in archery was extremely proficient. Even though the definition of samurai and knight are essentially parallel, the two had many differences.
The two warriors of Japan and Europe were alike because they existed to serve a similar purpose. Samurai or an alternate name bushi, were initially warriors hired by powerful families to fight against the Yamato court by at the Nara Period’s end around 793 C.E. (Turnbull, 32) Later on, Samurai were vassals hired by a daimyo or lord who would own a substantial amount of land. In return, the samurai would receive a certain amount of koku, the unit of measure of rice, and a place to sleep in the daimyo’s estate. (Wilson, 170) A daimyo would expect complete loyalty from a samurai and the duty to the daimyo would come before any personal issues including religion and family. (Sansom, 368) Entire duty and loyalty towards a daimyo relates to Bushido, or the way of the warrior.
According to Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese author, bushido had seven key values: Justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity, honour, and loyalty. Stephen Turnbull contradicted Nitobe by saying “such was the popularity of Nitobe’s work that not only was all this fully accepted, but his other misconception…” (Turnbull154) Bushido was not a concept carved into stone, but instead a “general attitude” from samurai. (Turnbull 156) The things that Turnbull said have some truth because the two samurai, Torii Mototada and Miyamoto Musashi had completely different opinions towards the concept of Bushido. Mototada expresses his complete loyalty to his daimyo when he wrote his last letter to his son before the fall of the Fushimi castle in 1600 when he wrote
For myself, I am resolved to make a stand inside the castle, and to die a quick death… But that is not the true meaning of being a warrior… to show one’s weakness is not within the family traditions of my master Ieyasu. It is not the way of the warrior to be shamed and avoid death even under circumstances that are not particularly important. It goes with out saying that to sacrifice one’s life for one’s master is an unchanging principle. (Turnbull, 156)
Mototada explicitly says that he must die for his daimyo to maintain his loyalty. Musashi on the other hand, entirely declined the idea of dying for a daimyo when he said “The true way of swordsmanship is to fight with your opponent and win… your real intent should not be to die with weapons worn uselessly at your side.” (Wilson, 162)
There is a name for ritual suicide committed by a samurai if they feel they have failed their daimyo in retaining their loyalty and duty. A samurai would also commit suicide if his daimyo is killed and the samurai feels he needs to attend with him into the next world. (Wilson, 274) Seppuku or Hara-kiri involved a samurai stabbing himself in the stomach usually with a dagger. Seppuku could be performed either as a prepared slow ritual inside a domicile or a quick and simple death. (Turnbull website) Either way, the process would have definitely been painful and sometimes, a samurai would request a second soldier to cut off his head to end the pain of seppuku. In addition to retaining their loyalty as a reason for committing suicide, a samurai might also kill himself if he was captured by an enemy or failed to accomplish a mission, though samurai rarely killed themselves like in such behavior. (Turnbull, website) Knights of Europe would have seen this act as greatly foreign since there were never any incidents of a knight committing suicide out of respect. (Turnbull, website) A knight indeed could have been dedicated to fight for a cause if they wanted to, as shown in the crusades, but they never to an extent of killing himself.
Like the samurai, knights were vassals and were essentially the same as samurai by definition. They were aristocratic men who were vassals and paid their military services to dukes or counts that were great landlords and controlled the safety and system over a region. (Cantor, 7) Dukes and counts from their vassals wanted, like the daimyo, loyalty. The vassals could pay this through military services, rents, and taxes. There was a difference between Japanese and European vassals though. In Japan, all vassals were samurai, but in Europe, not all vassals were knights since knights could have their own vassals who also could have their own vassals and so forth. (Sansom, 368) Another difference was that the contemplation that the count or duke owed to the knight was written down in a contract called a charter, but in the Japanese version, the samurai did not ask for anything from the daimyo before hand. (Sansom, 368) Some things the duke owed a knight for their services were a place to sleep, free meals in his castle, a horse and armour. The knight also received a part of the duke’s land as part of the deal that was called a fief. (Cantor, 7)
In order to gain their fighting tactics and skill using swords and other equipment, knights would occupy themselves in tournaments against other knights. Before a battle between knights, a knight had to be properly equipped with armour usually consisting of chain mail in addition to breastplates and open-faced or full helms. Having many servants present was necessary in order to fully equip a knight with such armour. In order to show affection for their lady, a knight would also wear a scarf attached to their helmet. (Turnbull, website) The samurai on the contrary, did not usually express this sort of emotion. When they did however, it was to complete another mission as it shows in “Gikeiki, a life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, there is a scene where the hero seduces a young woman, but his underlying motive is the acquisition of a Chinese military scroll possessed by her father! (Turnbull, website) During tournaments, knights would wield long blunted lances or swords and charge at each other while on horseback. (Cantor, 44) Even though weapons were blunted, knights still got injured from blows striking the throat area. Most knights were aware of the risk of injury, and so when a knight was forcibly dismounted off their horse, the battle was over. Hand to hand combat on the ground was dangerous. (Cantor, 50) Not battling on the ground during tournaments was purely because of the risk of danger, not because of the common misinterpretation of knights being immobile when off of their horse. While on foot, knights could move around swiftly enough. Knight’s plate armour would have chainmail on the armpits so they could raise and lower their arms quite freely. (Cantor, 46)
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