13 Things You Didn’t Know About Samurais -That Are Really Cool

These Japanese warriors certainly did things their own way

Samurais were -or were supposed to be- honorable warriors that fought for lord and country. A bit like Western knights. Small wonder they have captured the imagination of millions and have been widely romanticized in books and movies, but samurais really existed. They were warriors that grew powerful and took control of Japan’s government in the 12th century.

These are 13 things you probably did not know about the alluring samurais:

The beginning: private armies

While provincial governors were at the capital serving the emperor, their lands needed protection from bandits and bad neighbors. So in the 10thcentury these lords (daimyo) began rising private armies composed of warriors called samurais. There were other soldiers in the empire, but the term samurai was reserved for the warriors who served the nobles of the imperial court.

As time went by these private armies grew stronger, and by the 12th century the daimyos did a sort of coup d’etat. They kept the emperor as a figure head while real power went to a shogun, a military dictator. The shoguns set aside the aristocracy. In time a new nobility rose, formed by the shogun-supporting samurais.

In late medieval times about 5 or 6% of the population of Japan were samurais.

Decapitated heads as gifts

Painting. A man dressed in samurai armor stands in a battle field. He carries a severed head.
Samurai Onikojima Yataro Kazutada with the severed head of an enemy. Print by Kuniyoshi, 1853. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

In battle samurais decapitated their enemies. And they later presented the heads to their lord. For samurais always served a lord to whom they swore allegiance and obedience. The presentation of the heads was a highly ritualized ceremony.

First, the women cleaned the heads and combed their hair. They also blackened the teeth of the heads -for in older times black teeth were the sign of a distinguished man. Then, they tagged the head with its corresponding name. Finally, they mounted the head in a spike. Now clean and presentable, the heads were ready for the daimyo.

Ultra sharp swords

A blade
Katana from the 17th century. MET Museum. (Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/CCBY2.5)

Samurai’s swords were probably among the best of medieval times. They had a very sharp edge. During the tumultuous Sengoku period (1467-1567) some samurais would check if their swords were sharp enough by randomly beheading a bypasser on the road. It is not known if the practice, appropriately called “cutting down at crossroads” (tsujigiri), was widespread. In any case, it was abolished in 1597.

Two swords are better than one

Two curved swords with their corresponding scabbards.
A pair of swords, daisho, with their scabbards. 18th century. Only the highest ranking samurais could use two swords. (Ph: Los Angeles County Museum/Public domain)

There were three levels of samurai warriors. The lowest one, the gokenin, were vassals of the feudal lord. The second one was the goshi, who cultivated their land. And the third and higher tier was the hatamoto. The hatamoto were the only ones that could carry two swords (daisho). One sword was longer than the other. The longest was the katana that measured 60 cm (2 ft). The shorter one was the wakizashi that was 30 cm (1 ft) long. Both swords were slightly curved. Samurais could also carry a small knife, tanto, as a backup weapon. Other typically samurai weapons were the bow and arrow. Samurais learned martial arts, but the skills with the sword and the bow were deemed worthier. They fought on horseback.

Duels

Samurais considered that dueling was the most honorable way to fight. So during a battle they would look for enemies to duel with.

Honor code

Photo outdoors. Equestrian statue in bronze.
A statue of Kusunoki Masashige in Tokyo, Japan. Kusuoki, who lived in the 14th century, is remembered as the ideal, loyal samurai. (Photo: David Moore/CCBYSA2.5)

These warriors followed a strict, unwritten honor code. It was put in writing later on, in the 17th century, probably idealizing it a bit.

The honor code (bushido) was strongly influenced by Confucianism, and to a lesser extent by Zen Buddhism. Samurais were supposed to be honorable, brave, self-disciplined, respectful, and above all, loyal to their leader. They were in sharp contrast with say, the ninjas of the 15th century who were trained in a more “dishonorable” type of warfare. Ninjas would sneak into the enemies’ camp and use stealth, instead of frontal fighting, for assassinating and sabotaging.

Since honor was all important for samurais, they could not stand being insulted. They decapitated anyone who did so.

Samurai’s daughters learned to fight

Japan had 18 martial arts in samurai times. One of those martial arts, naginatajutsu, was based in the use of a spear (ko-naginata) which had a blade at one end.

The ko-naginata served to cut and push an enemy without getting too close. Women of the samurai class learned to use this weapon, along with a knife called the kaiken.

When their samurai husbands were away -which was quite often-, the women were in charge of the house. With their fighting skills they could protect themselves, their homes, and families. Women of samurai families were literate and well educated.

Samurais popularized the tea ceremony

A man dressed in gray clothes is preparing tea.
Genshitsu Sen serving tea. He is a Grand Master of the Urasenke Tea Tradition. 2007. (Photo: Republic of Poland/Public domain)

Buddhist monks drank tea to stay awake during meditation. And soon turned the whole tea-serving process into a ritual. So it was a Zen monk, Zeami, who initiated shogun Yoshimasa (15th century) into this tea ritual.

Yoshimasa was not that great as a shogun, but he was a cultured man that supported the arts. He immediately took a liking to the ritual and polished it: creating the tea ceremony that became popular throughout Japan.

Yoshimasa also popularized other things -that are now considered very Japanese- such as flower arrangements (ikebana), tatami floors, Noh theater, and monochrome ink paintings.

During the same period (Muromachi period, 1338-1573) the samurais took a liking to rock gardens. So soon everyone else in Japan copied the trend-setting samurais and created their own rock gardens.

Death before dishonor

If a samurai lost his honor or was defeated in battle, they were expected to commit suicide. Actually, high ranking samurais were supposed to either win or die. But if they lost a battle and survived, ritual suicide was a way to wash away the dishonor.

The ritual was called seppuku or hara kiri. To perform it, a samurai would wear white robes, then cut his abdomen from left to right with the tanto knife. If the samurai was feeling ultra courageous, he could then cut from the sternum downwards. Since that is a slow way to die, there usually was an attendant nearby, a kaishakunin, who would finish off the samurai by decapitating him with a sword. The ritual was performed in public. Only samurais of the highest ranks were expected to commit hara kiri.

When Japan lost World War II many Japanese soldiers chose seppuku over living through the defeat.

Death of the following

A woman in a kimono sits on the floor. She holds a knife and her legs are bound together with a cloth.
The wife of Onodera Junai, one of the “47 ronins,” about to kill herself after her husband’s death. Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1848. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

If their lord died, sometimes his samurais followed suit. This particular seppuku was called junshi or “death of the following.” Since the practice was quite widespread and it deprived the ranks of worthy warriors, it was outlawed several times by different daimyos, but not successfully.

Some women also practiced ritual suicide to follow their samurai husbands to death, or to avoid capture or dishonor. The female ritual was called jigai, and it involved severing the internal jugular vein in the neck with the tanto knife. Since this cut is a lot more efficient than the one in the abdomen, they performed it without assistance or witnesses.

Dragonfly as a symbol

A samurai’s armor showed his rank, the region he came from, and his family emblems and symbols. A usual symbol among the samurai was the dragonfly. Dragonflies cannot fly backwards, representing quite well the mentality of no retreat.

Ronin

Samurais were tightly bound to their leader. When the leader died or was killed, they were left master-less. These samurais were known as ronin, which lived in a kind of limbo. At times they rebelled and became a bit of an issue for the administrators of the empire. The most famous ronins are probably the ones known to history as the “47 ronins.”

In 1701 Asano Naganori, lord of Ako, was visiting Edo castle. While there, the chief of protocol of the shogun, Kira Yoshinaka, insulted Asano. Since samurais were supposed to defend their honor, Asano drew his sword. But it was an unwise move, for he was inside the castle, and drawing the sword within its bounds was forbidden. So the shogun asked Asano to commit seppuku, which he did. His 47 followers, now turned ronins, swore to take revenge on Kira. Two years later they decapitated him and put his head in their lord’s tomb. Because of their crime, the shogun sentenced them to death, either by execution or seppuku. They chose ritual suicide and were buried with their master at the Sengakuji temple.

Tamed samurais

During the Edo period (1603-1868) Japan pacified and the martial skills of the samurais became redundant. Out of a job, many of these highly educated noblemen became bureaucrats, teachers, intellectuals, artists.

And in 1868 the samurai caste came to an end, at least officially. It was eliminated during the Meiji Restoration.

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