Everything You Know About Samurai is Probably Wrong
Alright guys, buckle up. I’m about to lay down some truth about samurai.
When a lot of people think of Japan, there’s probably a few things that come to mind. Sushi, ramen, and other Japanese food is probably pretty high on the list. Maybe kimonos or school uniforms. Anime and manga, obviously. And I’m pretty sure if you asked about early Japanese culture, most people would talk about samurai.
Samurai have become an icon of Japan, even for Japanese people. And it’s pretty easy to see why. Samurai are really cool. Who doesn’t want to walk around with a sword and sweet armor all day long? They fought in crazy wars and basically ruled the country.
That’s all true. So why is our perception of samurai wrong?
The problem is, samurai were around (officially) from the late 12th century to 1868. That’s 700 years of samurai history. And popular culture has taken everything about samurai during that time period and squished it into one simple stereotype.
The “typical” samurai, according to us, is something like this.
- Loyal (even to the point of dying for their lord)
- Followed “The Way of the Warrior” (bushido)
- Crazy heroic
- Carried a sword
- Basically a knight
- Stood alone
This sounds like a pretty cool samurai, right? Maybe a little too good to be true?
Let’s start with a little history so we can have some context here.
So, samurai were a thing before the late 12th century, but only kind of. This was the end of the Heian Period, and Japan was experiencing a long period of peace. They didn’t really have any wars to fight, so why would they need warriors? Hired brutes to intimidate people, sure. Those were around. And those hired warriors were the beginning of samurai.
Then everyone in the capital got in a really big argument. A new emperor was crowned and some people really didn’t like that. This argument escalated into what is called the Gempei War (1180-1185). This is when we get our real introduction to samurai.
The war was between two samurai clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. The Taira supported the new emperor, but bad news for them: the Minamoto won the war.
Then the Minamoto created a military government (the shogunate), and put their top dog Yoritomo (in that fancy painting there) in charge. He was the first shogun.
From this point, samurai gained a lot of power, but the country was a hot mess. It eventually broke up into a bunch of little domains ruled by local lords. This was called the Warring States Period (they totally copied China on that name, just saying). This is when the Big Three roll in.
There’s some fancy boys right there. These three guys are Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. They’re pretty famous for pulling the country together. Seriously, these guys are so famous everyone calls them by their given names. It’s like if we always called the first U.S. president “George.” Ieyasu even has a time period named after him.
Anyways, the Tokugawa Period lasted from 1600 to 1868, and this is really when the role of the samurai shifted. Ieyasu closed off the country to most Western influences, and the country was again at peace. This meant that samurai were no longer able to be employed as warriors. But all of Ieyasu’s favorite people were samurai.
So instead he made them bureaucrats. And they ran the country and did a lot less fighting, but they were the top of the social structure.
Eventually, they got really poor because there weren’t enough government positions for all the samurai. And then the Americans showed up in 1853 and ruined the whole isolation policy Ieyasu had set up. There was another big argument in the country, and the shogunate was overthrown. This marked the end of the samurai in 1868.
You can see that a lot happened while samurai were around. Japan went through a lot of changes, and, as you might expect, the role of samurai was pretty fluid based on the needs of the country and their influence.
So the list we made at the beginning isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just pulling from different parts of samurai history. A samurai from the Gempei War would live a very different life from a bureaucrat in the 18th century.
Let’s get a better idea of this by breaking down our list.
Loyal (even to the point of dying for their lord)
This is probably the most popular trait associated with samurai. And that makes sense. When you look at old war tales such as The Tale of the Heike, it’s pretty much all about loyalty.
One of my favorite Heike stories is actually about a female samurai. Her name is Tomoe, and she serves under this guy named Kiso. They get in a really bad position where the Taira are definitely going to kill them. He tells her to run away so she can survive (also I’m pretty sure he low key doesn’t want to die with a woman because misogyny is real) and she argues against it. They argue for a while before she leaves. But the important part is that she was willing to die with him. She was perfectly loyal.
(Here she is cutting a guy’s head off.)
These war stories were used as a way to sort of teach samurai what they should be like. They aren’t necessarily true, because they were written to be the ideal. Who knows if Tomoe was real? Whether or not she was, her story was a great way to push the idea of loyalty.
The stories have been popular for centuries, so it makes sense that the ideas presented in them have lasted. Just because the stories talk about loyalty though, doesn’t mean every samurai was perfectly loyal.
Honor is a big idea associated with samurai. Bringing honor to yourself is bringing honor to your lord and family. Samurai would even kill themselves to maintain their honor!
There’s a blog post for another day. Ritual suicide is crazy complicated and has had a pretty lasting effect on Japanese culture.
But back to honor. Sure, you can look at the war stories and find a lot of honorable people. But again, not everyone is perfect. Even if samurai were supposed to be honorable, it doesn’t mean they were. Some of them were kind of terrible people.
A good example of this can be found in an autobiography from a Tokugawa Period samurai named Katsu Kokichi. In his book Musui’s Story, he talks about his entire life, and he’s kind of a jerk. He runs away from home several times, not caring about the consequences. He wastes money and starts pointless fights. He’s pretty far from honorable.
Honor is a trait that can be associated with samurai, but shouldn’t be broadly applied to every samurai. Samurai were people too.
Followed “The Way of the Warrior” (bushido)
Everyone talks about bushido like it’s some grand thing that ties all samurai together. Sure there was a code of conduct for samurai, but it’s been pretty romanticized by Western culture. I mean, how many times have you broken a rule? Maybe you’ve even broken a traffic law (gasp!). There were plenty of samurai who could care less about this honor system.
These ideas were mostly made popular by a book called Hagakure from the Tokugawa Period. It wasn’t really popular when it was written, but it was discovered later and suddenly people were like, “This is it! This is what it meant to be a samurai!”
I’d like to say that earlier samurai were a bit better at following bushido, but all we have of them is buffed out representations in old tales. This is another case where this is the ideal, but it is unlikely that every samurai followed this.
This idea definitely comes from old war tales. Later samurai didn’t have wars to fight, so how could they lead glorious charges or die fighting their long-sworn enemy?
As far as early samurai, they are definitely portrayed as crazy heroic.
Another great Heike story to help show this is focused on the greatest samurai who ever lived (as argued by many). Yoshitsune was the general of the Minamoto clan, and half brother to Yoritomo. The Tale of the Heike has him as the hero, and some of the stories about him are absolutely wild.
(Here he is with his trusted retainer Benkei)
In this one, Yoshitsune and his men are traveling along the top of a mountain. They look down to find the Taira below them, completely unaware. Yoshitsune sees this as a perfect opportunity for an ambush, but the cliff is way too steep to ride down.
While thinking, he notices a deer run down the cliff and make it. He takes two of their horses and sends them down. One makes it, the other does not. He explains to his men that if they ride carefully, they can make it.
His men: Yoshitsune no.
Yoshitsune: Yoshitsune yes.
So they go galloping down the hill. It was so steep that the stirrups of the riders were touching the heads of the men in front of them.
And not a single one fell.
I mean, how ridiculous is that? But heck if is isn’t heroic.
Carried a sword
This point… isn’t wrong. But it is misleading.
The swords you’re thinking of were only carried by later samurai. They would generally carry two swords: an uchigatana and a wakizashi. The uchigatana would be a bit longer and would probably be their weapon of choice.
But later samurai also fought less. Sure there were brawls and disputes to sort out. You could even file official vendettas to legally kill people. But it’s not like they were at war.
Early samurai actually favored the bow as their weapon of choice. The marks of a good samurai were archery and horsemanship. They would carry a small sword, called a tantou, but this was only if worse came to worse and they had to kill themself to preserve their honor. Yoshitune’s tantou, for example, was only 6 inches long and would probably not do well in an actual fight.
There’s also the matter of the iconic samurai armor. Early samurai probably needed it. But for a later samurai, it was probably just to be displayed in their home.
Basically a knight
This is an easy conclusion for a Westerner to draw. Some scholars have warned against trying to fit Japanese history into a European mold. There are definitely similarities between feudal Japan and feudal Europe, but they are not the same.
Calling a samurai a knight, despite the fact that they were both warriors who fought for those above them, is a disservice to samurai culture (and probably to knight culture).
One major difference is that samurai were known for being scholars and poets. Just as fighting was important, so were the arts. During some of the times with the greatest upheaval, some of the best Japanese art was created, as encouraged by the aristocratic samurai class.
The reason we have this image of samurai is because of all those classic samurai movies from the mid-20th century. There’s nothing wrong with these movies (I enjoy them quite a bit actually), but it’s important to be careful with how samurai are portrayed in them.
These films are actually inspired by Westerns, which tend to follow the “lone gunslinger” on his adventure. This translated into having a ronin as the main character. A ronin is a masterless samurai.
Sure, it’s cool to see this guy who’s probably an outcast of society as he becomes a celebrated hero, but it gives the false impression that samurai work alone. Ronin are more like exceptions than a rule.
If you take Yoshitsune as an early example, he was pretty much never alone. He had his men and his loyal retainers with him all the time. Even when he died, he was accompanied by his family and some retainers. He is not a lonely hero.
Later samurai would have worked mostly with their clan. Going rogue was dangerous, and there was always strength in numbers.
This quality is built on movie myths.
As you can see, samurai were a bit more complicated than we generally give them credit for. There is also a lot of depth to samurai culture. Sure the idea of a loyal, honorable warrior clad in armor and wielding a sword is pretty cool.
But isn’t it cooler to know that there’s so much more depth and history surrounding the samurai?