Samurai (侍) were the military nobility and officer caste of medieval
and early-modern Japan.
In Japanese, they are usually referred to as bushi (武士, [bɯ.ɕi])
or buke (武家). According to translator William Scott Wilson: "In
Chinese, the character 侍 was originally a verb meaning "to wait
upon", "accompany persons" in the upper ranks of society, and this is
also true of the original term in Japanese, saburau. In both countries
the terms were nominalized to mean "those who serve in close
attendance to the nobility", the Japanese term saburai being the
nominal form of the verb. According to Wilson, an early reference to
the word "samurai" appears in the
Kokin Wakashū (905–914), the
first imperial anthology of poems, completed in the first part of the
By the end of the 12th century, samurai became almost entirely
synonymous with bushi, and the word was closely associated with the
middle and upper echelons of the warrior class. The samurai were
usually associated with a clan and their lord, and were trained as
officers in military tactics and grand strategy. While the samurai
numbered less than 10% of then Japan's population, their teachings
can still be found today in both everyday life and in modern Japanese
1.1 Asuka and Nara periods
1.2 Heian period
1.3 Late Heian Period, Kamakura Bakufu, and the rise of samurai
1.4 Ashikaga shogunate
1.5 Sengoku period
1.6 Azuchi–Momoyama period
1.6.1 Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa
1.6.2 Invasions of Korea
1.7 Tokugawa shogunate
2.1 Religious influences
6 Foreign samurai
9 Myth and reality
10 In popular culture
11 Famous samurai
12 See also
15 External links
Asuka and Nara periods
Kofun Helmet Gilt Copper 5th Century, Ise Province.
Following the Battle of Hakusukinoe against Tang
663 AD, which led to a retreat from Korean affairs,
widespread reform. One of the most important was that of the Taika
Reform, issued by Prince Naka-no-Ōe (Emperor Tenji) in 646 AD. This
edict allowed the Japanese aristocracy to adopt the Tang dynasty
political structure, bureaucracy, culture, religion, and
philosophy. As part of the
Taihō Code of 702 AD, and the later
Yōrō Code, the population was required to report regularly for
the census, a precursor for national conscription. With an
understanding of how the population was distributed, Emperor Monmu
introduced a law whereby 1 in 3–4 adult males were drafted into the
national military. These soldiers were required to supply their own
weapons, and in return were exempted from duties and taxes. This
was one of the first attempts by the Imperial government to form an
organized army modeled after the Chinese system. It was called
"Gundan-Sei" (ja:軍団制) by later historians and is believed to
have been short-lived. The
Taihō Code classified
most of the Imperial bureaucrats into 12 ranks, each divided into two
sub-ranks, 1st rank being the highest adviser to the Emperor. Those of
6th rank and below were referred to as "samurai" and dealt with
day-to-day affairs. Although these "samurai" were civilian public
servants, the modern word is believed[by whom?] to have derived from
Military men, however, would not be referred to as
"samurai" for many more centuries.
In the early Heian period, during the late 8th and early 9th
Emperor Kanmu sought to consolidate and expand his rule in
northern Honshū, and sent military campaigns against the Emishi, who
resisted the governance of the Kyoto-based imperial court. Emperor
Kanmu introduced the title of sei'i-taishōgun (征夷大将軍), or
shōgun, and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer
the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery (kyūdō), these
clan warriors became the Emperor's preferred tool for putting down
rebellions; the most well-known of which was Sakanoue no Tamuramaro.
Though this is the first known use of the title shōgun, it was a
temporary title and was not imbued with political power until the 13th
century. At this time (the 7th to 9th centuries), the Imperial Court
officials considered them to be merely a military section under the
control of the Imperial Court.
Samurai on horseback, wearing ō-yoroi armour, carrying bow (yumi) and
arrows in a yebira quiver
Emperor Kanmu disbanded his army. From this time, the
Emperor's power gradually declined. While the Emperor was still the
ruler, powerful clans around
Kyoto assumed positions as ministers, and
their relatives bought positions as magistrates. To amass wealth and
repay their debts, magistrates often imposed heavy taxes, resulting in
many farmers becoming landless.Through protective agreements and
political marriages, they accumulated, or gathered, political power,
eventually surpassing the traditional aristocracy.
Some clans were originally formed by farmers who had taken up arms to
protect themselves from the Imperial magistrates sent to govern their
lands and collect taxes. These clans formed alliances to protect
themselves against more powerful clans, and by the mid-Heian period,
they had adopted characteristic
Japanese armor and weapons.
Late Heian Period, Kamakura Bakufu, and the rise of samurai
Samurai ō-yoroi armour, Kamakura period. Tokyo National Museum.
Originally, the Emperor and non-warrior nobility employed these
warrior nobles. In time they amassed enough manpower, resources and
political backing, in the form of alliances with one another, to
establish the first samurai-dominated government. As the power of
these regional clans grew, their chief was typically a distant
relative of the Emperor and a lesser member of either the Fujiwara,
Taira clans. Though originally sent to provincial areas
for fixed four-year terms as magistrates, the toryo declined to return
to the capital when their terms ended, and their sons inherited their
positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions
Japan during the middle- and later-Heian period. Because of
their rising military and economic power, the warriors ultimately
became a new force in the politics of the Imperial court. Their
involvement in the
Hōgen Rebellion in the late Heian period
consolidated their power, which later pitted the rivalry of Minamoto
Taira clans against each other in the
Heiji Rebellion of 1160.
Taira no Kiyomori, became an imperial advisor and was the
first warrior to attain such a position. He eventually seized control
of the central government, establishing the first samurai-dominated
government and relegating the Emperor to figurehead status. However,
Taira clan was still very conservative when compared to its
eventual successor, the Minamoto, and instead of expanding or
strengthening its military might, the clan had its women marry
Emperors and exercise control through the Emperor.
Taira and the
Minamoto clashed again in 1180, beginning the Genpei
War, which ended in 1185.
Samurai fought at the naval battle of
Dan-no-ura, at the Shimonoseki Strait which separates Honshu and
Kyūshū in 1185. The victorious
Minamoto no Yoritomo established the
superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy. In 1190 he visited
Kyoto and in 1192 became Sei'i Taishōgun, establishing the Kamakura
shogunate, or Kamakura bakufu. Instead of ruling from Kyoto, he set up
the shogunate in Kamakura, near his base of power. "Bakufu" means
"tent government", taken from the encampments the soldiers would live
in, in accordance with the Bakufu's status as a military
After the Genpei war, Yoritomo obtained the right to appoint shugo and
jitō, and was allowed to organize soldiers and police, and to collect
a certain amount of tax. Initially, their responsibility was
restricted to arresting rebels and collecting needed army provisions
and they were forbidden from interfering with Kokushi officials, but
their responsibility gradually expanded. Thus, the samurai-class
appeared as the political ruling power in Japan.
Various samurai clans struggled for power during the Kamakura and
Zen Buddhism spread among the samurai in the 13th
century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly
overcoming the fear of death and killing, but among the general
Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism was favored.
In 1274, the Mongol-founded
Yuan dynasty in
China sent a force of some
40,000 men and 900 ships to invade
Japan in northern Kyūshū. Japan
mustered a mere 10,000 samurai to meet this threat. The invading army
was harassed by major thunderstorms throughout the invasion, which
aided the defenders by inflicting heavy casualties. The Yuan army was
eventually recalled and the invasion was called off. The Mongol
invaders used small bombs, which was likely the first appearance of
bombs and gunpowder in Japan.
Samurai and defensive wall at Hakata. Moko Shurai Ekotoba,
(蒙古襲来絵詞) c. 1293
The Japanese defenders recognized the possibility of a renewed
invasion and began construction of a great stone barrier around Hakata
Bay in 1276. Completed in 1277, this wall stretched for 20 kilometers
around the border of the bay. It would later serve as a strong
defensive point against the Mongols. The Mongols attempted to settle
matters in a diplomatic way from 1275 to 1279, but every envoy sent to
Japan was executed. This set the stage for one of the most famous
engagements in Japanese history.
In 1281, a Yuan army of 140,000 men with 5,000 ships was mustered for
another invasion of Japan. Northern Kyūshū was defended by a
Japanese army of 40,000 men. The Mongol army was still on its ships
preparing for the landing operation when a typhoon hit north Kyūshū
island. The casualties and damage inflicted by the typhoon, followed
by the Japanese defense of the
Hakata Bay barrier, resulted in the
Mongols again recalling their armies.
Himeji Castle, built in the 14th century
A rack of antique Japanese (samurai) matchlock rifles (tanegashima),
The thunderstorms of 1274 and the typhoon of 1281 helped the samurai
Japan repel the Mongol invaders despite being vastly
outnumbered. These winds became known as kami-no-Kaze, which literally
translates as "wind of the gods". This is often given a simplified
translation as "divine wind". The kami-no-Kaze lent credence to the
Japanese belief that their lands were indeed divine and under
During this period, the tradition of Japananese swordsmithing
developed using laminated or piled steel, a technique of dating back
over 2,000 years in the Mediterranean and Europe of combining layers
of soft and hard steel to produce a blade with a very hard (but
brittle) edge, capable of being highly sharpened, supported by a
softer, tougher, more flexible spine. The Japanese swordsmiths refined
this technique by using multiple layers of steel of varying
composition, together with differential heat treatment, or tempering,
of the finished blade, achieved by protecting part of it with a layer
of clay while quenching (as explained in the article on Japanese
swordsmithing). The craft was perfected in the 14th century by the
great swordsmith Masamune. The
Japanese sword (katana) became renowned
around the world for its sharpness and resistance to breaking. Many
swords made using these techniques were exported across the East China
Sea, a few making their way as far as India.
Issues of inheritance caused family strife as primogeniture became
common, in contrast to the division of succession designated by law
before the 14th century. Invasions of neighboring samurai territories
became common to avoid infighting, and bickering among samurai was a
constant problem for the Kamakura and Ashikaga shogunates.
The Sengoku jidai ("warring states period") was marked by the
loosening of samurai culture, with people born into other social
strata sometimes making a name for themselves as warriors and thus
becoming de facto samurai.
Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly in the 15th and
16th centuries. Use of large numbers of infantry called ashigaru
("light-foot", due to their light armor), formed of humble warriors or
ordinary people with naga yari (a long lance) or naginata, was
introduced and combined with cavalry in maneuvers. The number of
people mobilized in warfare ranged from thousands to hundreds of
A hatomune dou from 16th century, the historic armour was once used by
Kenshin Uesugi, one of the most powerful daimyōs of the Sengoku
The arquebus, a matchlock gun, was introduced by the Portuguese via a
Chinese pirate ship in 1543 and the Japanese succeeded in assimilating
it within a decade. Groups of mercenaries with mass-produced
arquebuses began playing a critical role. By the end of the Sengoku
period, several hundred thousand firearms existed in
Japan and massive
armies numbering over 100,000 clashed in battles.
Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa
Oda Nobunaga was the well-known lord of the
Nagoya area (once called
Owari Province) and an exceptional example of a samurai of the Sengoku
period. He came within a few years of, and laid down the path for
his successors to follow, the reunification of
Japan under a new
A portrait of Oda Nobunaga, by
Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò,
Oda Nobunaga made innovations in the fields of organization and war
tactics, made heavy use of arquebuses, developed commerce and
industry, and treasured innovation. Consecutive victories enabled him
to realize the termination of the Ashikaga
Bakufu and the disarmament
of the military powers of the Buddhist monks, which had inflamed
futile struggles among the populace for centuries. Attacking from the
"sanctuary" of Buddhist temples, they were constant headaches to any
warlord and even the Emperor who tried to control their actions. He
died in 1582 when one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, turned upon
him with his army.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (see below) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who
founded the Tokugawa shogunate, were loyal followers of Nobunaga.
Hideyoshi began as a peasant and became one of Nobunaga's top
generals, and Ieyasu had shared his childhood with Nobunaga. Hideyoshi
defeated Mitsuhide within a month, and was regarded as the rightful
successor of Nobunaga by avenging the treachery of Mitsuhide.
These two were able to use Nobunaga's previous achievements on which
build a unified
Japan and there was a saying: "The reunification is a
rice cake; Oda made it. Hashiba shaped it. In the end, only Ieyasu
tastes it." (Hashiba is the family name that Toyotomi
Hideyoshi used while he was a follower of Nobunaga.)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister in 1586, himself the
son of a poor peasant family, created a law that the samurai caste
became codified as permanent and hereditary, and that non-samurai were
forbidden to carry weapons, thereby ending the social mobility of
Japan up until that point, which lasted until the dissolution of the
Edo shogunate by the Meiji revolutionaries.
It is important to note that the distinction between samurai and
non-samurai was so obscure that during the 16th century, most male
adults in any social class (even small farmers) belonged to at least
one military organization of their own and served in wars before and
during Hideyoshi's rule. It can be said that an "all against all"
situation continued for a century.
The authorized samurai families after the 17th century were those that
chose to follow Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. Large battles occurred
during the change between regimes, and a number of defeated samurai
were destroyed, went rōnin or were absorbed into the general
Invasions of Korea
In 1592, and again in 1597, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, aiming to invade China
(唐入り) through Korea, mobilized an army of 160,000 peasants and
samurai and deployed them to Korea. (See Hideyoshi's invasions of
Korea, Chōsen-seibatsu (朝鮮征伐)). Taking advantage of arquebus
mastery and extensive wartime experience from the Sengoku period,
Japanese samurai armies made major gains in most of Korea. A few of
the more famous samurai generals of this war were Katō Kiyomasa,
Konishi Yukinaga, and Shimazu Yoshihiro.
Katō Kiyomasa advanced to
Orangkai territory (present-day Manchuria) bordering
Korea to the
northeast and crossed the border into Manchuria, but withdrew after
retaliatory attacks from the Jurchens there, as it was clear he had
outpaced the rest of the Japanese invasion force. Shimazu Yoshihiro
led some 7,000 samurai and, despite being heavily outnumbered,
defeated a host of allied Ming and Korean forces at the Battle of
Sacheon in 1598, near the conclusion of the campaigns. Yoshihiro was
feared as Oni-Shimazu ("Shimazu ogre") and his nickname spread across
Korea but to Ming Dynasty China.
Joint letter of Toyotomi's
Council of Five Elders
Council of Five Elders (go-tairō).
In spite of the superiority of Japanese land forces, ultimately the
two expeditions failed, though they did devastate the Korean
peninsula. The causes of the failure included Korean naval superiority
(which, led by Admiral Yi Sun-sin, harassed Japanese supply lines
continuously throughout the wars, resulting in supply shortages on
land), the commitment of sizeable Ming forces to Korea, Korean
guerrilla actions, wavering Japanese commitment to the campaigns as
the wars dragged on, and the underestimation of resistance by Japanese
commanders. In the first campaign of 1592, Korean defenses on land
were caught unprepared, under-trained, and under-armed; they were
rapidly overrun, with only a limited number of successfully resistant
engagements against the more experienced and battle-hardened Japanese
forces. During the second campaign, in 1597, however, Korean and Ming
forces proved far more resilient and, with the support of continued
Korean naval superiority, managed to limit Japanese gains to parts of
southeastern Korea. The final death blow to the Japanese campaigns in
Korea came with Hideyoshi's death in late 1598 and the recall of all
Japanese forces in
Korea by the
Council of Five Elders
Council of Five Elders (established by
Hideyoshi to oversee the transition from his regency to that of his
Many samurai forces that were active throughout this period were not
deployed to Korea; most importantly, the daimyōs Tokugawa Ieyasu
carefully kept forces under his command out of the Korean campaigns,
and other samurai commanders who were opposed to Hideyoshi's
Japan either mulled Hideyoshi's call to invade
contributed a small token force. Most commanders who opposed or
otherwise resisted or resented Hideyoshi ended up as part of the
so-called Eastern Army, while commanders loyal to Hideyoshi and his
son (a notable exception to this trend was Katō Kiyomasa, who
deployed with Tokugawa and the Eastern Army) were largely committed to
the Western Army; the two opposing sides (so named for the relative
geographical locations of their respective commanders' domains) would
later clash, most notably at the Battle of Sekigahara, which was won
Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Eastern Forces, paving the way for the
establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Hasekura Tsunenaga, a famous samurai who converted to
Madrid in 1615
Social mobility was high, as the ancient regime collapsed and emerging
samurai needed to maintain a large military and administrative
organizations in their areas of influence. Most of the samurai
families that survived to the 19th century originated in this era,
declaring themselves to be the blood of one of the four ancient noble
clans: Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara and Tachibana. In most cases,
however, it is hard to prove these claims.
Samurai were the ruling class during the Tokugawa shogunate.
During the Tokugawa shogunate, samurai increasingly became courtiers,
bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. With no warfare
since the early 17th century, samurai gradually lost their military
function during the Tokugawa era (also called the Edo period). By the
end of the Tokugawa era, samurai were aristocratic bureaucrats for the
daimyōs, with their daishō, the paired long and short swords of the
samurai (cf. katana and wakizashi) becoming more of a symbolic emblem
of power rather than a weapon used in daily life. They still had the
legal right to cut down any commoner who did not show proper respect
kiri-sute gomen (斬り捨て御免), but to what extent this right
was used is unknown. When the central government forced daimyōs to
cut the size of their armies, unemployed rōnin became a social
Theoretical obligations between a samurai and his lord (usually a
daimyō) increased from the Genpei era to the Edo era. They were
strongly emphasized by the teachings of
Confucius (551–479 BC) and
Mencius (372–289 BC), which were required reading for the educated
samurai class. The leading figures who introduced confucianism in
Japan in the early Tokugawa period were Fujiwara Seika (1561–1619),
Hayashi Razan (1583–1657) and Matsunaga Sekigo (1592–1657).
The conduct of samurai served as role model behavior for the other
social classes. With time on their hands, samurai spent more time in
pursuit of other interests such as becoming scholars.
Edo, 1865 or 1866.
Photochrom print. Five albumen prints joined to
form a panorama. Photographer: Felice Beato.
Main article: Late Tokugawa shogunate
Kamei Koremi, a samurai and daimyō in the bakumatsu period
The relative peace of the Tokugawa era was shattered with the arrival
of Commodore Matthew Perry's massive U.S. Navy steamships in 1853.
Perry used his superior firepower to force
Japan to open its borders
to trade. Prior to that only a few harbor towns, under strict control
from the shogunate, were allowed to participate in Western trade, and
even then, it was based largely on the idea of playing the Franciscans
and Dominicans off against one another (in exchange for the crucial
arquebus technology, which in turn was a major contributor to the
downfall of the classical samurai).
From 1854, the samurai army and the navy were modernized. A Naval
training school was established in Nagasaki in 1855. Naval students
were sent to study in Western naval schools for several years,
starting a tradition of foreign-educated future leaders, such as
Admiral Enomoto. French naval engineers were hired to build naval
arsenals, such as
Yokosuka and Nagasaki. By the end of the Tokugawa
shogunate in 1867, the Japanese navy of the shōgun already possessed
eight western-style steam warships around the flagship Kaiyō Maru,
which were used against pro-imperial forces during the Boshin War,
under the command of Admiral Enomoto. A French
Military Mission to
Japan (1867) was established to help modernize the armies of the
Photo of a samurai with katana, c. 1860
The last showing of the original samurai was in 1867 when samurai from
Chōshū and Satsuma provinces defeated the Shogunate forces in favor
of the rule of the Emperor in the
Boshin War (1868–1869). The two
provinces were the lands of the daimyōs that submitted to Ieyasu
Battle of Sekigahara
Battle of Sekigahara (1600).
Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai's right to be the only armed force
in favor of a more modern, western-style, conscripted army in 1873.
Shizoku (士族) who retained some of their salaries,
but the right to wear a katana in public was eventually abolished
along with the right to execute commoners who paid them disrespect.
The samurai finally came to an end after hundreds of years of
enjoyment of their status, their powers, and their ability to shape
the government of Japan. However, the rule of the state by the
military class was not yet over. In defining how a modern
be, members of the Meiji government decided to follow the footsteps of
United Kingdom and Germany, basing the country on the concept of
Samurai were not a political force under the new
order. With the Meiji reforms in the late 19th century, the samurai
class was abolished, and a western-style national army was
established. The Imperial Japanese Armies were conscripted, but many
samurai volunteered as soldiers, and many advanced to be trained as
officers. Much of the Imperial Army officer class was of samurai
origin, and were highly motivated, disciplined, and exceptionally
The last samurai conflict was arguably in 1877, during the Satsuma
Rebellion in the Battle of Shiroyama. This conflict had its genesis in
the previous uprising to defeat the Tokugawa shogunate, leading to the
Meiji Restoration. The newly formed government instituted radical
changes, aimed at reducing the power of the feudal domains, including
Satsuma, and the dissolution of samurai status. This led to the
ultimately premature uprising, led by Saigō Takamori.
Iinuma Sadakichi, a Japanese samurai of the
Aizu domain. He was the
sole survivor of the famous group of young
Byakkotai soldiers who
committed suicide on Iimori Hill during the Battle of Aizu.
Samurai were many of the early exchange students, not directly because
they were samurai, but because many samurai were literate and
well-educated scholars. Some of these exchange students started
private schools for higher educations, while many samurai took pens
instead of guns and became reporters and writers, setting up newspaper
companies, and others entered governmental service. Some samurai
became businessmen. For example, Iwasaki Yatarō, who was the
great-grandson of a samurai, established Mitsubishi.
Only the name
Shizoku existed after that. After
Japan lost World War
II, the name
Shizoku disappeared under the law on 1 January 1947.
The philosophies of
Buddhism and Zen, and to a lesser extent
Confucianism and Shinto, influenced the samurai culture. Zen
meditation became an important teaching, because it offered a process
to calm one's mind. The Buddhist concept of reincarnation and rebirth
led samurai to abandon torture and needless killing, while some
samurai even gave up violence altogether and became Buddhist monks
after coming to believe that their killings were fruitless. Some were
killed as they came to terms with these conclusions in the
battlefield. The most defining role that
Confucianism played in
samurai philosophy was to stress the importance of the lord-retainer
relationship—the loyalty that a samurai was required to show his
Literature on the subject of bushido such as
Hagakure ("Hidden in
Yamamoto Tsunetomo and Gorin no Sho ("Book of the Five
Rings") by Miyamoto Musashi, both written in the Edo period
(1603–1868), contributed to the development of bushidō and Zen
The philosophies of
Buddhism and Zen, and to a lesser extent
Confucianism and Shinto, are attributed to the development of the
samurai culture. According to Robert Sharf, "The notion that
somehow related to Japanese culture in general, and bushidō in
particular, is familiar to Western students of
Zen through the
writings of D. T. Suzuki, no doubt the single most important
figure in the spread of
Zen in the West."
In an account of
Japan sent to Father
Ignatius Loyola at Rome, drawn
from the statements of Anger (Han-Siro's western name), Xavier
describes the importance of honor to the Japanese (Letter preserved at
College of Coimbra):
In the first place, the nation with which we have had to do here
surpasses in goodness any of the nations lately discovered. I really
think that among barbarous nations there can be none that has more
natural goodness than the Japanese. They are of a kindly disposition,
not at all given to cheating, wonderfully desirous of honour and rank.
Honour with them is placed above everything else. There are a great
many poor among them, but poverty is not a disgrace to any one. There
is one thing among them of which I hardly know whether it is practised
anywhere among Christians. The nobles, however poor they may be,
receive the same honour from the rest as if they were rich.
In the 13th century, Hōjō Shigetoki (1198–1261 AD) wrote: "When
one is serving officially or in the master's court, he should not
think of a hundred or a thousand people, but should consider only the
importance of the master."
Carl Steenstrup noted that 13th and
14th century warrior writings (gunki) "portrayed the bushi in their
natural element, war, eulogizing such virtues as reckless bravery,
fierce family pride, and selfless, at times senseless devotion of
master and man".
Feudal lords such as Shiba Yoshimasa
(1350–1410) stated that a warrior looked forward to a glorious death
in the service of a military leader or the Emperor: "It is a matter of
regret to let the moment when one should die pass by ... First, a
man whose profession is the use of arms should think and then act upon
not only his own fame, but also that of his descendants. He should not
scandalize his name forever by holding his one and only life too
dear ... One's main purpose in throwing away his life is to do so
either for the sake of the Emperor or in some great undertaking of a
military general. It is that exactly that will be the great fame of
General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit
Seppuku after losing a
battle for his master in 1582. He had just written his death poem.
In 1412 AD,
Imagawa Sadayo wrote a letter of admonishment to his
brother stressing the importance of duty to one's master. Imagawa was
admired for his balance of military and administrative skills during
his lifetime, and his writings became widespread. The letters became
central to Tokugawa-era laws and became required study material for
traditional Japanese until World War II:
"First of all, a samurai who dislikes battle and has not put his heart
in the right place even though he has been born in the house of the
warrior, should not be reckoned among one's retainers ... It is
forbidden to forget the great debt of kindness one owes to his master
and ancestors and thereby make light of the virtues of loyalty and
filial piety ... It is forbidden that one should ... attach
little importance to his duties to his master ... There is a
primary need to distinguish loyalty from disloyalty and to establish
rewards and punishments."
Similarly, the feudal lord
Takeda Nobushige (1525–1561) stated: "In
matters both great and small, one should not turn his back on his
master's commands ... One should not ask for gifts or enfiefments
from the master ... No matter how unreasonably the master may
treat a man, he should not feel disgruntled ... An underling does
not pass judgments on a superior."
Takeda Shingen (1521–1573) also made similar
observations: "One who was born in the house of a warrior, regardless
of his rank or class, first acquaints himself with a man of military
feats and achievements in loyalty ... Everyone knows that if a
man doesn't hold filial piety toward his own parents he would also
neglect his duties toward his lord. Such a neglect means a disloyalty
toward humanity. Therefore such a man doesn't deserve to be called
The feudal lord
Asakura Yoshikage (1428–1481) wrote: "In the fief of
the Asakura, one should not determine hereditary chief retainers. A
man should be assigned according to his ability and loyalty." Asakura
also observed that the successes of his father were obtained by the
kind treatment of the warriors and common people living in domain. By
his civility, "all were willing to sacrifice their lives for him and
become his allies."
Katō Kiyomasa was one of the most powerful and well-known lords of
the Sengoku period. He commanded most of Japan's major clans during
the invasion of
Korea (1592–1598). In a handbook he addressed to
"all samurai, regardless of rank", he told his followers that a
warrior's only duty in life was to "grasp the long and the short
swords and to die". He also ordered his followers to put forth great
effort in studying the military classics, especially those related to
loyalty and filial piety. He is best known for his quote: "If a
man does not investigate into the matter of
Bushido daily, it will be
difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus it is essential
to engrave this business of the warrior into one's mind well."
Nabeshima Naoshige (1538–1618 AD) was another Sengoku daimyō who
fought alongside Kato Kiyomasa in Korea. He stated that it was
shameful for any man to have not risked his life at least once in the
line of duty, regardless of his rank. Nabeshima's sayings would be
passed down to his son and grandson and would become the basis for
Tsunetomo Yamamoto's Hagakure. He is best known for his saying "The
way of the
Samurai is in desperateness. Ten men or more cannot kill
such a man."
Torii Mototada (1539–1600) was a feudal lord in the service of
Tokugawa Ieyasu. On the eve of the battle of Sekigahara, he
volunteered to remain behind in the doomed
Fushimi Castle while his
lord advanced to the east. Torii and Tokugawa both agreed that the
castle was indefensible. In an act of loyalty to his lord, Torii chose
to remain behind, pledging that he and his men would fight to the
finish. As was custom, Torii vowed that he would not be taken alive.
In a dramatic last stand, the garrison of 2,000 men held out against
overwhelming odds for ten days against the massive army of Ishida
Mitsunari's 40,000 warriors. In a moving last statement to his son
Tadamasa, he wrote:
"It is not the Way of the Warrior [i.e., bushidō] to be shamed and
avoid death even under circumstances that are not particularly
important. It goes without saying that to sacrifice one's life for the
sake of his master is an unchanging principle. That I should be able
to go ahead of all the other warriors of this country and lay down my
life for the sake of my master's benevolence is an honor to my family
and has been my most fervent desire for many years."
It is said that both men cried when they parted ways, because they
knew they would never see each other again. Torii's father and
grandfather had served the Tokugawa before him and his own brother had
already been killed in battle. Torii's actions changed the course of
Japanese history. Ieyasu Tokugawa would successfully raise an army and
win at Sekigahara.
The translator of Hagakure,
William Scott Wilson observed examples of
warrior emphasis on death in clans other than Yamamoto's: "he (Takeda
Shingen) was a strict disciplinarian as a warrior, and there is an
exemplary story in the
Hagakure relating his execution of two
brawlers, not because they had fought, but because they had not fought
to the death".
The rival of
Takeda Shingen (1521–1573) was Uesugi Kenshin
(1530–1578), a legendary Sengoku warlord well-versed in the Chinese
military classics and who advocated the "way of the warrior as death".
Japanese historian Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki describes Uesugi's beliefs
as: "Those who are reluctant to give up their lives and embrace death
are not true warriors ... Go to the battlefield firmly confident
of victory, and you will come home with no wounds whatever. Engage in
combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive
in the battle and you will surely meet death. When you leave the house
determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you
have any thought of returning you will not return. You may not be in
the wrong to think that the world is always subject to change, but the
warrior must not entertain this way of thinking, for his fate is
Families such as the Imagawa were influential in the development of
warrior ethics and were widely quoted by other lords during their
lifetime. The writings of
Imagawa Sadayo were highly respected and
sought out by
Tokugawa Ieyasu as the source of Japanese
These writings were a required study among traditional Japanese until
World War II.
Edo-period screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara. It began on 21
October 1600 with a total of 160,000 men facing each other.
Historian H. Paul Varley notes the description of
Japan given by
St. Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier (1506–1552): "There is no nation in
the world which fears death less." Xavier further describes the honour
and manners of the people: "I fancy that there are no people in the
world more punctilious about their honour than the Japanese, for they
will not put up with a single insult or even a word spoken in anger."
Xavier spent the years 1549–1551 converting Japanese to
Christianity. He also observed: "The Japanese are much braver and more
warlike than the people of China, Korea,
Ternate and all of the other
nations around the Philippines."
In December 1547, Francis was in
Malacca (Malaysia) waiting to return
Goa (India) when he met a low-ranked samurai named Anjiro (possibly
spelled "Yajiro"). Anjiro was not an intellectual, but he impressed
Xavier because he took careful notes of everything he said in church.
Xavier made the decision to go to
Japan in part because this
low-ranking samurai convinced him in Portuguese that the Japanese
people were highly educated and eager to learn. They were hard workers
and respectful of authority. In their laws and customs they were led
by reason, and, should the Christian faith convince them of its truth,
they would accept it en masse.
By the 12th century, upper-class samurai were highly literate due to
the general introduction of
China during the 7th to
9th centuries and in response to their perceived need to deal with the
imperial court, who had a monopoly on culture and literacy for most of
the Heian period. As a result, they aspired to the more cultured
abilities of the nobility.
Examples such as
Taira Tadanori (a samurai who appears in the Heike
Monogatari) demonstrate that warriors idealized the arts and aspired
to become skilled in them.
Tadanori was famous for his skill with the pen and the sword or the
"bun and the bu", the harmony of fighting and learning.
expected to be cultured and literate, and admired the ancient saying
"bunbu-ryōdō" (文武両道, lit., literary arts, military arts,
both ways) or "The pen and the sword in accord". By the time of the
Japan had a higher literacy comparable to that in central
The number of men who actually achieved the ideal and lived their
lives by it was high. An early term for warrior, "uruwashii", was
written with a kanji that combined the characters for literary study
("bun" 文) and military arts ("bu" 武), and is mentioned in the
Heike Monogatari (late 12th century). The
Heike Monogatari makes
reference to the educated poet-swordsman ideal in its mention of Taira
no Tadanori's death:
Friends and foes alike wet their sleeves with tears and said,
What a pity! Tadanori was a great general,
pre-eminent in the arts of both sword and poetry.
In his book "Ideals of the Samurai" translator William Scott Wilson
states: "The warriors in the
Heike Monogatari served as models for the
educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by
them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were
vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and
recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. With the
Heike Monogatari, the image of the Japanese warrior in literature came
to its full maturity." Wilson then translates the writings of
several warriors who mention the
Heike Monogatari as an example for
their men to follow.
Plenty of warrior writings document this ideal from the 13th century
onward. Most warriors aspired to or followed this ideal otherwise
there would have been no cohesion in the samurai armies.
As aristocrats for centuries, samurai developed their own cultures
that influenced Japanese culture as a whole. The culture associated
with the samurai such as the tea ceremony, monochrome ink painting,
rock gardens and poetry was adopted by warrior patrons throughout the
centuries 1200–1600. These practices were adapted from the Chinese
Zen monks introduced them to
Japan and they were allowed to
flourish due to the interest of powerful warrior elites. Musō Soseki
(1275–1351) was a
Zen monk who was advisor to both Emperor Go-Daigo
and General Ashikaga Takauji (1304–58). Musō, as well as other
monks, served as a political and cultural diplomat between
China. Musō was particularly well known for his garden design.
Another Ashikaga patron of the arts was Yoshimasa. His cultural
Zen monk Zeami, introduced the tea ceremony to him.
Previously, tea had been used primarily for Buddhist monks to stay
awake during meditation.
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Kōan Ogata, a samurai, physician and rangaku scholar in late Edo
period Japan, noted for establishing an academy which later developed
into Osaka University.
In general, samurai, aristocrats, and priests had a very high literacy
rate in kanji. Recent studies have shown that literacy in kanji among
other groups in society was somewhat higher than previously
understood. For example, court documents, birth and death records and
marriage records from the Kamakura period, submitted by farmers, were
prepared in Kanji. Both the kanji literacy rate and skills in math
improved toward the end of Kamakura period.
Some samurai had buke bunko, or "warrior library", a personal library
that held texts on strategy, the science of warfare, and other
documents that would have proved useful during the warring era of
feudal Japan. One such library held 20,000 volumes. The upper class
Kuge bunko, or "family libraries", that held classics, Buddhist
sacred texts, and family histories, as well as genealogical
Literacy was generally high among the warriors and the common classes
as well. The feudal lord
Asakura Norikage (1474–1555 AD) noted the
great loyalty given to his father, due to his polite letters, not just
to fellow samurai, but also to the farmers and townspeople:
There were to Lord Eirin's character many high points difficult to
measure, but according to the elders the foremost of these was the way
he governed the province by his civility. It goes without saying that
he acted this way toward those in the samurai class, but he was also
polite in writing letters to the farmers and townspeople, and even in
addressing these letters he was gracious beyond normal practice. In
this way, all were willing to sacrifice their lives for him and become
In a letter dated 29 January 1552,
St Francis Xavier
St Francis Xavier observed the ease
of which the Japanese understood prayers due to the high level of
Japan at that time:
There are two kinds of writing in Japan, one used by men and the other
by women; and for the most part both men and women, especially of the
nobility and the commercial class, have a literary education. The
bonzes, or bonzesses, in their monasteries teach letters to the girls
and boys, though rich and noble persons entrust the education of their
children to private tutors.
Most of them can read, and this is a great help to them for the easy
understanding of our usual prayers and the chief points of our holy
In a letter to Father
Ignatius Loyola at Rome, Xavier further noted
the education of the upper classes:
The Nobles send their sons to monasteries to be educated as soon as
they are 8 years old, and they remain there until they are 19 or 20,
learning reading, writing and religion; as soon as they come out, they
marry and apply themselves to politics. They are discreet, magnanimous
and lovers of virtue and letters, honouring learned men very much.
In a letter dated 11 November 1549, Xavier described a multi-tiered
educational system in
Japan consisting of "universities", "colleges",
"academies" and hundreds of monasteries that served as a principal
center for learning by the populace:
But now we must give you an account of our stay at Cagoxima. We put
into that port because the wind was adverse to our sailing to Meaco,
which is the largest city in Japan, and most famous as the residence
of the King and the Princes. It is said that after four months are
passed the favourable season for a voyage to Meaco will return, and
then with the good help of God we shall sail thither. The distance
from Cagoxima is three hundred leagues. We hear wonderful stories
about the size of Meaco: they say that it consists of more than ninety
thousand dwellings. There is a very famous University there, as well
as five chief colleges of students, and more than two hundred
monasteries of bonzes, and of others who are like coenobites, called
Legioxi, as well as of women of the same kind, who are called
Hamacutis. Besides this of Meaco, there are in
Japan five other
principal academies, at Coya, at Negu, at Fisso, and at Homia. These
are situated round Meaco, with short distances between them, and each
is frequented by about three thousand five hundred scholars. Besides
these there is the Academy at Bandou, much the largest and most famous
in all Japan, and at a great distance from Meaco. Bandou is a large
territory, ruled by six minor princes, one of whom is more powerful
than the others and is obeyed by them, being himself subject to the
King of Japan, who is called the Great King of Meaco. The things that
are given out as to the greatness and celebrity of these universities
and cities are so wonderful as to make us think of seeing them first
with our own eyes and ascertaining the truth, and then when we have
discovered and know how things really are, of writing an account of
them to you. They say that there are several lesser academies besides
those which we have mentioned.
A samurai was usually named by combining one kanji from his father or
grandfather and one new kanji.
Samurai normally used only a small part
of their total name.
For example, the full name of
Oda Nobunaga would be "Oda Kazusanosuke
Saburo Nobunaga" (織田上総介三郎信長), in which "Oda" is a
clan or family name, "Kazusanosuke" is a title of vice-governor of
Kazusa province, "Saburo" is a formal nickname (yobina), and
"Nobunaga" is an adult name (nanori) given at genpuku, the coming of
age ceremony. A man was addressed by his family name and his title, or
by his yobina if he did not have a title. However, the nanori was a
private name that could be used by only a very few, including the
Samurai could choose their own nanori, and frequently changed their
names to reflect their allegiances.
Samurai had arranged marriages, which were arranged by a go-between of
the same or higher rank. While for those samurai in the upper ranks
this was a necessity (as most had few opportunities to meet women),
this was a formality for lower-ranked samurai. Most samurai married
women from a samurai family, but for lower-ranked samurai, marriages
with commoners were permitted. In these marriages a dowry was brought
by the woman and was used to set up the couple's new household.
A samurai could take concubines but their backgrounds were checked by
higher-ranked samurai. In many cases, taking a concubine was akin to a
marriage. Kidnapping a concubine, although common in fiction, would
have been shameful, if not criminal. If the concubine was a commoner,
a messenger was sent with betrothal money or a note for exemption of
tax to ask for her parents' acceptance. Even though the woman would
not be a legal wife, a situation normally considered a demotion, many
wealthy merchants believed that being the concubine of a samurai was
superior to being the legal wife of a commoner. When a merchant's
daughter married a samurai, her family's money erased the samurai's
debts, and the samurai's social status improved the standing of the
merchant family. If a samurai's commoner concubine gave birth to a
son, the son could inherit his father's social status.
A samurai could divorce his wife for a variety of reasons with
approval from a superior, but divorce was, while not entirely
nonexistent, a rare event. A wife's failure to produce a son was cause
for divorce, but adoption of a male heir was considered an acceptable
alternative to divorce. A samurai could divorce for personal reasons,
even if he simply did not like his wife, but this was generally
avoided as it would embarrass the person who had arranged the
marriage. A woman could also arrange a divorce, although it would
generally take the form of the samurai divorcing her. After a divorce
samurai had to return the betrothal money, which often prevented
Main article: Onna-bugeisha
Maintaining the household was the main duty of women of the samurai
class. This was especially crucial during early feudal Japan, when
warrior husbands were often traveling abroad or engaged in clan
battles. The wife, or okugatasama (meaning: one who remains in the
home), was left to manage all household affairs, care for the
children, and perhaps even defend the home forcibly. For this reason,
many women of the samurai class were trained in wielding a polearm
called a naginata or a special knife called the kaiken in an art
called tantojutsu (lit. the skill of the knife), which they could use
to protect their household, family, and honor if the need arose.
Traits valued in women of the samurai class were humility, obedience,
self-control, strength, and loyalty. Ideally, a samurai wife would be
skilled at managing property, keeping records, dealing with financial
matters, educating the children (and perhaps servants, too), and
caring for elderly parents or in-laws that may be living under her
roof. Confucian law, which helped define personal relationships and
the code of ethics of the warrior class required that a woman show
subservience to her husband, filial piety to her parents, and care to
the children. Too much love and affection was also said to indulge and
spoil the youngsters. Thus, a woman was also to exercise discipline.
Though women of wealthier samurai families enjoyed perks of their
elevated position in society, such as avoiding the physical labor that
those of lower classes often engaged in, they were still viewed as far
beneath men. Women were prohibited from engaging in any political
affairs and were usually not the heads of their household.
Hangaku Gozen by Yoshitoshi, ca. 1885
This does not mean that women in the samurai class were always
powerless. Powerful women both wisely and unwisely wielded power at
various occasions. After Ashikaga Yoshimasa, 8th shōgun of the
Muromachi shogunate, lost interest in politics, his wife Hino Tomiko
largely ruled in his place. Nene, wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was
known to overrule her husband's decisions at times and Yodo-dono, his
concubine, became the de facto master of Osaka castle and the Toyotomi
clan after Hideyoshi's death.
Tachibana Ginchiyo was chosen to lead
the Tachibana clan after her father's death. Chiyo, wife of Yamauchi
Kazutoyo, has long been considered the ideal samurai wife. According
to legend, she made her kimono out of a quilted patchwork of bits of
old cloth and saved pennies to buy her husband a magnificent horse, on
which he rode to many victories. The fact that Chiyo (though she is
better known as "Wife of Yamauchi Kazutoyo") is held in such high
esteem for her economic sense is illuminating in the light of the fact
that she never produced an heir and the Yamauchi clan was succeeded by
Kazutoyo's younger brother. The source of power for women may have
been that samurai left their finances to their wives.
Though many women engaged in battle commonly alongside samurai men in
japan, most of female warriors (Onna-bugeisha) were not formal
samurai. They usually were not allowed to wear two swords and did not
form master-servant relationships with lords, nevertheless there are
As the Tokugawa period progressed more value became placed on
education, and the education of females beginning at a young age
became important to families and society as a whole. Marriage criteria
began to weigh intelligence and education as desirable attributes in a
wife, right along with physical attractiveness. Though many of the
texts written for women during the Tokugawa period only pertained to
how a woman could become a successful wife and household manager,
there were those that undertook the challenge of learning to read, and
also tackled philosophical and literary classics. Nearly all women of
the samurai class were literate by the end of the Tokugawa period.
Main article: List of foreign-born samurai in Japan
Japanese garden made by a Korean samurai Wakita Naokata
and his descendants.
Several people born in foreign countries were granted the title of
Yasuke was a retainer of black African origin who served under the
Japanese hegemon and warlord
Oda Nobunaga in 1581 and 1582. He arrived
Japan in 1579 in the service of the Italian
Valignano. Fascinated by his strength and intelligence, Nobunaga made
Yasuke a close retainer and gave him a katana, his own residence, and
a salary. He fought alongside Nobunaga and his son Nobutada in the
Honnō-ji incident. He was one of the first foreign samurai and the
only African samurai recorded in contemporary accounts.
After Bunroku and Keichō no eki, many people born in the Joseon
dynasty were brought to
Japan as prisoners or cooperators. Some of
them served daimyōs as retainers. One of the most prominent figures
among them was Kim Yeocheol, who was granted the Japanese name Wakita
Naokata and promoted to Commissioner of
The English sailor and adventurer William Adams (1564–1620) was,
along with Joosten, among the first Westerners to receive the dignity
of samurai. The shōgun
Tokugawa Ieyasu presented him with two swords
representing the authority of a samurai, and decreed that William
Adams the sailor was dead and that Anjin Miura (三浦按針), a
samurai, was born. Adams also received the title of hatamoto
(bannerman), a high-prestige position as a direct retainer in the
shōgun's court. He was provided with generous revenues: "For the
services that I have done and do daily, being employed in the
Emperor's service, the Emperor has given me a living". (Letters)[who?]
He was granted a fief in Hemi (逸見) within the boundaries of
Yokosuka City, "with eighty or ninety husbandmen, that be
my slaves or servants". (Letters)[who?] His estate was valued at 250
koku. He finally wrote "God hath provided for me after my great
misery", (Letters)[who?] by which he meant the disaster-ridden voyage
that initially brought him to Japan.
Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn
Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn (c. 1556 – c. 1623), a Dutch
colleague of Adams' on their ill-fated voyage to
Japan in the ship De
Liefde, was also given similar privileges by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Joosten
likewise became a hatamoto samurai and was given a residence
within Ieyasu's castle at Edo. Today, this area at the east exit of
Tokyo Station is known as
Yaesu is a corruption of
the Dutchman's Japanese name, Yayousu (耶楊子). Also in common with
Adams, Joostens was given a
Red Seal Ship
Red Seal Ship (朱印船) allowing him to
Japan and Indo-China. On a return journey from Batavia
Joosten drowned after his ship ran aground.
Boshin War (1868–1869), French soldiers joined the forces
of the shōgun against the southern daimyōs favorable to the
restoration of the Meiji Emperor. It is recorded that the French Navy
Eugène Collache fought in samurai attire with his Japanese
In the same war, the Prussian
Edward Schnell served the
Aizu domain as
a military instructor and procurer of weapons. He was granted the
Japanese name Hiramatsu Buhei (平松武兵衛), which inverted the
characters of the daimyō's name Matsudaira. Hiramatsu (Schnell) was
given the right to wear swords, as well as a residence in the castle
town of Wakamatsu, a Japanese wife, and retainers. In many
contemporary references, he is portrayed wearing a Japanese kimono,
overcoat, and swords, with Western riding trousers and boots.
Samurai warriors with various types of armor and weapons, 1880s
1890s photo showing a variety of armor and weapons typically used by
Japanese swords (samurai sword) are the weapons that have come to be
synonymous with the samurai. Ancient Japanese swords from the Nara
period (Chokutō) featured a straight blade, by the late 900s curved
tachi appeared, followed by the uchigatana and ultimately the katana.
Smaller commonly known companion swords are the wakizashi and the
tantō. Wearing a long sword (katana) or (tachi) together with a
smaller sword such as a wakizashi or tantō became the symbol of the
samurai, this combination of swords is referred to as a daishō
(literally "big and small"). During the
Edo period only samurai were
allowed to wear a daisho. A longer blade known as the nodachi was also
used in the fourteenth century, though primarily used by samurai on
The yumi (longbow), reflected in the art of kyūjutsu (lit. the skill
of the bow) was a major weapon of the Japanese military. Its usage
declined with the introduction of the tanegashima (Japanese matchlock)
during the Sengoku period, but the skill was still practiced at least
for sport. The yumi, an asymmetric composite bow made from bamboo,
wood, rattan and leather, had an effective range of 50 or 100 meters
(160 or 330 feet) if accuracy was not an issue. On foot, it was
usually used behind a tate (手盾), a large, mobile wooden shield,
but the yumi could also be used from horseback because of its
asymmetric shape. The practice of shooting from horseback became a
Shinto ceremony known as yabusame (流鏑馬).
Pole weapons including the yari and naginata were commonly used by the
samurai. The yari (Japanese spear) displaced the naginata from the
battlefield as personal bravery became less of a factor and battles
became more organized around massed, inexpensive foot troops
(ashigaru). A charge, mounted or dismounted, was also more
effective when using a spear rather than a sword, as it offered better
than even odds against a samurai using a sword. In the Battle of
Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi,
then known as Hashiba Hideyoshi, seven samurai who came to be known as
the "Seven Spears of Shizugatake" (賤ヶ岳七本槍) played a
crucial role in the victory.
Tanegashima (Japanese matchlock)
Tanegashima (Japanese matchlock) were introduced to
Japan in the 1543
through Portuguese trade. Tanegashima were produced on a large scale
by Japanese gunsmiths, enabling warlords to raise and train armies
from masses of peasants. The new weapons were highly effective, their
ease of use and deadly effectiveness led to the tanegashima becoming
the weapon of choice over the yumi (bow). By the end of the 16th
century, there were more firearms in
Japan than in many European
nations. Tanegashima—employed en masse, largely by ashigaru peasant
foot troops—were responsible for a change in military tactics that
eventually led to establishment of the
Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period)
and an end to civil war. Production of tanegashima declined sharply as
there was no need for massive amounts of firearms. During the Edo
period, tanegashima were stored away, and used mainly for hunting and
target practice. Foreign intervention in the 1800s renewed interest in
firearms—but the tanegashima was outdated by then, and various
samurai factions purchased more modern firearms from European sources.
Cannons became a common part of the samurai's armory in the 1570s.
They often were mounted in castles or on ships, being used more as
anti-personnel weapons than against castle walls or the like, though
in the siege of Nagashino castle (1575) a cannon was used to good
effect against an enemy siegetower. The first popular cannon in Japan
were swivel-breech loaders nicknamed kunikuzushi or "province
destroyers". Kunikuzushi weighed 264 lb (120 kg). and used
40 lb (18 kg). chambers, firing a small shot of 10 oz
(280 g). The
Arima clan of
Kyushu used guns like this at the
Battle of Okinawate against the Ryūzōji clan. By the time of the
Osaka campaign (1614–1615), cannon technology had improved in Japan
to the point where at Osaka,
Ii Naotaka managed to fire an 18 lb
(8.2 kg). shot into the castle's keep.
Staff weapons of many shapes and sizes made from oak and other hard
woods were also used by the samurai, commonly known ones include the
bō, the jō, the hanbō, and the tanbō.
Clubs and truncheons made of iron or wood, of all shapes and sizes
were used by the samurai. Some like the jutte were one-handed weapons
and others like the kanabō were large two-handed weapons.
Chain weapons, various weapons using chains kusari were used during
the samurai era, the kusarigama and
Kusari-fundo are examples.
Main article: Japanese armour
Samurai helmet and half-face mask (menpo) in Sengoku period.
As far back as the seventh century Japanese warriors wore a form of
lamellar armor, this armor eventually evolved into the armor worn by
the samurai. The first types of Japanese armors identified as
samurai armor were known as yoroi. These early samurai armors were
made from small individual scales known as kozane. The kozane were
made from either iron or leather and were bound together into small
strips, the strips were coated with lacquer to protect the kozane from
water. A series of strips of kozane were then laced together with silk
or leather lace and formed into a complete chest armor (dou or
dō). A complete set of the yoroi weighed 66 lbs.
Detail of the chain mail of an armour, beginning of the Edo period,
17th century, Japan.
In the 1500s a new type of armor started to become popular due to the
advent of firearms, new fighting tactics and the need for additional
protection. The kozane dou made from individual scales was replaced by
plate armor. This new armor, which used iron plated dou (dō), was
referred to as Tosei-gusoku, or modern armor. The newer armor
added features and pieces of armor for the face, thigh, and back. The
back piece had multiple uses, such as for a flag bearing. Various
other components of armor protected the samurai's body. The helmet
kabuto was an important part of the samurai's armor. It was paired
with a shikoro and fukigaeshi for protection of the head and neck.
The garment worn under all of the armor and clothing was called the
Fundoshi, also known as a loincloth.
Samurai armor changed and
developed as the methods of samurai warfare changed over the
centuries. The known last use of samurai armor occurring in 1877
during the Satsuma Rebellion. As the last samurai rebellion was
Japan modernized its defenses and turned to a national
conscription army that used uniforms.
Myth and reality
Most samurai were bound by a code of honor and were expected to set an
example for those below them. A notable part of their code is seppuku
(切腹, seppuku) or hara kiri, which allowed a disgraced samurai to
regain his honor by passing into death, where samurai were still
beholden to social rules. Whilst there are many romanticized
characterizations of samurai behavior such as the writing of Bushido
(武士道, Bushidō) in 1905, studies of Kobudo and traditional Budō
indicate that the samurai were as practical on the battlefield as were
any other warriors.
Despite the rampant romanticism of the 20th century, samurai could be
disloyal and treacherous (e.g., Akechi Mitsuhide), cowardly, brave, or
overly loyal (e.g., Kusunoki Masashige).
Samurai were usually loyal to
their immediate superiors, who in turn allied themselves with higher
lords. These loyalties to the higher lords often shifted; for example,
the high lords allied under
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) were
served by loyal samurai, but the feudal lords under them could shift
their support to Tokugawa, taking their samurai with them. There were,
however, also notable instances where samurai would be disloyal to
their lord (daimyō), when loyalty to the Emperor was seen to have
In popular culture
A poster for Yojimbo. The work has been remade into A Fistful of
Jidaigeki (literally historical drama) has always been a staple
program on Japanese movies and television. The programs typically
feature a samurai.
Samurai films and westerns share a number of
similarities and the two have influenced each other over the years.
One of Japan's most renowned directors, Akira Kurosawa, greatly
influenced western film-making. George Lucas's Star
Wars series incorporated many stylistic traits pioneered by Kurosawa
and Star Wars: A New Hope takes the core story of a rescued princess
being transported to a secret base from Kurosawa's The Hidden
Fortress. Kurosawa was inspired by the works of director
John Ford and
in turn Kurosawa's works have been remade into westerns such as Seven
The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo into A Fistful of
Dollars. There is also a 26 episode anime adaptation (
Samurai 7) of
Seven Samurai. Along with film, literature containing samurai
influences are seen as well.
As well as influence from American Westerns Kurosawa's also adapted
two of Shakespeare's plays as sources for samurai movies; Throne of
Blood was based on
Macbeth and Ran was based on King Lear.
Most common are historical works where the protagonist is either a
samurai or former samurai (or another rank or position) who possesses
considerable martial skill.
Eiji Yoshikawa is one of the most famous
Japanese historical novelists. His retellings of popular works,
including Taiko, Musashi and The Tale of the Heike, are popular among
readers for their epic narratives and rich realism in depicting
samurai and warrior culture. The samurai have also
appeared frequently in Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime).
Samurai Champloo, Shigurui, Requiem from the Darkness,
Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Afro Samurai. Samurai-like characters
are not just restricted to historical settings and a number of works
set in the modern age, and even the future, include characters who
live, train and fight like samurai. Some of these works have made
their way to the west, where it has been increasing in popularity with
Just in the last two decades,[when?] samurai have become more popular
in America. "Hyperbolizing the samurai in such a way that they appear
as a whole to be a loyal body of master warriors provides
international interest in certain characters due to admirable traits."
(Moscardi, N. D.)[who?] Through various media, producers and writers
have been capitalizing on the notion that Americans admire the samurai
lifestyle. The animated series, Afro Samurai, became well-liked in
American popular culture due to its blend of hack-and-slash animation
and gritty urban music.
Created by Takashi Okazaki,
Afro Samurai was initially a dōjinshi, or
manga series, which was then made into an animated series by Studio
Gonzo. In 2007 the animated series debuted on American cable
television on the
Spike TV channel. (Denison, 2010)[who?] The series
was produced for American viewers which “embodies the trend...
comparing hip-hop artists to samurai warriors, an image some rappers
claim for themselves". (Solomon, 2009)[who?] The storyline keeps in
tone with the perception of a samurais finding vengeance against
someone who has wronged him. Starring the voice of well known American
actor Samuel L. Jackson, "Afro is the second-strongest fighter in a
futuristic, yet, still feudal
Japan and seeks revenge upon the gunman
who killed his father." (King 2008)[who?] Due to its popularity, Afro
Samurai was adopted into a full feature animated film and also became
titles on gaming consoles such as the
PlayStation 3 and Xbox. Not only
has the samurai culture been adopted into animation and video games,
it can also be seen in comic books.
American comic books have adopted the character type for stories of
their own like the mutant-villain
Silver Samurai of Marvel Comics. The
design of this character preserves the samurai appearance; the villain
is "Clad in traditional gleaming samurai armor and wielding an energy
charged katana". (Buxton, 2013)[who?] Not only does the Silver Samurai
make over 350 comic book appearances, the character is playable in
several video games, such as
Marvel vs. Capcom
Marvel vs. Capcom 1 and 2. In 2013, the
samurai villain was depicted in James Mangold's film The Wolverine.
Ten years before the Wolverine debuted, another film helped pave the
way to ensure the samurai were made known to American cinema: A film
released in 2003 titled The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, is
inspired by the samurai way of life. In the film, Cruise's character
finds himself deeply immersed in samurai culture. The character in the
film, "Nathan Algren, is a fictional contrivance to make
nineteenth-century Japanese history less foreign to American viewers".
(Ravina, 2010)[who?] After being captured by a group of samurai
rebels, he becomes empathetic towards the cause they fight for. Taking
place during the Meiji Period,
Tom Cruise plays the role of US Army
Captain Nathan Algren, who travels to
Japan to train a rookie army in
fighting off samurai rebel groups. Becoming a product of his
environment, Algren joins the samurai clan in an attempt to rescue a
captured samurai leader. "By the end of the film, he has clearly taken
on many of the samurai traits, such as zen-like mastery of the sword,
and a budding understanding of spirituality". (Manion, 2006)[who?]
The television series
Power Rangers Samurai
Power Rangers Samurai (adapted from Samurai
Sentai Shinkenger) is also inspired by the way of the
See also: List of samurai
Kusunoki Masashige outside Tokyo's Imperial Palace
Minamoto no Yoshitsune
Minamoto no Yoshiie
Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi
List of Japanese battles
List of samurai
Lone Wolf and Cub
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Look up 侍 in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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National Research Institute for Cultural Properties
"Samurai". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
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