10 Facts About the Samurai

Léonie Chao-Fong

Early Modern
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The Samurai were the warriors of premodern Japan, who later evolved to become the ruling military class of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Their origins can be traced back to the campaigns of the early Heian period of the late 8th and early 9th century to subdue the native Emishi people in the Tohoku Region.

Emperor Kanmu (r. 781-806) introduced the title of shogun, and began to rely on the warriors of powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi.

Eventually these powerful clans would surpass the traditional aristocracy, and the samurai would go on to rise under Shogun rule and become symbols of the ideal warrior and citizen, ruling over Japan for the next 700 years.

Samurai
Photograph of a Japanese samurai in armour, 1860s (Credit: Felix Beato).

It was not until the relative peace of the Edo period did the importance of martial skills decline, and many samurai would turn to careers as teachers, artists or bureacrats.

Japan’s feudal era finally came to an end in 1868, and the samurai class was abolished a few years later.

Here are 10 facts about the legendary Japanese samurai.

1. They are known as bushi in Japanese

The samurai were known as bushi in Japan, or buke. The term samurai only began to appear in the first part of the 10th century, originally used to denote the aristocratic warriors.

By the end of the 12th century, samurai became almost entirely synonymous with bushi. Bushi is used to denote a “warrior”, who may or may not be samurai.

Samurai at Hakata defending against the Second Mongolian Invasion, c. 1293 (Credit: Moko Shurai Ekotoba).

The word samurai was closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class, who trained as officers in military tactics and grand strategy.

The term would be used to apply to all members of the warrior class that rose to power in the 12th century and dominated the Japanese government until the Meji Restoration.

2. They followed a code called bushidō

A samurai holding a severed head to present to the daimyo, c. 19th century (Credit: Utagawa Kuniyoshi).

Bushidō means “the way of the warrior”. The samurai followed an unwritten code of conduct, later formalised as bushidō – loosely comparable to the European code of chivalry.

Developed from the 16th century, bushidō required that a samurai practice obedience, skill, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, bravery and honour.

The ideal samurai would be a stoic warrior who followed this code, which held bravery, honour and personal loyalty above life itself.

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3. They were an entire social class

Originally samurai was defined as “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility”. In time, it evolved and became associated with the bushi class, particularly middle- and upper-tier soldiers.

In the early part of the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), the samurai became a closed caste as part of a larger effort to freeze and stabilise the social order.

Although they were still allowed to wear the two swords that were emblematic of their social position, most samurai were forced to become civil servants or take up a certain trade.

At their peak, up to 10 percent of Japan’s population were samurai. Today, every Japanese person is said to have at least some samurai blood in them.

4. They were synonymous with their swords

Samurai forging katana
The 10th century blacksmith Munechika, aided by a kitsune (fox spirit), forges the katana Ko-Gitsune Maru, 1887 (Credit: Ogata Gekkō / Gallery Dutta).

The samurai used a range of weapons, however their main original weapon was the sword, known as chokuto. It was a slimmer, smaller version of the straight swords later used by medieval knights.

As sword-making techniques progressed, the samurai would switch to curved swords, which eventually evolved into the katana.

The most iconic of samurai weapons, the katana was usually carried with a smaller blade in a pair called daisho. The daisho was a symbol used exclusively by the samurai class.

The samurai would name their swords. Bushidō dictated that a samurai’s soul was in his katana.

5. They fought with a variety of other weapons

Samurai in Armour
Samurai in armour, holding from left to right: a yumi, a katana and a yari, 1880s (Credit: Kusakabe Kimbei /J. Paul Getty Museum).

Besides their swords, the samurai would often use the yumi, a longbow they religiously practised with. They would also use the yari, a Japanese spear.

When gunpowder was introduced in the 16th century, the samurai abandoned their bows in favour of firearms and cannons.

The tanegashima, a long-distance flintlock rifle, became the weapon of choice among Edo-era samurai and their footmen.

6. Their armour was highly functional

Photo of a samurai with his katana, c. 1860 (Credit: Felice Beato).

Unlike the clunky armour worn by European knights, the samurai armour was designed for mobility. A samurai armour had to be sturdy, yet flexible enough to allow free movement in the battlefield.

Made of lacquered plates of either metal or leather, the armour would be carefully bound together by laces of leather or silk.

The arms would be protected by large, rectangular shoulder shields and light, armoured sleeves. The right hand would sometimes be left without a sleeve, to allow for maximum movement.

The samurai helmet, called a kabuto, was made of riveted metal plates, while the face and brow were protected by a piece of armour that tied around behind the head and under the helmet.

The kabuko often featured ornaments and attachable pieces, such as demonic masks that protected the face and would be used to intimidate the enemy.

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7. They were highly-literate and cultured

The samurai were far more than just warriors. As the essential nobility of their era, the majority of samurai were extremely well-educated.

Bushidō dictated that a samurai strive to better himself in a multitude of ways, including outside combat. Samurai were generally highly-literate and skilled in mathematics.

The samurai culture produced a great number of uniquely Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony, rock gardens and flower arranging. They studied calligraphy and literature, wrote poetry and produced ink paintings.

8. There were female samurai warriors

Although samurai was strictly a masculine term, the Japanese bushi class did include women who received the same training in martial arts and strategy as samurai.

Samurai women were referred to as Onna-Bugeisha, and fought in combat alongside male samurai.

Onna bugeisha
Ishi-jo wielding a naginata, 1848 (Credit: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, CeCILL).

The weapon of choice of the onna-bugeisha was the naginata, a spear with a curved, sword-like blade that was versatile and relatively light.

Recent archaeological evidence indicates that Japanese women participated frequently in battles. DNA tests conducted at the site of the 1580 Battle of Senbon Matsubaru showed that 35 out of 105 bodies were female.

9. Foreigners could become samurai

Under special circumstances, an individual from outside Japan could fight alongside the samurai. In some rare cases, they could even become one.

This special honour could only be bestowed by powerful leaders, such as the shogun or daimyos (a territorial lord).

There are 4 European men who were recorded as having gained samurai status: the English sailor William Adams, his Dutch colleague Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, the French Navy officer Eugene Collache, and arms dealer Edward Schnell.

10. Seppuku was an elaborate process

Seppuku was the act of ritual suicide by disembowelment, seen as the respected and honourable alternative to dishonour and defeat.

Seppuku could either be a punishment or a voluntary act, performed by a samurai if he failed to follow bushidō or faced capture by the enemy.

There were two forms of seppuku – the ‘battlefield’ version and the formal version.

Seppuku Samurai
General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582 (Credit: Yoshitoshi / Tokyo Metro Library).

The first saw the piercing of the stomach with a short blade, moved left to right, until the samurai had sliced himself open and disembowelled himself. An attendant – usually a friend – would then decapitate him.

The formal, full-length seppuku began with a ceremonial bathing, after which the samurai – dressed in white robes – would be given his favourite meal. A blade would then be placed on his empty plate.

After his meal, the samurai would write a death poem, a traditional tanka text expressing his final words. He would wrap a cloth around the blade and slice his stomach open.

His attendant would then decapitate him, leaving a small strip of flesh in the front so that the head would fall forward and remain in the samurai’s embrace.

Léonie Chao-Fong