The legendary armored warrior of Japan, the Samurai, has played an important part of military history of Japan in the pre-industrial era. The Samurai warrior code and honor system known as Bushidō continued beyond the time when the samurai social class was abolished in 1876.
The word samurai means to serve and feudal war lords circa 7th century used conscription to develop a warrior class from the farming peasant class. Eventually it was organized to begin training from childhood and becoming a warrior class for life. The Samurai rose from peasant conscript warriors to an honorable and formidable professional warrior and became the upper class of society. Even after the Samurai were abolished in the 19th century, the weaponry and code of honor and character were continued in the training of martial arts.
The Bushidō ideology originated with Kojiki written in 712 when Emperor Keiki reigned. The concept of use and admiration of well-made swords is found in the Shoku Nihongi, an early history of Japan written in 797. The ideals of Bushidō in literature becomes abundant from the 13th to 16th centuries when the samurai had become part of the educated upper class established and made famous in the conflict between the Minamoto and Taira clans known as the Gempei War.
The Code of the Samurai was originally passed down verbally, but as time passed it became written with seven main codes of virtue:
Education and Training of a Samurai
As mentioned the samurai warrior began their career as children, attending a samurai school of discipline combining physical training, Chinese studies, poetry, and spiritual discipline. Young warriors studied several types of weaponry, the sword focused upon as the main weapon called Kendo, meaning the Way of the Sword; as well as the moral code of the samurai and Zen Buddhism. The strict code of ethics derived from Confucianism stressing loyalty to one’s master, respect for one’s superior and self-discipline. Both boys and girls were trained as samurai, although women usually did not fight directly on the battlefield, but instead defended homes and villagers against invaders.
The manner in which a samurai died was important, suicide being preferred rather than humiliation at the hands of the enemy, if they could not fall in battle or there was a danger of being captured, the samurai warrior chose ritual suicide called seppuku.
After the unification of Japan under one emperor over the feudal warlord system, the samurai was required less frequently; but they continued to train daily. As townspeople gained wealth, the samurai was barred from commerce activities and so without being paid for services in war, peace became despairing. Some samurai became rogues, called Ronan, which meant they served no master and were for hire.
Samurai distinguished themselves in society by their hair styling with long hair pulled back and tied in a knot called a chomage. Often samurai would shave the top of their heads, which reduced the heat from their heavy helmets with their hair hanging straight on the sides. When not wearing helmets, their hair was tied into the chomage.
Samaria’s clothing was important and indicated their status in society. Colorful patterns or outlandish styling was considered immodest and a sign of conceit. Daily clothing consisted of the kimono, usually of an inner and outer layer normally made of silk and heavier material in winter weather. Beneath the kimono, the samurai wore a loincloth called a fundoshi. Sandals (waraji) or wooden clogs (geta) were the preferred footwear. Samurai sometimes wore socks, especially in the cold season.
Samurai swords were kept in a belt wrapped around the waist and always worn on the left side. Samurai always had two swords, a long sword called katana and a short sword (wakizashi) that were made by legendary Japanese sword smiths who developed sword making into an art. They wanted sharp edges but unbreakable, steel being the metallurgical element, it was difficult to achieve. The sword smith had to solve the problem of hard steel that has a sharp edge is brittle and steel that doesn’t break is soft steel but does not hold a sharp edge. So they took four metal bars, two hard and two soft steel, heating them together at a high temperature, hammering together into a long rectangular bar becoming the sword blade. The sword smith then ground and honed a razor-sharp edge, the soft layer of steel ensuring it wouldn’t break.
During the golden age of the samurai between the 13th and 17th centuries, the Samurai sword was valued as art and master craftsman Muramasa was said to have forged a sword so sharp that when held upright in a flowing stream the edge cut a dead leaf in two as the current pushed it against the blade. The wakizashi was the samurai’s soul sword, which a bushi (warrior) would take the head of an honored opponent after killing him or use it to disembowel his self in the act of seppuku (hara-kiri) and his second (kaishaku) would cut off the samurai’s head to end the pain quickly.
Sometimes the katana was carried slung on the samurai’s back and the short sword belted on the left side.
One of the most renowned swordsmen, famous for fighting with two swords at once, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote in his book The Book of Five Rings:
The science of martial arts for warriors requires construction of various weapons and understanding the properties of the weapons. A member of a warrior family who does not learn to use weapons and understand the specific advantages of each weapon would seem to be somewhat uncultivated.
Samurai in training would learn the correct method of drawing and using the sword, as written in Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto in 1716:
If you cut by standing firm and not missing the chance, you will do well.
The five basic blows used in Kenjutsu, used today in kendo are from top to bottom; left to right; right to left; side to side; and a straight thrust aimed at the throat. As Musashi wrote:
If we know the path of the sword well, we can wield it easily.
Zen Buddhism was deeply embedded in the education of a samurai, imported from China. Applied to the mastery of the sword, the samurai’s thoughts and actions must be instantaneous, together as one. Zen master Taisen Deshimaru in The Zen Way to the Martial Arts, stated:
Intuition and action must spring forth at the same time.
The key to wielding a sword in quickness is focus upon nothing except the task at hand. Yagyu Munemori wrote:
The heart of the samurai is like a mirror, empty and clear.
In a sense, the samurai warrior became a symbol of the perfect warrior. When two samurai dueled, sometimes the two warriors would draw and slash simultaneously dealing death blows to both.
The second important weapon for a samurai was the Yumi, a bow made of composite wood or bamboo, laminated to protect it from the elements. Arrows were made of bamboo. They were longbows and its strength was measured by how many men were required to string it.
Yari were the spears or polearms used in various ways. The variety of techniques was called Yarijutsu, the use of the spear. If the samurai was mounted, the yari could be used to deal slashing strokes from a distance.
The nodachi was a two-handed sword that looked like a giant katana; one warrior by the name of Makara Naotaka used a nodachi that had a five-foot long blade.
The kanabo or tetsubo was a wooden club wrapped in iron with iron studs. It looked like a baseball bat and was used for breaking swords, horse’s legs and serious trauma even to armored opponents. [I]
Kama was an inventive weapon probably developed early when farmers were trained to be samurai, a farming tool resembling the western sickle. A left- and right-hand Kama was made and used simultaneously just as the long and short sword and is still used in martial arts training today.
While not a weapon, samurai’s defense was their armor, designed to be as light as possible in order to move freely and quickly – an advantage against rigid heavier armor of opponents; their headgear was full helmets decorated to resemble a fierce demon, frightening to opponents.
Another bladed weapon was the tanto, a dagger used for close quarters usually concealed for surprise attacks.
When a warrior was wounded and survived, in most cases bled to death from the wounds of razor-sharp blades, treatment was primitive. In a 14th century medical manual, the following is the treatment for stomach wounds:
Cover the intestines with dried feces, then close the wound with mulberry sutures and spread cat-tail pollen over the area. Activities to be avoided were anger, laughter, thought, sex, activity, work, sour foods and sake.
The feces were most often horse dung.
One of the most famous samurai in Japanese history was a woman, a warrior of the Genpei War from 1180 to 1185.
Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversize sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors. [II]
Minamoto no Yoshinaka was Tomoe’s master and after defeating the Heike he took Kyoto to become the leader of the Minamoto clan. Yoritomo, his cousin, sought to stop Yoshinaka so he sent his brothers Yoshitsune and Noriyori to kill him. Yoshinaka and Yoritomo warriors fought the Battle of Awazu on February 21st, 1184, where it was said that Tomoe Gozen took the head of one of the enemy. Yoshinaka’s samurai fought bravely, but were outnumbered and were defeated. With only a few of his soldiers left, Yoshinaka told Tomoe Gozen to flee because he wanted to die with his brother Imai no Shiro Kanehira, a half-brother. She left the battlefield and sometime later became a Buddhist nun in Echizen. Different stories have filtered down in history, but she is a real historical figure.
Tomoe Gozen has been immortalized in many ways, such as a character in the novel and 2010 miniseries film entitled Riverworld where she is depicted wielding two swords in the style of Musashi Miyamoto and the Go Rin No Sho of the Book of Five Rings.
Gozen was not her surname, but given as an honorary title to women, thus Tomoe-Gozen. [III]