SUPER★DRAGON’s newest release SAMURAI has finally been translated by Nine Dragons, after much delay! The lyrics of the song tell a story about someone who cherishes traditional Japanese culture, and ends up going back in time to meet samurai and experience Edo culture firsthand. This song was particularly difficult to translate because almost every line in the song’s lyrics contains a specific historical reference that is difficult to summarize within the translation itself. Our translator spent several hours wading the wilderness of the internet to understand the context behind each line properly, ending up with a large, scattered collection of resources in both English and Japanese.
After completing the lyric translation, we considered how we could best add annotations so that international fans, who may not be familiar with details from traditional Japanese culture, could also understand the story. In the end, we decided to simply compile all of the scattered information we were hoarding on one single page and consider it our first personal blog post. If you’d like to know more about the lyrics of SAMURAI (or more about historic Japan than you probably knew before) grab a cup of tea and head into our guide below!
SAMURAI: References Line-by-Line
Almost every line in the song SAMURAI is a reference to traditional Japanese culture. In order to make the meaning of the song more clear for international fans, we have decided to explain each reference line by line. Read along here as you go through our translated lyrics!
I always say “I love you” as “The moon is beautiful tonight”
“I Love You”を「月が綺麗ですね」と訳す
Natsume Soseki is one of the most prolific Japanese novelists of all time, but he also was a formative influence on literary translation between English and Japanese. He noticed once that a pupil translated the English phrase “I love you” from a piece of western literature into the literal Japanese phrase “我君を愛す” (ware kimi wo aisu), which uses the directly translated words “I,” “you,” and “to love.” Natsume flagged the translation for review, and then explained his reasoning.
In western culture, the declaration of “I love you,” is seen as a tender and poignant moment of intimacy between two people. However, during Natsume’s time, the student’s translation would not have properly evoked the same feeling in a Japanese reader. Natsume suggested another option to convey a similar sense of tenderness and vulnerability in a way that Japanese readers would understand: “月が綺麗ですね” (tsuki ga kirei desu ne). The literal meaning of this phrase is, “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”
To English speakers, this phrase would have no apparent connection to the intent of the speaker. But in Japanese, there are three ways that this phrase would convey to the recipient that the speaker is confessing their love for them. First, the word 月 (tsuki), which means “moon,” sounds like the word 好き (suki), which is used to tell someone you like them romantically. If the recipient feels similarly to the speaker, the idea is that they will be subconsciously reminded of the word 好き, and understand the true meaning of what was said. Second, relationships in traditional Japan were typically initiated from the male side, and this phrase would be very surprising to hear coming from a man of the period. Even today, Japanese language usage varies according to the gender of the speaker. But in traditional times, the gender gap was wide enough that even certain topics were considered feminine or masculine. The word 綺麗 (kirei) means “beauty” and/or “cleanliness.” Men of traditional Japan did not typically discuss matters of beauty, so for a man to suddenly exclaim about the beauty of the moon would be hint enough that the phrase has deeper meaning. And finally, the phrase ends with a request of the recipient’s response, written as “ね” (ne) in Japanese. The subtle request for the listener to respond gives the speaker a chance to discover if the recipient feels the same way. There is also opportunity to deflect the speaker’s question or change the topic entirely, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of outright rejection.
In modern times, Japanese people have become more direct at expressing love, but the protagonist in the story of SAMURAI clearly opts for the traditional, refined version for their own love life!
I eat noodles with the proper sound, always slurping
Most historians believe that it was during the Edo period that noodles entered the street food scene of Japan, at least in the sense of popularity with civilians. Edo period literature makes many references to the cheap noodle shops that were littered along major highways and work sites. In contrast to usual Japanese table etiquette, eating noodles with a loud slurping sound became synonymous with these cheap noodle shops and their laborer patrons.
The reason for eating with a slurping sound is somewhat unclear, but, as noodles were a typical lunch for the lower class laborers, it may have been that slurping with gusto showed that one was enjoying the meal so much, they no longer concerned themselves with the “high class” table manner of eating quietly.
Noodles are still commonly eaten this way in modern Japan as well, although shifting values has made some opt to eat quietly out of embarrassment by being heard by others.
Silence is a beautiful sakura flower to be enjoyed
This line makes a pun on a Japanese figure of speech, “言わぬが花” (iwanu ga hana). The direct translation is “Not speaking is a flower,” and the meaning is similar to that of the English phrase, “Silence is golden.” The protagonist comments that of all the ‘silent’ flowers, the sakura flower is one to be particularly treasured.
Flowers are often used in Japanese metaphor to represent beauty or being treasured by others. In traditional Japanese language, there were many ways to say someone was “so beautiful, it makes the flowers ashamed of themselves,” which seems like quite the compliment! On the other hand, the character was also used to discuss the concept of something which society deems beautiful, or which is physically pleasing, but with the implication that there is a lack of integrity beneath the beauty and could all be “beautiful lies.” For example, many metaphors and figures of speech use the character for flower to discuss women who entertained or had otherwise suggestive relations with men, such as 花魁 (oiran), the exquisite courtesans, and 花街 (hanamachi), the entertainment district of geisha that still exist in limited capacity today. One term which has drifted into obscurity, 花心 (hanagokoro), directly translates to “flower heart,” but was used to talk about someone who practices indiscretion in intimate relationships and/or easily cheats on their partner.
The cherry blossom, called “桜” (sakura) in Japanese, is a well-known emblem of Japan. Evidence supports that Japan’s special appreciation for this pale pink flower predates even the formation of communal society. In the Nara period of ancient Japan, the tradition of 花見 (hanami) became a national pastime during the sakura blooming period each Spring. This tradition is as popular today as it was in 700 AD! In a hanami, people gather with family and friends and host large picnics under the blooming cherry trees. As with 花 (hana), Japan’s love of sakura has permeated linguistic use. In the line above, the phrase “桜を愛でる” (sakura wo mederu) is a figure of speech which means “to cherish sakura.”
Everything I do is in homage to classic Japanese taste
In this line, the protagonist exclaims that he lives by the ‘classic Japanese taste’ of iki, an Edo period concept that is well-known by cultural effect if not by name. In the Edo period, the economy of Japan dramatically exploded. The businessmen of the times had a sudden capacity for wealth that had not been previously possible to achieve for someone of their social class. The higher, ruling classes were concerned that the suddenly wealthy merchants could surpass the pre-existing barriers of social hierarchy, and passed a number of laws banning anyone who did not hold official positions in higher classes from displaying wealth.
These laws directly targeted the Edo businessmen, who were, in some cases, as wealthy as the samurai, but still officially in the middle-tier “merchant” class. The businessmen tried to abide by the laws, but they had already cultivated a taste for refined goods. As a result, the wealthy businessmen began to conceal the value of their possessions through deliberate methods. For example, if one would wear a kimono with a plain wool exterior, the interior would be lined with the finest silk. One may live simply in an unadorned house, but be a frequent and treasured patron of the most expensive ochaya in their district.
This self-restraint from showing wealth came to be known as “粋” (iki), which originally held the noncommittal meaning of “spirit.” The word and character for iki thus came to almost exclusively mean the concept of refinement that wealthy businessmen from Edo brought into fashion. Following the boom of material iki, the concept grew further to encompass a holistic attitude of mental and spiritual restraint as well. The concept of iki still heavily influences modern Japanese culture. Japanese people continue to spend their salaries in a way that follows iki principles, and many Japanese luxury goods are covertly designed to appear like their more pedestrian or unremarkable counterparts.
Wanna, wanna be a tranquil spirit, but it can only be inherited by name
Wanna, Wanna be a 和な魂は襲名制
This line refers to a particular tradition practiced in kabuki theater. All kabuki actors use a chosen name, akin to the western concept of a “stage name.” The actor’s adoption of a stage name is declared through an official process called “襲名” (shuumei). This ceremony is the practice of officially changing one’s stage name to one previously held by another kabuki actor. Names chosen to inherit are generally passed down by blood relatives or, to a lesser extent, professional mentors. Even before Edo times, it was very common that those who continue a family business or trade take on the name of the family member whose work they are carrying on. Most, if not all, kabuki actors are already born into families with a deep lineage of kabuki actors, and it is been possible that distant relatives were quite famous and well-loved in their time. In that sense, this system seems to be a very logical marketing tactic!
As kabuki continued to prosper in Japan, the reasoning for undergoing a shumei ceremony developed even further. As in western theater, kabuki plays are written to script and performed over and over with different troupes of actors. From time to time, an actor would become well-acclaimed for acting in a particular role. Later, a new actor would change their name to adopt the stage name of the actor known for that role once they were cast in it. This led synchronously to the idea that, when one adopts the name of an actor, one also inherits that actor’s spirit. Certain stage names are considered more favorable for certain types of roles due to the individual personalities of actors who previously performed under that name. As each actor passes on a name, the souls of each are believed to communally ‘possess’ the name, and thus will influence the lives and dispositions of future actors who inherit it.
Kabuki is still appreciated in modern Japan for its historical value. Some modern-day kabuki actors have achieved mainstream success in television and film. Many of the kabuki families from Edo times have continued to this day; blood descendants still perform under the names of their ancient relatives.
In the song SAMURAI, the protagonist suggests that, in order to live with a truly peaceful spirit, you must inherit a name that is possessed by the tranquil spirit of someone who already existed in the past.
A fool would be either too quick to anger, or too quick to joke around
In this line, the protagonist offers his opinion about what to avoid if you want to be of a good, strong character. He dismisses anyone who is either too playful or too harsh. This line uses a four-character idom, “一刀両断” (ittou ryoudan), to illustrate the personality trait of rushing to assert authority without considering possible consequences.
One day I went to return my fortune to the shrine by tying it around the tree
And I fell face down back in time
This line refers to the Japanese practice of omikuji, a style of fortune-telling that is widely available at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. The seeker of the fortune-telling may have a particular question in mind, or may seek a generic forecast of the upcoming days. A small fee is paid, and a method for drawing a piece of paper with a random fortune written inside is undertaken. The fortune on the paper ranges from “very bad luck” to “very good luck,” and the fortune seeker is responsible with interpreting the fortune as it relates to their matter at hand.
One theory on the origin of omikuji in Japan dates back to ancient times, when communal society first developed. Before social hierarchy was firmly established, many village decisions were based on the drawing of lots which had villagers’ names written on them. The villagers whose names were drawn were said to have the final word on whatever decision was at hand; they believed that the gods who chose the names to be drawn could not be wrong. By Edo times, omikuji was a popular feature at places of worship, and had come to be used for personal consultation about life matters like marriage and business.
In present-day Japan, omikuji is still commonplace practice when visiting a shrine. Modern Japanese people may not base marriage or important business decisions on omikuji anymore, but one’s reading is still particularly important when drawn for at the first shrine visit of the year, hatsumode; that reading is usually interpreted as a glimpse of how one will fare in the year ahead.
The possible omikuji readings are split evenly between positive and negative ones, and getting a negative reading can be worrying to the fortune seeker if the matter is of great importance. Therefore, Japanese people have since come up with a few ways to try to correct a negative reading, or at least ensure that it will not take seat in reality. In the song SAMURAI, the protagonist tries to brush off the negative reading by tying it around a tree on the temple grounds. This is a popular tactic that is also practiced in real life. The reasoning behind this tactic is that, by tying it around a tree and leaving it behind, the bad luck will be trapped and absorbed by the tree instead of permeating the fortune seeker’s life. On the other hand, some believe keeping your bad fortune with you over a period of time (the general practice is to dispose the paper after reading it) can “warm up” the luck with your body, turning the bad fortune into a good one!
Mount Fuji lies beautifully in the distance
We won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by explaining that Mount Fuji is indeed a mountain in Japan, but it is arguably the one with the most historical, artistic, and mythological notoriety in the country. This line of the song uses a Japanese phrase, “遥か遠く” (haruka tooku), which can be translated directly as “far off into the distance.” This phrase may not seem particularly remarkable in English, but in traditional Japanese culture, backdrop was seen as an essential element to aesthetic and beauty. In some cases, areas that were lucky enough to host a pretty scenic backdrop were even considered holy.
Traditional Japanese art emphasizes the importance of backdrop, as seen in some of the most famous art works of the period. The protagonist likely points out the backdrop of his surroundings in respect to this concept.
In the Edo period, Mount Fuji was readily visible from most locations in Edo itself. In highly developed present-day Tokyo, there are only two to three remaining spots in the metropolitan area where the view of Mount Fuji has not been obscured! Later, once our protagonist returns to contemporary society, he notes sarcastically that it is now high-rise entertainment complex Skytree which dots the scenery behind him.
They say ‘all things must pass’ all over the world
But the conflict of duty and humanity is just as universal and wondrous
諸行無常なり どの世も されど
These lines of the song compare two four-character idioms. The first, “諸行無常” (shogyou mujou), is similar to the English phrase, “All things must pass.” The protagonist of the story asserts that, while no phase of life is truly permanent and therefore “all things must pass,” the most everlasting concept to exist among humankind may be the traditional Japanese principle of “義理人情” (giri ninjou), another four-character idiom that encapsulates the conflict between one’s sense of obligation to society and one’s own feelings.
Live by principle, and you will be fortified with a mind of bamboo
(Ay!) Hearts kindled inside softly swaying lanterns
Before the invention of electricity, people of Edo used a variety of lanterns to illuminate their way in the dark. The particular lantern spoken of in this line is a 釣灯籠 (tsuridourou), a type of portable lantern that would be stationed on the corners and outer walls of buildings to illuminate them. Candles were placed inside the lanterns to provide light in the evening.
The lyrics in this verse of the song apply the concepts 義理 (giri) and 人情 (ninjou) with metaphoric imagery from traditional Japan. The protagonist suggests that one’s logic should be as unfailing as bamboo, and that one should also back their moral principles by acting in accordance with them. However, the imagery of the hearts being placed into the softly swaying lanterns suggests that the way of logic and willpower will, to some degree, always be guided by one’s intuition.
In the old style houses, everyone works to live side by side in harmony
長屋は 皆 輪が繋がった連携プレイ
In the Edo period, merchants and other townspeople often lived in communal housing referred to as nagaya. Nagaya are long, single-story buildings that have been partitioned into smaller sections. Each section is intended to be a separate residence, and comes with its own front door. Despite the private entrance, the rooms were divided with paper shoji, and lacked much in the way of privacy from the sights and sounds of neighbors.
To further burden nagaya residents, the shogunate determined that a nagaya’s garbage disposal, waste management, and home security should be managed independently by tenants. As a result, the residents of one nagaya adapted to a communal style of living in which good neighborly behavior was not just proper etiquette, but tantamount to the safety and security of all in the building. This encouraged people to help neighbors within the nagaya openly and in abundance, so that a harmonious home life could be maintained for everyone.
Most Japanese today live in modern-day housing structures, but the culture of communal cooperation persists. Most residents are enrolled in a neighborhood committee which enforces etiquette specific to a street or neighborhood, and comparatively complex waste disposal rules are enforced and followed throughout Japan with remarkable efficiency.
The shogun in the castle is formidable, but with admirable style
After World War II, Japan dramatically changed their government with a constitution that established a parliamentary democracy. This style of government officially cemented the Emperor‘s role as ceremonial and without any governing authority. Even before this, however, the Emperor of Japan had spent little of the position’s historical existence in direct rule over the people. In 1185, the first shogun was appointed to office. Shoguns were military generals of the highest position. From their introduction into Japanese government, they were the primary source of power and law in Japan until the Meiji Restoration.
The rule of the shogun was effectively a dictatorship. Civilians could not vote on, question, or defy shogun law. Despite this, the era in which shoguns reigned over Japan is viewed today as a remarkably prosperous and culturally enriching one in Japanese history.
Standing like a tower, that honorable toothpick in mouth, equipped to end his life for honor
In this line, there are two references to the legacy of samurai, the wealthy and high class military officials of the Edo period. Samurai acted under the orders of a daimyo, who were just below shoguns in authority and controlled smaller semi-autonomous regions of Japan that eventually became the Japanese prefectures existing today.
The samurai adhered to a certain code of lifestyle law called bushido. The code of bushido, translated as “the way of the warrior,” was divided into eight values: righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, loyalty and duty, and self-control. Their priority to serve, along with their cultivated practice of impermanence, often promoted an image of the samurai as solitary, somber, and intriguing figures. Samurai were known for both their loyalty to their master and their sense of honor in one’s work. One of the most popular proverbs about samurai is, “武士は食わねど高楊枝” (bushi wa kuwanedo takayouji), which translates to, “A warrior uses the toothpick, even when he has not eaten.” The term 高楊枝 (takayouji), which appears in the song’s lyric above, refers to not just a singular toothpick object, but the general, leisurely use of a toothpick after one has finished a hearty meal. The proverb indicates that the samurai will not indicate outwardly his weaknesses or personal desires, but will always present a strong, satisfied, and honorable front to the world.
Another part of the lyric refers to the well-known practice of voluntary, ritualistic suicide among samurai soldiers. A samurai would voluntarily commit suicide for a variety of reasons. Suicide would ensure a samurai dies with honor to his daimyo rather than be captured by enemy forces. If a samurai acted in a way that could bring shame to his daimyo, suicide would both conceal the evidence of the act and restore honor to the samurai’s family. Although ritual suicide, called 切腹 (seppuku) or 腹切り (harakiri) in Japanese, was considered a voluntary act of the samurai, it was very commonplace that a daimyo master would order a samurai to “voluntarily” commit suicide in retribution for some offense. The loyal samurai would not question his master, and would follow his command out of a sense of giri.
And then, tied up tight and strong…
The Japanese term 髷 (mage) is used to cover the wide variety of traditional hairstyles referred to as “topknots” in English. There were as many “topknot” hairstyles in historical Japan as there are contemporary hairstyles today! The samurai typically wore their hair in a topknot called 丁髷 (chonmage), named for the physical resemblance the hairstyle carries to the kanji character “丁” in the name. In order to wear one’s hair in a chonmage style, the top of the head was completely shaved, and the hair on the sides was drawn into one ponytail on the back of the head. The ponytail was then fixated upright so that it would lay flat atop the shaved portion.
The original reason for this hairstyle was ergonomic. Samurai wore heavy, ornamented helmets that stayed on better when placed over a topknot-fashioned head. Topknots were primarily worn by samurai at first, but became popular with civilians as well due to its association with the high social hierarchy and wealth of the samurai class. In the Edo period, a topknot hairstyle would have been an extremely common sight on the city streets.
Topknots continued to be worn until the Meiji Restoration. In present day Japan, this hairstyle has been practically eradicated as fashion. Only a select few who participate in historical activities, like kabuki or sumo, opt to continue the tradition of the topknot hairstyle. Even in those cases, the practice of shaving the top of the head has been abandoned.
His two blades are like pride and force
Samurai were given the special privilege of being equipped with two swords at a time, whereas the other classes who were permitted to wield swords were limited to just one. In the pair of swords samurai were given, one sword was slightly smaller than the other. The smaller one was worn in a sheath at the hip, while the larger one was often worn in a sling over the back. When entering indoors, it was common etiquette for all to leave one’s sword at the door. Samurai would thus leave the larger sword, but keep the smaller sword equipped at all times to ensure constant preparedness.
Again he ferries across the river
The city of Edo was located on land which is now part of present-day Tokyo. The land was sliced through by the appropriately titled Edo river, which provided a much needed source of water to the agricultural-industrial society. However, there were not many bridges available for civilians who needed to cross the river, and the few bridges that did exist were limited to specific locations. Therefore, people often relied on the use of ferry boats to cross the river in daily life. The ferry would be driven by an operator who was paid a fee to row someone and their accompanying persons to the other side.
There is just one ferry route still operating across the Edo river today. The “矢切の渡し” (yagiri no watashi) operates in the Yagiri neighborhood of present-day suburb Matsudo in Chiba prefecture. This route has been continuously operating since the Edo period, but today serves as novelty entertainment rather than practical transportation.
(With one’s feet as their horse)
The Tokaidochu Hizakurige was one of the most popular novels in the Edo period, and remains a classic piece of Japanese literature today.
There were five major roads that led from the city of Edo to other locations across Japan. These roads could have been likened to the present-day concept of “highways;” they were crucial to both postal service and domestic trade. One of these five roads, the Tokaido, connected Edo to the capital city of Kyoto. Since this road connected the two largest cities in Japan at that time, it became a very popular route among all classes of people for general travel.
Although it may be difficult to imagine in modern times, the most common mode of transportation on the Tokaido road was walking on foot. Horses were restricted to only the highest of social classes, so there was little choice for anyone who was considered otherwise. The walking journey was estimated to take about one week if conditions were good, to one month if conditions were poor. The road was thus dotted with clusters of inns and restaurants, referred to as “stations,” but more similar to modern-day roadside rest areas. Walking travelers would stop at an inn at one of the stations for an overnight bed and hot meals.
The novel Tokaidochu Hizakurige describes the journey of two fictional characters in a comedic tale about the shenanigans they get themselves into as they attempt to travel along the Tokaido. The book also served to advertise real life locations along the Tokaido in order to further boost the successful domestic tourism industry of the time.
The title of the book, “東海道中膝栗毛” (toukaidou chuu hizakurige), directly translates to “With one’s feet as their horse going along the Tokaido.” In the early 1900’s, the novel was first translated into English. An English figure of speech that was common at the time, “Shank’s Mare,” was chosen as a properly succinct title that also paralleled the meaning of 膝栗毛 (hizakurige), a figure of speech from the Japanese title that translates to “horse hair-covered knees.” Both phrases were used to indicate the idea of making a journey on one’s own two feet. Since the English phrase “shank’s mare” is no longer commonly used, the translator at Nine Dragons chose a more descriptive and direct translation so that the imagery remains clear.
I’m dancing for joy in the real Edo
There’s a nostalgic setting sun gilding each of the bells in the watchtower
The protagonist describes his joy at experiencing Edo firsthand in this line with the four-character idiom 狂喜乱舞 (kyouki ranbu), which means “dancing around like a crazed person rejoicing.” Behind him, the sun is setting on the day and the warm sunset glow is reflecting off of a nearby watchtower.
The watchtower in this line specifically refers to 火の見櫓 (hi no miyagura), a fire watchtower that would have been a very common sight in Edo times. Most buildings were constructed of highly flammable material, and it was very common that dwellings and business would be very near, if not attached to, one another. This made fire outbreak a very dangerous threat. Initially, Edo lacked in prevention measures against fire destruction. As a result, a single fire destroyed over 60% of the entire city and killed one-third of the entire population. After the disaster, Edo began to implement infrastructure to help lessen the impact of fire outbreak. Fire watchtowers were built for the purpose of looking out upon the city to spot potential breakouts of fire. If a fire was spotted, a guard would ring the bell inside to let civilians know that they must evacuate the area.
Bon rhythm! Rhythmism!
Our dance for Bon, the greatest festival
The traditional Japanese calendar is marked by several festivals, which originate in traditional religion and are observed with some type of evening celebration or gathering. Festivals, called 祭り (matsuri) in Japanese, vary greatly by region, circumstance, and significance. The largest scale festival celebrated all over Japan is the Bon festival, written as 盆 (bon) or お盆 (obon) in Japanese. The “o-” prefix is attached to the name because of its notoriety and cultural importance. The purpose of Obon is to ease the spirits of deceased ancestors from any discomfort they could have been experiencing in the afterlife. The festival is said to have been established in Japan in the early 600’s. In the Edo period, Obon was the most important festival of the year for Japanese society, extending over a three day period which was, and still is, often treated as a public holiday.
The celebration of Obon is usually hallmarked by a choreographed dance performed by the townspeople in the early evening. A watchtower-like structure is constructed for the festival, and musicians will sing and play folk songs on a platform inside the tower. Dancers will surround the structure and dance with synchronized movements. The dance and songs vary depending on the area where they are being performed, and many regions in Japan have their own unique music and dance style.
In present-day Japan, Obon is still an important cultural festival. The old-style celebrations are still upheld and attended to for traditional value. Many Japanese also use the opportunity to take days off from work to go on a short vacation, visit family, or, in a more fitting tradition, attend to the graves of their deceased relatives.
For great success in life, this is the formula
This line uses the four-character idiom 立身出世 (risshin shusse) to assert the protagonist’s view that adhering to tradition and respecting time-tested values is a surefire ‘formula’ for creating a life that was lived well.
From the ninja in a kabuki play (Set me free!)
歌舞伎の忍者 (Set me free!)
When many people think of Japan, the image of a ninja is sure to come up in one’s mind soon enough. Although there is an abundance of ninja in Japanese fiction and lore, real ninja did exist in history as well. Ninja served the daimyo like samurai, but, unlike samurai, they took a vow of secrecy that was followed so immaculately that, while historical records prove the existence of ninja as a profession, there is little to no record of an actual encounter with ninja in existence. Another way that ninja differed from samurai was that ninja were not bound by the samurai code of bushido. Therefore, ninja were often sent on missions that samurai could not do, such as espionage and, some believe, assassination.
As ninja maintained the vow secrecy, the sense of mystique generated among the public made them a popular fixture in stories and music of the time period. Often, their abilities or techniques were highly exaggerated or made supernatural.
A hallmark of real ninja was the arsenal of small tools they used in order to execute their missions. The most well-known of these is a 手裏剣 (shuriken), which translates to “hand-held blade.” These ergonomically shaped, handle-less bladed objects earned the colloquial translation of “throwing stars,” on part of their appearance. Contrary to popular belief, it is agreed upon by historians that shurikens were not meant to be used as primary weapons, but rather as a tool of distraction or a way to temporarily maim the target.
Ninja were eradicated, along with samurai, during the Meiji Restoration.
In the blue hours within castle walls, the oiran makes her procession
I’m falling down…
The protagonist of the song’s story tells what happens as darkness begins to fall on Edo. One sight that would have been common inside of the castle walls would be the procession of the courtesans, an almost ceremonial procedure that was so prolific that it is technically considered a four-character idiom, “花魁道中” (oiran douchuu). Courtesans, called 花魁 (oiran) in Japanese, were women who entertained the highest ranking men of Japan with song and dance as well as providing intimacy over the course of an evening. Only a few of the highest rank of oiran could decline a customer, so oiran could not choose which man to accompany over the night. Therefore, the services offered by the oiran would make them most similar to the modern-day concept of a “prostitute.” However, the price of their company was exorbitantly expensive, and access to their services was restricted to only the highest of social classes.
A man who requests the company of an oiran for the evening would first go to a building called 揚屋 (ageya), translated as “high-class pleasure house,” where one could dine at a banquet and be entertained by performers. The employees at the pleasure house would then dispatch a message to the brothel where the oiran lived. The oiran would prepare her outfit, hairstyle, and makeup and head out with her retainers to the pleasure house where she would meet with the customer to bring him back.
Although the brothel and pleasure house were usually close to one another, the time it took the oiran to arrive was dramatically extended by the additional difficulty in walking attributed to her extravagant outfit. An oiran’s clothes would often weigh up to 20 kilograms in total, excluding the additional weight of around eight hairpins on her head. But, even with those accouterments, the most likely culprit for the oiran’s very slow walk would be her shoes. Oiran wore a specific type of 下駄 (geta), traditional Japanese wooden shoes. Oiran’s shoes were lacquered in black with a red cloth strap across the feet. The soles were a straight platform around 10 to 15 centimetres high. The balance of the shoe was provided by three large teeth that hung down from the top of the sole, but walking at any pace quicker than a minuscule shuffle was still impossible for the wearer. The slow, scuffling journey grew to be appreciated by the courtesans, as it gave them ample time to show off their beauty and extravagance as well as advertise themselves to would-be patrons on the street.
The potential dangers of the high platform shoes likely inspired the experience of our protagonist, as he “tripped and fell,” landing back in present-day Japan and ending his adventure through the vibrant historical city of Edo!
Four-Character Idioms from SAMURAI
As with any language, Japanese is rife with usage of idioms and figures of speech. One popular format of idiom is a collection of four kanji characters, called yojijukugo. The kanji characters generally represent individual ideas that combine to conjure up an image in one’s mind. The idiom itself omits connecting grammar and other words which would more literally string the concept together. Some idioms are portrayed rather abstractly by the given kanji, and others are almost so literal that linguistic academics argue their classification as an figure of speech.
The four-character idioms below appear in the lyrics for SAMURAI. Test your kanji knowledge and further understand the thoughts of the song’s protagonist by checking out the list below!
- いっとうりょうだん • ittou ryoudan
- Literal Translation: “One sword cuts both sides”
- This idiom describes a personality trait which could be used with either a positive or negative connotation. In a positive sense, it describes a person who is clear and decisive. In a negative sense, it describes someone who rushes to make decisions without proper consideration of the facts.
- In Japanese metaphor, a sword is often used to represent authoritative power. The prominence of swords in historical Japan is well-known to even those with scant knowledge of Japanese history. Swords were mostly carried by men who held military or security positions, which were very prestigious in social hierarchy of the time. Furthermore, the capabilities of the sword as a weapon helped cement the authority of any decision enforced by a person holding one.
- The translation of the idiom is a passive observational advice that, in order to cut something in half, you only need a single sword to do so. In contrast, using “multiple swords” in order to process a decision, perhaps by seeking too much the input of others, is seen as a dilution, and thus, weakening, of one’s authority. However, it may be necessary at times to consider other facts and evidence before coming to a conclusion about a particular issue. In that sense, the idiom is also a passive observational advice that one sword will indeed cut both sides. This indicates that there are potentially unforeseen consequences if a decision maker acts too quickly in the heat of the moment.
- しょぎょうむじょう • shogyou mujou
- “There are many ways to get there, yet none last forever.”
- The translation of this idiom can be likened to the English idiom, “All things must pass.” The image conjured by the idiom is that of someone travelling, perhaps on a journey. Ahead of them lies several ways to get to their destination. The paths may take the traveller through different situations, but the traveller will eventually come to the end of whichever path they chose.
- The idiom is an observation that, no matter what situation one is living out in life currently, there will be a time when that situation will come to an end. This concept is treasured as the law of impermanence in Buddhism, one of the formative religions of historical Japan.
- ぎりにんじょう • giri ninjou
- “The conflict between logical justice and the mankind’s emotions”
- This idiom represents a sociological concept rather than a singular piece of life advice. The concept of “giri ninjou” is an important moral value of traditional Japanese society. Many cultures of the world encapsulate the experience of mankind as one ongoing, central conflict between two opposing forces. In traditional Japan, these forces were considered to be “giri,” or one’s sense of duty, loyalty, and justice and “ninjou,” or the intuitive, unjustifiable emotions we may experience at any turn.
- As communal society progressed in Japan, the unpredictable pattern of human emotional response came to be seen as crude and self-serving. Acting in indifference to one’s emotions was, in return, increasingly viewed as successful mastery over one’s own “savage” origin. The most prestigious members of traditional Japanese society, including the samurai class, were often strictly avoidant of making autonomous choices or expressing personal opinion, even in trivial matters.
- The traditional concept of “giri ninjou” has persisted in Japan through modern times as well. Although foreign cultural influence has promoted a more open expression of emotion, many factors of Japanese society, such as the work-life balance, interpersonal relationships, and preference for indirect transmission of individual thoughts and desires certainly have roots in the traditional, “giri ninjou” ruled society.
- きょうきらんぶ • kyouki ranbu
- “A riotous dance as if it were a crazed person rejoicing”
- This idiom is similar to the English figure of speech, “dancing around like crazy.” In English, this figure of speech is not particularly formal or reminiscent, but in Japan, this four-character idiom is inspired by religious ritual and indicates a mystifying element to the joy one is experiencing when this idiom would be used to describe them.
- Dance was, and still is, an important part of ceremony in Shintoism, one of the formative religions of historical Japan. The primary purpose of dancing was to both communicate a mythological story to the audience and attract the attention of gods with eye-catching movements. A well-known example, also showing up in the lyrics of SAMURAI, is the traditional dance done for the Bon festival.
- りっしんしゅっせ • risshin shusse
- “Standing upright as you move through the world”
- This idiom is used to represent a character ideal that is treasured in Japanese culture. The idiom presents an image of someone who remains standing upright as they move throughout various stages of life. “Risshin” is composed of both the character for standing upright and the character for one’s whole body. The latter character is often used in figures of speech to describe someone’s disposition wholistically. “Risshin” generally indicates the concept of self-reliance, and parallels the English phrase “self-made man.”
- The second part of the idiom, “shusse,” has shifted in meaning alongside changing values in Japanese society. The characters for “shusse” most literally can be translated as “to come out into the world.” In ancient Japan, this word was used to describe one’s personal success in acquisition of wealth and resources, thereby establishing their “presence” in society.
- However, as Japan entered the Edo period, and values shifted towards refinement, “shusse” came to represent the concept of personal success in earning respect without relying on one’s wealth or direct authority to do so. Loosely, it could be likened to the English phrase, “climbing the social ladder.” However, especially in combination with “risshin,” there is an implication that the success and admiration one received in life was done so by simply being a good, “upright” person.