The Samurai were the warrior clans of medieval Japan, immortalised in literature and in art.

© Shutterstock

Geisha strolling down Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama.

The languages of Edo

Today it is Tokyo but once, many lifetimes ago, the same city was Edo, the imperial capital of Japan. Amidst the marks of modernity – the skyscrapers, the flyovers and the neon signs – are hidden hints of a world many think are lost, but which are just waiting for the eagle-eyed to discover.

Together with Satoko Hirakawa, my walking tours guide, I stand upon the Nihonbashi Bridge, looking in the direction of Mount Fuji. High-rise buildings now obscure the view, but as an ancient milestone by our side shows, this was once point zero on the map. In Europe, they say all roads lead to Rome; here in Japan, it was Edo that was the central hub of the wheel. The calligraphy, cut into dark grey granite, was still crystal clear despite the centuries that had passed since its carving. The characters, sharp yet elegant in their form, simply stated the most important cities in Japan, and the distances to get there. Nihonbashi Bridge was the gateway into and out of Edo, and this stone marked how far travellers still had to go on their journey, or how far they had come.

Tokyo has not forgotten its past. In the backstreet alleys, and amidst the temple gardens and shrines, the Edo period (1603–1868), the heyday of the samurai, comes to life.

Samurai pictured in the 19th century. © WikiCommons

The Warrior Class

The samurai were the warrior clans of medieval Japan, immortalised in literature and in art. Living in accordance with strictly-regulated codes and dressed in distinctive costumes, the samurai enthralled all those who heard about them and their stories about travelling around the world. In the Edo period, the samurai were predominantly civil servants and courtiers, as it was a relatively peaceful time. Court life centred on Edo’s imperial palace, Edo Castle, in the central part of modern Tokyo. Here in the vast, walled complex with a moat, among the imposing stone towers and guardhouses, they refined the high culture for which Japan is renowned.

Cultural inspiration came from different sources – Dutch traders brought Western texts about science, geography, languages and medicine. At the same time, Confucianism burst forth in a new form, neo-Confucianism, and its humanism and rationalism appealed strongly to the samurai as well as the mercantile classes who were gaining status in society.

Samurai with a sword pictured in the 19th century. © WikiCommons

A Golden Age

During the Edo period, Japanese language was changing – foreign loan words, especially from Portuguese, were creeping into local vocabulary: newly-imported products such as tobacco required new words. The arrival of new words was accelerated after 1853 when Japan's period of isolation came to an end – modern technologies required new words to describe them, and the easiest way was to adopt their European names.

The End of an Era

By the end of the 18th century, the samurai no longer saw themselves as warriors or landowners, but as scholar administrators in a highly-developed system of government. Political stability and a strong economy supported the pursuit of intellectual disciplines, the development of literature and the arts: the search for enjoyment. Painting and printmaking flourished, spreading knowledge. Folk songs and legends, historic treatise, texts about science and anatomy, and religious works all found wide and receptive audiences.

When the Meiji Emperor was restored in 1868, the samurai came to an end in all bar name. Edo's Golden Age of knowledge, linguistic development, literature and the arts was swept away in favour of modernisation, westernisation and industrialisation. However, the samurai - educated, politically astute, and often having knowledge of commerce, found new roles in buisness, administration and the press. They were well-placed to take Japan into the 20th century.

Lion at Nihonbashi bridge, known as Edo Bridge in the 17th century; the torii is quintessentially Japanese.

Read more about the development of the samurai as well as Japanese culture and langauge. Check out the full article in Asian Geographic's Languages of Asia Issue 5/2016. 

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Original article by Sophie Ibbotson

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