Hand-coloured print from the 1870s
Hand-coloured print from the 1870s
(Photo: Peabody Museum, Harvard)

Samurai, Japanese warriors

The word samurai has origins in the pre-Heian period, being derived from the classical Japanese verb saburau, meaning to serve or attend. It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai became replaced with samurai. However, by then, the meaning had already long before changed.

During the era of the rule of the samurai, the earlier term yumitori (“bowman”) was also used as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even when swordsmanship had become more important. Japanese archery (kyujutsu), is still strongly associated with the war god Hachiman.

The following terms are related to samurai or the samurai tradition:

  • Buke (武家) – A martial house or a member of such a house
  • Mononofu (もののふ) - An ancient term meaning a warrior.
  • Musha (武者) - A shortened form of bugeisha (武芸者), lit." martial art man."
  • Shi (士) - A word roughly meaning "gentleman," it is sometimes used for samurai, in particular in words such as 武士 (bushi, meaning warrior or samurai).
  • Tsuwamono (兵) - An old term for a soldier popularized by Matsuo Bashō in his famous haiku. Literally meaning "a strong person."
Natsugusa ya
tsuwamono-domo ga
yume no ato


Summer grasses,
All that remains
Of soldiers' dreams

Translated by Lucien Stryk


The samurai used various weapons. Bushidō taught that a samurai's soul is in the katana that they carried. Sometimes a samurai is pictured as entirely dependent on the katana for fighting. This is, much like difference between the role of a crossbow in medieval Europe and the role of sword to a knight, a symbol of being samurai rather than the actual importance of katana itself. Upon reaching the age of thirteen, in a ceremony called genpuku (元服), a male child was given a wakizashi (脇差) and an adult name and became a samurai. This also gave him the right to wear katana though it was usually sealed with strings to prevent accidental drawing of a katana. Wielding both, the katana and the wakizashi together is called daishō (大小, lit. "big and small").

Samurai displaying their weapons
Samurai displaying their weapons
(19th century photography).

The samurai's weapon of choice was a yumi (弓, compound bow), and it remained unchanged for centuries until the introduction of gunpowder and rifle in the 16th century. A Japanese style compound bow was a powerful weapon. Its size made it possible to shoot various projectiles like fire arrows and signal arrows over a distance of 100 metres with accuracy, over 200 metres when accuracy was not an issue. It was usually used on foot behind a tedate (手盾), a large wooden shield, but it could be used even from horseback. The practice of shooting from horseback became a Shintō ceremony of yabusame (流鏑馬). In battles against Mongolian invaders, these compound bows were the decisive weapon outdistancing smaller compound bows and crossbows that Chinese and Mongolian preferred. Mongolians lacked horses that they had used so devastatingly against opponents and were forced to fight on foot, reducing their effectiveness.

In the 15th century, the yari (槍, spear) also became a popular weapon. It displaced the naginata from the battlefield as personal bravery became a less of a factor and battles became organized. It was simpler and more deadly than a katana. A charge, mounted or dismounted, was more effective when using a spear and it offered better than even odds against a samurai using a katana. In the Battle of Shizugatake where Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then known as Hashiba Hideyoshi, the Seven Spearmen of Shizugatake (賤ヶ岳七本槍) played a crucial role in the victory.

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the weapons of the samurai is whether they ever charged on horseback. Horses of that time were smaller yet durable but it was questionable how well they would perform carrying heavily armored samurai. A traditional belief held that samurai mainly fought on horseback acting as heavy cavalry and charged through hapless foot soldiers. It is currently believed that they mainly fought on foot and used horses for transportation and only occasionally charged on disarrayed and retreating enemies. The Battle of Nagashino was one of such battle where samurai supposedly charged on horseback.

After the matchlock rifle was introduced from Europe, samurai started practicing this weapon. It became the favorite weapon for sniping on the battle field as samurai were awarded for every enemy he took down himself, though commanding was an important aspect of samurai. Conscripted soldiers also used matchlock rifles but instead fired in volleys to break up enemy ranks. Toward the end of the feudal period, some samurai organized dragoons as part of their troops and some were reportedly used in the Battle of Sekigahara and later battles.

Some samurai were unarmed on the battle fields except for katana. Takeda Shingen was one such samurai. This did not mean that they fought using katana. Instead, they focused on commanding and were confident that they could trust those they commanded for protection. In one of the Battle of Kawanakajima, this almost got Shingen killed. A plan went wrong and troops of Uesugi Kenshin charged into troops under Shingen's command, who were unaware that his entrapment plan had been detected. With only half of his troops and completely surprised, Shingen himself had to defend his life with a wooden stick that he used to order attacks. The rest of his soldiers barely returned in time to save Shingen and the rest of his force from being completely wiped out.

Other weapons used by samurai were (杖) and (棒), n=both long wooden staff weapons, as well as grenades, catapults and cannons. However, specific samurai sometimes favoured others. In battles around Meiji restoration, more modern weapons like Gatling guns and rifles were used.

Origin of samurai

Before the Heian period, the army in Japan was modeled after the Chinese army and under the direct command of the emperor. Except for slaves, every able-bodied men had the duty of enlisting for the army. These men had to supply themselves, and many men got lost or gave up returning and settled down on their way home. This was treated as a part of taxation and it could be substituted with other forms of tax such as bolts of cloth. These men were called sakimori (防人), lit. "defenders," but they are not related to samurai.

Two of the Forty-seven Ronin: Horibe Yahei and his adopted son, Horibe Yasubei
Horibe Yahei and Horibe Yasubei

In the early Heian, the late 8th and early 9th centuries, Emperor Kammu sought to consolidate and expand his rule in northern Honshū. The armies he sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi lacked motivation and discipline and were unable to prevail. He then introduced the title of seiitaishōgun (征夷大将軍) or shōgun and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery, these clan warriors became the emperor's preferred tool for putting down rebellions.

During the Heian period, the emperor's army was disbanded and the emperor's power gradually declined. While the emperor was still the ruler, powerful clans around Kyōto assumed positions of ministers and their relatives bought their positions of magistrates to collect taxes. To repay their debts and amass wealth, they often imposed heavy taxes and many farmers were forced to leave their lands. Regional clans grew powerful by offering lower taxes to their subjects as well as freedom from conscription. These clans armed themselves to repel other clans and magistrates from collecting taxes. They would eventually form themselves into armed parties and became samurai.

The samurai came from guards of the imperial palace and private guards clans employed. They also acted as a police force in and around Kyōto. These forerunners of what we now know as samurai had ruler-sponsored equipment and were required to hone their martial skills. They were saburai, servants, yet their advantage of being the sole armed party increasingly became apparent. By promising protection and gaining political clout through political marriages they amassed power, eventually surpassing the ruling aristocrats.

Some clans originally were farmers that had been driven to arms to protect themselves from the imperially appointed magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes. These clans formed alliances to protect themselves against more powerful clans. By the mid-Heian, they had adopted Japanese-style armor and weapons and laid the foundation of bushidō, their famous ethical code.

Kamakura Shogunate and the Rise of samurai

Originally these warriors were merely mercenaries in the employ of the emperor and noble clans (kuge). But slowly they gathered enough power to usurp the aristocracy and establish the first samurai-dominated government.

As regional clans gathered manpower and resources and struck alliances with each other, they formed a hierarchy centered around a tōryō (棟梁, "chief"). This chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor and a lesser member of one of three noble families (the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or the Taira). Though originally sent to provincial areas for a fixed four year term as a magistrate, the tōryō declined to return to the capital when their terms ended. Their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian.

Because of their rising military and economic power, the clans ultimately became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the Hogen Rebellion in the late Heian only consolidated their power and finally pit the rival Minamoto and the Taira against each other in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. Emerging victorious, Taira no Kiyomori became an imperial advisor, the first warrior to attain such a position, and eventually seized control of the central government to establish the first samurai-dominated government and relegate the emperor to a mere figurehead. However, Taira clan was still very much aristocratic than later Minamoto. Instead of expanding or strengthening its military might, Taira clan had its women marry emperors and attempted to control through the emperor.

The Taira and the Minamoto once again clashed in 1180 beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the superiority of the samurai over aristocrats. In 1190 he visited Kyōto and in 1192 became seii taishōgun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate. Instead of basing its rule in Kyōto, he set up the Shogunate in the Kamakura, near his base of power.

Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility (buke) who were only nominally under court aristocracy. When samurai begun to adopt aristocratic customs like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats also began to adopt samurai skills. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, the real power was in the hands of the shogun and samurai.

Ashikaga Shogunate and the Feudal Period

Various samurai clans struggled for power over Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates.

Zen Buddhism spread among samurai in the 13th century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and killing. Zen Buddhism in Japan took sakyamuni as the principal image and taught to be a living buddha with enlightenment by Zen meditation training. While major schools of Buddhism among populace took Amitabha Tathagata, a buddha is said to be capable of taking believers to paradise after death.

In the 13 century, Yuan, a Chinese state of the Mongolian Empire, invaded Japan two times. samurai unused to combating in group barely survived the first brief battle. However, they were prepared for the second invasion and samurai devastated large, but disorganized armies composed of Chinese, Korean and Mongolian. It is believed even without the kamikaze, they would have driven back these invaders. An innovation on Japanese sword was accomplished by a blacksmith called Masamune in the 14th century; the two-layer structure of soft and hard iron was adopted and the style spread rapidly with its amazing cutting power and endurance in continuous use. Since then, Japanese swords had been recognized as one of the invincible carry weapons during the pre-industrial era of East Asia. It was one of the top exported items, few even making its ways into as far as India.

The issues of inheritance firstly caused family infighting because primogeniture became common while division of succession was designated by law before the 14th century. To avoid infighting, continuous invasion against neighboring samurais' territories was rather favoured and bickering among samurai was constant problems to Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunate.

The Sengoku jidai ("warring-states period") was marked by the loosening of samurai culture, in a sense. Those born into other social strata could sometimes make names for themselves as warriors and thus become de facto samurai. In this turbulent period, bushidō ethics became important factors to control and maintain public order.

Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly in 15th and 16th century. Use of large infantry troop called ashigaru (足軽, foot soldiers) , which was formed by the humble warriors or populace, with nagayari (長槍) or long lance was introduced and combined with cavalry in maneuvers. The numbers of people mobilized in warfare were generally in the thousands to the over hundred-thousands.

Harquebus or matchlock guns were introduced by Lusitanians/Portuguese in 1543. The Japanese succeeded in producing and spreading it across the country within a decade. Groups of mercenaries with harquebus and mass produced rifles played a critical role. By the end of the feudal periods, several hundred thousands rifles existed in Japan and massive armies of over 100,000 troops clashed in battles. The largest and most powerful army in Europe, the Spanish armies had only several thousand rifles and could only assemble an army of 30,000. Ninja also played a critical role in military intelligence.

The social mobility of human resources was flexible, as the ancient regime collapsed and emerging samurai needed to maintain large military and administrative organizations in their areas of influence. Most of the samurai families that survived to the 19th century originated in this era. They declared themselves to be the blood of one of the four ancient noble clans, Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara and Tachibana. In most cases, however, it is hard to prove who their ancestors actually were.

Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa

Oda Nobunaga was the well-known lord of the Nagoya area (once called Ohwari) and an exceptional example of samurai of the Sengoku Period. He came within few years of and laid down the pass to the reunification of Japan.

He made innovations on organizations and war tactics, heavily used harquebus, developed commerce and industry and treasured innovations; the consecutive victories enabled him to realize the termination of the Ashikaga Shogunate and disarmament of the military powers of the Buddhist monks, which had inflamed futile struggles among the populace for centuries. Attacking from a "sanctuary" of Buddhist temples, they were constant headaches to any warlords and even the emperor who tried to control their actions. He died in 1582 by the assault of one of his follower Akechi Mitsuhide. Importantly, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (see below) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who made Tokugawa Shogunate, were Nobunaga's loyal followers. Hideyoshi was brought up from a nameless peasant to one of top generals under Nobunaga and Ieyasu had shared childhood with Nobunaga. Hideyoshi defeated Mitsuhide within a month and was regarded as the rightful successor of Nobunaga by avenging the treachery by Mitsuhide.

The two were gifted with Nobunaga's previous achievements to build the unified Japan. So there was a saying:

The reunification is a rice cake; Oda made it. Hashiba shaped it. At last, only Ieyasu tastes it.

Hashiba is the family name that Toyotomi Hideyoshi used while he was a follower of Nobunaga.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister in 1586, himself the son of a poor peasant family, created a law that the samurai caste became codified as permanent and heritable, and that non-samurai were forbidden to carry weapons.

It is important to note that the distinction between samurai and non-samurai was so obscure that during the 16th century, most male adults in any social class (even small farmers) belonged to at least one military organization of their own and served in wars before and during Hideyoshi's rule. It can be said that an "all against all" situation continued for a century.

The authorized samurai families after the 17th century were the winners that chose to follow Nobunaga (source), Hideyoshi and Ieyasu (source). Large battles occurred during the times of change between regimes, and a number of defeated samurai were destroyed or absorbed into the general populace.

Tokugawa Shogunate

During the Tokugawa era, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. The daishō, the paired long and short swords of the samurai became more of a symbolic emblem of power rather than a weapon used in daily life. They still had the legal right to cut down any commoner who did not show proper respect; in what extent this right was used, however, is unknown. When the central government forced the daimyō to cut the size of their armies, unemployed rōnin actually became a social problem.

Bushidō was formalized by many samurai in this time of peace much like how chivalry was formalized after knight as a warrior became obsolete in Europe. The conduct of samurai became a favorable model of a citizen in Edo with the emphasis on formalities. With time on their hands, samurai spent more time on the pursuit of other interests becoming scholars.

Samurai decline during the Meiji restoration

The last bravado of original samurai was in 1867 when samurai from the Chōshū and Satsuma domains defeated the shogunate forces in favour of imperial rule. The two domains were the lands of the daimyō that submitted to Ieyasu after the war of Sekigahara (1600).

Other sources claim that the very last stance samurai made took place in 1877, during the Satsuma Rebellion under Saigō Takamori in the Battle of Shiroyama.

The main players of the revolt came from lower class samurai in every province. Their ultimate political goal was the same: to maintain the independence of Japan against Western powers. But the two daimyō clashed first and these bloody conflicts lasted for years. At last, they realized that a long-lasting civil war must be avoided because that was just what the foreign powers waited for. Therefore, the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned, thus restoring imperial rule in order to avoid further bloodshed. Some resisted, believing this was coup d'etat by Choshu and Satsuma and actual power was in their hands. Groups of Tōhoku samurai organized an armed resistance and they were eventually defeated.

Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai's right to be the sole armed force in favour of a more modern, western-style conscripted army. samurai became shizoku (士族) who retained some of their salaries, but the right to wear katana on the street was eventually abolished.

Post Meiji Restoration

In defining how a modern Japanese should be, members of the Meiji government decided to follow the footstep of United Kingdom and Germany. It would be based on the concept of "noblesse oblige" and samurai would not be a political force much like that of Prussia. The Imperial Japanese Armies were conscripted but many samurai volunteered to be soldiers and many advanced to be trained as an officer. These volunteers were highly motivated and trained hard. The Japanese empire won the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russian-Japanese War (1904), and it could be reasoned that these volunteers and officers were behind these victories. Most soldiers of both Chinese and Russian armies could neither read nor write and after their officers were killed, these armies quickly disintegrated.

Many early exchange students were samurai, not because they were samurai, but many were literate and well educated scholars. Some of these exchange students started private schools for higher educations. Some samurai took up pens instead of guns and became reporters and writers to set up newspaper companies. Other samurai entered governmental services as they were literate and well educated.


As de facto aristocrats for centuries, samurai developed their own culture, thus shaping Japan for centuries.

A samurai was expected to read and write, as well as to know some mathematics. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great samurai yet a peasant at start, could only read and write in hiragana and this was his biggest drawback. Some hint that this was what prevented him from becoming a shōgun. Samurai were expected, though not required, to have interests in other arts such as dancing, go, literature, poetry, and tea. Ota Dokan who first ruled Edo wrote how he was shamed to realize that even a commoner had more knowledge of poetry than him and this made him study harder.

Samurai culture ranged from a spartan Zen Buddhism-influenced culture to an extravagant Kano-style culture. Most samurai lived rather simply not due to preference, but necessity. As commerce developed in Edo period, samurai who were supplied with rice as income were faced with inflating prices of common goods. Some samurai did crafts and others farmed to make ends meet. These poor samurai still found money and time to teach their children to value education. By the middle of Edo period, samurai had to be ordered to practice their martial art skills. There were stories of samurai being threatened and forced to run away against well muscled workers, some were even beaten in a fight. As samurai were specialists in fighting, these troubles were never reported out of shame but were still documented.

With time on their hands, many samurai began studying such topics as archaeology, botany, and literature. samurai introduced vegetables like the potato and sweet potato to farmers who remained apathetic to these imported vegetables. samurai also transcribed and studied historic books and records. The kojiki as well as Chinese classics were studied. Samurai also engaged in scientific studies, often relying on translations of Dutch books.

Samurai Names

A samurai was usually named by combining one kanji taken from his father or grandfather and a new kanji. Many samurai chose names phonetically similar to famous ancestors, in order to honour their fame and attain similar glory. This name was applied after the genpuku. Many of them also had a childhood name. Most samurai had a second name and also used his title as a part of his name. Oda Nobunaga would be officially called "Oda Kouzukenosuke Owarinokami Nobunaga" (織田上総介尾張守信長), and he would be referred to as "Oda Kouzukenosuke" or "Oda Owarinokami".


A marriage of samurai was usually arranged by someone with same or higher rank than those being wedded. While for those samurai in upper ranks were a necessity as most had few opportunities to meet a female, this was still done as a formality for lower ranked samurai. Most samurai married women from other samurai families, but for a lower ranked samurai, a marriage to a commoner was permitted. In these marriages, dowries were common.

Mistresses were common, too, but their social backgrounds were strictly checked by higher ranked samurai. In many cases, such relationships were treated like a marriage. When the mistress was a commoner, a messenger would be sent, submitting betrothal money or notes of tax exemption, asking for her parents' approval. Many parents gladly accepted, and if she gave a birth to a son, he could be elevated into the ranks of samurai himself.

Samurai could divorce their wives for a variety of reasons with an approval from a superior. A divorce was, while not nonexistent, a rare occasion. An important reason would be her incapacity to produce a son, but adoptions could easily be arranged and were quite common, too. A samurai could divorce for personal reasons, but this was generally avoided as this would have been embarrassing to the samurai who arranged the marriage in the first place. Women could also arrange a divorce, although it would generally take the form of samurai divorcing her. In a divorce, samurai had to return the betrothal money, and this often prevented a divorce. Some rich merchants had their daughters marry samurai to erase a samurai's debt and advance their positions.


The eldest son of the previous chief became the next leader of the clan. If his eldest son had passed away before the succession, the eldest son of the eldest son became the next leader of the clan. If the eldest son did not have children, the second son became the next leader. These rules were sometimes bent by request of the former leader. When the next leader was too young or inexperienced, brothers and retainers of a previous leader acted as leader until the clan could be handed over. Dividing a domain had been popular in Kamakura and Ashikaga period, but declined later as it often resulted in weakening a clan's position.

Many samurai changed their name not because they didn't like it, but because they were adopted into other clans. This was done for many reasons. The first and foremost reason is that many clans wanted a successor with formidable abilities and skills, even if it meant passing over sons of the previous leader. If that successor happened to be from a higher clan, even better. While this had to be approved by the shogunate or the daimyō in the Edo period, there were many such cases. When the previous leader died without a son but with a daughter, it was common to adopt samurai from other clans into the clan and have him marry the daughter.

samurai had a lot of children and were faced with disease and wars, often causing succession problems. These sometime led to decline, disintegration and the eventual destruction of the entire clan. Several steps were taken to avoid this from occuring. Adoption was one step, and other was called kōkaku (降格, demotion), where a son was given a new clan name and became a retainer and a vassal of their elder brother. Some samurai even became a merchants or farmers because of kōkaku.


Philosophies of Buddhism and Zen, to the lesser extent Confucianism influenced the samurai culture as well as shintō. Meditation became an important teaching by offering a process to calm one's mind. The Buddhist concept of reincarnation and rebirth led samurai to abandon torture and needless killing. Some samurai resigned to became Buddhist monks after realizing how fruitless their killings were.

Bushidō, codified during the Edo period, was the "way of samurai", yet its deceptive simplicity led to countless arguments over its interpretation. Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is a manual instructing the samurai. Even as it was published, it raised number of reviews that criticized strict and impersonal interpretations. If the lord is wrong, for example if he ordered massacre of civilians, should he observe loyalty to massacre as ordered or should he observe rectitude to let civilians escape unharmed? If a man had sick parents but committed an unamendable mistake, should he protect his honor by committing seppuku or should he show courage by living with dishonor and care for his parents?

The case of the "47 Rōnin" caused debates about the righteousness of their actions and how bushidō should be applied. They had defied shōgun by taking matters into their own hands, but it was an act of loyalty and rectitude as well. Finally, their acts were agreed to be rectitude but disloyalty to the bushidō. This made them criminals with conscience and eligible for seppuku.

Explanations of shudō (衆道) in Hagakure was highly controversial even at the time when such practices were common. It illuminates one of the samurai's practices of platonic love that were sometimes homosexual relationships between a seasoned and a novice samurai. Even though this was not considered a crime at that time and was not exactly prohibited by religion, a notion that some samurai advanced by being sexually attractive was enough to raise an uproar. Samurai were not supposed to be prostitutes, but advance by having abilities and skills, not by engaging in illicit relationships.

The most famous book of kenjutsu (剣術, swordmanship) dates from this period (Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, 1643). The book however focused not only on Japanese swordsmanship, but also on the right spirit of a swordman and on ways to build character.

Samurai in Fiction

Jidaigeki (時代劇, lit. "historical drama") had been a staple on movies and TV from the very beginning. This genre usually featured a samurai standing up against evil samurai and merchants. Mito Kōmon (水戸黄門), a fictitious character based on Tokugawa Mitsukuni's travel, is a popular TV drama where Mitsukuni travels disguised as a retired rich merchant with two unarmed samurai also disguised as his companions. He finds trouble where ever he goes, and after gathering evidence, he has his samurai knock around unrepenting evil samurai and merchants. He then reveals his identity which, if he wished to, can destory the entire clan, leaving the bad guys no other choice but to surrender.

Scene from Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai'
Scene from Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai"

The samurai-themed works of film director Akira Kurosawa are among the most praised in the genre, influencing many filmmakers across the world with his techniques and storytelling. Notable works of his include The "Seven Samurai," in which a besieged farming village hires a band of drifting samurai to defend them from bandits; "Yojimbo," where a former samurai involves himself in a town's gang war by working for both sides; and "The Hidden Fortress," in which two foolish peasants find themselves helping a legendary general escort a princess to safety. The latter was one of the primary inspirations for George Lucas's "Star Wars," which also borrows a number of aspects from the samurai, such as in the Jedi Knights of the series.

samurai films and westerns share a number of similarities, and the two have influenced each other over the years. Kurosawa was inspired by the works of director John Ford, and in turn Kurosawa's works have been remade into westerns, such as "The Seven Samurai" into "The Magnificent Seven" and "Yojimbo" into Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars."

Another fictitious television series, "Abarembo Shogun," featured Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa shogun. Samurai at all levels from the shōgun down to the lowest rank, as well as rōnin, featured prominently in this show.

Toshirô Mifune and Richard Chamberlain in 'Shōgun'
Toshirô Mifune and Richard Chamberlain
in "Shōgun" (1980)

"Shōgun" is the first novel in James Clavell's Asian Saga. It is set in feudal Japan somewhere around the year 1600 and gives a highly fictionalized account of the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to the shogunate, seen through the eyes of an English sailor whose fictional heroics are loosely based on William Adams' exploits.

A Hollywood movie, "The Last Samurai," consisting of a potpourri of fact and fiction, was released in 2003 to generally good reviews in North America. The film's plot is loosely based on the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and also on the story of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the Boshin War. The life style and the war tactics shown in the movie "The Last Samurai" are those of out-country samurai of the sengoku jidai,, precisely of the era before 1543; not those in the 19th century. The historical battle however was only slightly different from the one depicted in the movie, with the only difference being katana to be waved for soldiers to charge instead of sabers.

"Kill Bill" by Quentin Tarantino can be described as a modern-day glorification of the samurai sword, the katana.

The samurai have also appeared frequently in Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime). Most common are historical works where the protagonist is either a samurai or former samurai possessing considerable martial skill. Two of the most famous examples are "Lone Wolf" and "Cub", where the former proxy executioner for the shōgun and his toddler son become hired killers after being betrayed by other samurai and nobles; and "Rurouni Kenshin," where a former assassin, after helping end the bakumatsu era and bringing about the Meiji era, finds himself protecting newfound friends and fighting off old enemies while upholding his oath to never kill again through the use of a reversed-bladed sword. Samurai-like characters are not just restricted to historical settings, a number of works set in the modern age and even the future include characters who live, train, and fight like samurai. Notable examples include Goemon Ishikawa XIII from the "Lupin III" series of comics, television series, and movies; and Motoko Aoyama from the romantic comedy "Love Hina."

Samurai are also heroes and enemies in many games where they would either be greatest friends or worst nightmares. These samurai would use mostly katana and are devastating foot soldiers. An example is "Age of Empires" series.

The concept of a samurai, as opposed to that of a knight, has resulted in different perceptions of how a fighter or a hero should be, especially in role-playing games.. A samurai does not have to be tall and muscular to be strong. He can be barely five feet tall, seemingly weak and handicapped. He can even be a "she". This means equating size with power and strength does not appeal to the Japanese aesthetic.

Discuss on JREF!Register at the Japan Forum to discuss this topic. Or leave us a comment below. Please note that your comment will have to be approved before being displayed and that images and hyperlinks will not be shown.
Disclaimer: any comments posted are those of the comment authors alone. Japan Reference (JREF) reserves the right to remove comments at any time.

Recommended Resources: