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Friday, October 5, 2012

GUEST POST: Cool Samurai Trivia by Steve Bein

Read FBC's review of Daughter of The Sword and Only A Shadow

I’ve loved samurai movies for as long as I can remember. Of the four protagonists in Daughter of the Sword, two are samurai. The other two are a WWII intelligence officer and a cop, both of whom are trying in their own ways to live up to old samurai ideals.

We have lots and lots of good cop dramas these days, and every five or ten years we get a really good WWII story, but you don’t find a good samurai story very often unless you go to Japan. That means we tend to know a whole lot more about cops and WWII soldiers than we do about samurai, so I thought I’d share some cool samurai trivia with you. I’ll start with the basics, and follow each of these with lesser-known facts:

 1] The trademark hairdo of the samurai is the topknot.

     o These were very foresightful guys, to make male pattern baldness a fashion statement instead of a source of shame.

    o Hair dye was invented by samurai—by one guy in particular, Saitō Sanemori, who was getting older and didn’t want to be shown up by any of the younger warriors. Not surprisingly, the first hair dye color was black.

    o Sumo wrestlers still wear the topknot, mainly out of tradition. (In the old days, only boys of samurai lineage could become sumo wrestlers.) However, they stray from that tradition by not shaving their pates. (This is because if you’re going to knock heads with a 300-pound dude, you want to have a helmet, and if you’re not allowed to have a helmet, you want to tie as much hair on top of your head as possible, to lessen the impact.)

 2] The other hallmark of the samurai is the twin swords.

      o The long sword is called the katana or tachi, depending on whether it’s worn with the blade facing upward or downward. The short sword is called the wakizashi, and together the twin swords are called daishō, which literally means “big-little.”

     o Lots of people think the primary purpose of the wakizashi was to commit seppuku (aka hara-kiri, suicide by ritual disembowelment). Not true. It was a backup weapon, in case you shattered your katana on the battlefield or got it stuck in some poor slob’s body. Then you killed the next guy with your wakizashi and took his long sword to go on fighting.

 3] Seppuku is really disgusting.

   o The instrument of seppuku was actually a fairly short knife—and this was carried on a daily basis, a constant reminder to the samurai of his own mortality.

    o Seppuku was deliberately crafted at the most painful death a guy could inflict on himself. The samurai fascination with suicide has mystified many a historian, but one thing we do know is that most people to attempt seppuku never managed to complete the ritual; the pain was so intense that their second would typically behead them before they disgraced themselves by crying out.

   o The characters for seppuku are 切腹, and the characters for hara-kiri are 腹切, which you’ll notice are the same two characters reversed. Both words literally mean “belly-cutting.”

    o Women had their own form of seppuku, in which you’d hold a knife on the floor in front of you and fall on it throat first. One can’t help but think the women’s way was a whole lot more sensible than the men’s.

    o Even today, the top sumo referees carry a knife in their belts for seppuku. In the old days they were expected to take their own lives if they made a bad call in a match. These days they’re not required to commit suicide, but they are required to immediately tender their resignations if one of their calls is overturned by the judges on the sidelines (Professional seppuku, so to speak?).


  Steve is currently doing a blog tour following the release of his debut, Daughter Of The Sword and here is the tour schedule:
   Oct 2: Under The Covers
   Oct 3: Grasping For The Wind
   Oct 4: Graeme's Fantasy Book Review 
   Oct 5: Fantasy Book Critic
   Oct 8: A Book Obsession
   Oct 9: The Qwillery
   Oct 10: Night Owl Reviews
   Oct 11: All Things Urban Fantasy
   Oct 12: Goldilox And The Three Weres

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Steve Bein was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a near west suburb of Chicago. He has done his undergraduate and graduate studies at universities in Illinois, Germany, Japan, and Hawai‘i. The end result being, a PhD in philosophy from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Steve is a rock climber, mountaineer, SCUBA diver, skier, and avid traveler, and he has dabbled in a wide range of martial arts (twenty-five at last count) and he holds black belts in two American forms of combative martial arts. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. He currently splits time with his family in Rochester, New York and Minnesota.

 NOTE: Topknot picture courtesy of Photovoyages. Daisho sword set picture courtesy of  Phantom Captain.  Seppuku picture courtesy of Guillermo Goicochea.


David Alastair Hayden said...

Henna has been used as a hair dye for thousands of years, long before the samurai. Cleopatra, for example. Perhaps they started a specific new type of dye?

Enjoyed the article!

The Reader said...

Hi David

Thanks for your comment & yes henna has been around longer. I think it was used more ceremonially or for decorative purposes as it didn't give the jet black color.

Its worth looking into how the samurai made this jet back dye.


Steve Bein said...

Hi David,

Right you are. I should have said the samurai independently invented hair dye, or maybe simply that they beat Just For Men to the punch by about 1000 years.

Thanks for the catch!


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