Samurai Overview

Japan's Samurai and Bushi

In the past, there were many people in Japan who were known as "bushi" (武士, "warriors").
Even today, samurai and warriors can be found in many Japanese historical dramas, taiga dramas, movies, manga, and video games.
Japan's national baseball team is also called "Samurai Japan" in honor of the strong and dignified appearance of the samurai.
Because of their cool appearances, samurai and other warriors are not only popular in Japan, but in other countries as well.
But what are the Japanese names for samurai, and other warriors, and how are they different?

The words "samurai" (侍) and "musha" (武者) originally referred to an officially employed warrior in the service of a nobleman or government official.
The word samurai comes from the ancient Japanese word "saburafu" (侍ふ), meaning "to serve" or "to serve by one's side." Samurai are also sometimes called "mononofu."

The History and Origins of Samurai and Musha

Japan's bushi class system began around the 10th century, a time when Japan's unique culture, known as Kokufu Bunka (国風文化, "Kokufu Culture"), was established.
It originated in the Heian period, when more and more people were learning martial arts as a family art and becoming active as warriors while working for nobles and the Imperial Court.
Eventually, in samurai and warrior families, martial arts were passed down from parents to their children.
The Seiwa Genji (清和源氏) and Kanmu Heishi (桓武平氏) became increasingly powerful among the warriors who served the high nobility.
It is said that when political instability arose throughout history, conflicts, disturbances, and territorial disputes were common among powerful warriors.
In particular, the conflict between the Minamoto and Taira clans led to major warfare, in what would be called the Genpei War.

Warriors of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods were also often called samurai.
During this period, the descendants of the Minamoto and Taira clans, their various schools, and the descendants of the Fujiwara clan came to power.
From the Muromachi period onwards, there were many active samurai and warriors, but there were also complex class differences among the samurai. This led to many warring parties during the Nanboku-cho and Warring States periods.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), it became widely believed that warriors were opposed to public order, and Tokugawa Ietsuna banned them from fighting.
As a result, the samurai of the Edo period, unlike the previously respectable warriors who fought for righteous causes, came to be active based on the idea of "bushido," or the way of the samurai, which emphasized honor.
The class system of the Edo period is known as "shinokosho" (士農工商). It shows the high rank of occupations in the Edo period.
"士, 'Shi'" meaning warrior, referred to samurai, and they were the highest ranking in this system as they fought to protect the lives of the people.
Second is "農, 'No,'" meaning "agriculture." This referred to farmers, as without their crops the people would have nothing to eat.
Third are the artisans, marked by the kanji "工, 'Ko,'" or "craft." The tools and other objects they made that were used in daily life were important to the people of the Edo period, but not to the extent of food and protection.
Lastly is "商, 'Sho'" which referred to merchants. Merchants were the lowest of Japan's class system as dealing directly with money was considered to be uncouth at the time, and merchants did exactly that. The irony here, is that merchants, despite being the lowest in this system, were often some of the most wealthy people.

With the end of the Edo period (1603-1867) and the advance of modernization, many samurai became samurai families, and the military role of the warrior class, which they had played during the Warring States period, came to an end.
However, the traditional Japanese concept of bushido is still alive in the minds of the Japanese people even today.
Even today, samurai continue to be a part of the unique Japanese culture depicted in literature, entertainment, and art.

The Types of Samurai and Warriors of Japan

There have been many different types of samurai and warriors in Japan throughout the ages.
There are some samurai and warriors that we're not even sure actually existed.
Here, we'll take a look at some of the more unusual types of samurai and warriors.

Ao-samurai (青侍): Literally meaning "blue samurai," this referred to samurai of relatively low status who served nobility or noble families. They wore blue robes.
Kenin (家人): A retainer of a samurai who is of a higher status. It has different meanings in ancient and medieval times.
Wakamusha (若武者): Literally meaning "Young warrior," this referred to a young and inexperienced warrior.
Onnamusha (女武者): Onnamusha literally means "Female warrior." Some Japanese warriors are said to have been female, but it is not known if they really existed.
Ronin (浪人): A samurai who had lost his estate or job and left his place of residence to wander to another part of Japan.
Ochi-musha (落ち武者): A warrior who was defeated in battle and then fled.

The Ancient Japanese Concept of Bushido

In Japan, the term "bushido spirit" is often used in martial arts, and even in everyday life apart from martial arts.
Bushido is a philosophy of the ideal way of being a warrior.
The idea of bushido is to train slowly and carefully to master the art of the warrior and to approach things with an ethical mindset.
In the past, samurai and other warriors made a living by fighting, but bushido also encompasses actions and moral principles to protect people and society.

The way of life of a warrior varied greatly according to their historical background.
Just like chivalry, Japan's bushido is a profound concept that has changed throughout the years.
If you want to learn about the Japanese bushido spirit, we recommend reading texts about samurai and considering how bushido played a role in their lives.
For example, at the end of the Edo period, Yamaoka Tesshu published a book called "Bushido."
Nitobe Inazo, featured on the 5,000 yen bill, also wrote a book called "Bushido."
If you are interested in Bushido, you should take a look at "The Book of Five Rings" written by Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most skilled swordsmen to ever live.

The Weapons of Japan's Samurai

When we think of Japanese samurai, we imagine them carrying a Japanese sword on their hip and heading into battle.
However, Japanese samurai and warriors did not carry swords until later in life. Instead, they used weapons such as bows and arrows, hoko (a type of spear), etc., during the Heian period.

The bow and arrow is a very ancient weapon that was also used to catch prey as far back as the Jomon period.
Samurai of the Heian period carried a bow and arrow made of bamboo and wood that could be used for long range attacks.
A temple in Kyoto called Sanjusangen-do has a distinctive vertical hall with pillars spaced 4 meters apart. There are a total of 33 pillars in this hall, hence the name "Sanjusangen-do" (三十三間堂, rougly "The Hall of 33 Spaces").
There was an old competition to see how far one could shoot an arrow from the southern side of the Sanjusangen-do to the northern side of the hall, and bows with higher performance and longer range were developed through this.
During battles between samurai and warriors, hundreds or even thousands of soldiers would often fire their bows at the same time.
The bow and arrow remained an indispensable weapon even into the Warring States period, when guns came to be used in Japan.

Japanese warriors used not only bows and arrows, but also spears and lances.
The "hoko" (矛) has a spear-like appearance, but the tip of the spear resembles a sword and was used to make downward slashes.
"Yari" (槍) were designed for thrusting attacks, so the tip is sharp and pointed.
It is said that Oda Nobunaga invented a battle technique called "Yaribusuma" in which the spear tips were lined up in a row in front of the enemy to prevent them from breaking through, and he used it extensively on the battlefield.
After the introduction of guns to Tanegashima in 1543, Japanese samurai and warriors began to use them in battle.

Many people are fascinated by the lean and beautiful design of the Japanese sword.
Japanese swords were first developed in Japan in the late Heian period, and many samurai carried beautiful swords.
Among them, the Ichigo Hitofuri, which is said to have been favored by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, as well as Dojigiri, Mikazuki Munechika, Otenta, Onimaru, and Juzumaru known as "Tenka-Goken" (The Five Greatest Swords Under the Heavens), are are especially famous.
There were many skilled swordsmiths in Japan, including two of the most popular smiths, Muramasa and Masamune.
In order to keep the sword from breaking or bending, it is forged by folding high-quality steel over and over again in order to maintain its sharpness.
These swords are carefully forged to reflect the unique spirit of bushido.

The Equipment of the Japanese Samurai

The equipment of samurai and warriors varied from period to period, but generally they fought with armor to protect their bodies and a helmet to protect their heads.
Until the Warring States period (1467-1568), armor and helmets were made with an emphasis on sturdiness, but by the Edo period (1603-1868), when large-scale battles no longer took place, samurai armor was made with an emphasis on appearance.
Many Japanese samurai helmets and suits of armor are still around today due to their high quality, and can be easily seen in museums around Japan.
You can also visit museums with magnificent samurai paintings on display.

Learn the Martial Arts Used by Japanese Samurai!

If you're fascinated by the culture of the Japanese samurai, you can learn about the martial arts that the samurai and other warriors used to use in battle.
In Japan, there are sports referred to as "koryu-bujutsu" that allow you to learn the bushido spirit of the samurai.
Because they teach not only martial arts but also strategy and etiquette, it is said that mastering koryu-bujutsu give you both an invincible mind and body.
Kendo and Judo, Aikido and Iaido, Shorinji Kenpo and Karate, Kyudo and Naginata; these are just a few of the many popular martial arts.
In modern times, defeating an opponent is not necessarily justice in these martial arts, but rather the spirit of honing one's skills while emphasizing respectful etiquette for the opponent is what is important.

In Japan, improving one's skills is sometimes called "musha shugyo" (武者修行).
When one's body trembles with excitement in the face of overwhelming power, this is referred to as "musha burui" (武者震い, lit. "trembling warrior).
By studying the spirit of Japanese martial arts, you can get a sense of the samurai and warrior spirit that once existed in Japan.

Where to Meet Samurai in Japan

There are many castles, temples, and shrines in Japan where you will be greeted by samurai and other warriors.
For example, if you go sightseeing at Nagoya Castle in Aichi Prefecture, you'll be greeted by a team of hospitable warriors.
If you encounter a samurai or samurai warrior at a tourist spot in Japan, ask them to tell you more about the area or the tourist spot and have your picture taken with them!
Some samurai at tourist sites will even give you a tour guide in English!

There are many highly entertaining sightseeing spots in Japan where you can enjoy transforming into a samurai.
At Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura, the Samurai Museum, Kyoto's Samurai & Ninja Museum, and Toei Kyoto Studio Park, you can wear samurai armor and helmets, or you can have your picture taken in a kimono while holding a Japanese sword.
There are also some tourist spots that offer great tours of old Japanese neighborhoods while dressed in samurai costumes.

COOL JAPAN VIDEOS has many videos about the history and culture of Japanese samurai, their weapons and equipment, and the places where you can enjoy transforming into a samurai.
If you're interested in samurai, you can start by watching some of our videos to learn more about Japan's samurai culture!