Because of its physical isolation, Japan was able to develop a unique culture relatively unaffected by trade or war over a period of at least 2 millenium. Although there was some trading and war with China and, to a lesser degree, other countries, no country affected Japanese culture through major influences or dominance. Left mostly to itself, Japan enjoyed long periods of peace and developed its own ideas or adapted other cultures’ philosophies as its own. Three distinctive aspects of Japanese culture were its samurai, the geisha, and flourishing arts during periods of peace.
Samurai were well rounded, literate, artistic and, ironically, peaceful. Bushido, the way of the warrior, was the famous code that dictated the rules defining samurai culture and way of life. It contained a high set of standards including eight values: justice, courage, compassion, respect, integrity, honor, loyalty, and self-control. The ultimate goal was to create a well rounded warrior worthy of respect and adulation. Being literate, having an extensive knowledge of the arts, and of strong mind and body were required qualities for a samurai within Japanese hierarchy. They were respectful, loyal, and unwaveringly followed the Code of Bushido. In addition, Samurai were the embodiment of a faithful follower as they held a vast amount of respect and loyalty for their leaders. Alternatively, samurai have been analyzed as bloody and unwavering like other regions, when truthfully, they were often characterized as the embodiment of valiance and respect. Comparatively, Medieval European culture contained aspects similar to samurai culture such as their Code of Chivalry. Unlike the Code of Bushido, medieval knights were extremely illiterate so chivalry was required to be passed down by personal accounts. Some inspiration for the Code of Bushido was adapted from Confucian thought in China, as this system of beliefs emphasizes the importance of loyalty and duty. Honor and trust were also important pieces of Japanese culture and the most absolute way to show devotion to a leader was Seppuku. Junshi, death by following, was the appropriate response to the loss of a master, and so, ritual disembowelment was completed without hesitation. Seppuku was even expected as the honorable way to end a lost fight rather than submit to captivity. The extreme act was considered one of bravery that embodied the Code of Bushido in every way.
Another unique aspect of Japan were the Geisha. These were “entertainers” who were not only pretty, but also able to engage guests as “the life of the party” at events by reciting verses, playing instruments, or simply having conversations. Despite what some may believe, geisha were not in any way similar to the prostitutes of Medieval Europe where there was not even an attempt to veil high class or cultural depth. For the geisha, recruiters in Japan mainly chose villages with a lower income because it was much easier to guilt a family into selling their daughter if: 1) they were in need of the money or 2) they thought she was going to a better place. When Geisha were paid for their services, the majority of the money went to the house that taught them and provided them for the event. The Geisha themselves only received kimonos, tips, and the hope of one day being able to purchase their own house and start training young girls in the art form.
The somewhat isolated landscape and unusually lengthy periods of peace created a third unique element of Japanese culture through expansion of the arts. There were two influential periods of peace that were mini Renaissance periods for Japan. The Nara began in 710 and brought forth a new center of the arts as well as flourishing literature and religious architecture. The artistic deepening and political structure of the Nara lasted into the 12th century as well as syncretizing and codifying Shinto and Zen Buddhist beliefs. As people passed through Japan, they brought new ideas which Japanese culture diffused and adapted to make their own. During the Renaissance in Italy, many different peoples also passed through and exchanged ideas and morphed them as their own. Interestingly, the Renaissance lasted from the 14th to the 17th centuries right between the Nara and Tokugawa periods. The other period of peace for Japan began in the 17th century and lasted 250 years under one ruling family. The xenophobic Tokugawa shogunate created an isolated empire without many incoming influences; and still, the Japanese created woodblock art as well as enrichment of their theater’s quality and depth during their time.
Throughout history and worldwide, nations have had soldiers, female entertainment, and some form of the arts. Yet in Japan, each of these had unique characteristics that demonstrated higher levels of culture and class, even dignity. The samurai and geisha are known today as distinct and meaningful representations of a fascinating era in Japanese history. The values and accomplishments in the arts were infused in the society that the samurai and geisha thrived. As a result of geographical isolation, these aspects were home-grown, long-lasting, and uniquely Japanese.
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