The samurai were 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, samurai were instrumental in Japan's history from the 12th to the mid-19th centuries. The samurai (the word is the same whether singular or plural) 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. The samurai was a well-trained, highly skilled warrior. The samurai served his daimyo or master, with absolute loyalty, even to the death. The samurai was a member of an elite class, considered superior to common citizens and ordinary foot soldiers. The samurai's life was ruled by bushido, a strict warrior code emphasizing honor. 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 fifth century to the abolition of the samurai class in 1868. We'll also find out how much of what we know about samurai is truth or myth. Children of samurai families were taught to serve different roles in samurai societies.
Some archers practiced on targets tethered to a pole, which could be swung to make a moving target.
Part of their education may have been formal, but they also learned social values from their families and others in their tight-knit communities. Girls were taught to run samurai households as future samurai wives, while boys were trained to take over as heads of families and as warriors. Rather than a simple question of age, a boy's readiness to be a samurai depends on rites of passage he had to undergo to advance. Training in martial arts began at a young age. Sons of wealthier families were sent to special academies, where they were tutored in literature, the arts and military skills. It should be noted that there were some female samurai, who also participated in combat, but most of the samurai were men. 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 was instantly recognizable due to his distinctive armor and helmet. Although early samurai armor (fifth and sixth century CE) exhibited a solid-plate construction, it was the lamellar armor that came next that continued to represent the samurai image today. Lamellar armor was made by binding together metal scales into a small plate, which was then covered with lacquer to make it waterproof. These small, light plates were fastened together with cords of leather, each plate slightly overlapping the other. Yoroi: Worn by mounted samurai, this heavy armor included heavy helmets and imposing shoulder guards.
Do-Maru: Originally worn by foot soldiers, this armor was more closely fitted and lighter in weight. Much later, as samurai dismounted their horses and hand-to-hand combat became more prevalent, the do-maru style armor became more popular among all samurai. The Do-maru were modified to include heavy helmets and lightweight shoulders and shin guards. Helmets, called Kabuto, were made from metal plates riveted together. In many designs, the rivets formed 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 loose-fitting pants called hakama. A padded cap would help ease the weight of the heavy iron helmet. The most famous weapon associated with the samurai is the katana, a curved sword. A katana was never worn without its companion sword - the wakizashi, a shorter weapon with a broader blade.
Together the two swords were referred to as daisho, meaning "large and small." The word dai (large) represented the katana and the word sho (small) represented the wakizashi. The smiths who created katana for the samurai are widely regarded as some of 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 more prone to breaking. Japanese smiths solved this problem by controlling the amount of carbon in the tamahagane steel very carefully. As they heated and cooled the metal during the process, they folded it back on itself many times to create multiple layers. The result is renowned the world over for its strength and sharpness. 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 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) in length mounted on a wooden shaft that was 4 to 5 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 Portuguese arquebuses, a type of matchlock gun, quickly learning to mass-produce the weapons themselves. Although the gun is not traditionally associated with samurai, it was a major influence on Japanese warfare from that point on. Ranged attacks became more common, and samurai were encouraged to carry the unreliable weapons. The more trustworthy sword was only needed for close combat. 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 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. Although bushido is referred to as a code, it was not a formal set of rules that all samurai followed.
39;s castle or commit suicide if they felt they had disgraced their lord.
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 collapse. This sense of loyalty and honor was often carried to extremes by the samurai, 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 his master be killed, a samurai was justified to seek out and kill those responsible, although he was required to tell the authorities of his plans before he acted. 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 (ritual suicide) because of an altercation with another lord. Two years later, the 47 samurai invaded the lord's castle and killed him. After that they surrendered to the authorities. Although they had fulfilled their duty of vengeance (as was expected), they had been forbidden to do so beforehand by the shogunate.
Because the public was on their side, the samurai were allowed the honor of committing seppuku, rather than being executed for their crime. The native religion of Japan was Shintoism, but after Buddhism reached Japan in the fifth century, CE, it attracted many followers. There was no conflict between the two. In fact, Buddhist and Shinto beliefs coexist easily. One school of Buddhist teaching, Zen Buddhism, encourages followers to attain enlightenment through intense meditation and contemplation of seemingly nonsensical questions. This discipline was popular with samurai, who understood the need to train and practice until their combat skills became like breathing; something they did naturally, without having to think about it. Honor was so important to the samurai that they would 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 sword, wrapped in paper.
The samurai would then take the sword 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 acting as an assistant or kaishaku, would typically stand behind the one committing seppuku, and behead him with a sharp sword shortly after the seppuku cut was made. The kaishaku was charged with making sure the ceremony proceeded smoothly, and a samurai should consider it an honor to be called to serve as kaishaku. In later years, the act became even more ritualized, in some cases using paper fans to signal the kaishaku he was ready for decapitation. Often, the kaishaku would perform the beheading as soon as the ritual sword was touched, well before any pain was experienced. 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 fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, CE, 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.