The samurai are the legendary armored swordsmen of Japan, known to many westerners only as a warrior class, depicted in countless martial arts movies. While being a warrior was central to a samurai's life, they were also poets, politicians, fathers and farmers. Samurai played a pivotal role in the last 1,500 years of Japanese history. In fact, the history of that period in Japan essentially is the history of the samurai.
In this article, we'll examine the strict warrior code of the samurai, the honor system that shaped their lives, the weapons and armor they used, and the history of the samurai, from their murky origins in the 5th century, to the abolition of the samurai class in 1876.
What is a Samurai?
The samurai served many functions in Japan. However, the role in which they are best known is that of warrior. But what is it that makes a samurai different from other warriors in other parts of the world? Wearing armor and using a sword is not enough to make someone into a samurai.
Although the samurai and the role they played in Japan changed throughout the centuries, there are four factors that define the concept of the samurai:
- The samurai is a well-trained, highly skilled warrior.
- The samurai serves his daimyo, or master, with absolute loyalty, even to the death. In fact, the word samurai means, "those who serve."
- The samurai is a member of an elite class, considered superior to common citizens and ordinary foot soldiers.
- The samurai's life is ruled by Bushido, a strict warrior code emphasizing honor.
Training for Life and War
The amount and form of a samurai's training depended on the wealth of his family. In lower-class families, sons were sometimes sent to village schools for basic education, but they received most of their samurai training from their fathers, older brother, or uncles. Training in martial arts was considered very important, and often began at age five. Sons of wealthy families were sent to special academies, where they were tutored in literature, the arts, and military skills.
The image of the samurai that is probably most familiar is that of a sword master wielding his curved katana with deadly skill. However, for the first few centuries of their existence, samurai were better known as horse-riding archers. Firing a bow while riding a horse was a difficult task, and mastering it required years of constant practice. Some archers practiced on targets tethered to a pole, which could be swung to make a moving target. For a time, living dogs were used as moving archery targets, until the shogun abolished the cruel practice.
Swordsmanship was taught in a similarly relentless manner. One story tells of a master who would strike his students with a wooden sword at random times throughout the day and night, until the students learned to never relax their guard.
In addition to warrior skills, samurai were expected to be well-educated in other areas, such as literature and history. During the Tokugawa period, a peaceful era, the samurai were not needed much as warriors, so these academic skills were especially useful. However, some samurai masters warned their students not to dwell on words and paintings too much, fearing their minds would become weak.
A samurai is instantly recognizable due to his distinctive armor and helmet. Although early samurai armor exhibited a solid-plate construction (5th and 6th century, A.D.), it is the lamellar armor that came next that continues to represent the samurai image today. Lamellar armor is made by binding together metal scales into a small plate, which is then covered with lacquer to make it waterproof. These small, light plates are fastened together with cords of leather, each plate slightly overlapping the other. Originally, there were two basic types of lamellar armor:
- Yoroi - Worn by mounted samurai, this heavy armor included heavy helmets and imposing shoulder guards.
- Do-Maru - Worn by foot soldiers, this armor was more closely-fitted and lighter in weight.
Much later, as hand-to-hand combat became more prevalent, the do-maru style armor became more popular among all samurai. Do-maru were modified to include heavy helmets and light-weight shoulder and shin guards.
Helmets, called kabuto, are made from metal plates riveted together. In many designs, the rivets form rows of ridges along the outside of the helmet, adding to their distinctive look. Higher-ranking samurai added clan symbols and other decorative flourishes to their helmets. Some helmets included metal masks bearing intimidating devil faces, sometimes with mustaches and beards made from horsehair. During peaceful periods, these helmet ornaments grew very elaborate, and today are considered works of art.
Before donning his armor, a samurai would wear a one-piece undergarment covered by a kimono and a pair of baggy pants. A padded cap would help ease the weight of the heavy iron helmet.
The most famous weapon of the samurai throughout history was the katana, a curved sword. A katana was never worn without its companion sword -- the wakizashi, a shorter weapon with a broader blade. According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, together the two swords are referred to as daisho, meaning "large and small." The word dai (large) represents the katana and the word sho (small) represents the wakizashi.
The smiths who created katana for the samurai are widely regarded as the finest sword makers in history. One of the biggest problems in making a sword is keeping it sharp. A weapon made with a hard metal will keep its edge, but will be brittle and prone to breaking. Japanese smiths solved this problem by making the core of the sword with a soft metal that wouldn't break. This core was then covered with layers of harder metals that were repeatedly folded and hammered until there were literally millions of layers of metal laminated together. The edge was so sharp that a skilled swordsman could slice a human in half with one blow.
In addition to swords and bows, samurai used a variety of pole arms (bladed weapons attached to long poles). One of the more common Japanese pole arms was the naginata, which consisted of a sharp blade two to four feet (.6 to 1.2 meters) in length mounted on a wooden shaft that was four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) long. The extra reach afforded by these weapons allowed infantry to hold attackers at bay, or make a first strike before an attacker with a sword could reach them. They were also very effective against mounted opponents.
In the 16th century, European traders arrived in Japan for the first time. The Japanese paid large sums for their matchlock guns, quickly mastering the smithing techniques needed to mass produce the weapons. Although the gun is not traditionally associated with samurai, it was a major influence on Japanese warfare from that point on, allowing daimyos to raise large armies of relatively untrained men armed with cheap guns. Many samurai adopted the unreliable weapons, which were best used as a backup to the more trustworthy sword. Some even wore solid-body-design plated armors, okegawa-do, intended to be bulletproof.
Bushido: The Samurai Code of Honor
The samurai were not mercenary warriors, roaming Japan and fighting for whatever warlord would pay them. They were bound to a specific lord, or daimyo, and also bound to their communities by duty and honor.
This code of honor is known as Bushido, and comes from the word bushi, which means "warrior." The Japanese word do means "the way." So Bushido means, "the way of the warrior." This code evolved from an earlier period, when samurai were archers and horsemen. The training and devotion needed to master these skills and bond with a horse led to kyuba no michi, "the way of the horse and bow."
Although Bushido is referred to as a code, it was not a formal set of rules that all samurai followed. In fact, Bushido changed greatly throughout Japanese history and even from one clan to the next. Bushido wasn't written down at all until the 17th century, after samurai had been in existence for centuries.
The first duty of a samurai was loyalty to his lord. Japan had a feudal system, in which a lord expected obedience from his vassals, who in turn received economic and military protection from the lord. If a lord couldn't count on absolute loyalty from his vassals, the entire system would have collapsed. This sense of loyalty and honor was often carried to extremes by the Japanese, who would fight to the death in a hopeless battle to protect their master's castle, or commit suicide if they felt they had disgraced their lord.
Samurai also had a duty of vengeance. Should the honor of his master be tarnished, or his master killed, a samurai was required to seek out and kill those responsible. One of the most famous samurai stories, "The 47 Ronin," or masterless samurai, is a tale of traditional samurai vengeance. During a period of peace, their lord was ordered to commit seppuku because of an altercation with another lord. Two years later, all 47 samurai invaded the lord's castle and killed him. They were arrested and forced to commit seppuku, not because they had fulfilled their duty of vengeance (this was expected), but because they had done it with a secret attack, which was considered dishonorable.
Honor was so important to the samurai that they would frequently take their own lives in the face of failure, or if they had violated Bushido. This honor-bound suicide became very ritualized, taking the form of seppuku. Also known by the more vulgar phrase hara-kiri, seppuku was a way for a samurai to restore honor to his lord and family, and to fulfill his obligation of loyalty even if he had failed as a samurai.
Ritualized seppuku involved the samurai wearing the proper garments while he was presented with the ritual knife, wrapped in paper. The samurai would then take the knife and cut open his own stomach, from left to right, with a final upward cut at the end. However, seppuku was not a solitary act, and few samurai were left to die a slow and excruciating death from disembowelment. Another samurai would typically stand behind the one committing seppuku, and behead him with a sharp sword shortly after the seppuku cut was made.
In later years, the act became even more ritualized, in some cases using paper fans instead of knives. Often, the Kaishaku-nin, or second samurai, would perform the beheading as soon as the ritual knife was touched, well before any pain was experienced.
In modern times, the ritual of seppuku has resurfaced in Japan, both as a traditional way to restore honor in the face of defeat, and as a means of protest.
History of the Samurai
No one is quite sure who the first samurai was. Historians do have some idea of when regular warriors began taking on the characteristics of the samurai. In the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, A.D., there were rivalries in Japan between princes and clans, as well as succession wars when an emperor died. However, most of the fighting was done against those people who were native to islands of Japan, which imperial Japanese referred to as emishi, or barbarians.
Some emperors realized that the emishi were good fighters, and in later years, emishi were recruited to fight in battles against other clans or rebellious religious orders. Some of the military tactics and traditions of the emishi were incorporated by Japanese soldiers, and were later used by the samurai.
The samurai's status as an elite class comes from the proliferation of powerful families that lived far from the capital, passing their land, and their prestige, from one generation to the next for hundreds of years. The members of these warrior houses or clans attained noble status.
Barbarian military traditions combined with elite status and the kyuba no michi warrior code to form a template for the earliest samurai. By some reports, the word samurai first appeared in the 12th century. For a long time, the samurai provided the main military force used against emishi and other clans.
In the 1100s, two powerful clans served the emperor of Japan: the Taira clan, and the Minamoto clan. These two families became bitter rivals, and in 1192, Minamoto Yoritomo led his clan to victory over the Taira. The emperor, the traditional head of the Japanese government, declared Minamoto Yoritomo shogun, the head of the military. However, Yoritomo used his new power to strip the emperor of all political power, make his position as shogun permanent, and set up a military dictatorship known as bakufu. So, the samurai went from being servants to the land-owning daimyos to being the rulers of Japan under the shogun.
After Yoritomo died, his wife, Masa-ko, worked to hold the shogunate together. Though not perfect, her family, the Hojos, maintained control over Japan for over 100 years.
The Ashikaga clan wrested control from the Hojos in 1338. The Ashikagas failed to provide a strong central authority in Japan, and the clans descended into constant fighting. During this period, daimyo built impressive castles with walls, gates, and moats that made them difficult to attack.
This sengoku, or civil war period lasted until Tokugawa Ieyaso took control of Japan in 1603. Tokugawa enforced a strict isolationist policy, and kept control of the daimyos by forcing their families to live in the capital, while the daimyo himself lived on his estate. Each daimyo was required to visit the capital at least once per year (daimyos who fell into disfavor were given estates far from the capital, making the trip much more expensive and time-consuming). This policy ensured the control of the daimyos because their families were basically held hostage, and the expensive annual trips prevented them from gaining too much economic power.
Tokugawa also banned the carrying of swords by anyone but samurai. All swords owned by non-samurai were confiscated and melted down to make statues. This marked the samurai as a very distinct and noticeable class, above the common citizen.
During Tokugawa's enforced peace, samurai were seldom used in combat. It was during this period that the samurai took on other roles, escorting their lords back and forth from the capital, working as bureaucrats in the bakufu, and collecting tribute in the form of rice payments from the daimyo's vassals.
The End of the Samurai
Tokugawa and his descendents ruled over a peaceful Japan for two and half centuries. The role of the samurai in peacetime declined gradually over this period, but two factors led to the end of samurai: the urbanization of Japan, and the end of isolationism.
As more and more Japanese moved to the cities, there were fewer farmers producing the rice needed to feed the growing population. The luxurious living enjoyed by the shoguns and many daimyos started to wear away at the economic system. Many Japanese, including lower class samurai, grew dissatisfied with the shogunate because of the worsening economic conditions.
Then, in 1853, U.S. ships sailed into Edo Bay. Commodore Matthew Perry had arrived to deliver a message from President Millard Fillmore to the emperor (who still existed as a figurehead, even though the shogun really ruled the country). Fillmore wanted to open trade relations with Japan, wanted shipwrecked U.S. sailors to be treated well by the Japanese, and wanted to open Japan as a resupply port for American ships. Perry delivered his message, told the Japanese he would return after a few months, and left.
In Perry's wake, a split grew in Japan. Some wanted to deny the American offer, maintain isolationism, and stay with their ancient traditions. Others, however, realized that Japan could never stand up to the better technology of the westerners. They proposed opening up Japan to learn everything they could from the Americans, ending isolationism and becoming a world power. Ultimately, the bakufu decided to open Japanese ports for American resupply, and later to trade.
The emperor refused to agree to the treaty. Because he was just a figurehead, the bakufu went ahead with the treaty anyway. Several groups of rebellious samurai, who wanted Japan to stay the same, supported the emperor and began a civil war against the bakufu. Surprisingly, they overthrew the shogun, ending the Tokugawa period and restoring the emperor to power. Lower class samurai took positions of leadership, controlling the government from behind the new emperor, a young boy who was called Emperor Meiji. This event is known as the Meiji Restoration.
The power of the daimyos was taken away as the government seized their land. With no one to pay the many samurai, the government decided to pay them with bonds based on their rank. This affected low- and high-ranking samurai differently, but had the same result -- each class either used the bond to invest in land or start a business, or realized they didn't have enough income to support themselves, and returned to the land as farmers or to the cities as workers. The samurai no longer had a role in Japan.
Finally, in 1876, the emperor banned samurai from wearing their swords, leading to the creation of a drafted standing army. The final bell had tolled for the samurai -- they no longer existed. Though there were some rebellions as samurai in outlying provinces resisted, all the samurai eventually adopted new roles in Japanese society, as their nation moved into the Industrial Age.
The Samurai Spirit Lives On
Although the samurai no longer exist, their spirit of honor and discipline has found a home in modern times. From the kamikaze pilots of Japan in World War II, to martial artists and even modern businessman who look to Bushido as a guide to living an honorable life, samurai continue to influence Japan today.
Samurai on film:
- Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
- Seven Samurai (1956)
- The Magnificent Seven (Based on Seven Samurai) (1960)
- Yojimbo (1961)
- Sanjuro (1963)
- Chushingura (1963)
- Harakiri (1964)
- Sword of Doom (1966)
- Samurai II - Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1967)
- Samurai III - Duel at Ganryu Island (1967)
- Samurai Rebellion (1967)
- The 47 Ronin (1979)
- Kagemusha (1980)
- Shogun (1980)
- Blind Fury/Omega Doom (1990)
- Heaven & Earth (1992)
- Ghost Dog - The Way of the Samurai (1999)
- The Last Samurai (2003)
For more information on samurai and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- A Guide to European Medieval Pole Arms
- Modern recreation of a naginata
- Samurai armor diagram
- Samurai armor reproductions, with color photos
- A samurai museum in Okazaki, Aichi, Japan
- The Samurai: Warriors of Medieval Japan, 940-1600 Anthony J. Bryant; Osprey, 1989
- An Historical Guide To Arms & Armor Stephen Bull; Checkmark Books, 1991
- Life Among the Samurai Eleanor J. Hall; Lucent Books, 1999
- Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour Lord Egerton of Tatton; Dover, 2002
- A glossary of the construction, decoration, and use of arms and armor in all countries and in all times : together with some closely related subjects George Cameron Stone; Dover 1999
- Samurai: The Warrior Tradition Stephen Turnbull; Arms and Armour 1996