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  • Writer's pictureNevada Ball

Samurai 侍 (武士): Who really were they?

The Samurai have been a long-lasting staple of Japanese Culture along with the likes of Ninja, Godzilla, and Anime of all things. However, outside of Japan not many people really know who the Samurai were and what actual purpose they played other than sword-wielding warriors.

Edo period woodblock print showing a samurai holding a yumi and wearing a kusari katabira under his kimono


What Counts as a Samurai?

Samurai are traditionally referred to as 武士 (Bushi) in Japnese meaning "warrior", although they have been also referred to as 侍 (samurai) which in Chinese and Japanese traditionally mean to "Wait upon; to serve" but have been used to refer to attendants of the upper echelons of society.


Similar to European Knights, the Samurai had their own form of chivalry named 武士道 (Bushido) meaning "The way of the warrior". Bushido was mainly a philosophical and lifestyle guide for the samurai dictating how they should conduct themselves drawing many principles from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism (The main Japanese Religion). The philosophy emphasized honor, bravery, selflessness, and ethical behavior which means that the Samurai were meant to be fearless of death.

Another important aspect of Bushido was literacy, inspired by the ancient saying 文武両道 (bunbu ryodo): "the pen and sword in accord", many samurai enjoyed the practices calligraphy, music, poetry, tea, and studying.

Zen Buddhism allowed a samurai to focus their mind through meditation and be content with the possibility of death, and for them, it was better to have a death at one's own hands than at the hands of another. The practice of 切腹 (Seppuku) is the practice of ritual suicide via disembowelment and before they would commit this they traditionally also wrote a death poem.

There are two main weapons of the Samurai: the Daitō (大刀) such as a katana or tachi and the Shōtō (小刀) such as a wakizashi or kodachi, this pair made up what is known as the daishō (大小which means big-little), the shōtō would traditionally be used to commit seppuku. They were also proficient in the use of the Yumi (弓) or bow, particularly the longbow both on and off a horse. The Yumi's use faded when the Dutch eventually imported guns into the country of Japan via the Dejima port in Nagasaki.

General Akashi Gidayu preparing to perform Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582. He had just written his death poem.


A Brief History of the Samurai

Samurai trace their origins from around the 10th-12th century C.E. during Japan's Heian period who were armed supporters of the wealthy landlords in which some were fugitives of the powerful Fujiwara clan. Additionally, other classes of warriors existed but samurai was the only one with a connotation of serving the upper echelon. Samurai began to see widespread usage throughout Japan serving several different Daimyo (landowners) and weakening the authority of the emperor around the 12th century C.E.

The increasing power of several landowners led to the Shogunate form of government rising to power (also known as a military dictatorship) which fractured Japan into several clans lead by the Shogun (somewhat of a supreme samurai). This transitions Japan into the Kamakura period dominated by the Hōjō clan which occupied most of the island of Honshu (the main island with the cities Tokyo and Kyoto) throughout the period. This was also the time where the Mongols tried to invade and failed and the first outsiders got to really experience fighting with the Samurai. Once the Hōjō fractured Japan was split into dozens of warring states during the Sengoku period, during this, the Samurai maintained a strong presence in the military and practically controlled all the power. The complexity of the Sengoku period can't be understated and deserves its own blog post but we do know that this is the period where the Samurai really came to life and many of the legends we hear either occurred during the Kamakura or the Sengoku period.

Samurai in Armour, hand-colored albumen silver print by Kusakabe Kimbei.


Once the Sengoku period came to an end and Japan was unified during the Edo period, the Samurai enjoyed relative relaxation as they were on the top of the hierarchical pyramid. During this time, they were the only ones allowed to carry swords and had to live within castle towns near their Daimyo who paid them in rice. Due to this peace, the martial importance in a Samurai's life began to decrease and they started to focus more on the other aspects of Bushido. Eventually, the Samurai were stripped of most of their power during the Meiji restoration in Japan's attempt to modernize. japan's feudalism was abolished in 1871 and the samurai were stripped of their swords 5 years later. Some samurai, now jobless, found themselves joining secret societies such as the notorious Black Dragon Society (which tried to boost Japanese nationalism and justify an invasion of China).

Nowadays, some people still have the occupation of Samurai around Edo and Sengoku castles guarding them but this is probably more for show than actual Samurai work. Endlessly Romanticized, the Samurai continues to play a big role in Japan's culture and still maintain relevance even though they have declined.


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