Japanese Samurai



Japanese Samurai in the news

Japanese embrace 'Letters' 

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune - Jan 11 12:10 PM
Hollywood's recent attempts to tell stories set in Japan have produced some odd Asian-fusion fare. "The Last Samurai" from 2003 gave us Tom Cruise as an American Civil War veteran who mastered traditional warrior skills in a matter of months and delivered an inspiring lecture to Emperor Meiji on being Japanese. More recently, "Memoirs of a Geisha" cast three of China's top actresses in lead ...
GE Spins Samurai Fable with Three Legged Legs 
adrants - Jan 09 3:01 PM
For client General Electric, BBDO New York creates Samurai, fable about a Japanese fluff-ball on whose shoulders is set an Algieresque task to save the world from an evil emperor. With animation by Three Legged Legs, Samurai is part...

Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal 
Anime News Network - 37 minutes ago
The amazing prequel series to Rurouni Kenshin is collected into a feature-length motion picture enhanced with new animated sequences. Desiring to bring peace to the land, Kenshin disobeys the will of his master and joins the Chosu clan in the fight against the Shogunate.

Fast-Paised review: 'Letters from Iwo Jima' 
Metromix.com - Jan 11 12:38 PM
With "Flags of Our Fathers," director Clint Eastwood approached WWII's Battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective. He chronicles the same time from the Japanese perspective in "Letters from Iwo Jima," featuring Ken Watanabe ("Memoirs of a Geisha," "The Last Samurai").

- Japanes Samurai

Here is an article on Japanese Samurai.

Japanese samurai Japanesse Samurai in armour, 1860s. Photograph by Felice Beato

Samurai (? or, Japanees Samurai more rarely, 士) was a term for the military nobility in pre-industrial Japan. The word Japnese Samurai 'samurai' is derived from the archaic Japanese verb Jappanese Samurai 'samorau', changed to 'saburau' , meaning 'to serve'; a samurai is the servant of a lord.


  • 1 History
    • 1.1 Kamakura Japanse Samurai Japannese Samurai Bakufu and the rise of samurai
    • 1.2 Ashikaga Japanee Samurai Shogunate and the Feudal Period
    • 1.3 Oda, Apanese Samurai Toyotomi and Tokugawa
    • 1.4 Tokugawa Shogunate
    • 1.5 Decline during the Meiji Restoration
    • 1.6 Post Japaese Samurai Meiji restoration
  • 2 Western Japamese Samurai samurai
  • 3 Culture
    • 3.1 Education
    • 3.2 Shudō
    • 3.3 Names
    • 3.4 Marriage
  • 4 Philosophy
  • 5 Women
  • 6 Weapons
  • 7 Etymology Japanesee Samurai Japnaese Samurai Jpanese Samurai of samurai and related words
  • 8 Myth and reality
  • 9 Popular culture
    • 9.1 Samurai in computer games
  • 10 Famous Samurai
  • 11 See also
  • 12 References
  • 13 Samurai Films
  • 14 External links


Iron helmet and armour with gilt bronze decoration, Kofun era, 5th century. Tokyo National Museum.

It is believed that mounted warriors, archers, and foot-soldiers in the sixth century may have formed a proto-samurai. [1] Following a disastrous military engagement with Tang China and Silla, Japan underwent widespread reforms. One of the most important was that of the Taika Reform, issued by Prince Naka no Ōe (Emperor Tenji) in 646 AD. This edict introduced Chinese cultural practices and administrative techniques throughout the Japanese aristocracy and bureaucracy[1]. As part of the Yōrō Code,[2] and the later Taihō Code, of 702 AD, the population was required to report regularly for census, which was used as a precursor for national conscription. With an understanding of how the population was distributed, Emperor Mommu introduced the 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.[1] This was one of the first attempts by the Imperial government to form an organized army modelled after the Chinese system. It was called gundan-sei(軍団制) by later historians and is believed to have been short lived.

The Taiho Code classified Imperial bureaucrats into 12 ranks, each divided into two sub-ranks, 1st rank being the highest advisor to the emperor. Those of 6th rank and below were refered to as "samurai" and dealt with day-to-day affairs. Although these "samurai" were civillian public servants, the name is believed to have derived from this term. Military men, however, would not be reffered to as "samurai" for many more centuries.

In the early Heian period, the late 8th and early 9th centuries, Emperor Kammu (桓武天皇) sought to consolidate and expand his rule in northern Honshū, but the armies he sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi lacked motivation and discipline, and were unable to prevail. Emperor Kammu introduced the title of Seiitaishogun (征夷大将軍) or shogun, and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery (kyudo, 弓道), these clan warriors became the emperor's preferred tool for putting down rebellions. Although these warriors may have been educated, at this time (7th to 9th century) the Imperial court officials considered them to be little more than barbarians.

Ultimately, Emperor Kammu disbanded his army,and from this time the emperor's power gradually declined . While the emperor was still the ruler, powerful clans around Kyoto (京都) assumed positions as ministers, and their relatives bought positions as magistrates. To afjskldjsfmass wealth and repay their debts, magistrates often imposed heavy taxes, resulting in many farmers becoming landless. As the threat of robbery rose, the clans began recruiting these exiles in the Kanto plains. Because of their intense training in the martial arts, they proved to be effective guards. Small numbers would accompany tax collectors and, merely by their presence, deter thieves and bandits from attacking. They were saburai, armed retainers, yet their advantage of being the sole armed party quickly became apparent. Through protective agreements and political marriages, they accumulated 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, and laid the foundations of Bushido, their ethical code.

After the 11th century, samurai were expected to be cultured and literate, and they lived up to the ancient saying "Bun Bu Ryo Do" (lit. literary arts, military arts, both ways) or "The pen and the sword in accord." An early term for warrior, "Uruwashii", was written with a kanji that combined the characters for literary study ("bun" ) and military arts ("bu" ), 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.' "

According to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai: "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.

Kamakura Bakufu and the rise of samurai

Originally these warriors were merely mercenaries in the employ of the emperor and noble clans (kuge, 公家), but slowly they gathered enough power to usurp the aristocracy and establish the first samurai-dominated government.

As regional clans gathered manpower and resources and struck alliances with each other, they formed a hierarchy centered around a toryo, or chief. This chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor, and a lesser member of one of three noble families (the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or the Taira). Though originally sent to provincial areas for a fixed four year term as a magistrate, 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 throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian period.

Samurai fighting at the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185.

Because of their rising military and economic power, the clans ultimately became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the Hōgen Rebellion in the late Heian period consolidated their power, and finally pitted the rival Minamoto and the Taira clans against each other, in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. Emerging victorious, Taira no Kiyomori became an imperial advisor, the first warrior to attain such a position, and eventually seized control of the central government, establishing the first samurai-dominated government and relegating the emperor to figurehead status. However, the Taira clan was still very conservative in comparison with its eventual successor, the Minamoto, and instead of expanding or strengthening its military might, the Taira clan had its women marry emperors and attempted to exercise control through the emperor.

Samurai Residence of Kamakura Period

The Taira and the Minamoto clashed again in 1180, beginning the Gempei War which ended 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 Seii Taishogun, 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 government.

Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility (buke), who were only nominally under the court aristocracy. When the samurai began to adopt aristocratic pastimes like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats in turn began to adopt samurai customs. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the shogun and the samurai.

Ashikaga Shogunate and the Feudal Period

Various samurai clans struggled for power over the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates.

Zen Buddhism spread among samurai in the 13th century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and killing, but among the general populace Pure Land Buddhism was favored.

The Samurai Suenaga facing Mongols, during the Mongol invasions of Japan. Moko Shurai Ekotoba (蒙古襲来絵詞), circa 1293.

In 1274, the Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) 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 called off. This invasion was noteworthy because the Mongol invaders used small, exploding bombs, which was likely the first appearance of bombs and gun powder in Japan.

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. This 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. Each envoy that was sent to Japan was executed, and this time set the stage for one of the most famous engagements in Japanese history.

Samurai and defensive wall at Hakata. Moko Shurai Ekotoba, (蒙古襲来絵詞) c.1293.

In 1281, a Yuan army of 140,000 men with 4,400 ships was mustered for a renewed 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.

The thunderstorms of 1274 and the typhoon of 1281 helped the Samurai defenders of 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 supernatural protection.

In the 14th century, a blacksmith called Masamune developed a two-layer structure of soft and hard steel for use in swords. This structure gave much improved cutting power and endurance, and the production technique led to Japanese swords (katana) being recognized as some of the most potent hand weapons of pre-industrial East Asia. Many swords made using this technique were exported across the East China Sea, a few making their way as far as India.

Issues of inheritance caused family infighting as primogeniture became common, in contrast to the division of succession designated by law before the 14th century. To avoid infighting, invasion of neighboring samurai's territories was common 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 names for themselves as warriors and thus becoming de facto samurai. In this turbulent period, bushido ethics became important factors in controlling and maintaining public order.

Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly in the 15th and 16th century. Use of large numbers of infantry called ashigaru ("light-foot", due to their light armour), formed of humble warriors or ordinary people with Nagayari (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 thousands.

Nanban (Western)-style samurai cuirass, 16th century.

The arquebus, a matchlock gun, was introduced by Portuguese via a Chinese pirate ship in 1543 and the Japanese succeeded in naturalizing it within a decade. Groups of mercenaries with mass produced arquebuses played a critical role.

By the end of feudal period, several hundred thousand firearms existed in Japan and massive armies numbering over 100,000 clashed in battles. The largest and most powerful army in Europe, the Spanish, had only several thousand firearms and could only assemble 30,000 troops. Ninja also played critical roles in intelligence activity.

In 1592, and again in 1598, Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to invade China (唐入り) and sent to Korea an army of 160,000 samurai (Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea, 朝鮮征伐), taking great advantage of its mastery of the arquebus and Korea's poorly organized army. The most famous samurai in this war are Kato Kiyomasa and Shimazu Yoshihiro.

The social mobility of human resources was flexible, as the ancient regime collapsed and emerging samurai needed to maintain 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 who their ancestors were.

See also: Nanban trade period

Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa

Oda Nobunaga was the well-known lord of the Nagoya area (once called Owari Province) and an exceptional example of samurai of the Sengoku Period. He came within a few years of, and laid down the path for his successors to achieve, the reunification of Japan under a new Bakufu (Shogunate).

Oda Nobunaga made innovations in the fields of organizations and war tactics, heavily used arquebuses, developed commerce and industry and treasured innovations. 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 a "sanctuary" of Buddhist temples, they were constant headaches to any warlords 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.

The Samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga in Rome in 1615, Coll. Borghese, Rome.

Importantly, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (see below) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, were loyal followers of Nobunaga. Hideyoshi was brought up from a nameless peasant to be 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 gifted with 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. At last, 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 heritable, 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 ronin or were absorbed into the general populace.

Tokugawa Shogunate

Samurai walking followed by a servant, by Hanabusa Itcho (1652 - 1724)

During the Tokugawa era, 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 daimyo, with their daisho, 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, but to what extent this right was used is unknown. When the central government forced daimyos to cut the size of their armies, unemployed ronin became a social problem.

Theoretical obligations between a samurai and his lord (usually a daimyo) increased from the Genpei era to the Edo era. They were strongly emphasized by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius (ca 550 B.C.) which were required reading for the educated samurai class. During the Edo period, after the general end of hostilities, the code of Bushido was formalized. It is important to note that bushido was an ideal, but that it remained uniform from the 13th century to the 19th century - the ideals of Bushido transcended social class, time and geographic location of the warrior class.

Bushido was formalized by many samurai in this time of peace in much the same fashion as chivalry was formalized after knights as a warrior class became obsolete in Europe. The conduct of samurai became a favorable model of a citizen in Edo, with formalities being emphasized. With time on their hands, samurai spent more time in pursuit of other interests such as becoming scholars.

Bushido still survives in present-day Japanese society, as do many other aspects of the samurai's way of life.

Decline during the Meiji Restoration

Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period, circa 1867. Photograph by Felice Beato

By this time, the Way of Death and Desperateness had been eclipsed by a rude awakening in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry's massive steamships from the US Navy first imposed broader commerce on the once-dominant national policy of isolationism. Prior to that only a few harbor towns, under strict control from the Shogunate, were able 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).

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. The two provinces were the lands of the daimyo that submitted to Ieyasu after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600).

The French military mission to Japan, invited by Tokugawa Yoshinobu for the modernization of his forces, in 1867.

Other sources claim that the last samurai conflict was 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 lead to the ultimately premature uprising, lead by Saigō Takamori.

Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai's right to be the only armed force in favor of a more modern, western-style, conscripted army. Samurai became 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 cut down 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.

Post Meiji restoration

Saigo Takamori (seated, in Western uniform), surrounded by his officers, in samurai attire, during the 1877 Satsuma rebellion. News article in Le Monde Illustré, 1877.

In defining how a modern Japan should be, members of the Meiji government decided to follow the footsteps of United Kingdom and Germany, basing the country on the concept of "noblesse oblige" and samurai would not be a political force much like that of Prussia.

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 to be soldiers and many advanced to be trained as officers. Much of the Imperial Army officer class was of samurai origin and they were highly motivated, disciplined and exceptionally trained.

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 services.

Western samurai

The French Navy officer Eugène Collache fought for the Shogun as a samurai during the Boshin War(1869).

The English sailor and adventurer William Adams (1564-1620) seems to have been the first foreigner to receive the dignity of samurai. The Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu presented him with two swords representing the authority of a samurai, and decreed that William Adams the pilot was dead and that Miura Anjin (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 Shogun'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). He was granted a fief in Hemi (逸見) within the boundaries of present-day Yokosuka City, "with eighty or ninety husbandmen, that be my slaves or servants" (Letters). His estate was valued at 250 koku (measure of the income of the land in rice equal to about five bushels). He finally wrote "God hath provided for me after my great misery" (Letters) by which he meant the disaster ridden voyage that had initially brought him to Japan.

Also, during the Boshin War (1868-1869), French soldiers joined the forces of the Shogun against the Southern Daimyos favorable to the restoration of the Meiji emperor. It is recorded that the French Navy officer Eugène Collache fought in samurai attire with his Japanese brother-in-arms.


As de facto aristocrats for centuries, samurai developed their own cultures that influenced Japanese culture as a whole.


A samurai was expected to read and write, as well as to know some mathematics. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great samurai yet originally a peasant, could only read and write in hiragana and this was a significant drawback for him. Samurai were expected, though not required, to have interests in other arts such as dancing, Go, literature, poetry, and tea. Ōta Dōkan who first ruled Edo wrote how he was shamed to realize that even a commoner had more knowledge of poetry than he, and this made him abdicate.


A Shudō-type encounter between a man and a male youth.
Painted hand-scroll (kakemono-e); Miyagawa Isshō, ca. 1750; Private collection.

Shudō (衆道), the tradition of love bonds between a seasoned and a novice samurai was held to be "the flower of the samurai spirit" and formed the real basis of the samurai aesthetic. It was analogous to the educational Greek pederasty and an honored and important practice in samurai society. It was one of the main ways in which the ethos and the skills of the samurai tradition were passed down from one generation to another.

Another name for the bonds was bidō (美道 "the beautiful way"). The devotion that two samurai would have for each other would be almost as great as that which they had for their daimyo. Indeed, according to contemporary accounts, the choice between his lover and his master could become a philosophical problem for samurai. Hagakure and other samurai manuals gave specific instructions in the way that this tradition was to be carried out and respected. After the Meiji Restoration and the introduction of a more westernised lifestyle, the practice died out.


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 called "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 name before genpuku, a coming of age ceremony, and "Nobunaga" is an adult name. Samurai got to pick their own last names.


The marriage of samurai was done by having a marriage arranged by someone with the same or higher rank than those being married. While for those samurai in the upper ranks this was a necessity (as most had few opportunities to meet a female), this was a formality for lower ranked samurai. Most samurai married women from a samurai family, but for a lower ranked samurai marriages with commoners were permitted. In these marriages a dowry was brought by the woman and was used to start their new lives.

A samurai could have a mistress but her background was strictly checked by higher ranked samurai. In many cases, this was treated like a marriage. "Kidnapping" a mistress, although common in fiction, would have been shameful, if not a crime. When she was a commoner, a messenger would be sent with betrothal money or a note for exemption of tax to ask for her parent's acceptance and many parents gladly accepted. If a samurai's wife gave birth to a son he could be a samurai.

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 reason for divorce would be if she could not produce a son, but then adoption could be arranged as an 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 samurai 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 divorces. Some rich merchants had their daughters marry samurai to erase a samurai's debt and advance their positions.

A samurai's wife would be dishonored and allowed to commit jigai (a female's seppuku) if she were cast off.


The philosophies of Buddhism and Zen, and to a lesser extent Confucianism, influenced the samurai culture as well as Shinto. Zen meditation became an important teaching due to it offering 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 realizing how fruitless their killings were. Some were killed as they came to terms with these realizations in the battlefield. The most defining role that Confucianism played in samurai philosophy was to stress the importance of the lord-retainer relationship; this is, the loyalty that a samurai was required to show his lord.

Bushido was a term attached to a samurai "code of conduct" enforced during Edo period by the Tokugawa Shogunate, so that they could control the samurai more easily. Its deceptive simplicity led to countless arguments over its interpretation. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is a manual of instruction into the way of the samurai. Even as it was published, it received a number of reviews that criticized its strict and impersonal interpretations. If the lord is wrong, for example if he ordered a massacre of civilians, should he observe loyalty to massacre as ordered or should he observe rectitude to let the civilians escape unharmed? If a man had sick parents but committed an unforgivable mistake, should he protect his honour by committing seppuku or should he show courage by living with dishonor and care for his parents?

The incident of 47 Ronin caused debates about the righteousness of the samurai's actions and how bushido should be applied. They had defied the shogun by taking matters into their own hands but it was an act of loyalty and rectitude as well. Finally, their acts were agreed to be rectitude but not loyalty to the shogun. This made them criminals with conscience and eligible for seppuku.


Maintaining the household, or ie, was the main duty of samurai women. This was especially crucial during early feudal Japan, when warrior husbands were often traveling abroad or engaged in clan battles. The wife, or okusan (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 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 usually not the heads of their household.

This does not mean that samurai women were always powerless. Powerful women both wisely and unwisely wielded power at various occasions. After Ashikaga Yoshimasa, 8th shogun 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, his mistress, became the de facto master of Osaka castle and the Toyotomi clan after Hideyoshi'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 source of power for women may have been that samurai looked down upon matters concerning money and left their finances to their wives.

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.


Samurai with assorted weapons.

The samurai used various weapons, but the katana is the weapon that is synonymous with samurai. Bushido teaches that the katana is the samurai's soul and sometimes a samurai is pictured as entirely dependent on the katana for fighting. They believe that the katana was so precious that they often gave them names and considered them as part of the living. This contrasted with the swords and crossbows of Europe at the same time which were, principally, tools for combat. However the use of swords did not become common in battle until the Kamakura period (1185-1333), where the tachi and uchigatana (the predecessor to the katana) became prevalent. The katana itself did not become the primary weapon until the Edo period.

After a male child of the bushi was born, he would receive his first sword in a ceremony called mamori-gatana. The sword, however, was merely a charm sword covered with brocade to which was attached a purse or wallet, worn by children under five. Upon reaching the age of thirteen, in a ceremony called Gembuku (元服), a male child was given his first real swords and armour, an adult name, and became a samurai. A katana and a wakizashi together are called a daisho (lit. "big and small").

The wakizashi itself was a samurai's "honour blade" and purportedly never left the samurai's side. He would sleep with it under his pillow and it would be taken with him when he entered a house and had to leave his main weapons outside.

The Tantō was a small dagger sometimes worn with or instead of the Wakizashi in a daisho. The tanto or the wakizashi was used to commit seppuku, a ritualized suicide.

Samurai helmet with a half-face mask, made of leather and iron, Edo period, 17th century. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The samurai stressed skill with the yumi (longbow), reflected in the art of kyujutsu (lit. the skill of the bow). The bow would remain a critical component of the Japanese military even with the introduction of firearms during the Sengoku Jidai period. The yumi, an asymmetric composite bow made from bamboo, wood, rattan and leather, was not as powerful as the Eurasian reflex composite bow, having an effective range of 50 meters or less (100 meters if accuracy was not an issue). It was usually used on foot behind a tedate (手盾), a large and mobile bamboo wall, but shorter versions (hankyu) could also be used from horseback. The practice of shooting from horseback became a Shinto ceremony of Yabusame (流鏑馬).

In the 15th century, the yari (spear) also became a popular weapon, displacing along with 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 more effective when using a spear than a katana and it offered better than even odds against a samurai using a katana. In the Battle of Shizugatake where Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then known as Hashiba Hideyoshi, the Seven Spearmen of Shizugatake (賤ヶ岳七本槍) played a crucial role in the victory.

The latter half of the 16th Century saw the introduction of the teppo or arquebus in Japan through Portuguese trade, enabling warlords to raise effective armies from masses of peasants. The new weapons were highly controversial. Their ease of use and deadly effectiveness was perceived by many samurai as a dishonorable affront to Bushido tradition. Oda Nobunaga made deadly use of the teppo at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, leading to the end of the Takeda clan. After their initial introduction by the Portuguese and the Dutch, the teppo, were produced on a large scale by Japanese gunsmiths. By the end of the 16th Century, there were more firearms in Japan than in any European nation. Teppo, employed en masse largely by ashigaru peasant foot troops were in many ways the antithesis of samurai valor. With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and an end to civil war, production of the guns declined sharply with prohibitions to ownership. By the Tokugawa Shogunate most spear-based weapons had been phased out partly because they were suboptimal for the close-quarter combat common in the Edo period, this combined with the aforementioned restrictions on fire-arms resulted in the Daisho being the only weapons typically carried by samurai. In the 1570s cannons became a common part of the samurai's armory. They often were mounted in castles or on ships being used more as anti-personnel weapons though in the siege of Nagashino castle (1575) a cannon was used to good effect against a enemy siege-tower. The first popular cannon in Japan were swivel-breech loaders nick-named kunikuzushi or destroyer of provences. Kunikuzushi weighed 264 lbs. and used 40 lb. chambers, they fired a small shot of 10 oz. The Arima clan of Kyushu used guns like this at the battle of Okinawate against the Ryozoji clan. By the time of the Osaka campaign (1614-1615) cannon technology had improved in Japan. At Osaka Ii Naotaka managed to fire an 18 lb. shot into the castle's keep!

Some other weapons used by samurai were jo, bo, grenade, and the Chinese trebuchets (more as an anti-personnel weapon than a siege engine).

Etymology of samurai and related words

The kanji for samurai.

The term Samurai originally meant "those who serve in close attendance to nobility", and was written in the Chinese character (or kanji) that had the same meaning. In Japanese, it was originally pronounced in the pre-Heian period as saburapi and later as saburai, then samurai in the Edo period. In Japanese literature, there is an early reference to samurai in the Kokinshū (古今集, early 10th century):

Attendant to your nobility
Ask for your master's umbrella
The dews 'neath the trees of Miyagino
Are thicker than rain
(poem 1091)

The word bushi (武士, lit. "warrior or armsman") first appears in an early history of Japan called Shoku Nihongi (続日本記, 797 A.D.). In a portion of the book covering the year 723 A.D., Shoku Nihongi states: "Literary men and Warriors are they whom the nation values". The term bushi is of Chinese origin and adds to the indigenous Japanese words for warrior: Tsuwamono and Mononofu. The terms bushi and samurai became synonymous near the end of the 12th century, according to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai--Writings of Japanese Warriors. Wilson's book thoroughly explores the origins of the word warrior in Japanese history as well as the Kanji (Chinese symbols) used to represent the word. Wilson states that Bushi actually translates as "a man who has the ability to keep the peace, either by literary or military means, but predominantly by the latter".

It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai was replaced with samurai. However, the meaning had changed long before that.

A Samurai katana in koshirae.

During the era of the rule of the samurai, the term yumitori (弓取, "bowman") was also used as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even though swordsmanship had become more important. (Japanese archery (kyujutsu) is still strongly associated with the war god Hachiman.)

A samurai with no attachment to a clan or daimyo (大名) was called a ronin (浪人). In Japanese, the word ronin means "wave man", a person destined to wander aimlessly forever, like the waves in the sea. The word came to mean a samurai who was no longer in the service of a lord because his lord had died, because the samurai had been banished or simply because the samurai chose to become a ronin.

The pay of Samurai was measured in koku of rice (180 liters; enough to feed a man for one year). Samurai in the service of the han are called hanshi.

The following terms are related to samurai or the samurai tradition:

  • Uruwashii
    a cultured warrior symbolized by the kanji for "bun" (literary study) and "bu" (military study or arts)
  • Buke (武家)
    A martial house or a member of such a house
  • Mononofu (もののふ)
    An ancient term meaning a warrior.
  • Musha (武者)
    A shortened form of Bugeisha (武芸者), lit. martial art man.
  • Shi ()
    A word roughly meaning "gentleman," it is sometimes used for samurai, in particular in words such as bushi (武士, meaning warrior or samurai).
  • Tsuwamono ()
    An old term for a soldier popularized by Matsuo Bashō in his famous haiku. Literally meaning a strong person.
natsukusa ya
tsuwamono domo ga
yume no ato

Matsuo Bashō

Summer grasses,
All that remains
Of soldiers’ dreams

(trans. Lucien Stryk)

Myth and reality

Most samurai (during the Edo period) were bound by a strict code of honor called Bushido (武士道 Bushidō?), and were expected to set an example for those below them. A notable part of the Bushido code is seppuku (切腹 seppuku?), which allowed a disgraced samurai to regain his honor by passing into death, where samurai were still beholden to the rules of Bushido. However, the Bushido code was written in peace-time and it may not truly reflect the samurai's character as a warrior. Whilst there are many romanticised characterisations of samurai behaviour, studies of Kobudo and traditional Budo indicate that the samurai were as practical on the battlefield as any other warrior.

Despite the Bushido, in practice, 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 or daimyo, when loyalty to the emperor was seen to have supremacy.[3]

A legendary ability was the Duel of Wills, a psychological technique to test an enemy's mental strength without having to engage in actual fighting. Both combatants (who must be, as samurai, of equal status) lock eyes and remain staring at each other in silence and without moving a muscle, until one of the opponents yields (though there are stories of - rare - instances in which both opponents relent simultaneously).

Popular culture

Actor Kotaro Satomi on the set of Mito Komon

Jidaigeki (lit. historical drama) has always been a staple program on Japanese movies and TV. The programs typically feature a samurai with a kenjutsu who stood up against evil samurai and merchants. Mito Komon (水戸黄門), a fictitious series of stories about Tokugawa Mitsukuni's travel is a popular TV drama in which Mitsukuni travels disguised as a retired rich merchant with two unarmed samurai disguised as his companions. He finds trouble wherever he goes, and after gathering evidence, he has his samurai knock around unrepentantly evil samurai and merchants, before revealing his identity. It is then obvious to the villans that he can destroy their entire clan and the villains surrender in the hope that his punishments will not extend to their families.

The samurai-themed works of film director Akira Kurosawa are among the most praised of the genre, influencing many filmmakers across the world with his techniques and storytelling. Notable works of his include The Seven Samurai, in which a besieged farming village hires a collection of wandering samurai to defend them from bandits, Yojimbo, where a former samurai involves himself in a town's gang war by working for both sides, and The Hidden Fortress, in which two foolish peasants find themselves helping a legendary general escort a princess to safety. The latter was one of the primary inspirations for George Lucas's Star Wars, which also borrows a number of aspects from the samurai, for example the Jedi Knights of the series.

Samurai films and westerns share a number of similarities and the two have influenced each other over the years. Kurosawa was inspired by the works of director John Ford and in turn Kurosawa's works have been remade into westerns such as The Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. There is also an anime adaptation (Samurai 7) of "The Seven Samurai" which spans many episodes.

Another fictitious television series, Abarembo Shogun, featured Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa shogun. Samurai at all levels from the shogun down to the lowest rank, as well as ronin, featured prominently in this show.

Shōgun is the first novel in James Clavell's Asian Saga. It is set in feudal Japan around the year 1600 and gives a highly fictionalized account of the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to the Shogunate, seen through the eyes of an English sailor whose fictional heroics are loosely based on William Adams' exploits.

Saigo Takamori (upper right, in Western uniform) directing his troops, some of them in traditional samurai armour, at the Battle of Shiroyama.

A Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai, containing a mixture of fact and fiction, was released in 2003 to generally good reviews in North America. The film's plot is loosely based on the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and also on the story of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the Boshin War.

The movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, starring actor Forest Whitaker takes as its central character a black assassin in contemporary America who gains inspiration from the Hagakure. The soundtrack album positions hip hop against readings of the Hagakure.

Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino can be described as a glorification of the katana. It is primarily inspired by anime and relates little to the samurai. This same distortion of samurai culture continues onto the low-budget world of the cult film, where in films such as Samurai Vampire Bikers From Hell, the primary characters attempt to portray a lineage to the samurai but are more closely linked to the anime or comic book culture of the late twentieth century.

The samurai have also appeared frequently in Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime). Most common are historical works where the protagonist is either a samurai or former samurai (or another rank/position) who possesses considerable martial skill. Two of the most famous examples are Lone Wolf and Cub, where the former proxy executioner for the Shogun and his toddler son become hired killers after being betrayed by other samurai and nobles, and Rurouni Kenshin, where a former assassin, after helping end the Bakumatsu era and bringing about the Meiji era, finds himself protecting newfound friends and fighting off old enemies while upholding his oath to never kill again through the use of a reverse-bladed sword.

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. Notable examples include Goemon Ishikawa XIII from the Lupin III series of comics, television series, and movies, and Motoko Aoyama from the romantic comedy Love Hina. Some relevance to the samurai can even be seen in the show Beyblade, which is set in the present. One character, Jin of the Gale, seems to be a mix of samurai and ninja traits. Another anime, which is intended for adult audiences involving samurai is 2004's Samurai Champloo, which portrays Edo-period Japan combined with modern street-culture and hip-hop. One of the show's main characters is Jin, once an accomplished samurai who became a wondering ronin after killing his master.

Usagi Yojimbo, the longest running American samurai comic book to date.

American comic books have adopted the character type for stories of their own. For instance, the Marvel Universe superhero Wolverine during the 1980s attempted to use the ideals and concept of the samurai as a means to control his violent urges in a constructive manner. The ronin have also been a feature in popular series such as Ronin by Frank Miller and Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai.

The concept of a samurai, as opposed to that of a knight, has led to a major gap in how a warrior or a hero is characterised in Japan and the rest of the world. A samurai does not have to be tall and heavily muscled to be strong - he can be barely five feet tall, seemingly weak and even handicapped. Females can also be samurai. Equating size with power and strength does not readily appeal to the Japanese aesthetic. Perfect examples of this can be found in the Blind Swordsman Zatoichi movie series.

Samurai in computer games

Samurai are also heroes and enemies in many computer games, and can be found especially in RPG, strategy, action, adventure, and fighting game genres.

For example, samurai can be seen in the American strategy game series Age of Empires and in the Ultima Online: Samurai Empire MMORPG. Samurai battles also provide the theme for the British strategy simulation Shogun Total War which portrays Sun-Tzu war philosophy and realistic battle physics. You can also choose a samurai character class in Sir-Tech's famous RPG Wizardry 8. Final Fantasy XI also contains a "Samurai" class, with emphasis on weapon strength on the player character's stats.

Some popular Japanese titles featuring samurai include Shingen the Ruler, Samurai Warriors, Brave Fencer Musashi, "Samurai Legend Musashi", Seven Samurai 20XX, and there is a lead character portraying a samurai in the Sci-Fi thriller game Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse named Jin Uzuki. Jin Uzuki, Shion Uzuki's brother, is a Samurai wannabe who fights only with a sword and wears a traditional kimono. Other popular Japanese games featuring samurai as main characters are the Onimusha, Genji and Way of the Samurai series.

Certain fighting game titles hold a vast amount of samurai fighters, a couple being Bishamon from Darkstalkers, and Sodom from Street Fighter Alpha. But the more popular title, Samurai Showdown have samurai warriors that consume much of its roster in each of their games. Haohmaru and Genjuro are the most well-known and traditional samurai warriors in this fighting game.

Famous Samurai

  • Yukimura Sanada
  • Date Masamune
  • Akechi Mitsuhide
  • Miyamoto Musashi
  • Uesugi Kenshin
  • Takeda Shingen
  • Minamoto Yoshiie
  • Oda Nobunaga
  • Kusunoki Masashige
  • Sei Akujin*

See also

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Precepts of Kato Kiyomasa
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  1. ^ a b c William Wayne Farris, Heavenly Warriors - The Evolution of Japan's Military, 500-1300, Harvard University Press, 1995.
  2. ^ A History of Japan, Vol. 3, George Samson, Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
  3. ^ Mark Ravina, The Last Samurai - The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori, John Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Samurai Films

  • The Hidden Fortress
  • The Seven Samurai
  • Sanjuro
  • Ran
  • Twilight Samurai
  • Yojimbo
  • The Last Samurai
  • Samurai Trilogy
  • When the Last Sword Is Drawn
  • Kagemusha
  • Sword of Doom
  • Aragami
  • Samurai Fiction
  • [The Legend of Sei Akujin]

External links

  • SengokuDaimyo.com The website of Samurai Author and Historian
  • Anthony J. Bryant
  • Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai online
  • The Samurai Archives Japanese History page
  • The God of Samurai

Search Term: "Samurai"