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Under the samurai armor: Rotaract students go deep into Japanese culture

by Rie Takamasu, MA COM

“Ei ei oh! Ei ei oh! Ei ei oh!” The samurai soldiers pushed their arms up holding a morale-boosting pose. The sound of conchshell horn and Japanese drum rattled the clear blue sky–it was the start of a battle.

On March 7, five volunteers from the Rotaract Club at HPU were poised to participate in the Honolulu Festival. Our role was to be samurai in a Japanese traditional ceremony called Iimori Toryu Busha Sai. Wearing full armor, we paused in front of the Shinto Shrine altar while twelve Samurai archers shot arrows toward targets made of wood to gain good luck for the battle.

 

On March 7, five volunteers from the Rotaract Club at HPU were poised to participate in the Honolulu Festival. Our role was to be samurai in a Japanese traditional ceremony called Iimori Toryu Busha Sai. Wearing full armor, we paused in front of the Shinto Shrine altar while twelve Samurai archers shot arrows toward targets made of wood to gain good luck for the battle.

Asked to join in this event, I was not sure if I wanted to go. I wondered what participating in this event would bring to me culturally? After all, I am Japanese. To my surprise, it was one of the most exciting and significant events in my life.

At 8:30 in the morning, we gathered at the convention center. The only thing we knew when we got there was that we were going to be a part of something to do with Japanese traditional archery. Being led into the back room, I grasped for air. The big conference room was filled with suits of Samurai armors, each with its own swords and flags. I had never seen such authentic armor except on TV.

I asked myself, “Will we really get to wear those?” As I watched, each volunteer was assigned a set of armor. Looking closely, I noticed that each set was unique, with different patterns, shapes, and colors. On labels on the wooden cases placed next to each set of armor were different names: “Ashigaru” (light feet), “Dogyo” (child shape), “Hatamochi Busha” (flag holders), etc. I was assigned “Fukusho,” sub-general. I was lucky.

“ Those who finish wearing armor can have lunch!” said the translator in a loud voice. Ladies of my mom’s age came up to me, told me to take off my cloths, and put on a kimono, and then the armor. By the time all the volunteers were armed (which took about an hour per person), sweat rolled off both the volunteers’ faces and the people from the Busha Sai. It was no wonder, as one set of armor is made up of nine different parts and the total weighs about 66 pounds. Each part comes with strings (not buttons or hooks) that have to be tied in a certain way to make knots so that the armor won’t get loose during battle. I was amazed at the speed and precision with which each knot was tied.

The ceremony was carried out on the roof of the convention center. With much solemnity, the priest purified the site, and we bowed toward the shrine altar. Then the 12 Bushas (archers) shot arrows towards the targets set 20 meters (65.6 feet) away.

The Busha Sai’s origin dates back to the Kamakura period, which is approximately 1,200 years ago. Some feudal lord in Fukuoka held this ceremony, wishing for a battle’s success, before taking off to war. Later, it was sanctified and formalized as it is today. The 20 meters was the distance the archers could reach, the actual distance the samurais had between themselves and their enemies. If they missed the first shot, the next moment would see their enemies in front of them, swords raised to take their heads.

While my feet struggled to hold the weight of the armor in the heat, my mind traveled back 1,200 years. I imagined how much hope the samurais placed in their armor, with the battle starting, sword-wielding enemies 20 feet away. This armor was the only protection that they had against arrows and swords. How many men had to give up their lives to their sorrow? And how many women shed tears for losing their loved ones?

Our long day ended with the Grand Parade down Kalakaua Avenue. Finished marching, we collapsed on the grass of Kapiolani park. We had no more energy. And my shoulders were numb from the weight of the chest piece.

Mr. Suzuki, who played the chief Busha’s role in the ceremony, said he had been doing this ceremony for 17 years. I was impressed at their commitment in bringing this cultural tradition to Hawai‘i and showcasing it to the islands’ people. Just participating in the Honolulu festival is a big commitment. Who will clean the sweaty costumes that 80 people wore today? Since they are made from silk, one cannot just throw them into the washing machine. Who will pack and unpack all the armor and swords? Each of them is very precious, and they cannot just be thrown into one box, but have to be packed carefully in their individual cases. What motivates these people to do all of this?

The next day at Kapiolani Community College, I found the answer. I attended a lecture on the samurai spirit given by Mr. Matsushima, one of the members of Busha Sai. He talked about the basic principles of “Bushido,” (military-knight-ways.) Among them was “Giri,” (rectitude) and “Meiyo” (honor). It is this “Giri” for the community and their ancestors, and this “Meiyo” as a Busha that motivate them as enacting these qualities, they bring them to life.

The people who performed in the Busha Sai are all from the same area. When someone runs out of rice, a neighbor will provide it. Perhaps vegetables will be offered in return. This sense of caring, “Jin,” is what the society is built upon, and it is why this event is possible. Without this voluntary support from the people in the community, the ceremony of Busha Sai would never have survived as long as it has, and would certainly never have been brought to Hawai‘i.

My experience was not just about wearing the samurai armor. It was the weight of the armor, as well as the pride of the people, that showed me how our ancestors lived and their immense respect for others as for themselves. Isn’t this something that we have almost forgotten in today’s society? Rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, loyalty, and a sense of honor? The people from the Busha Sai are certainly carrying the spirit of samurai along with their traditional ceremony and costumes.

Living in Hawai‘i may be comfortable, and you may even feel at home. Yet, you cannot feel at home fully until you know where you come from, your roots. I had never felt as strongly as I did that day that I am Japanese. Wherever I am, whatever I do, it will be a never-changing fact that I am built on the millions of hearts and souls of my ancestors. I found my origin. I found my belonging.

 

2004, Kalamalama, the HPU Student Newspaper. All rights reserved.
 
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