Something about Samurai seems to capture the imagination of each successive generation just as much as those before. These Zen warriors, who lived by a strict code of honor, lived as a part of the military nobility which ruled feudal Japan, during the same time period in which Europe underwent its own medieval period (roughly the 9th to 14th centuries).
The Samurai rose to the height of their power in the 12th century, with the beginning of the country’s first military dictatorship (known as the shogunate). As servants of the daimyos (great lords), the samurai backed up the authority of the shogun and gave him power over the mikado (emperor). The samurai would dominate Japanese government and society until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 led to the abolition of the feudal system.
Meanwhile (and perhaps more importantly) the group also came to develop their own unique cultural attitudes toward how a person might define and live a “good” life. In their heyday, samurai were trained in military tactics, reading & writing, logic, and armed combat… all from a young age. They were (and are) renowned for their discipline, intelligence, and courage, and as a result their teachings are still commonly pursued today, in both everyday life and in modern Japanese martial arts.
Here are a few things you might not know about these legendary fighters.
30. Live by the Code
The samurai followed a code known as bushido, which translates in English as “the way of the warrior.” It was (an is) similar in its ethics to the notion of chivalry in the European tradition.
Interestingly, though, while the tenants of a Bushido lifestyle were observed by Samurai from their very beginnings as an order, the term itself only came into use somewhere between the 16th and 20th centuries. During that time period, scholars debated the exact parameters of the term, while acknowledging its roots in the already-ancient cultural practices that Samurai had been practicing for centuries.
29. Die by the Code
If a samurai failed to follow the bushido code or was captured by the enemy, they were expected to commit ritual suicide in a process known as seppuku, which involved self-disembowelment by his own hand followed by decapitation by an attendant. This was considered an extremely honorable way to die… albeit somewhat messy.
Writing in his best-selling book, Samurai: The World of the Warrior, historian Stephen Turnbull described the practical and spiritual role of seppuku in Feudal Japan like this:
In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it was an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony.
Although many people believe that samurai were a small, elite warrior force, akin to the modern-day Navy SEALS, they were actually an entire social class unto themselves. At the peak of their power, up to 10% of Japan’s population were samurai.
27. The Clothes Make the Samurai
Samurai were style-makers, influencing the fashion of the era. Although their clothing was elaborate, every aspect of it was designed to fit their needs as warriors. Their regular outfit consisted of wide hakama trousers and a kimono or a hitatare, a two-part vest which left the arms free and could quickly be removed in case of a surprise attack. The samurai fashion sense was just as sharp as their swords.
26. The Hair Up There
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of samurai fashion was the “Chonmage” hairstyle, which we recognize today as the topknot.
Although the look does have an aesthetic appeal, the original intention of those who wore it was decidedly practical: the high knot of hair at the back of the head helped to keep a samurai’s helmet on while engaged in combat.
25. A Comfortable Shave
In addition to the topknot, samurai would often partially shave their head to make it more comfortable to wear a helmet.
Herein we find the difference between the hairstyle choices of a true samurai, and the hilariously hipster guy you see in every single Starbucks in the world: while the samurai were more than willing to part with some hair (and style) in exchange for battle-preparedness, most of today’s topknot wearers would sooner part with a limb than their carefully maintained locks.
Except Tom Cruise
24. East Meets West
Although rare, Westerners could also become samurai… provided they had the support of a daimyo (a territorial lord) or the shogun (warlord). History knows of four Western men who were bestowed that honor: adventurer William Adams, his colleage Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, Navy officer Eugene Collache, and arms dealer Edward Schnell.
23. Memories of Onna-Bugeisha
Although “samurai” is a strictly masculine term, the Japanese bushi class (the social class which gave rise to the samurai) also included women who received similar martial training. These women were called “Onna-Bugeisha,” and they would participate in combat along with their male counterparts.
22. Just the Tip
The weapon of choice for a female samurai was the naginata, a spear with a curved, sword-like blade that was incredibly versatile, but also relatively light.
21. Battle of the Sexes
Although accounts of female samurai in historical texts were rare, recent research suggests that Japanese women participated in battles quite often. DNA tests revealed that 35 of the 105 bodies from the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580 were female. Other historical battlefields yielded similar percentages.
20. Bust a Move
Despite the ornate detail of samurai armor, which can make the ensemble seem more like elaborate stage costume than functional armor, each piece served an explicit purpose. Unlike the armor of a European knight, the samurai armor was designed for mobility.
As they say, it’s not proper samurai armor if you can’t pull off a great game of Dance Dance Revolution.
19. Hide Your Head
The kabuto helmet was the most complicated part of a samurai’s armor. Its bowl was made of riveted metal plates, the face and brow were protected by armor that tied around behind the head and under the helmet, and the neck guard protected the wearer from arrows and swords. This is good, because there’s not much that can ruin a samurai’s day more than an arrow to the neck.
18. Just For the Neck of It
The neck guard on Darth Vader’s helmet was actually inspired by the samurai’s kabuto helmet. Vader himself, on the other hand, was inspired by the loss of a great love. And all his limbs. In a volcano.
17. Making Faces
Many samurai helmets featured ornaments and attachable pieces, including masks with demonic features that served both to protect the face and frighten the enemy.
16. Taking Flak
If you’re looking for evidence that samurai armor was about more than just looks, just cast an eye to the influence their designs have had on modern warfare.
For example, the first modern flak-jacket (built by engineers for the U.S. army) had a designed based almost entirely on the contours of high-quality samurai armor.
15. Deadly Things Come in Small Packages
Although their armor made them seem imposing, samurai were actually fairly small humans, with the average 16th century samurai being 5’3” to 5’5” in height.
14. Straight to the Point
The samurai originally carried a sword called a “chokuto”, essentially a slimmer and smaller version of the straight swords used by medieval European knights.
13. Rock Those Curves
As sword-making techniques progressed, the swords that the samurai used became more curved, eventually evolving into the well-known katana, possibly one of the most famous swords in the world.
12. Double Trouble
Katanas were usually paired with a smaller blade (a wakizashi). The pair was known as a daisho.
11. Fight Smarter
Although samurai did fight with their katanas, swords were not the only weapons at their disposal. As heroic single combat gave way to intelligent group tactics, spears became a more commonplace weapon.
Similarly, samurai soon came to adopt the Yumi, a an incredibly large variety of longbow which would almost invariably stand taller than its user. These bows were typically constructed from laminated bamboo, and were designed to be asymmetrical. Theories as to why they were built this way abound, but one of the more compelling justifications is that the added springiness make it possible for a talented archer to shoot while crouched or kneeling.
10. This is My Rifle
Speaking of which, when gunpowder was invented, samurai abandoned the bows in favor of firearms and cannons, with their long-distance weapon of choice being the tanegashima, a flintlock rifle popular among Edo-era samurai.
9. Soul Calibur
Bushido (the samurai code) states that the samurai’s soul is in his katana, making it the most important weapon he carried.
8. That Special Student-Teacher Bond
Like the Spartans, samurai were very open minded when it came to same-sex relations. In fact, the practice (known as wakashudo) of an experienced samurai forming a relationship with a youth in training was encouraged and extremely common.
7. The Greatest Weapon is a Good Education
The majority of those in the samurai class were very well educated, with levels of literacy and mathematical skill being quite high, especially in comparison to Europeans of the same time-period.
You could say they were well-versed in the three Rs: readin’, ‘rithmetic, and rippin’ out the hearts of their enemies.
6. Arts and Crafts
In addition to reading and math, the Bushido code also dictated the samurai be well versed in the arts, and they participated in a number of artistic endeavors including poetry, rock gardens, ink paintings, flower arranging, and tea ceremonies. And before you make any snarky comments about flower arranging, just remember that these guys have swords and know how to use them.
While the Japanese were notoriously judgmental when it came to purity of race, the samurai were noticeably hairier and lighter-skinned, suggesting that they may have descended from an ethnic group called the Ainu, who, ironically, were considered inferior by the Japanese and were often the subject of discrimination.
It’s amazing what rigorous martial training and being armed to the teeth can do to inspire a better opinion of you.
4. Plenty of Fish
Samurai typically had marriages arranged by a third party of the same or higher rank. Most samurai married women from samurai families, but lower-ranked samurai could marry commoners. In those instances, a dowry was brought by the woman to eliminate debt, set up the new household, and to buy a ton of sushi.
3. Split Decisions
Divorce was permitted, but rare, because firstly, it would embarrass the third party who had arranged the marriage, and also because the samurai would have to return the dowry. Nothing prevents divorce more like having to give refunds.
2. The Last Samurai
The final samurai battle was arguably in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion in the Battle of Shiroyama. After that, a new government was installed who eliminated the samurai class.
1. The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
Because of their education, many of the samurai set down their swords and picked up pens, making the transition from warriors to reporters and writers, with some of them even setting up newspaper companies. They understood, even then, that you could cut deeper with the truth than with a sword.
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