Who Were the Samurai?

The Samurai were a warrior led social class that ruled Japan from the late 8th century until the middle of the 19th century. Above all they  valued honour, bravery and loyalty.

Talk the Talk

The term Samurai literally means Retainer or To Serve, which refers to a warrior's duty to serve his lord.

This obligation would last not only his whole life, but would go beyond and into the after-life.

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The History of the Samurai

The late eighth century saw the rise of Japanese samurai warrior clans and through the Heian period (794 – 1185), the leading landowners they served consolidated their power bases until the most powerful warlord, known as the ‘Shogun,’ (barbarian subduing general) even controlled the emperor.

These landowners usually traced their heritage to the Imperial family which meant they were believed to be of divine origin.

According to samurai legend, Keiko was the first to hold the title Shogun and his son, Prince Yamato Takeru (pictured), was later held up as an example of what a samurai warrior should be; fearless in battle, loyal and noble to the core.

The Samurai Sword and Other Weapons

The main weapon for the early samurai warriors was the bow and arrow however from the thirteenth century, the samurai sword became the primary weapon of choice. The samurai sword was more than just a weapon; it was believed to have spiritual and mystical significance and was even believed by some to hold the soul of the warrior who wielded it.

The bow and arrow was still an important part of the samurai’s armoury but as they gradually switched from fighting on horseback to fighting on foot, other weapons such as the spear and naginata also became popular.

The Bushido Code

The social class also developed its own code of ethics, built around the idea of what it means to behave like an ideal warrior. Originally called Kyuba no Michi (the Way of the Horse and Bow), it developed into the famous Bushido (Way of the Warrior).

While not always followed by all samurai to the letter, the Bushido code provided a standard that all would be expected to try to live up to. The samurai were expected to give their lord complete loyalty and be willing to die for him; and even ready to serve him in the next life.

In return, they could expect to receive official positions, land and riches especially from the spoils of war. However most of the best martial arts experts of feudal Japan fought for the sense of honour it gave them and the hope that their name would go down in history as a samurai legend.


Further Reading

Brief History of the Samurai. [Internet]. 2012. Michigan University. Available from: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~malokofs/SCA/Persona/History/samurai.html [Accessed 13 November, 2012].

Heian Japan: An Introductory Essay. [Internet]. 2010. Colorado University. Available from http://www.colorado.edu/cas/tea/curriculum/imaging-japanese-history/heian/essay.html [Accessed 13 November, 2012].

Henshall, K. 2004. Second Edition. A History of Japan – From Stone Age to Super Power. Hampshire. MacMillan Press.

Turnbull, S. R.  1987.  Fourth Edition.  Samurai – A Military history.  London.  Osprey.



More Samurai History

The Heian Period

The Heian Period was a time of major change in Japan as it saw the rise of a new warrior elite, the Samurai. The leaders of this new power would dominate the politics of the country for centuries and would even supplant the power of the Emperor, though not without a struggle.....Read Article
Tomoe Gozen – Female Samurai Warrior

Tomoe Gozen is a rare example of a female Samurai warrior and is believedto have been involved in the Gempei wars (1180 – 1185). She fought alongside her Master, Minamoto Yoshinaka, though it is unclear how much of her story is actually true.....Read Article
Yoshitsune Minamoto

The tragic tale of samurai legend Yoshitsune Minamoto. After helping his brother Yoritomo win the Genpei War and gain control of Japan, he was denied the titles and rewards he should have received for his services and was ultimately hunted down as a traitor.....Read Article
The Kamakura Period

A look at the change and turmoil experienced by the ruling elite of Japan during the Kamakura Period and the Kemmu Restoration. A series of civil wars and two invasions from the Mongols saw powershifts not only between rival families, but also between the titles of the Emperor, the Shogun and the Regent.....Read Article
The Mongols vs. The Samurai

While the samurai warriors of the late thirteenth century were formidable warriors in their own right, when faced with the onslaught of the Mongol Hordes they seemed to be fated to lose. They were outclassed in every way by however things did not go according to plan for the foreign invaders.....Read Article
The Japanese Samurai Sword

The samurai sword, it is said, was believed to contain the soul of the warrior who owned it. While this is probably an over romanticised view, it is true to say that there was a spiritual connection not only for the wielder of the katana, but also for the sword smith and his creation.....Read Article
Tsukahara Bokuden

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The Death of a Samurai

The manner in which a samurai died was very important and if possible, it would be during combat in a way that would be told in samurai stories for years to come. Failing that, he should die in some other service to his lord or if his honour depended on it, in a ritualistic suicide known as seppuku.....
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The Duels of Miyamoto Musashi 

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The Samurai at War

The main business of the samurai was war and while tactics and weapons changed through the years, the willingness to die for their lord was a constant. In return, they could gain riches and status, as well as the best of them gaining a kind of immortality by having stories told about them for centuries to come.....Read Article

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