Mikael Adolphson - Associate Professor of Japanese History, Harvard University
Japan’s monastic warriors have fared poorly in comparison to the samurai, both in terms of historical reputation and representations in popular culture. Often maligned and criticized for their involvement in politics and other secular matters, they have been seen as a coherent group of fighters known as sōhei (monk-warriors) separate from the larger military class. However, a closer examination of late Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) sources reveals that these groups have a common ancestry, identical social and political origins, and were equally skilled in the warfare techniques of the age. The notion of religious violence as a separate category therefore also appears inappropriate, since the many confrontations and battles involving monastic forces originated from and concerned the same issues surrounding the political, military and social contexts in the capital region. Monastic warriors acted no differently from their secular counterparts, nor do they appear to have been motivated by a religious rhetoric qualitatively different from other ideologies condoning violence. In point of fact, they were one and the same, but later artists and patrons promoted an image that justified the privileges and powers of warrior aristocrats, resulting in a slow process of standardization that over several centuries led to a stylized image of “monk-warriors,” which modern observers, influenced by notions of separate religious and political spheres, never questioned.