Legal rights of the Samurai?

Discussion in 'Japanese Culture and History' started by CNida, Dec 24, 2014.

  1. CNida

    CNida Green Belt

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    I was doing some reading late at night the other night, and I idly passed over some bits about the Samurai.

    One part that I had read that both surprised and interested me (for reasons I can't fathom), was that if someone were to act offensively in front of a Samurai, the Samurai could take the mans life if he chose to without needing to wait for the authorities or involve them whatsoever.

    I am hoping someone could clarify on this for me, mostly as a means to sate my curiosity.

    When this happened, did it happen in the form of a duel? Like, "You have offended my armor, now grab this weapon so we may fight to the death."? Or was it more direct, like, "You spoke a foul word, so taste my blade."...?

    Or was it more of an authority thing, where Samurai were authorized to act as police/judge/executioner, right then and there?


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  2. donald1

    donald1 Senior Master

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    ive heard if someone were to touch their sword they would have the right to kill them
     
  3. Tez3

    Tez3 Sr. Grandmaster

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    That could be a double entendre though....
     
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  4. K-man

    K-man Grandmaster

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  5. jks9199

    jks9199 Administrator Staff Member

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    One thing you have to be careful with on a question like this is the era... The samurai spanned a long era, and their rights and what qualified as "samurai" varied at different points. Rather than go further and put my foot in my mouth, I'll leave it for some with much better knowledge of the subject to address -- but I think that the answer is going to be, in part, "it depends on when..."

    Think about the difference in what being a "knight" meant at various points throughout European history...
     
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  6. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Cool.

    Hmm… it wasn't exactly like that…

    Sure.

    No, not really either of those, although it was closer to the second…

    Not so much an 'authority' thing, no… it's not such an easy topic to discuss, as there is simply too much to cover… we're talking about around 1,000 years of history here, with a huge range of social structures and norms involved, giving differentiations from one geographical (political) area to another, let alone the range of time periods we're discussing.

    But, to give some kind of overview, K-man has already linked to an article on a practice known as kiritsute gomen… there was also the practice of tsujikiri… both of which involved the practice of samurai striking non-samurai… but in none of those cases were the samurai acting as "judge, jury, and executioner"… they were really simply exercising their (then) given rights. But the thing to remember is that those "rights" weren't necessarily universal… nor were they necessarily as arbitrary as you might think. There was a lot that might go into the execution of such rights/actions… and the repercussions could be quite extreme… both if the right was exercised, or if it wasn't (but "should" have been).

    It gets rather technical, but if you want something cleared up, just ask.
     
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  7. Tez3

    Tez3 Sr. Grandmaster

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    I don't think it would have been in the Samurai's interest to bump off too many of the 'lesser' mortals. Servants and workers would have been hard to come back if they could get executed so readily!
    I wonder if they had the same 'droit de seigneur' that certain lords etc had in Europe!
    it's always interesting that often the 'known' facts about people and events in history is rarely the truth or is only part of the truth, we all think we know for certain about things but we don't. King Canute for example is cited as the idiot who tried to hold back the waves but the actual truth was he was demonstrating to his nobles that he couldn't do everything they wanted as it was out of his hands, by contemporary accounts they were suitably chastened but that's not how history now tells it. I imagine the 'history' we think we know about Samurai is much the same.
     
  8. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Actually, not really a factor or consideration at all… the samurai didn't really have such "servants" taken from the lower classes at all… in fact, the origin of the term "samurai" is the verb "sabaru", or "to serve"… the samurai were the servants, in that sense… there wasn't such a situation as the serfs in Europe… most of the attendants were simply lower ranked samurai themselves.

    Well, leaving off the fact that that "right" has no actual evidence to support it existing in Europe, no, such things weren't really a thing in Japan either.

    Actually, that's the way I've always heard the King Canute story (that he was demonstrating to his nobles that his power had limits, as they were trying to deify him)… I've never come across it as an example of his lack of self awareness…
     
  9. Tez3

    Tez3 Sr. Grandmaster

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    The King Cnut, to give him his real name, story is often told as one of a man trying a futile and pointless task. The servants comment I'm afraid was a bit facetious, I had a sort of Monty Python moment of seeing the Samurai bumping off anyone that upset them and having nobody left.
     
  10. K-man

    K-man Grandmaster

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    I think, certainly at certain times, that Samurai had the right to kill anyone who insulted them. However they had to justify their actions which is why they made sure there was a witness to their action.
     
  11. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Cool. I've never come across it presented that way… always as a parable extolling that you should be aware of your limits. I get the other take, though.

    Ha… yeah, not so much…

    Not entirely… well, not anyone… there were rules about who, how, when, why etc… and, of course, the witness could have a damaging side to them as well… if you (as a samurai) were witnessed ignoring an insult, that could be as damaging to you as acting when you didn't need to… and the witness could potentially be a witness to either.
     
  12. CNida

    CNida Green Belt

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    Tsujikiri sounds horrid.

    That it was even legal makes me wonder. I had always thought that the samurai were an honor-bound people.

    To try out your new blade or cutting technique on a defenseless passerby? Sounds despicable. Haha.

    I'm sure there's more to it than what I could read on Wikipedia.


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  13. jks9199

    jks9199 Administrator Staff Member

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    I've honestly seen it presented both ways in different places. That's one of the things about parables; they can often say more than one thing, depending on how you want to present them.
     
  14. Tez3

    Tez3 Sr. Grandmaster

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    True, it's a shame either way though because Cnut was one of the best kings England ever had. It all gets over looked because of the 'holding back the waves' story, that's all most people know about him and in reality it was one miniscule part of his reign.
     
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  15. arnisador

    arnisador Sr. Grandmaster

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    They were...but 'honor' is always culturally defined. Where I grew up, kicking during a fight was considered a foul, like biting.
     
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  16. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Well… yeah.

    Hmm… no, it wasn't legal… it was a capitol offence, actually. I'll deal with the "honour" thing in a bit…

    Sure… from the perspective of a modern, Western sensibility, absolutely… from the perspective of a samurai, particularly one who was living in an era of peace (the Edo period, where much of the practice occurred), and was told constantly that his role was as a warrior, to cut down the enemy, and that he wasn't truly who he purported to be until he had cut someone down, it's a different context and ideal…

    Ha, yeah…

    Yep, this is a big part of it.

    CNida, remember when I said that the witness could have a damaging side to them as well? You have to remember that the idea of "honour" as a samurai was intrinsically linked to the idea of what a samurai was "meant" to be… proud, determined, warriors… avoiding a fight would be seen as a lack of honour… having the opportunity to engage an enemy and not doing it would be the same.

    So you have to understand that yeah, the samurai were largely "honour-bound"… but what that meant was very much dependent on what the idea of "honour" meant at the time, and in that culture.
     
  17. Dirty Dog

    Dirty Dog MT Senior Moderator Staff Member

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    Me too, although being a miltary brat I didn't grow up in any one place.
    On the other hand, having started TKD at the ripe old age of 7, I didn't hesitate to kick. Not that I had that many schoolyard fights; something else I attribute to the TKD.
     
  18. Kan Ryu

    Kan Ryu Yellow Belt

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    Good topic - sorry for arriving a little late.
    To go back to the original question - and to give "the simple answer":
    Yes, it was a samurai's responsibility to uphold the law and he had the right to kill.
    The samurai was also accountable for unfair action, and also for not acting, where acting would have been considered just/correct.
    There are many stories, some horrific, some heroic.
    "Hagakure" by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a Samurai, has many good stories and examples of the complexity of Samurai ethics. Of execution, of punishment for wrong execution and many examples of, according to Yamamoto, just and unjust harakiri.
    It's a great book, definitely worth a read.
     
  19. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Hi Asher,

    Hagakure is a very interesting read, but it's dangerous to take it as anything other than one particular, rather right wing, individuals take on things… highly idealised and removed from the events and realities of what he was talking about. You also have to be rather careful as to which translation you look at… some are great, some are good, some are best left for kindling…

    Oh, and particularly when talking about such subjects, the term "harakiri" is rather… uh… vulgar. The more polite term is "seppuku".
     
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  20. Kan Ryu

    Kan Ryu Yellow Belt

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    Hi Chris.

    I have only read one translation, and it was good.
    I don't follow you regarding the right wing thing and also, I don't understand what you mean about "removed from reality". Yamamoto Tsunetomo is telling stories he has seen or heard about.
    Am I not correct?

    Harakiri (kun'yomi - Japanese reading) is used by most Japanese in speach, Seppuku is the written term (on'yomi - Chinese reading). Vulgarism has nothing to do with it though, the on'yomi reading is also spoken by higher classes in Japanese society.
    As far as I understand, there is nothing vulgar about me writing "harakiri" in roman letter.

    Cheers,

    Asher.
     

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