Samurais were 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. And here are 13 cool facts you probably did not know about the alluring Japanese samurais:
1. The beginning: samurais in private armies
The first fun samurai fact is that while provincial governors were at the capital serving the emperor, their lands needed protection from bandits and bad neighbors. So in the 10th century these lords (daimyo) began rising private armies composed of warriors called samurais. There were other soldiers in the Japanese 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 figurehead while real power went to a shogun, a military dictator. The shoguns set aside the traditional aristocracy. And in time a new nobility rose, formed by the shogun, they daimyos, and their supporting samurais.
In late medieval times about 5 or 6% of the population of Japan were samurais.
2. Samurais thought decapitated heads made great gifts
Samurai fun fact numero dos: In battle samurais decapitated their enemies. And they later presented the severed heads to their lord, as gifts. 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.
3. Samurais used ultra sharp swords
Samurai’s swords were probably among the best in 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 passerby on the road. It is not known how widespread this practice, appropriately called “cutting down at crossroads” (tsujigiri), was. In any case, it was abolished in 1597.
4. Two swords are better than one
There were three levels of samurai warriors. The lowest one, the gokenin, were vassals of the feudal lord. The middle one was the goshi, who cultivated their land. And the third and higher tier was the hatamoto. Samurai fun fact #4: The hatamoto were the only ones allowed to carry two swords (called daisho when together). 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.
5. Samurais loved dueling
Samurais considered that dueling was the most honorable way to fight. So during a battle they would look for single worthy enemies to duel with.
6. Samurais had a strict honor code
A better known samurai fact is that 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.
7. 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 their homes, their families, and themselves. Women of samurai families were literate and well educated.
8. Samurais popularized the tea ceremony
Buddhist monks drank tea to stay awake during meditation. And soon turned the whole tea-serving process into a ritual. A Zen monk, Zeami, 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. He was also into flower arrangements (ikebana), tatami floors, Noh theater, and monochrome ink paintings. Soon, of course, his samurai court was also creating flower arrangements and drinking tea. And then everyone else in Japan copied the trend-setting samurais. These arts, along with the tatami floors, became so popular that are now considered emblematic of Japan.
9. Suicide before dishonor
If a samurai lost his honor or was defeated in battle, they were expected to commit suicide. In fact, 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.
10. Death of the following or massive suicides
Another interesting samurai fact is that if their lord died, sometimes his warriors 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.
11. 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.
12. Ronin, the rebel samurais
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 to trick him. 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.
13. Samurais got tamed
And the last samurai fact: during the Edo period (1603-1868) Japan was 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.