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Today’s selection — from Samurai and Ninja by Antony Cummins. Samurai warriors, warriors who served their lords for centuries in Japan, have in recent times often been portrayed as noble, disciplined and self-sacrificing in such works of popular culture as The Last Samurai. However, they were warriors in every sense of the word, both good and bad, and were often viewed as lawless thugs by their contemporaries. One characteristic of samurai that is rarely highlighted is that they were, as much as anything, oriented to head hunting — and developed a set of highly ritualized behaviors around decapitated heads:
“Head hunting is one of the core activities of the samurai. Their purpose was to cut the heads from fallen warriors, thrust them onto spears or the ends of their swords and cry out in triumph to the gods of war — the samurai were a head cult. This section will look at the samurai and the head of the enemy and the ritual that surrounds the taking of the ultimate human trophy. A much-overlooked factor is the requirement of the samurai to gain heads and as modern readers we rarely — if ever — observe the samurai from this perspective. For a samurai, honor in battle, the death and destruction of the enemy, and the elevation of prowess through the displays of decapitated heads is the main track that their lives are geared towards.
“In the main, a man does not like having his head cut from his neck, and seldom did a man sit there and allow this to happen in the heat of battle. To stop a victim from struggling free, the samurai would pin the victim’s right arm under his leg, pull back the peak of his helmet and make a cut across the throat or put the knife behind the windpipe and cut outwards, then he would reverse the grip and start to saw and cut away at the man’s neck until it separated from his body. Some samurai may carry a specific knife for this task. Prior to this, a samurai may give a coup de grâce in one of the following areas:
A cut along the throat
A stab to the heart
A cut to an artery in the leg
“Chimatsui, literally ‘blood-festival,’ was the act of dedicating the first head taken in a battle to specific gods of war. …
“The displaying of heads is highly ritualized and formulated. The idea is that a lord should observe and inspect the decapitated heads of the enemy. … When having it inspected by the lord, its hair should be tied in a style called Sakawage — into two top knots, with a pin made from the shrubby althaea tree; the pin is then penetrated through these knots. Next, put the head on a white cloth with the cut end [of the head pointing] down and wrap it so that the face is covered; finish by tying it up at the top of the head. If the person was an archer, you should show [the head] with a bow before the lord. …
“Before the inspection [of decapitated heads] women applied makeup and arranged the hair of the heads; also they applied tooth-blacking dye. Warriors were careful about their appearance; they prepared to die with the knowledge that their heads were to be inspected. Makeup and the wearing of fragrance and incense are considered proper. If [the head] has scars, conceal them with rice powder.
“The Five Types of Heads
“The decapitated head of a victim normally falls into one of five categories.
The eyes of the dead stare to the right
The eyes of the dead stare to the left
The eyes of the dead stare up at the heavens
The Eyes of the dead stare down to the earth
The eyes of the dead are half closed in a Buddha-like position
The severed heads of criminals at a watch post, Japan c. 1909
“Divination and Heads of Evil
“Being a head cult, the samurai had rituals prescribed for the heads they collected. This included divination through heads and the exorcism of those that were deemed evil.
“To divine the future through a decapitated head the samurai would look at the mouth by lifting the upper lip:
If the lower jaw protruded forward past the upper teeth, then it was good luck for the side who had taken the head.
If the upper teeth protruded past the lower jaw then it was bad luck for the side which had taken the head.
If the teeth were flush together then the result of the situation would be a stalemate or end in an agreement of peace.
“Respect had to be shown to this head — if it was an auspicious head then a monk would chant the correct formula to appease the soul of the dead, and if a head of evil intent the correct exorcism would be performed. …
“Unlike some other head cultures, the samurai do not keep the heads as a normal rule, but tend to return them to the families of the fallen warrior; or they gibbet them on wooden beams that have spikes to hold them firmly in place.
“These stands — being made of the correct wood — are erected and the heads are placed upon the spikes and left to rot in the wind. Sometimes the heads are wrapped in cloth — normally in an arrow cape if it is an important warrior — or they are returned to the family. If they are returned then they are presented in a box container with the correct spells and prayers provided.”
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Samurai and Ninja: The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique
Author: Antony Cummins
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Copyright 2015 Antony Cummins