Samurai belong to the annals of Japanese history, but their image evokes a sense of strength and refinement that commands respect worldwide. Even today, long since the caste was abolished, samurai continue to be idolized as the embodiment of strength, discipline, and honor.
Much of what the West esteems and Japan takes pride in as “traditional Japanese culture” is tied to samurai culture, from the spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism to the effortless delight of hanami. Despite superficial differences, most of these traditions cultivate and express of the same profound ideals, universal principles such as fudoshin (an “immovable mind”) and furyu (finding beauty in that which is fundamentally ephemeral).
Miyagi samurai: Masamune and the Date Clan
Masamune Date is the most famous samurai associated with Miyagi, and one of the most famous in all of Japan. His character has been immortalized in the pop culture pantheon through media such as novels, video games, and TV series. Masamune, “The One-Eyed Dragon,” was a man of acumen and sheer grit, yet was also admired by the upper classes for his sense of style and was deeply interested in artistic pursuits, particularly Noh theater.
The Date (pronounced DAH-tay) Clan took their name from the clan’s original seat, the Date district (present day Date City, Fukushima), awarded to them in 1189. Masamune Date greatly increased the area of land controlled by his clan, eventually becoming ruler of the Sendai Domain. The domain consisted of all present-day Miyagi, plus parts of southern Iwate and northern Fukushima prefectures. The domain’s official income rating of 625,000 koku made it the largest in northern Japan, and the third-largest in the entire country.
Masamune was also prescient in sensing the need to establish international exchange. He even sent an envoy to Europe to do just that, a first for a Japanese daimyo. The enterprise was known as the Keicho Mission.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the Date Clan’s ambition and success, the clan was seen as a band of rebels and outsiders by Japan’s central rulers. Even after swearing allegiance and committing troops to the shogun’s military campaigns, the Date Clan still was not trusted. The shogun counted the Date among the tozama (outsider clans) and never ceased viewing them as a threat.
Though Masamune Date was politically distrusted, he was admired for his sense of style and cultural sophistication. Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself is known to have praised Masamune as “a man of taste in the countryside.” The aesthetic of the Date Clan, particularly from Masamune onward, was so distinctive that it has come to be known as Date bunka (“Date culture”). Date bunka combines the opulent Momoyama aesthetic of the cultural centers in feudal-era western Japan with the simplicity of native Tohoku traditions.
The samurai legacy
The age of samurai ended abruptly in 1867 with the start of the Meiji Restoration. The samurai class was abolished; all feudal domains were seized and placed under imperial control. The Date Clan head at the time, Date Munemoto, went on to be appointed governor of Sendai under the imperial government.
Though the Date Clan’s rule as warriors came to an end along with the rest of the shogunate, their legacy lives on. The Date Clan helped shape Miyagi and surrounding regions into the places we see today, not just in terms of landmarks but also in population distribution and infrastructure. Some say Masamune’s influence can even be seen in the signature look of fashionable residents living in modern-day Sendai.
Come witness the legacy for yourself at historical sites and cultural attractions around Miyagi.