medieval-japan

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Azuchi-Momoyama Period Nanban-Style Armor

Japan (16th Century)

Helmet 20.5; body 45.0; tassets 28.0.

European armor was brought into Japan through trade with Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. Later the Japanese would imitate them and began producing them in Japan, which were collectively called Nanban Dogusoku (Nanban Armor). This armor was given to Sakakibara Yasumasa by Tokugawa Ieyasu right before the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) and has since been handed down to the Sakakibara family.

A Japanese shikoro (a neck guard that hangs from the bottom of a helmet) and hikimawashi (decoration on shikoro) made of white yak hair are attached to the hachi (crown) of a helmet that seems to have been brought into Japan from abroad (hakusaihin).

On the back of the crown, there is ushirodate (a standing decoration on the back of a helmet), which was modeled after the crest of a European helmet. The cuirass made of iron has the same form as that of a European cuirass: It has shinogi (a peak made by cutting metal or wood diagonally on each) in front and both sides of the waist are cut up to make the length of the back cuirass shorter.

However, considering the use of hinges on the right side and the quality of the overall finish, this must have been produced in Japan. Hoate (face guard), kote (arm guard), haidate (a guard to protect the thigh and knee) and suneate (shin guard) accompany the armor.

On the helmet, the family crest of the Sakakibara family, “Genjiguruma,” is represented by makie (lacquer sprinkled with gold/silver powder) on the front and on the right and left sides. However, since it is unlikely that these crests had been applied before Ieyasu gave the suit of armor to Sakakibara Yasumasa, they were probably applied after.

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The Real Afro Samurai — The Story of Yasuke,

In the 16th century a young man was taken from his home in Mozambique and sold into slavery, becoming the property of a Jesuit Priest named Alessandro Velignano.  Velignano was a missionary who made several trips to Asia, especially China and Japan.  In 1579 Velignano went on a missionary trip to Japan, taking his slave with him. 

When the African man arrived in Japan, he caused quite a stir as he was 6’ 2" tall and as a black man, certainly stood out in medieval Japan.  News of the strange man traveled all over Japan, until eventually the most powerful daimyo Lord Oda Nobunaga learned of the large dark skinned man.  Nobunaga requested a personal audience with the man, and upon meeting him had his skin washed to determine if the whole thing was a hoax.  When it was found the darkness of his skin could not be washed away, Nobunaga gave him the name “Yasuke” and ordered he be trained as a samurai.  Afterwards, Yasuke served as a bodyguard to Oda Nobunaga, taking part in the many battles and campaigns in which Nobunaga eventually would unify Japan. He was paid handsomely for his services, even being granted his own estate.

In 1582 one of Nobunaga’s generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, rebelled against him.  The forces of Mitsuhide surround Nobunaga in a shrine, where Nobunaga was either killed in combat or forced to commit suicide.  Yasuke escaped the battle and continued his service to the Oda Clan, serving his son Nobutada.  Nobutada was also surrounded in his castle, where he was either killed or forced to commit suicide.  Yasuke was captured by Akechi’s men and forced to surrender his sword, but he was allowed to live and set free.  After the fall of the Nobunaga and Nobutada, Yasuke returned to the Jesuit Missionary and supposedly took up Holy Orders as a priest.  Details of his life after being a samurai are unknown.

An example of late 16th, early 17th century Japanese ‘gusoku’ armour. Note the bullet dents. The Japanese were very capable at making effective armour. It’s a complete myth that they were lightly armoured or that their armour was some how paper thin/near useless.

The Tale of Genji

Written by Grace Ibrahim

The Tale of Genji is widely regarded as the fist novel ever written. It is well over thousand pages and has fifty four chapters. However I am only covering the abridged version in this review, which I suggest you read before deciding whether or not you want to take on this work in is entirety. This version was translated and edited by Royall Tyler who recently retired from teaching Japanese and Japanese Literature at the Australian National University.

The Tale of Genji however was written in Japan by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Heian court. She was born around 973 AD and died probably in 1014. Murasaki was already known for her talent in poetry writing when she was called to serve the empress in 1006. The Tale of Genji was completed sometime between 1007-1008 while she was still serving at court.

The Tale of Genji tells the story of a prince born to an Intimate of the emperor. The hierarchy works like so, the emperor and his empress, after the empress was the Mistress of staff in theory she was a court official but she was really more like a junior wife. Then following those two are the consorts who are of noble birth, then after them came the intimates who are of low ranking noble birth or of common birth. The emperor did not have all these women due to enormous sexual appetite but more so because he was expected to make himself available to members of the upper aristocracy.

Genji our hero was born to an intimate who is an orphan an so has no family backing or political support. The emperor however is deeply devoted to her and longs to make Genji his heir apparent. However since he knows this is not possible he instead decides to remove Genji completely from the imperial family by giving him a surname (the imperial family has none) and appointing him as a senior government official.

Genji’s life is full of ups and downs and he eventually becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom however the story is less about this and more about the women he is involved with, who help shape him. From his mother in early childhood to the love of his life whom he raises as a daughter than later marries. Genji’s life though privileged is not without trial and error as a youth he makes many mistakes in love some of which are quite hilarious! He is described as “devastatingly handsome, charming and eloquent”. He also seems to posses unlimited material means eventually even that cannot protect him from the Kokiden consort she is the mother of the heir apparent and is Genji’s political enemy. She succeeds in forcing him in to self-exile when he is caught in bed with her little sister Oborozukiyo by her father! Genji then travels from Kyoto to Suma and since he is in disgrace he must leave his wife Murasaki whom he loves most in the world behind. After he is in the wilds languishing in misery over being separated from Murasaki he is almost killed in a great storm and starts to have strange dreams of supernatural beings and of his late father. However soon after the storms subside a eccentric and very wealthy man called the Akashi Novice arrives by boat to ask Genji to accompany him further up the shore to a his home. Genji goes with him and here we meet the Akashi Lady who is the daughter of the Akashi novice. When Genji is finally called back to the capitol from exile she is pregnant with his child. This child a girl will eventually become empress after the reign of Genji’s secret first born Reizei.

By the end of the book Genji has three children all by different mothers and all of whom go on to greatness. His first son whom he has with his stepmother empress Fujitsubo goes on to become emperor and his second son by his first wife Aoi goes on to be a court official. His daughter by the Akashi Lady goes on to become empress. During his daughter’s reign he receives the title of Grandfather of the emperor the highest title given to a commoner.

After Genji’s triumphant return from exile he is mainly concerned with power and beauty and though still tempted by several women he does not actually start any new relationships. His power and wealth grow to new heights but he is most concerned over Murasaki who is taken very ill and eventually dies leaving Genji now in his 50’s a shell of his former self. After Murasaki’s passing Genji retires to a temple and then dies roughly a year or two later. The last thirteen chapters pick up after a gap of about eight years after Genji’s passing and concern Genji’s grandson Prince Niou and his best friend and rival in love Kaoru these chapters cover there struggle to win the sister’s Oigimi and Naka no Kimi but this like much of the rest of the book also ends in tragedy.

Overall The tale of Genji is a great read and ranks in Japanese Literature on the level of Shakespeare, Homeric epics, Chaucer, and Proust’s Remembrance of things past, in the west.

Another version of the cover illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano.

Buy The Tale of Genji

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Spooky Folklore from Medieval Japan — The Legend of the Ubume,

In Medieval Japanese folklore, the Ubume is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth.  Often the ghost of the woman will appear soaked in blood and wander about crying obareu! obareu! (be born! be born!).  Typically Ubume are found along travel routes, such as roads or rivers.  There the Ubume will ask travelers to hold her baby, just for a moment.  When the traveler takes up the swaddled infant, the Ubume will disappear and the infant will become heavier and heavier.  When the infant becomes to heavy to hold and is dropped, it is revealed to be a large stone.

One infamous Ubume was said to take up residence at a river crossing in the Mino Province (now modern day Gifu Prefecture).  When passerby’s crossed the river, the Ubume would appear among the raging waters begging them to take her baby and save its life.  Those who took the infant found that it became heavier and heavier until they were drug under the water and drowned.

In the early 11th century AD the samurai Urabe Suetake was traveling with a groups of soliders.  One night in camp the soldiers talked of tails about the Ubume at the river crossing.  So frightened were they that they refused to cross the river, a crossing which was to be made the next morning.  The brave samurai Suetake announced “I shall cross the river myself.  Right now!”.  

To prove to his men that there was nothing to fear, he crossed the river, all the while his men stayed in camp out of cowardice.  He made it across the river, and was halfway across his return trip when the Ubume appeared to him, begging him to take her baby.  Depsite the danger, Suetake took the crying infant, which grew heavier and heavier in his arms with each yard he stepped.  By the time he reached the shore the bundle would have been too heavy to carry for most, but due to Suetake’s superior strength and stamina he continued onward to the camp.  By the time he reached the camp the swaddled infant was almost too heavy for even Suetake to handle.  When he reached camp he dropped the bundle before his men to show them his great deed.  When the swaddling clothes were opened, it was found to be nothing more than a bundle of dead leaves.

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The Medieval Japanese Handheld Cannon — The Ozutsu

In the mid 1500’s Portuguese traders introduced firearms to Japan.  The deadly new weapons became very popular among the Samurai and soldiers as a whole new gun industry flourished in Japan to the point that Japanese firearms use rivaled that of Europe.  While the Tanegeshima Matchlock Musket  was the most common Japanese firearm, many other stranger weapons were also produced.

One of the strangest was the ozutsu.  "ozutsu" is a Japanese word for cannon, however Japanese cannon came in a variety of sizes, including a small handheld cannon.  Popular in the late 16th and early 17th century, ozutsu handheld cannons were basically small man portable cannon modeled after regular matchlock muskets.  ozutsu’s however were made to fire cannon sized projectiles of around 1 - 3 inches in caliber and be fired by hand like a regular musket.

When fired by hand the ozutsu was not loaded with regular cannonballs, as the tremendous recoil would be enough to knock even the strongest Samurai on his bum.  Typically they fired incendiary or explosive arrows called “hiya” using a reduced powder charge, making them more or a grenade launcher or hand mortar.  When mounted on a tripod, wall pintle, or carriage however, they could be loaded with small cannon balls or even grapeshot, making it like a large shotgun.  For the most part the ozutsu was used in siege warfare, to storm and destroy enemy fortifications and castles.

By 1600 the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had unified Japan and brought an end the near constant warring in the empire.  The sudden onset of peace ended the popularity of the ozutsu as there were no more battles to be fought or castles to be besieged.  The ban on foreign trade and influence also stagnated firearms production as the Japanese never advanced in technology and never developing their musket farther than the matchlock until the 19th century.  Many ozutsu’s became curiosities rather than weapons, and were used to call monks to prayer, signal the time in cities, and inaugurate official gatherings.