Japanese Samurai: Five Facts

Japanese culture is rich in unique tradition and heritage, and the ancient world of its highly revered samurai warriors have been depicted on-screen plenty of times. But how much do you really know about the world of this intriguing military class?

From the code of honour to the traditional dress, we’ve delved into the history of the samurai to pull out some facts that might surprise you, so that on your next trip to Japan you can truly appreciate their history which dates back thousands of years. Here are five essential facts about the fearless samurai.

1. It’s all about the code

Despite being feared warriors, the samurai lived (and died) by a strict moral code called ‘bushido’. Translated as ‘the way of the warrior’, the basis of this code is said to have been influenced by Zen Buddhism, and was rooted in the idea of using strength to maintain peace. So strong was their dedication to this code that a samurai was prepared to take their own life in loyalty to this revered duty.

2. The elaborate armour

The Samurai dress is iconic and instantly recognisable, but was more than a fashion statement. The wide-legged kimonos and easily removable ‘hitatare’ vests that contributed to ease of movement were a symbol of the samurai’s prestige. The better quality silk; the better the warrior. This was often covered by beautifully lacquered armour, the crafting of which was itself considered a highly specialized art form. Lastly, the traditional top-knot made wearing a helmet more comfortable.

3. Katana – the sword

Undoubtedly the most renowned sword makers in the world, the Japanese believed that the ‘Katana’ held the samurai’s soul and thus was (and still is) viewed with deep respect and importance. Forged by expert families of swordsmiths, these intricate weapons were crafted from folding and hammering multiple layers of precious Japanese ‘tamahagane’ steel. From the grain to the pattern, they were appreciated not only for their sharpness, but also for the intrinsic beauty and the subtle qualities of the blade. Today, they are highly prized collectors items, and rightly so.

4. The female warriors

Rarely touched upon in modern depictions of samurai, it’s a fact that throughout history there were women fighting alongside male warriors. Known as ‘Onna-Bugeisha’, these fierce women went through the same rigorous rituals and training as their male counterparts and were samurai through and through. They were often trained to protect their household, family, and honour in times of war.

5. They were artists

The first samurai originated from a ruling military elite and it wasn’t all about life on the battlefield. They were expected not only to master the skills of war, but also of literature and art. Many senior samurai were well versed in poetry, and were patrons of painters and sculptors, and also attended the literary salons held by imperial court nobles and monks. Even military training centered around a dance called the art of kenbu or ‘sword dance’, a mesmerising performance that is still practised today.