Warriors and Artists: Poetry of the Samurai

statue of a samurai

I am sure many, if not all of us have heard stories of the famous Japanese samurai. This class of renowned warriors was prominent for nearly a thousand years in Japan’s history. The first samurai were said to have emerged in the 1100’s and continued to exist up until 1835. They often served at the behest of the aristocratic Daiymo – the highest class in the Japanese caste system before it was abolished. The word “samurai” literally means “one who serves.”

The samurai were skilled warriors who trained from a young age to be the best combatants on the battlefield. However, Japanese society was very literate, and the samurai were also artists, musicians, and poets. Some famous poems were written by samurai like Minamoto No Yorimasa, such as his death poem in which he expressed his regret for having reached the end of his life without having any children. As a martial artist and writer, I have often admired the samurai for their great skills on the battlefield as well as on paper and in conversation. Their way with words was a sharp as their skills with a sword or bow.

Samurai even participated in public poetry contests which were enjoyed by scholars and commoners alike. This was possible due to the widespread literacy of the Japanese people and the succinct form of poetry known as “haiku” which was popular for its simplicity and brevity. When read aloud, a haiku was easily understood by all who heard it, thus preventing any audience member from being alienated by complex metaphors, idioms, and other nuanced figures of speech common in other forms of poetry.

Samurai poetry contests could not have traditional 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners among a large pool of contestants, however. The judges had to devise a way to critique the poetry of samurai warriors without declaring a small number of winners over a large group of losers. Due to the immense value of honor in samurai society, the shame and dishonor which many felt from losing competitions could motivate them to try to kill the winner. As such, samurai had their poems compared to one other contestant according to a theme, and one was declared the superior poem. This avoided a potential situation in which a large number of samurai might feel the need to attack and kill the one winner of the contest to restore their honor, although some animosity may have subsisted nonetheless.

One might think it absurd that such disciplined warriors would resort to violence and even killing over losing a poetry contest. However, it is important to recognize the impact of the Bushido Code on a samurai’s perspective and worldview. Honor was immensely important to the samurai, and it is said they held honor in a higher regard than life itself. Many have described how the samurai believed it was more important to die an honorable death than to live a long life. Based on their literature and belief system, there is little doubt of this. From what I understand, I think the samurai felt it was more important to live an honorable life than a long life, and under certain circumstances, they might feel it better to die an honorable death than to live on with dishonor.

With that said, it is understandable that samurai could have viewed defeat of any kind as a form of dishonor upon themselves and their clan. It may have been a horse race, a poetry contest, or any other type of friendly competition. Losing weighed heavily on them due to their strict interpretation of the Bushido Code. As such, they might feel it better to risk their life in a sword duel to try and restore their honor than to live with the public defeat. The samurai took honor very seriously.

Despite their propensity to take poetry contests as a life and death matter, I do greatly admire the samurai for their skill with words. It is said the samurai believed poetry calmed their minds and helped them prepare for battle, death, and other uncertainties in life. I have personally never thought of poetry in this way. I do enjoy writing poetry, and I also enjoy engaging in hand-to-hand combat with another human being.

However, I often follow the ABAB rhyme scheme when writing poetry, and this does not work well for one trying to prepare themselves for any kind of combat in my experience. It is complex, requiring deep thought and concentration which would be better focused on the coming battle. Although, I am not foreign to the idea of using mediation to prepare oneself for conflict, and I suppose haiku with its simplistic format may be used as a meditative aid or technique. I will have to try it someday.

What do you think? Do you have experience with a combat art and writing poetry? Do you ever write poetry as a way to focus and calm your mind before a match, contest, or other stressful situation? I encourage everyone to give it a try and share how the experience worked for you.

This month, we will be talking all about poetry. Next week, I will share the writing process I developed for myself to create poems. It has worked well for me, and follows the ABAB format of poetry. Stay tuned for next week to read all about it!

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Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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