The World of the Samurai: A Five-Part Course with Dr. Gavin Campbell

The World of the Samurai: A Five-Part Course with Dr. Gavin Campbell


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They were never more than ten percent of the Japanese population. And yet for centuries, the samurai had an outsized influence on Japanese society. Even today, they still dazzle the imagination. But who were they? This course explores the samurai at their zenith, and the remarkable world they created.

Samurai were warriors who arose to fill a need. In the furnace of war into which Japan descended, again and again, beginning in the twelfth century, they became legends. They wrested control not just of battlefields, but of the state itself. Under the leadership of feudal warlords (daimyo) and a long line of shoguns, they established a system of warrior rule that would last over seven hundred years. During that time, they began thinking of themselves as something more than just brute fighting men. They talked of values that set them apart; courage, honor, loyalty, and duty. They would come to call it bushidō, or “the way of the warrior.” But in reality, many cared little for these ideals and fought to survive and to conquer. With the rise of the mighty Tokugawa shoguns in 1600, the samurai reached their moment of most significant power and greatest peril. As one century of peace stretched into another, the samurai had little to do. Some drifted off into the bureaucracy, others languished in poverty, while others abandoned themselves to geisha and pleasure. Meanwhile, merchants, farmers, and all those considered inferior began quietly cursing these useless idlers who strutted about like lords of creation.

And then the samurai disappeared. Abolished by the new Meiji imperial government, a band of samurai took one last spectacular stand, were crushed, and should have vanished into the history books. Instead, as Japan began lashing together an overseas colonial empire, the government declared the samurai’s legacy a national birthright and repurposed bushidō ideals for colonial conquest.

This course, led by Kyoto-based history professor Dr. Gavin Campbell, examines the samurai as both history and legend. Beginning in the 12th century and ending in the twentieth, we cover battlefields and tactics, politics, popular culture, religion, and women’s lives, gaining by the end a rounded sense of samurai culture at its zenith.

Lecture 1: The Age of Glory

Though their roots as warriors go deeper, the samurai emerged as a political force in the early twelfth century, when they established a form of rule (the shogunate) that would last for the next seven hundred years. We examine the rise of warrior rule amidst the chaos of continued civil war.

Lecture 2: From War to Tea

By the end of the sixteenth century, a samurai was expected to be as masterful with a tea whisk as with a sword. We look at the emergence of a specifically samurai culture, and especially the influence of Zen Buddhism. Please note that this week’s discussion includes material on the samurai practice of ritual suicide. Clients will have the opportunity to opt-out of this short discussion.

Lecture 3: The Samurai City

When Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed Shogun in 1603, he ushered in a peace that lasted over two centuries. How were samurai, no longer needed for battle, supposed to maintain their warrior virtue when the great metropolis of Edo (Tokyo) offered so many temptations?

Lecture 4: Women in a Samurai World

By the seventeenth century to be samurai meant a social status that passed from one generation to the next. That meant women were samurai, too. But what was expected of samurai women?

Lecture 5: Twilight

When the samurai government collapsed in 1867, and the new imperial regime created a conscript army five years later, the samurai feared that their unique place in Japan was lost forever. But as the nation began its empire, the samurai were remade into a national birthright, this time in service of colonial conquest.

Gavin received a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and came to Kyoto in 2001. He is a Ph.D. professor of history at Doshisha University. His teaching and research revolve around Japan's cultural encounters with the West, particularly during the Edo, Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods (1600-1940), and he has published on the history of foreign tourism and of Protestant missionaries in Japan. To further explore Japan's global cultural encounters, he is currently writing a book on the history of Japanese menswear from the 1600s through the early 20th century. He is also an expert on Kyoto geisha culture and a frequent participant in geisha entertainment.

How does it work?

This is a five-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in Samurai history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $175 for five lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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