Although not the heaviest of drinkers, the samurai of Japan were great lovers of sake and it was of central importance to key rituals in their warrior code.
Samurai in action during the Sengoku period
It was drunk at all times from meals to religious ceremonies and was part of the Bushi-nin pre-battle ritual – the bushi being the more common Japanese term for the military caste of nobility better known to history as the samurai.
As battle neared a warrior would drink a cup of sake with his comrades and then seek either victory or honourable death in combat – a practice not dissimilar to drinking before battles in European armies although the cultural reasoning behind both were worlds apart
To survive a defeat or worse be taken prisoner was to bring shame and humiliation on yourself and your family name.
This code by which the samurai lived their life was called bushido, literally “Way of the Warrior”, a code not unlike Medieval European chivalry in that it stressed honour, loyalty and courage above all else.
A blend of Shinto, Zen-Buddhism and neo-Confucianism, bushido allowed the samurai to live a virtuous life dedicated to perfection in all things from courtly politeness, to music, painting, gardening and poetry while also indulging in mastery of martial arts and levels of ultra violence which are hard to fathom today, though again not dissimilar to European knights.
Samurai existed in Japan from at least the 10th century AD. Their golden age, largely as it was one of ceaseless warfare, was the Sengoku period from the mid-15th to early 16th century – also known as the “Warring States” period – which ended with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1615.
From then on into the Edo period the samurai way of life declined and they were abolished as a caste in the 1870s but their values and code did not die so easily in society and in fact flourish.
Old families retained the armour and swords of their samurai ancestors and even if feudalism no longer existed, Japan remained a fiercely traditional society with strict social boundaries.
By the time of the Second World War, the militarist parties ruling Japan leaned heavily upon the samurai culture of the past. Japanese officers, many of them from samurai families, still carried swords into battle and surrender rather than death was seen as a disgrace.
The code of bushido caused Japanese troops to commit terrible atrocities in the territories they conquered as well as against prisoners of war yet it also drove them to fight on in the face of impossible odds, something that earned them the fear, hatred and yet also grudging respect of many Allied soldiers.
As the war progressed, Japan was gradually forced back across the Pacific, out-matched by the military and industrial might of the US.
With the US Marine Corps hopping closer to “sacred” Japan, island by blood-spattered island, the Japanese turned to drastic lengths to stem their advance – the infamous kamikaze.
The kamikaze was part of Japanese legend. In the late 13th century with Japan menaced by Mongol invaders, sudden typhoons had sprung up and scattered the armada of Kublai Khan (he of pleasure dome fame) in 1274 and again in 1281.
The young men chosen to join the “Special Attack Unit” in 1944, would revert back to the rituals of their ancestors in preparation to become the modern equivalent of this “divine wind”.
The aim of these men was to pilot a flying bomb into American ships, particularly aircraft carriers, causing catastrophic damage in the process.
Kamikaze pilots drink their last cup of sake before taking off to confront the US Pacific Fleet
Knowing there was no way back, the kamikaze pilots performed a ceremony before take-off which combined two samurai rituals, the Bushi-nin and the more startling preparation for seppuku, as their act was in essence suicide.
As bushido did not tolerate betrayal or dishonour, in case of either a samurai was expected to commit suicide.
The ritual for this quite extraordinary ceremony was highly elaborate and became even more so as the golden age of the samurai progressed. The warrior would cleanse himself with a bath, then he would eat a simple meal and drink sake while composing a death poem and then calmly eviscerate himself with his own short sword.
Little changed for the young kamikaze who would prepare for battle by donning the hachimaki headband adorned with the rising sun and a belt of 1,000 stitches, the senninbari made by 1,000 women sewing one stitch each.
Like his doomed samurai forebear, he would compose his poem and drink a last cup of sake with his fellow kamikaze before taking off, flying into oblivion.
Over 3,000 young Japanese died in these kamikaze missions, largely flying against the US Navy although British and Australian warships also came under attack from them.
Tragically, for all their endeavours, the real impact of their attacks is still debated but was in reality more akin to mosquito bites on the hide of a rhino than a decisive war-winning strategy.
The number of ships sunk by them is vicariously put at between 30-50, possibly as high as 70, and killing over 4,000 US Navy personnel, losses in the cruel logic of wartime that were replaceable, and the very word has become synonymous with a futile or desperate act with little chance of success (and certain death).
An astonishing photograph showing a kamikaze about to crash into the side of USS Missouri off Okinawa on 11 April 1945. Remarkably the crash killed no one on board the Missouri. The pilot has been tentatively identified as either flight petty officer 2nd class Setsuo Ishino or flight petty officer 2nd class Kenkichi Ishii.
As a form of psychological warfare however the kamikaze was second to none.
Coming under a kamikaze attack was terrifying for Allied sailors. Knowing that their opponent not only did not fear dying but was actively trying to kill himself by using his plane as a weapon was something most westerners simply did not understand.
There was something much more personal almost (to them) inhuman in the use of kamikaze as opposed to the simple use of a bomb or torpedo which could miss or be avoided.
Nothing but the complete destruction of a kamikaze would stop it and the terrifying sight of a plane screaming down from the heavens at your ship and desperately wishing the anti-aircraft gunners to fire faster can only be imagined.
It was the suicidal courage of the kamikaze and Imperial Japanese Army on islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa that helped convince the US high command that an assault on mainland Japan would be too costly.
The decision was taken instead to shock Japan into submission with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Next time: Vodka’s role in the development of the Molotov cocktail.
Previously: Vineyards under attack