Tag Archives: Japan

THE SOHEI – WARRIOR MONKS OF JAPAN

Many cultures throughout history had some type of religious military class. Arguably the most well-known are the Knights Templar or the Order of the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. Created in the 12th century to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land after the First Crusade, the knight-brothers took vows of poverty and chastity to fulfill their religious duties yet also were committed to fight in any type of conflict which threatened the church.

Japan had its own version of such pious knights – the Sohei. Followers of Buddhism, the Sohei, like the Knights Templar, operated in groups and formed armies, engaging in combat initially against other Buddhist sects during a time when such sects were rivals of one another. The Sohei were born to fight in these feuds among the sects. As the warrior monks grew and gained more power and influence, they constructed large temples, sometimes with a series of subordinate temples and small monasteries.

Their main weapon of choice was the naginata, a sort of combination of a spear and an axe although they were proficient with various types of swords, knives and bows and arrows.  Some also fought on horseback.

They wore kimono-like robes over trousers, their feet clad in the two-toed tabi socks and wooden clogs, sometimes garbing themselves in samurai armor over all that. They also wore a type of head-wrap/turban, covering most of their face and looked pretty intimidating in battle. You didn’t want to mess with these guys.

 Some texts talk of the Sohei hiring themselves out to, basically, the highest bidder among the daimyos or warlords, an idea I incorporated into The Sixth Precept. My main baddie, the evil daimyo Omori Kadadomora, keeps a contingent of Sohei to help him do his dirty work. The Sohei in my book are basically subordinate characters, there for added historical detail but I love the idea of warrior monks and hope to write something about the Sohei in more detail sometime.

In an early version of the novel, I do have a giant, magical Sohei attacking my protagonist, Kim Yoshima, in her apartment and trashing it completely before being defeated by Kim and her ally, Wayne Brewster, aka the costumed vigilante, ArcNight. For various reasons, I had to cut that scene but still have it on tap, ready to use it at a moment’s notice!

I wonder–if there was a throw-down cage match between a member of the Knights Templar and a Sohei, who do you think would win?

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GEISHA or SHIRABYOSHI? WEDDING RING or PAINTED TEETH?

UNUSUAL FACTS ABOUT MEDIEVAL JAPAN

One of the more fun aspects of writing, or more specifically, conducting research for my writing, is the odd and interesting facts that pop up.

In my debut novel, THE SIXTH PRECEPT, about half of the action in the book takes place in medieval Japan, specifically the early 16th century known as the Muramachi or Sengoku or Warring States Period. This was a very chaotic time in Japanese history where the daimyos or warlords were fighting among themselves for power. No one central authority had yet to organize everyone. No shogun during that century of warfare was powerful or resourceful enough to centralize control until the Edo Shogunate in the early 17th century became the top dogs.

My initial idea was to have a geisha as one of my central characters, a geisha with prescient powers (I just liked the idea of a geisha, having just read the book and watched the movie Memoirs of a Geisha). However, during my research I found that geishas weren’t around in the early 16th century. Uh oh. Now what was I going to do? It turns out a type of precursor to the geisha did exist at that time. These were the shirabyoshi who essentially performed the same types of services and practiced the same kind of art as geisha although dancing was their primary talent.

With a global “find and replace,” I changed my geisha character to a shirabyoshi. In truth, my characterization of my shirabyoshi character may not be completely accurate (For instance, some sources site the geisha predecessor as the actress/prostitutes known as oiran but that sounded too much like a fantasy or SF name so I went for the more Japanese-sounding name, as silly as that sounds since they’re both Japanese terms). In a novel with time-travel, mythological Japanese creatures and masked vigilantes, I figured some artistic license was okay.

Also, one source I consulted stated the first geishas were men. Initially jesters to the daimyo known as taikomochi, these men’s roles as entertainers and assistants to the oiran were eventually taken over by the female geisha.

Another factoid I discovered is, during a certain period in Japan’s history, when a woman got married, instead of receiving a wedding ring, she painted her teeth black. This was known as the ohaguro style. I thought that was very interesting and sort of bizarre and wanted desperately to put that in the book. However, the same thing happened–that custom wasn’t around yet during the action of my medieval Japan sections. It didn’t become commonplace in Japanese society until later in the 17th or 18th century and lasted into into the early 20th century.

I was disappointed but was able to include that in the sequel, which I’m writing now. Black teeth! How cool is that?

http://www.amazon.com/The-Sixth-Precept-Larry-Ivkovich/dp/0615554245

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