The warrior class of feudal Japan, the samurai have become almost mythical with their reputation for personal fortitude and toughness on the battlefield. Although some samurai were over-privileged elitists, many lived austere lives of brutal training and conditioning. Training methods for individual samurai varied as much as the samurai themselves, but some tenets of training remained constant through much of this stratus of society.
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Much of the samurai's legendary discipline derives from the observation of Bushido, a code of conduct roughly analogous to the chivalric code of the European warrior classes. A chief concern of the Bushido code was that of duty: duty to family, employer and fellow warriors. A second concern was that of preparation for death. Samurai were instructed to live as though they expected to die in the next minute, thus ensuring that their present behavior left no room for regret. Samurai were encouraged to meditate frequently on these principals, preparing themselves for the rigors of service and war.
Centuries before the advent of health clubs and charity ultra-marathons, samurai conditioned themselves and proved their physical toughness by battling with the elements. Practices such as standing nude in deep snow or sitting beneath ice-cold waterfalls are two common examples of samurai training practices. Many also would practice voluntarily going without food, water or sleep to harden themselves against deprivation. On the other extreme, heavy drinking was a favored pastime to build endurance and increase vigor.
Many samurai trained in unarmed combat skills, most commonly in bujutsu style that eventually spawned karate, judo and aikido. Because warriors always went about armed, this was rarely practiced with the expectation of realistically using it to fight. Instead, samurai studied unarmed fighting to condition themselves physically and to better understand armed combat. They also used the kata, formal practice exercises, as a meditative practice.
Traditionally, samurai trained with the sword, bow and a spear-like weapon called a naginata. During the peak of the feudal period, famed instructors in these arts opened schools under the protection of a single lord, who would encourage his samurai to train there. While training, samurai would use wooden weapons for practice against each other, then sharp swords against dummies made of wood or straw. Samurai also would often practice their weapon techniques against live slaves and prisoners.
- "Bushido: The Soul of Japan"; Inazo Nitobe; 1905
- "Myths and Legends of the Martial Arts"; Peter Lewis; 1999
- "Musashi;" Eiji Yoshikawa; Trans. Charles Terry; 1995
- "Hagakure: Book of the Samurai;" Yamomoto Tsunetomo, Trans. William Wilson; 1979