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

Samurai 侍 or (more rarely) 武士 was a term for the military nobility in pre-industrial Japan. The word 'samurai' is derived from the Japanese verb 'sabu', meaning 'to serve'.

Myth and reality

Most samurai (during the Edo period) were bound by a strict code of <a data-rte meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22honor%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22honor%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5Bhonor%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/index.php?title=Honor&amp;action=edit&amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="Honor (page does not exist)">honor</a>, the <a data-rte-meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22Bushido%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22Bushido%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5BBushido%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/wiki/Bushido" title="Bushido">Bushido</a> 武士道 and were expected to set an example for those below them. A notable part of the Bushido code is <a data-rte-meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22seppuku%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22seppuku%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5Bseppuku%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/index.php?title=Seppuku&amp;action=edit&amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="Seppuku (page does not exist)">seppuku</a> 切腹 which allowed a disgraced samurai to regain his honor by passing into death, where samurai are still beholden to the rules of the Bushido code. However, the bushido code was written in peace-time and it may not truly reflect the samurai's abilities as a warrior.

Today, many people uphold the belief that the samurai fought nobly; for instance, many would consider it unlikely that a samurai would strike an opponent from behind, or fight in a manner normally attributed to the <a data-rte-meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22Ninja%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22Ninja%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5BNinja%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/index.php?title=Ninja&action=edit&redlink=1" class="new" title="Ninja (page does not exist)">Ninja</a>. However, from studies of Kobudo and Samurai Budo it is widely considered that the samurai were as practical on the battlefield as any other warrior.

In practice, there were the disloyal and treacherous (e.g., <a data-rte-meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22Akechi%20Mitsuhide%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22Akechi%20Mitsuhide%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5BAkechi%20Mitsuhide%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/index.php?title=Akechi_Mitsuhide&amp;action=edit&amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="Akechi Mitsuhide (page does not exist)">Akechi Mitsuhide</a>), cowardly, brave, or overly loyal (e.g., <a data-rte-meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22Kusunoki%20Masashige%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22Kusunoki%20Masashige%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5BKusunoki%20Masashige%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/index.php?title=Kusunoki_Masashige&amp;action=edit&amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="Kusunoki Masashige (page does not exist)">Kusunoki Masashige</a>) samurai. Samurai were usually loyal to their immediate superiors, who in turn allied themselves with higher lords. These alliances with higher lords often shifted; for example, the <a data-rte-meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22feudal%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22feudal%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5Bfeudal%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/index.php?title=Feudal&amp;action=edit&amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="Feudal (page does not exist)">feudal</a> lords allied under <a data-rte-meta="%7B%22type%22%3A%22internal%22%2C%22text%22%3A%22Toyotomi%20Hideyoshi%22%2C%22link%22%3A%22Toyotomi%20Hideyoshi%22%2C%22wasblank%22%3Atrue%2C%22noforce%22%3Atrue%2C%22wikitext%22%3A%22%5B%5BToyotomi%20Hideyoshi%5D%5D%22%7D" data-rte-instance="1528-21228341554f175a1e8e7a6" href="/index.php?title=Toyotomi_Hideyoshi&amp;action=edit&amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="Toyotomi Hideyoshi (page does not exist)">Toyotomi Hideyoshi</a> (豊臣秀吉) enjoyed the loyalty of their men, but the feudal lords themselves might shift their backing to Tokugawa. This did not mean that the lower-ranked samurai were disloyal though as their allegiance was to their immediate superior. (Sorry if the type above is unreadable.)


Origin of SamuraiEdit


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

Before the Heian period, the army in Japan was modeled after the Chinese army and was under the direct command of the emperor. With the exception of slaves, every able-bodied man had to enlist in the army. These men had to supply themselves, and many gave up returning and settled down on their way home. This was treated as a part of taxation and it could be substituted with other forms of tax such as bolts of cloth. These men were called Sakimori (防人, lit. "defenders"), but they are not related to samurai.

Also during this period, a considerable amount of Japanese terrain was falling into disrepair and many poor districts of Japan had failing crop cycles. As a result, farmers and peasants (many of whom constituted the Japanese army) left to the north to reside in the Kanto plains, where no effective governing family had been established. So, an initiative was started by the Japanese government.

Originially, under Imperial mandate, all Japanese land belonged to the Emperor. Now that citizens were abandoning the land, taxable resources left with them. Therefore, conditions had been established to permit citizens to take ownership of the land. Ultimately, however, the Emperor and his assistants had not foreseen that large, wealthy families would take advantage of the new, uncharacteristic law in order to own great estates and establish borders of their own.

In the Kanto plains, the peasants (many of whom abandoned their families to flee from the army and prosecution) found themselves amidst the most notorious of bandits and pirates in Japan. Because the Kanto plains were under little influence from any Japanese figures, the lawless region began to thrive and developed a strict code defining honor and a way of life. The warriors of the Kanto plain soon became the most effective, deadly, and ruthless fighting force in Japan.

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 Honshu, 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. Even though they may have been educated, the Imperial court officials considered 7th to 9th century warriors to be crude and barbaric.

During the Heian period, the emperor's army was disbanded and 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 collect taxes. To repay their debts and amass wealth they often imposed heavy taxes and many farmers were forced to leave their lands. In order to prevent the hijacking of tax collectors, many of the clans began recruiting inwards, training their citizens in what skills were available. The wealthier clans, however, began looking to the north.

As the threat of robbery rose, the clans began recruiting the exiles in the Kanto plains. Because of their intense training in the martial arts, they proved to be effective guards. Small numbers would accompany collectors and, merely by their presence, deter theives and bandits from attacking. They were saburai, armed retainers, yet their advantage of being the sole armed party increasingly became apparent. By promising protection and gaining political clout through political marriages they amassed power, eventually surpassing the ruling aristocrats.

Some clans were originally farmers that had been driven to arms to protect themselves from the imperially appointed 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 Japanese-style armor and weapons and laid the foundation of bushido, their famous 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 kanji for literary study ("bun" 文) and military arts ("bu" 武) and is mentioned in the Heike Monogatari (late 12th century). The Heike Monogatari makes references 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 SamuraiEdit

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 Hogen 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 to establish the first samurai-dominated government and relegate the emperor to a mere figurehead. However, the Taira clan was still very aristocratic compared with the later 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.

The Taira and the Minamoto once again clashed 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 basing its rule in 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 customs like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats also began to adopt samurai skills. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the shogun and samurai.

Ashikaga Shogunate and the Feudal PeriodEdit

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

Zen Buddhism spread among samurai in the 13th century and it 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 the 13th century, the Yuan Dynasty, a Chinese state of the Mongol Empire, invaded Japan twice and the samurai, who were not used to fighting in groups, barely survived the first brief battle. However, they were prepared for the second invasion, building a defensive stone wall on the Mongols' landing shore and adopting night attack tactics. Overall, the Samurai way of warfare was incapable of inflicting significant damage upon the Mongol army, which favored tactics of large encirclement, blitzkrieg, and employed advanced weaponry (the Samurai were shocked by the Chinese grenades). In the end, it was the second typhoon that destroyed the Mongol armada, and prevented the Yuan Dynasty from annexation of Japan. The Japanese called the typhoon "the divine wind" or "kamikaze".


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

Two major military elements were learnt from the Mongol invasions: (1) the importance of infantry and (2) the weakness of Japanese longbows and conventional Samurai cavalry against invaders. As the result, the samurai gradually replaced the way of the bow with the way of "blades". At the beginning of the 14th century, swords and spears became the main form of weapon among Japanese samurai warlords.

In the 14th century a blacksmith called Masamune developed a two-layer structure of soft and hard for use in weapons. This structure gave the much improved cutting power and endurance and the production technique has led to Japanese swords being recognized as one of the most potent hand weapons of pre-industrial East Asia. Swords made using the technique were one of the country's top export items, a few even 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 (Naginata) or long lance, 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 Lusitanians/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, Japan invaded Korea with an army of 160,000 samurai in the Seven-Year War, taking great advantage of its mastery of guns.

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 TokugawaEdit

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.

Hasekura in Rome

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 and 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 ShogunateEdit

Samourai servante Itcho

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 emphasised. 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.

Samurai decline during the Meiji RestorationEdit

By this time, the Way of Death and Desparateness had been eclipsed by a rude awakening in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry's massive steamships from the US Navy first imposed broader commerce, American Style, on the once-dominant national policy. 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).


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

The last showing of the original samurai was in 1867 when samurai from Choshu 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).

Other sources claim that the last samurai were in 1877, during the Satsuma Rebellion in the Battle of Shiroyama.

The main players of the revolt came from lower class samurai in every province, with a common political goal:- to maintain the independence of Japan against Western powers. But the two daimyo clashed first and these bloody conflicts lasted for years. Ultimately they realized that a large civil war must be avoided because that was just what the foreign powers waited for. So the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu returned rulership to the emperor to avoid the civil war. Some resisted, believing this was a coup d'état by Choshu and Satsuma and that the government was in their hands. Groups of Tohoku samurai organized an armed resistance but they were eventually defeated.

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 RestorationEdit

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 well trained. As such the Imperial Army defeated a rebellion of samurai in the Satsuma Rebellion.

The Japanese Empire fought and won the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904) and it could be reasoned that these volunteers and officers were behind these victories. Most soldiers of both Chinese and Russian armies could neither read nor write and after their officers were killed, the armies quickly disintegrated.

Many early exchange students were samurai, 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. Other samurai entered governmental services as they were literate and well educated.


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 study harder.

Samurai NamesEdit

A samurai was usually named by combining one kanji from his father or grandfather and one new kanji. Many samurai were part of their name. Oda Nobunaga would therefore be officially called "Oda Kōzukenosuke Owarinokami Nobunaga" (織田上総介尾張守信長) and would be referred to as "Oda Kōzukenosuke" or "Oda Owarinokami".


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 and 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; that is, the loyalty that a samurai was required to show his lord.

Bushido, codified during Edo period, was the way of the samurai, yet 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 Honor 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.

The most famous book of kenjutsu, or sword fighting, dates from this period (Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, 1643). However, the larger part of the book is focused on the mentality of fighting. In an attempt to help develop the character needed to cope with moral demands that the practice of kenjutsu required many kenjutsu books from the Edo period also focused on spiritual issues.

Samurai WomenEdit

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, 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 would 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 his 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.

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 Chinese, and also tackled philosophical and literary classics. Nearly all female samurai were literate by the end of the Tokugawa period.


Samurai with weapons - Kusakabe, Kimbei, 1841-1934

Samurai with assorted weapons.

The samurai used various weapons, but the katana is the weapon that is synonymous with samurai. Bushido taught that a samurai's soul is in their katana and sometimes a samurai is pictured as entirely dependent on the katana for fighting. The katana was a symbol of being a samurai and in that role was of much greater importance than the katana as a weapon. This contrasted with the crossbows of Europe or the swords of knights which were, principally, tools for combat.

Upon reaching the age of thirteen, in a ceremony called Genpuku (元服), a male child was given a wakizashi, an adult name, and became a samurai. This also gave him the right to wear a katana though it was usually sealed to prevent its accidental drawing. 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 Tanto was a small dagger sometimes worn in place of the Wakizashi in a daisho. The tanto was used to commit seppuku.

The samurai stressed skill with the yumi (longbow), reflected in the art of kyudo. 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, and leather, was not as powerful as the Eurasian reflex composite bow, having an effective range of 50 metres or less (100 metres 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 the naginata from the battlefield as personal bravery became less of a factor and battles became more organized around massed, inexpensive foot troops. 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 tachi, a katana adapted for mounted combat. 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 later half of the 16th Century saw the introduction of the 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 as a dishonorable affront to Bushido tradition. Oda Nobunaga made deadly use of the arquebus 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 matchlock arquebus, or 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, with largely superior craftsmanship. 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.

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

Etymology of samurai and related wordsEdit


The kanji character 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 Kokinshu (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 (士)
    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 (兵)
    An old term for a soldier popularized by Matsuo Basho in his famous haiku. Literally meaning a strong person.

Samurai FilmsEdit

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