Home Japan Travel GuideThe Samurai and the Bushido

The Samurai and the Bushido

The samurai are one of the most striking symbols of Japan. This class of proud, highly-trained warriors became famous all over the world and entered its imagination thanks to their portrait in popular culture, especially in the movies of Akira Kurosawa.

The samurai were a class of noble warriors who played a major role in keeping the long-lasting power of their shogun, the head of the army. They played an important role in Japanese society until the end of the 19th century, when the Meiji restoration ended their long history. Nowadays, they are one of the most fascinating examples of Japanese culture.

Check out our short article and learn more about the samurai!

Quick facts

  • The samurai were respected members of society, highly-skilled warriors, serving a feudal lord (daymio).
  • Their history began during the late Heian period (13th-14th century).
  • The long history of the samurai ended with the Meiji restoration who aimed to transform Japan into a modern country.
  • The katana and the armor are a universally recognized symbol of the samurai.
  • The Bushido codifies the way of life of the samurai, directing their actions with wisdom, benevolence and patience.

Samurai

The samurai were among the most famous warriors of the entire planet. They also were one of the most important and most respected social classes of Japanfor almost six centuries. The shogun, who de facto ruled the country until the Meiji restoration, relied on them to keep his power, and thanks to them Japan won many wars.

However, they were outlawed by the modernization of the country.They thentravelled abroad to use their knowledge to open schools and became respected intellectuals.

Origin of the Term

In 663 AD, Japanese aristocracy adopted the political structure and bureaucracy of the Tang Dynasty, and this resulted in the creation of a ranking for imperial bureaucrats. There were 12 ranks, and those of the 6th rank or below were named “samurai”. They were civilian public servants who had to deal with day-to-day affairs, and it is believed that the modern word derives from this term.

Early History

During the Heinan period (8th century), Emperor Kanmu introduced the title of shogun (head of the army). Each shogun was the chief of an armed clan who could help the Emperor during wars.

Around 1170, two of the most powerful clans were Minamoto and Taira, who clashed together to fight for power. In1185 the Minamotoclan won the battle and Minamoto no Yoritomo established the superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy and established the Kamakura shogunate. The samurai, organized by Yoritomo, became one of the ruling classes in Japan.

Rise of the Samurai

During this period, Japanese smiths developed their techniques and started using laminated or piled steel, using layers of steel of different composition and different heat treatments. This technique was perfected around the 14th century by the famous swordsmith Masamune, and his swords, the katana, became famous all over the world.

During the following two centuries, the Japanese war tactics developed greatly, especially thanks to the work of Oda Nobunaga. The country, after centuries of division and wars, was finally reunited and in 1586, the Grand Minister declared the samurai class as permanent and hereditary, and the only one allowed to carry weapons. They lived in castle towns and were paid in rice by their daimyo (feudal lord). A samurai without a daimyo was called ronin.

Edo Period (17th – 18th century)

During this peaceful period, the importance of martial arts declined, and many samurai became courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators. They became scholars, and their behavior became a model for the other social classes.

Modern Era (19th century)

However, the peace of the Edo period was about to end with the arrival of Matthew Perry, an American commodore, in 1853. Japan was forced to open its borders to trade, and the rulers understood the necessity of  modernization of the country.

The following years saw a general modernization of the army and by 1867, the Japanese navy possessed eight western-style warships. The samurai fought one of their last battles during the Boshinwar, fought by the clans of Chōshū and Satsuma against the shogunate to restore imperial power and reunite the country still divided into feudal domains.

End of the Samurai (1873)

With the end of the Boshin war, the Emperor regained his full power, and the samurai were abolished. They could no longer carry a katana in public, and they lost their political influence. Japan established a western-style army, and samurai were employed both as soldiers and as officers. They were still highly motivated and disciplined.

As well-learned scholars, the samurai started studying abroad, started private schools, or became reporters, writers, or respected members of the government. 

Armor

The samurai armor is a distinctive feature of these proud warriors. The first kind of Japanese armor identified as samurai armor was the yoroi, made of small individual scales of iron or leather. They were bound together into small strips resistant to water, and a complete armor weighed around 66 lbs.

With the advent of firearms, the samurai needed a new armor. The plate armor was then introduced, with new pieces for the face, thighs and back. The helmet, kabuto, was an important part, used also to scare the enemy; and it was paired with other parts to protect the head and the neck (respectively shikoro and fukigaeshi). Under the armor, the samurai used to wear a garment called fundoshi (loincloth).

The samurai armor kept changing through the centuries to adapt to new war tactics, and their last known use occurred in 1877, during the battle of Satsuma, the last battle ever fought by samurai.

Weapons

The typical weapon of the samurai is the katana, characterized by a curved, single edged blade and a long grip to accommodate two hands. The word “katana” actually comes from the Portuguese catana, that means “long sword”.

The samurai used to carry a katana along with another, smaller sword (a tanto or a wakizashi). The two swords together, as worn by the samurai, were called daishō, which is the result of the combination of two words: daitō (long sword), and shōtō (short sword).

In daily life, the samurai were the only ones allowed to carry weapons. During wars, many other weapons were used, for example: the yumi (a longbow), pole weapons like the yari (Japanese spear), matchlocks introduced by the Portuguese, and cannons.

Bushido

The word “bushido” refers to the code that dictated the life of the samurai, somewhat resemblingthe European chivalry. A samurai was guided by his moral values, emphasizing honesty, loyalty and honor. The bushido stems from Confucian texts:The violent life of the samurai was tempered by patience and wisdom, and the relationship with the lordis seen as pivotal;a samurai felt the obligation of being loyal to his lord, no matter what.

Other influences in the formation of the “way” are Buddhism, Zen philosophy, and Shinto. Zen meditation was important to calm one’s mind and have full control of the body, while Buddhist concepts helped the samurai to give up needless violence (some also became monks).

It became such an important part of Japanese culture, that during the last shogunate before the Meiji restoration, some aspects of it became formalized into the Japanese feudal law.

History

The term “bushido” appeared in text during the Edo period, and the literature about the philosophy of war developed during the 13th and the 14th centuries, focusing on the ideal of the cultivated warrior, role models for later generations.

After 1600, Japan knew a long period of peace, and the bushido literature developed advanced thought about general application of marital principles and experience in peacetimes. YamagaSoko attempted to codify a universal bushido, but his radical concepts were neglected until the rise of nationalism in the 20th century. 

Eight Virtues of Bushido

The principles of bushido can be summarized by eight virtues:

  • Righteousness (義 gi): Be honest and believe in justice.
  • Heroic Courage (勇 ): Hiding is never the answer!A warrior must face battles and difficulties in an intelligent way.
  • Benevolence, Compassion (仁 jin): The power of the samurai must be used for good, and warriors have to help other people.
  • Respect (礼 rei): Respecting others is a way to be respected. There is no need to prove one’s strength.
  • Honesty (誠 makoto): A samurai has to keep his promises, perform his duties. Speaking and doing are one.
  • Honor (名誉 meiyo): The only judge of the warrior is his ownhonor. Decisions they make are a reflection of who they really are.
  • Duty and Loyalty (忠義 chūgi): A warrior is responsible for his words and actions. They are infinitely loyal to their loved ones.
  • Self-Control (自制 jisei): A warrior must cultivate self-control and not lose his temper, evenwhen in danger.

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The solemnity of samurai warriors is still palpable in Japan, with dozens of museums and parades celebrating them. Don’t wait any longer;the samurai are waiting for you! Start planning your next trip to Japan now with the help of our professional staff.We will craft the perfect itinerary for you and your family, ensuring you a hassle-free vacation.

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