Cowboys and samurai.
The icons of American and Japanese culture and history.
At first glance, the two could hardly be more different. But as I was recently tinkering with a post for the far future (relatively speaking) it suddenly struck me that there are some surprising commonalities, not the least of which is the lingering impact they’ve had on their respective cultures, and therefore on humanity.
To explain that, of course we must first define what makes a cowboy and what makes a samurai. For obvious reason, I will be able to speak with much greater authority about cowboys, but I hope that I can represent the samurai with some accuracy. Still, for whatever I might get wrong, on either count, I humbly beg your pardon in advance.
What Makes a Samurai
If I understand correctly, the samurai, collectively, were an officer caste, meaning a class of hereditary nobles closely connected to the military. They were prominent, well-paid retainers to various landholding lords. They were figures of prestige and class, enjoying privileges that were denied to peasants in exchange for their service and skill. They had a fair amount of autonomy, answering only to their lords, their families, and their heads, and they could exact extreme consequences for any given slight against them. They were largely driven by duty to their families and loyalty to their respective lords, in accordance with their traditions and martial codes.
Said martial code, bushido, may be what they are most famous for, outside their skill with a katana. It may not have been quite so set in stone as popular culture makes it out to be, but the term can still serve, even to this day, in general reference to the way of the Japanese warrior. Indeed, as the samurai seem to have been established the 12th century, and lasted until the later 19th century, I’d say that seven full centuries is plenty of time for any such code to evolve as the ages and eras progressed. Much like the steel of the katana, the fires of time likely refined the virtues of bushido immensely. Whatever form it takes, though, it generally emphasizes the attributes of valor, honor, mastery of one’s weaponry, and mastery of oneself.
Another particularly famous attribute of samurai bushido is the practice of ritual suicide, called seppuku or harakiri. This is dictated by a definition of honor wherein defeat (or other failures), and all the indignities which follow, is so humiliating that it is better to die by one’s own hand rather than suffer it. There have been exceptions to the rule, such as the famous forty-seven ronin, who lived with the dishonor of defeat for quite some time before they all quietly assembled, as they had previously planned, to take revenge for their slaughtered lord… and then committed ritual suicide after they had accomplished their goal. There is a drive in that mindset, an unbreakable will which is, frankly, terrifying to find in any foeman.
That drive and force of will, I would say, is what truly defined the samurai as a whole, as it still defines their descendants and their nation. It is estimated that, just before their official abolishment, as much as 5% of the population were samurai. That’s one out of every twenty people who possess martial skill, mental discipline, and especially an education, along with the fortunes earned by their ancestors. After they were abolished, they had to turn their attentions somewhere besides military pursuits. Small wonder they came to dominate in business and finance, and raised Japan up with them.
Said abolishment, it must be noted, had little to nothing to do with their skills becoming outdated, as one might mistakenly think, and much more to do with… well, the Japanese military became much more cohesive in its command structure, in imitation of other modern-day militaries. The nigh-autonomy of the samurai did not serve this restructuring, so they were basically relieved of duty. Not all at once, of course. It was a gradual thing, a legal measure here, a reformation there, and soon enough they were simply not samurai anymore.
Yet, one can argue that though the rank no longer exists, the samurai still remains. It wasn’t the sword that made them samurai, after all, but their own will, their traditions and mindset. And as so many of them became prominent businessmen, they had all the leeway in the world to maintain such in themselves as well as in their descendants, not to mention any proteges who came around, though that last is more speculation on my part than verified fact.
In essence, the samurai were the guardians of Japanese civilization and culture for centuries. They were defined by their unique traditions. They were let go, but they were not destroyed, neither were they suppressed, not even by advancing technology. Though one can scarcely find a samurai in name these days, I imagine one can very much still find samurai in spirit all throughout Japan, especially in their upper class.
What Makes a Cowboy
Where I know relatively little about samurai, I know quite a bit more about cowboys. And the first thing to note is that while the “official” history or the cowboy is relatively short, almost everything about cowboys – beginning, middle, and end – is infamously informal and unofficial. For instance: the cowboy may be a fairly recent phenomenon, but its roots reach back through centuries.
To briefly turn back the pages of history, and then sprint forward again, we go to the Middle Ages in Europe. Society was strictly stratified between nobles and peasants, with the Church looming over everything. Every day was a struggle to survive, rooted to the same plot of land from the moment people were born until the day they died, and to do anything which displeased those in power was to court torment and death. After all, how is a starved serf with a shovel supposed to oppose a well-fed, fully-armed and armored knight with a lifetime of training? Those below were chattel to be used and discarded at a whim. There certainly were enough of them to go around!
Then a few pivotal things happened. A recurring plague wiped out significant portions of the population, and suddenly serfs were not so easily replaced. A few questions were asked, and soon man’s reliance on the Church to access God began to wane. The crossbow let peasants ambush knights, the printing press let new ideas spread far and wide, and an explosive powder, the use of which developed slowly over centuries to become ever more precise and easy to produce, began to pry power from the armored knight and give it to the poor peasant. People began to look outwards, to dream of exploring, to leave home and find new lands which they could make their own, rather than live as slaves stuck to one crappy piece of ground.
In short, people began to venture far from home, into untamed, hostile lands, guided by the emergence of a new idea: the hope that they could do better for themselves and their families, never again living by another’s leave.
That was the spirit which guided many of the colonists, the same as it guides immigrants today. It takes only a few pages in our history books, but people came to the Americas for centuries, leaving behind everyone and everything they knew and loved, to carve out a little corner of the world for themselves. That’s what America has always been about, and the cowboy was the very pinnacle of that spirit.
Cowboys were men possessed of that spirit which ventured into the western lands which were claimed by the USA, but remained wild and practically lawless. In lands ranging from dry desolation to beautiful bounty, where wealth could be found anywhere and the laws of man and nature collided, men of every sort came to claim a piece. Some were vile to the core, others where honorable heroes, and most were somewhere in between. And a great majority of them were properly armed, because that was the only way to survive.
These were the days of such figures as Wild Bill, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Curly Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, and so many more, people of ferocity, skill with the horse and pistol, and their own codes of honor. My personal favorite would be a relative of mine, Butch Cassidy, one of the last and greatest of all the cowboy outlaws.
But, ah, history marches on. The men and women of that age tamed an unforgiving countryside. And so civilization moved in, and with it came rules and bureaucrats. The six-shooter was replaced with more advanced guns that carried more bullets. The authorities grew in numbers and advanced in training. Machine guns were invented. And so on and so forth. Bit by bit, the cowboy simply faded from prominence into history and then into beloved legend.
…and yet, there are still cowboy hats. And men of honor with guns. And an enduring attitude of screw formality, a man ought to defend himself and his neighbors, and respect women. The descendants of cowboys may have inherited nothing concrete, but the spiritual heritage of the cowboy lives on.
How They’re Different
Samurai were hereditary warriors and retainers, steeped in duty and tradition; cowboys were a bunch of men with guns.
Samurai trained for a lifetime in the way of the sword and other weapons; cowboys just had to point and shoot.
Samurai underwent strenuous training to expand their every capacity until they became finely-honed weapons of subterfuge and war; cowboys laugh at such notions.
Samurai was an official rank with a specified purpose; cowboys almost never had anything official about them outside whether they were a sheriff or an outlaw.
Samurai engaged in ritual suicide and were shamed if they did not; cowboys laughed at suicide as they fought at the Alamo.
Samurai were to be refined, elegant, and poised; cowboys were none of those, and that’s putting it mildly, with some exceptions, especially in their respect of women.
One was officially abolished, and the other simply vanished in the march of progress.
How They’re the Same
Both arose as their respective civilizations pushed into the wilderness surrounding them.
Indeed, both are inextricably linked with their nation’s progression and development, both heralding and advancing such even though that progress itself is what ultimately did them in.
Both had their time, their age and era, which ended fairly recently, and close to each other, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cowboys and samurai alike both had and left rich cultural heritages in their respective nations, with historic figures and legacies of honor which continue to instruct and inspire us generations later.
Though the Cowboy Code was far less official than the bushido of the samurai, both of them had codes of honor, with many similar tenets, to govern their behavior.
That honor was what drove their attitude in final stands, albeit to wildly differing results in regards to suicide of any sort.
Be they a warrior of the sword or of the gun, both are enshrined in the eternal conflict between hero and brigand. It is an elemental conflict, rooted deep in primal forces and drives within the human mind and soul.
Both stood up to forces far greater and higher than themselves, and did not always lose in such a confrontation. That speaks to a streak of fierce defiance in the spirit of either.
Though the sword and the gun require wildly differing skill sets and training time, cowboys and samurai are both famous for their quick-draw standoffs, not least because of movies and television.
Speaking of, both are obvious sources of inspiration in many forms of media, in a diverse range of stories. Westerns and samurai movies, of course, but also science fiction, space operas, superheroes, action and military dramas, even fantasy and more. There’s practically no limit.
There’s a reason why Seven Samurai was so smoothly adapted into The Magnificent Seven, and then again into the anime Samurai 7, each one following seven warriors as they defended the poor from predatory bandits in the middle of remote frontiers. And, as it happens, Akira Kurosawa adapted Westerns into samurai stories. Back and forth goes the rivalry and the symbiosis.
Finally – and this is just what I could think of off the top of my head – though the deadly pistoliers may be gone forever, as gone as the rank of samurai, one can make a strong argument that both still continue to this day. There are still wealthy Japanese men who teach their children the old ways, after all, just as there is still an abundance of American hotheads with guns and guts!