The legend of the samurai warrior spawned a strong ideology in Japanese culture and a fascination in the West.  Americans’ interest in this class of warriors is such, a Samurai Warrior video game is a popular seller.  It is questionable as to how much of the legend the casual game-player is aware.  In the contemporary Western culture, it is perhaps hard to understand such a commitment to a code ethics a person is willing to die by his own sword when he fails that code.  It is an interesting piece of the history of Japan and of the Japanese culture.

The Origins of the Samurai Warrior

We must go all the way back to the rule of Emperor Tanji (Prince Naka no ÅŒe) in 646 A.D.  toSamurai Warrior; Source: MorguefileCredit: Source: Morguefile examine the beginnings of the Samurai.  He introduced the Taika Reform which increased taxes and in turn, created a class system of “those who have” and “those who do not.”   The Taiho Code of 702 A.D. further separated the classes.   This code introduced the draft and classified imperial bureaucrats into twelve ranks.  Originally, the samurai were those class of people who were ranked sixth or below; the public servants.  The wealthy land owners, the top ranked of the classes began to require protection of their assets and this led to the transition of the samurai class. Farmers who lost their lands were hired as protectors.  The samurai class made up only about ten percent of the population.[3]  The protectors, due to their class were called the samurai (meaning "those who serve in close attendance to nobility").

During the Heian period, the eighth and ninth centuries, Emperor Kammu wanted to expand his rule into the northern region; however, his armies were unable to conquer the Emishi people (those peoples of the Northern region).  In response, Emperor Kammu created the title of sei'i-taishōgun, or Shogun, which were equivalent to the position of general; and relied on the regional clans to subdue the Emishi.  These clans were comprised of the protecting samurai warriors and became the preferred unit for the Emperor to quell any rebellion.  During this period, the Shogun was strictly a military position and had no political power as he did centuries later. Over time, Emperor Kammu disbanded his Imperial army and his power gradually declined. 

Samurai of the Chosyu Clan; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photographer: Felice Beato (1832-1909)Credit: Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photographer: Felice Beato (1832-1909)

In the ensuing power vacuum created by weak Emperors, the already powerful clans became more powerful and by 1000 A.D. the warrior class of the clans and their shoguns were in control of Japan. The two prominent rivals were the Minamoto and Taira clans.  In 1160 the two powerful clans clashed in the Heiji Rebellion and the Taira clan claimed victory. The warrior, Taira no Kiyomori became the imperial advisor and he eventually took over control of the central government. This essentially established the first government dominated by samurai and relegated the emperor to the status of a mere figurehead.

 Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsIn 1180 the two clans clashed again, starting the Gempei War.  This time, Minamoto no Yoritomo was the victor and he established the samurai as superior over the aristocracy. He  went to Kyoto, became the Shogun and established the Kamakura Shogunate which was a military government.  Over the following years, the samurai became warrior nobility and began to adopt many of the pastimes previously limited to the aristocracy.  In turn, some of the aristocracy took on some of the customs of the samurai.  At that point, the real power lay in the hands of the Shogun and the samurai.

The Divine Wind

During the reign of the Kamakura nd the Ashikaga Shogunates, various samurai clans fought for power.   In the 13th century the samurai began to follow the teachings of Zen Buddhism and they began to live by the Bushido Code,  an unwritten code of ethics which translates to “the way of the warrior.”[3] Influenced by the religious teachings of Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism, the Code had seven virtues by which guided the warrior’s life:[5]

  1. Rectitude (GI) (required conforming to the regulations of principles by adhering to what is righteous and morally right.)
  2. Courage (YU)
  3. Benevolence (JIN) (a desire to do well to others)
  4. Respect (REI) (considered a personal quality brought about by honor, admiration and a high regard)
  5. Honesty (MAKOTO)
  6. Honor (MEIYO) (integrity in ones beliefs and actions)
  7. Loyalty (CHUGI) (faithful commitment to government, country, laws, a person or a cause)

Also during this period in history, in nearby China, the Mongols were in rule during the Yuan Dynasty and looking to expand.  In 1274, the Mongols sent a force to invade the northern region of Japan and in response Japan sent a paltry 10,000 samurai to thwart the attack.  Major thunderstorms aided the warriors and the Mongols called off the attack.  The Japanese determined the risk was high the Mongols would attack again and built a wall around Hakata Bay.

In 1281, a Mongolian army 140,000 men and 5,000 ships strong gathered for another attempt at invasion. The Northern region of Japan responded with a force of 40,000 men.  The Mongols had not yet landed when a typhoon hit the north which devastated the Mongolian forces.  At Hakata Bay, the barrier was defended as well and the Mongols recalled their armies.

The winds that “saved” Japan were soon called “kami-no-kaze,” translated to “wind of the gods.”  This soon became simply “divine wind.”   The winds supported the Japanese belief that their lands were protected by divine and supernatural powers.

Before the 14th century division of succession was designated by law, but during the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates, it became more common for the firstborn son to inherit the entire estate at the exclusion of younger siblings. To avoid the infighting, it was common to invade neighboring samurai territories.  The fighting became a big headache for the Shogunates.

In 1336 the Ashikaga Shogunate was in power and it is during this time period the territorial lords, called daimyos, began to assert their authority.  In 1464 when Ashikago Yoshimassa resigned, fighting ensued amongst possible successors and the daimyos led to the Onin War.[14]  The war led to the Sengoku or “the Warring States Period.”

Oda Nobunaga; painting by Giovanni Nicolao; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons One of the more prominent lords during the Sengoku Period was Oda Nobunaga.  He was able to make many innovations in war strategies and developed industry and commerce in Japan. He conquered Ashikaga and was able to disarm the Buddhist monks who had fueled fighting among the population for centuries.  Oda Nobunaga was conquered and assassinated by one of his own generals, Akechi Mitshuhide, in 1582. It was another general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, however, who ruled as a grand minister or regent until 1598.



The Decline of the Samurai

During Hideyoshi’s rule, he exiled the Tokugawa clan from his region of rule and brought forth a law which made the samurai caste permanent and hereditary. According to his new law Samurai Castle; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsnon-samurai were not allowed to carry weapons.  By 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu had defeated all of the other western daimyo and came back into power. He based his headquarters in Edo, which was later named Tokyo.[14]  In 1605 his son Hidetada became the shogun and Japan experienced peace for over two centuries.  During the change between rulers, a number of samurai were defeated in battle and destroyed.  Many others went back into the general population and others went ronin (a samurai with no lord or master).  

During the Tokugawa rule, the samurai became administrators and bureaucrats as there was Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu; Photo courtesy of Brücke-Osteuropa, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of Brücke-Osteuropa, Source: Wikimedia Commonslittle need for warriors during the peacetime.  The swords became more symbolic than used.  The samurai class was required to read Confucius and Mencius so most were educated contrary to the early samurai warriors.  The Bushido Code still drove the conduct of the samurai and in turn, their behavior was a role model for the other social classes.[3]  Without having to spend time in battle, many of the warriors spent time on scholarly endeavors.

Before long, the reign of the Samurai warriors was coming to an end; first came the arrival of Commodore Mathew Perry and with him, the influence of the West.  The Japanese military was modernized and some officers educated and trained in the West.  In 1868, the original samurai fought the Tokugawa Shogunate forces to return power to the emperor.

Emperor Meiji made sweeping changes and abolished the samurai in favor of a modernized conscripted military force.  Some of the warrior class became shizoku, meaning “warrior families” which was a separate class from the Kazoku (a merge of the aristocratic and Daimyo classes) and the Heimin (the commoners).  The former samurai, now the shizoku, retained some of their salaries, but could no longer wear their katanas in public nor could they execute commoners who were disrespectful (as they had in the past).  After World War 2, the term shizoku was abolished under the Japanese Constitution of 1947.[3]  Officially, the samurai no longer existed.

The samurai did make one last effort to regain their status by forming under Takamori Saigo and challenging the Imperial Army in 1877. About 20,000 rebels faced 60,000 troops of the central government.  Against the modernized army with superior weapons, the rebels had little hope.  When Saigo Takamori was wounded and committed suicide as was the tradition, the rebels followed his example.[16]

Weapons of the Samurai Warriors

The warriors in feudal Japan used several different types of weapons, but none are more Samurai Swords; Photo courtesy of Ingersoll, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of Ingersoll, Source: Wikimedia Commonssynonymous with the samurai as is the sword.  The warrior had different types of swords in his arsenal. Usually, the warrior carried both a short and a long sword.  The most commonly owned and used sword was the katana.  Companion swords were the wakizashi and the tantō.[3] Worn together, the combination was called the daishō which means “big and small.”   During the rule of Tokugawa (also called the Edo period) the samurai were allowed to wear a daisho.  In the early years the katana was straight and it was only after seeing how the Emish used a curved sword which was easier to inflict wounds from the back of a horse, did the katana change to a curved blade.  The blade of the katana is over 24 inches long; the longest type of sword used.  It was swung with the blade facing up and took both hands to handle it.[7]

The tachi came before the katana and has a bigger curve.  The tachi was worn with the balde facing down and was usually worn when on horseback.  The wazikashi is a short sword and was tucked in the side of the arm. It was rarely removed and served as an emergency sword. The tanto is either single or double edged and is a knife or dagger.  O katana swords, meaning “great” or “large” are a little longer than normal katanas and were made for higher ranked samurai.[7]

The yumi or longbow, was a weapon used frequently until the firearm was brought to Japan. The elite warriors prided themselves in the ability and skill needed to use the longbow.  Mastering the longbow gave them prestige and honor. The weapon was most often used from horseback and more for hunting once the firearm was introduced. 

The yari and naginata were the spears of the samurai. The blades on the yari are straight but the sides very sharp and the weapon could be used for thrusting or cutting.  It was not the preferred weapon of the samurai, but was used frequently by the militant monks.  During the era of the Taira and Minamoto clans, the preferred weapon was the naginata.  This weapon is a large curved blade on a long pole.  The most common embellishment on the yari and naginata was the family crest which may be on both the poles and the scabbards (shira-saya or “white scabbard” were means of storing the precious blades, especially of the katana).[7]

Other weapons employed by the Samurai included the tanegashima (Japanese matchlock which was  a firearm), cannons, staff weapons of a variety of length and shape usually made from a hard wood, clubs and truncheons made of iron and/or wood of all shapes and sizes, and various types of chain weapons.[3]


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The Armor of the Samurai

The armor of the warrior served several purposes:

  • to protect the warrior from harm
  • to identify his clan
  • to identify his rank

Identification (both clan and rank) was achieved through the color, width and pattern of the lacing of the breastplate.[6]

Samurai in Full Armor; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe armor was intricately detailed and expensive, taking up to a year to put together.[6]  It was considered a great gift when sent to leaders of nations.  The main portion of the early armor was the breastplate which came in parts requiring it be to laced together.  Lacing the breastplate together was considered a form of art and was called odoshi.  Tight and detailed lacing patterns were reserved for those of higher rank.

Over the years the single breastplate evolved to include more protective pieces for the warrior. A full body suit of armor for a samurai was known to have over twenty pieces.[6]  A face mask and helmet were added as well as sleeves for the arms and gloves for the hands, shoulder guards, and greaves for the legs.  A skirt or apron, called the kusasuri, further protected the thighs.  The shin guards were called suneate.[6]  The armor was so heavy the samurai had to be strong to withstand wearing it for long periods of time.

The Seppuku

Preserving integrity and honor was an important aspect of the samurai’s concept of life.  The performance of seppuku (ritual term for suicide or Hara-kiri in Japanese) was the ultimate demonstration of honor and integrity for the elite samurai warriors. The term seppuk literally means “stomach cutting.”[11]

When performing the ritual, the warrior must keep composure. Location for a formal procedure was typically at the temple, inside homes, or in the garden.  The size of the site reflected the rank of the samurai.  The ceremony was carried out with an assistant who was usually a close acquaintance or associate, would cut off the head after the hara-kiri .[11]

Feudal lords and Shoguns were typically the ones who could order a soldier to commit seppuku. When ordered, the ritual required witnesses and a great deal of preparation.  On the battleground, the soldiers rarely hesitated to perform the ritual if they deemed it necessary to fulfill their duty. Other reasons to perform the ceremony included as a way to show disrespect towards the enemy, to protest and get their superior to reassess his decision, or in order to save others.[11] 

However, contrary to popular belief and the myth of the samurai, not all would carry through with the ritual.  And not all samurai were fully committed to the Code.  Like any other groups in the world, the majority did indeed follow the Bushido Code to the letter, but there were those who were cowardly, deceitful and disloyal.  One example is the afore mentioned general, Akechi Mitsuhide.

Samurai were usually loyal to their immediate superiors.  Loyalties by the superiors to higher lords often shifted to whomever they believed offered the best advantage and therefore the samurai were taken along.  It is also evident some warriors shifted loyalty when they deemed the emperor was more powerful than their lord or daimyo.[3]

The Mythical Samurai of Today

The romanticizing of the entire samurai culture has created a world for today’s game players Samurai Demonstration; Photo courtesy of user kendobr, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of user kendobr, Source: Wikimedia Commonsand collectors.  The legendary warriors show up in comic books, movies, cartoons, and anime not only in Japan, but in the United States as well. Martial arts enthusiasts are often interested in the culture and it is common for sword collectors to covet the daisho.

While it is rare for anyone to commit seppuku today, the legend of the samurai warriors lives on in the imagination and media of the new generation.  In the first video below, photographs depict the culture and lifestyle of the samurai warriors.  The photos were taken in the final days of the class status. Some of the photos are dated to the Meiji period; many were taken in 1880s and show former samurai or commoners posing as such.  The last few photos are of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Japan's last Shogun and the famous reformer, Sakamoto Ryoma.   The seated man in police uniform is of the new Police force.  The last photo shows the European military reformers and the westernized Japanese officers. Several of these photos are credited to Italian photographer Felice Beato and his pupil, Raimund von Stillfried. (according to youtube uploader, Toyotomi).


The copyright of the article The Legend of the Samurai Warrior is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.


Samurai Photographs of the Nineteenth Century

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