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14th-century Samurai battle wounds discovered by scientists

Films like Seven Samurai, Ran and Heaven and Earth have made Japan’s historic Samurai warriors famous But now, their skeletons have been examined in forensic detail by Japanese and British scientists.

A leading British specialist in forensic anthropology has been investigating battle wounds sustained by medieval Japanese warriors almost 700 years ago. Working with Japanese colleagues, Dr Michael Wysocki of the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences, has found evidence of sword and arrow wounds, ritualized coup de grace death blows, and even evidence of Samurai heads being taken as trophies by their enemies.

The newly analysed evidence, which was presented by Britain’s Channel 4 in a documentary called Samurai: Back From The Dead earlier this week, shed important new light on the origins of Japan’s Samurai warrior tradition.

“The skeletal material is of huge importance in helping to understand the nature of warfare in medieval Japan,” said Dr Wysocki.

Dr Wysocki and Japanese scientists from Santa Marianna University School of Medicine near Tokyo have been examining the skeletal remains of combatants who died in battle or by committing suicide after defeat during and immediately after the storming of one of medieval Japan’s most important cities in 1333.

The battle was one of the most significant watersheds in Japanese history – an event that helped determine the nature and political/social flavour of much of the country’s subsequent history. It fundamentally changed the nature of Japan by ushering in a long period of civil warfare and political and military de-centralization and instability.

The city where the battle took place – Kamakura, 30 miles south-south-west of Tokyo – had been, prior to 1333, the main administrative centre of the Japanese government of the day, the so-called Shogunate which had, for the previous one and a half centuries, succeeded in massively reducing the power of the Japanese emperor.

However in 1333 the emperor’s supporters defeated the Shogunate and effectively destroyed Japan’s ability to maintain stable government for decades. The remains of literally thousands of battle dead and potential mass suicide victims have been found over the years at Kamakura.

“The sheer volume of human remains and the extraordinary historical background makes Kamakura one of the most significant sites in the world from a battlefield and conflict perspective,” said Dr Wysocki.

Substantial numbers of warriors had been decapitated – many probably as part of trophy-taking activities by the victors. In medieval Japan, victorious warriors could often only receive rewards for valour in battle if they proved their rate of success by showing their commanders the heads of those enemy fighters they had defeated.

Human heads therefore became a gruesome currency of a military accounting system which rewarded military success if the victorious warriors could supply evidence of their accomplishments.

One of the individuals examined by Dr Wysocki and featured in the Channel 4 documentary is a probable female samurai. During the Shogunate, women were remarkably emancipated, having almost the same property rights as men, enjoying the right to inherit property and having the same obligations as men to perform military guard duties.

Research on the Kamakura skeletons is continuing in Japan in a bid to shed further light on events before, during and after the bloodshed of 1333. The mass suicide by those who had been defeated in Kamakura was by far the largest such event in Japanese history.

Source: University of Central Lancashire

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