Comparing Lords and Vassals in Europe and Japan

Lords and Vassals in Europe and Japan and How the two Compare

While feudalism in Europe was gaining momentum in the 9th century, a similar way of life was also found in Japan between 800 and 1500.  According to the text, the “system” (although historians don’t like the term for feudalism), actually lasted much longer in Japan.
 Like the Europeans, the Japanese had a contract of sorts between the lord and vassal.  This set of guidelines for each fief’s lord and vassal were documented in Bishop Fulbert of Chartres, in modern North France.  The obligations between lord and vassal were primarily intended to be mutually beneficial.  Thus, the reason the two entered the agreement in the first place.  Honor and chivalry were often very important to the lords and vassals of various feudal states.  It was through this honor code that the bond was created.
“The Tale of the Heike” illustrates the militaristic struggles that ensued toward the last of the 12th century.  Written during the first part of the 13th century, “The Tale of the Heike” offers insight to the constantly warring state of feudal Japan.  From the text we gain a sense of the deepness of a vassal named Kanehira’s mutual commitment to his feudal lord, Yoshinaka.
It seems like the two cultures had many other similarities as well.  I’d be curious to find out how these similarities came about exactly.
I used to play a video game when I was younger called Onimusha Warlords.  You played royalty who rode across the Japanese countryside conquering and protecting land.  It was fun.

One of the obvious differences between European and Japanese vassals would have been their weaponry.  From the text, we learn that European knights typically favored lances as their primary weapons.  Of course, swords were used by both cultures of the time.  The Japanese used bow and arrow as indicated by the word “quiver” from the text.  I’d be interested to know if the Europeans typically used bow and arrow as frequently.  Although I’ve heard of them being used in the western world before (of course), it seems as if the bow and arrow are quite often weaponry of indigenous peoples of various locations.



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3 responses to “Comparing Lords and Vassals in Europe and Japan

  1. William

    Knights and Samurai (Bushi) were developed in two separate societies. That’s obvious. But what can we take from those particular societies that can give us clues on how thy fought, what they fought with and their stand and positioning on the battlefield.

    Let’s start with Samurai first, shall we? Many Samurai WOULD start the fight not with a sword but with a Yumi. A Japanese bow. Now there are two types of Japanese bow the daikyū and hankyū–both are used in kyūdo which is Japanese archery. The Yumi was an important tool for a Samurai. Many would like to think that the Samurai were single-minded in their pursuit of the sword. This is not so. From the rise of the class that would become KNOWN as Samurai—to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meji restoration samurai were trained with not only the Yumi, but the Naginata, a pole-arm but it was not a lance, the Katana, as well as a plethora of martial arts ranging from Jui-jitsu to Judo to Karate.

    The Naginata were used by a diverse group—not just purely Samurai. They were used by ashigaru (common foot soldiers) and sōhei (warrior monks). They were comprised of wooden shafts rough 3 to 7 feet long. It had a blade that was 1 to 2 feet in length, and forged in much the same way as a Katana’s blade would be, it would even be curved. Samurai wouldn’t use this on horseback. They would more than likely use it in full battle armor wading across a field on foot. It was more of a weapon to DISMOUNT an enemy from his steed.

    This is isn’t to say they didn’t EVER use it on horseback—I’m just counting physics here, and the fact that the iconic ‘curve’ to Japanese blades came about to make faster slashing motions rather than simply impale. Naginatas were also used by the WIVES of samurai who were away and their homes or their names were being challenged and it was expected of a wife to know how to use it well. Honor meant everything, even today in their society to lose face or be disgraced in some way insults them greatly.

    Theses resemble the Chinese Guan Dao, though, if you look at a Guan Dao and compare it—that Guan Dao will have an evident size difference.
    If I were to say any weapon the Japanese might have made that remotely could be construed as a “lance” or be in that class it would be the Yari. The Yari, like the Naginata is a spear/ halberd type weapon. There are many different types of Yari, some are just long hefts of bamboo with steel or iron spikes—some are more creative. Yari like man Asura and Nara periods from Japans earliest times, were based upon Chinese design. Later designs were curved cross-shaped halberds meant to either trap and ensnare or simply cut the hooves off of charging horses.
    Yaris were typically handed by aishigaru, but some Samurai did use them. They ranged from 5 to 20 feet in overall length.

    Finally we get to the Katana. The Katana has a long, long history on its own and there are many predecessors that came before it was finally perfected into the sword we all know today. There are, as with many of the weapons I have mentioned, many working parts that make this weapon so effective. There were different styles, and depending on rather they wore their sword edge upwards or edge downwards through the girdle of their pleated skirt-like pants called hakama—the would indicate rather it were a Tachi or Katana. If it were edge down it was a Tachi, if it was edge upward it was a Katana.

    As the progression into what we now know as a Katana, swordsman went from hacking from a hose to having one on one duels—sort of like what we erroneously perceived the Wild West to be but it wasn’t. The change in the way one wore their sword came about because of the changing nature to how battles were being fought. A lot of times with the exception of open warfare you will read about all these personal duels occurring to make a name for one’s self.

    The Katana itself is centuries old concept to draw the fastest and make the cleanest strike and put the other man down a quickly and effectively as possible. This is kindred to the centuries of traditions and learning made by the contributions from ancestor to present warrior; they gradually made that progression into slaying as swiftly as possible.
    That said, there are vast differences in the makes of “Katanas” from present day as compared to 1596 when they began to fabricate their own designs and move away from traditional Chinese weapons.

    Katanas are well known to be supplied with Wakazashi’s, which are similarly fashioned just smaller. They are equivalent to a short sword n Western culture.

    In earlier battles, such as the ones leading up to the Seige of Osaka between Hideyori Toyotmi you had very large swords referred to as Ōdachi. They were much longer and heavier than standard Katanas (Nihonto) and were expensive. They were often 4-5 feet in length. Many believe they were cavalry swords, so as not to risk being dismounted.
    These had to be carried rather than be tucked in the obi or worn on the back as it was impractical and impossible to draw quickly.

    The word “Samurai” is a derivative of “Sabauru” a word of Chinese origin that means “those who serve” the Japanese further changed it to “saburai” and in an anthology of poems in the 10th century was the term “samurai” officially used. Only 10% of Japan was allotted to be Bushi, or Buke. The term “Bushi” is taken from the word bushidō. A code of ethics mired in Taoist, Buddhism and Confucius beliefs as well as a strict filial loyalty to ones lord.

    Despite the fact of some similarities, chivalry is only loosely analogous to bushidō. Therefore, Samurai are NOT “Knights” in their native Japan.

    As far as I understand, knights didn’t use long bows. Most knights were trained horsemen. Its very hard to shoot a bow thats as tall as a man while on the back of a warhorse. The best horseback archers, the Mongols, had shorter laminate bows made of layers of flexed bone and sinew. England had a separate corp of men that were not knighted that were often trained extensively if not exclusively for the English Long Bow. Crossbows were used to deter knights as the bolts they used could often enough punch through the steel plated armor they often wore.

  2. William

    Arigatou gozamashita. ^^

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