Japanese in the SCA
(Note: The text of the below article is from the original Miscellany. SCA policies have been updated significantly in the intervening years - so watch for an update here that is more in keeping with current Corpora!)
Corpora states that the SCA is an organization devoted to medieval European lifestyle, yet without such things as the Dark Horde, Islamic personae, the Middle Kingdom (no, not Midrealm — China!) and other European fringes, medieval Europe (and hence the SCA) could not be what it is. What is Europe without the Crusades and the Holy Land, and without the Oriental trade in spices and silks? And what is this trade without the Silk Road? And what is the Silk Road without Islamic lands to navigate and Chinese merchants to sell the goods? Does anyone remember Marco Polo? Without these regions, Europe would not have been what it was.
Corpora further states that if we wish to do Japanese personae, we should consider them as visitors to a foreign (i.e., European) court. Fine. The catch is, Midrealm, Meridies, An Tir, Æthelmark, and the other Laurel kingdoms are no more in Europe than was Japan or China. We are, by default, all visitors to kingdoms that have European overtones, but do not represent or replicate any given place or any given time. That is one of the wonders of the SCA.
But let us consider the foreigners visiting Europe issue. For the record, only a handful of Japanese ever visited Europe before the close of the sixteenth century, and we have their names. All of them. They were sent on a pilgrimage of sorts to Italy and Spain by their Jesuit handlers who wanted to show off their handiwork in the far off land of Marco Polo’s Zipangu. So famous was this mission that people were writing about it, as it happened, as far away as in Lithuania. This cuts out the “we're visiting Europe” factor, unless you want to pretend that there was another mercantile or diplomatic mission that the world forgot and somehow failed to take notice of. This also, in one swell foop, cuts out the great majority of Japanese history, as the first Europeans didn't even touch Japanese soil until 1542, and obviously that date also marks Japan's entry into the Western experience and conscience.
As the vast majority of SCA folk who do Japanese seem to set themselves in the period of raging civil wars that was the latter-half of the sixteenth century, that's all well and good. What about the rest of the Japanophiles, however, those with interests in the Kamakura or Heian (or, horrors, even Nara and before!) periods of Japanese history? What of those with a more antiquarian Japanese bent?
We could be anarchistic and just say “go for it.” Heian Japan is about as medievally European as Republican Rome, and there are quite a few legionnaires running around in the SCA. There are even those who have portrayed Ancient Egyptian personae, though admittedly these are few and far between. So what's a little Heian Japan among friends? Until the Board of Directors actually puts their collective foot down on Asian personae — something not likely to happen since they can't even seem to be able to resolve the issue of Cavaliers, although post-1601 personae are clear and direct violations of the only written rule on personae and event attendance (“Anyone may attend Society events provided he or she wears an attempt at pre-17th Century dress…” Corpora II.D.) — we should just have fun and do the persona we want.
The “Samurai Thing”
It may be good to take a moment and consider the issue of samurai before going on. Just about everyone, it seems, wants to be samurai. And why not? As a privileged military class, the samurai are people western Europeans can relate to. “Samurai” is also the most bandied-about term when discussing Japanese personae. We must, therefore, clarify exactly what we are talking about.
For all intents and purposes, the samurai were a caste, a social class, if you will, much in the same way that the knightly class meant something in Europe. Not all of the upper classes became knights in Europe, however. Think in terms of the Period European usage of the term “gentleman” (or the Chinese “shi”). We are all, we are told, of gentle (or noble) birth, but we do not start with titles. Japanese personae can operate the same way. Anyone can be a samurai, and you don't need to be a knight or even have an award of arms to do so.
The word “samurai” is not an equivalent to “knight.” There were those who were considered samurai (by some) who were little more than armed rabble. But to the peasantry, they were impressive folks. That is what the samurai are. They are a military class. But not all samurai are warriors, just as not all warriors are samurai. Some samurai are high ranking, some are low; but at the end of the day, they are still all samurai. Poets, artists, tea masters, even lay monastics can be samurai.
I have known people who considered themselves rōnin (masterless samurai) until they got their AoA, or were inducted into someone's household. Surely, this is a very authentic and period way to do things, but as with much that we do, it isn't the only way.
The origin of the word “samurai” is the verb “saburau” (= to serve). That is how they began, as military servitors to noble houses. This, of course, is where an understanding of history comes into play. Samurai, as we view them today, are very much a product of the Japanese middle ages (say 1200 – 1600) and the Edo period. While there were samurai in Heian Japan, they weren't quite what we think of them today. Check out the reading lists in the bibliography if you are seriously interested in seeing what this was all about.
Two Ways to Play
It must also be kept in mind that for most of Japan's history, there were two different branches of aristocracy, often overlapping but just as often separate. There was the military aristocracy, the buke (or samurai class) and the civil aristocracy, the kuge (the court nobles). Everyone who had an office in the civil government had a corresponding court title, and therefore a kuge court rank. Even the shōgun held a court rank and appointment. (Otherwise, he would be unable to conduct business for the emperor.)
We have to distinguish, however, those who were purely aristocratic (of ancient court lineage) and those who were military yet bore court rank. Toyotomi Hideyoshi is the classic example of the latter. He was born a peasant, but ended up ruling all of Japan by the sword. He managed as an adult to get himself adopted by a member of the Fujiwara family, which enabled him to get the appointment to the position of kanpaku (= imperial regent), and the accompanying court rank of Upper First Rank. This made him both buke and kuge. Once at this position, it is the option of the bearer of the title and rank whether he wishes to continue to function as buke or kuge, or alternate, as all of these were historically viable choices. Certainly when the shôgunheld formal courts, he wore the aristocratic court robes of his rank.
As with samurai, the kuge were also a social class; some were very high ranking, while others never progressed beyond being a minor functionary pushing papers in the Undersecretariat of Shrines and Temples. For this reason, I suggest you read the chapter on Modes of Address, as it will further explain how titles and ranks can work in the SCA milieu.