Samurai: In the Footsteps of Japanese Warriors   侍

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Samurai parade during a festival

Samurai parade during a festival

The katana, a symbol of Japan in the world.

The katana, a symbol of Japan in the world.

Himeji Castle

The keep of Himeji Castle seems to have only 5 floors, but actually includes a sixth hidden one...

Old Samurai photograph

Old Samurai photograph

Kiyomori Festival

Held samurai warriors when Kiyomori festival.

The samurai, emblematic figures of Japan

The samurai are an ancient caste of Japanese warriors, known worldwide for their recognizable katanas and armor. Discover the history of the samurai and visit the places they have left their mark on your trip to Japan. 

What is a samurai?

The word " samurai " derives from the verb "saburau", which means to serve. This term is used in the sense that we know him since 1600, and indicates a warrior in the service of a lord, the daimyo. The term "samurai" is not to be confused with that of "bushi", which designates the ancient warriors, who serve a lord in exchange for a reward: land or wages.

A samurai without a lord or master was called a ronin and was considered no better than a vagabond. Many samurai were low ranking soldiers cultivating their own land, far from the great warlords, the daimyo. In the Heian era (794-1185), they were only warriors in the service of the nobility - which they quickly dominated. In the 10th century, the warrior Minamoto clan imposes a government by warriors, the bakufu, headed by a shogun (general). They will then become a warrior elite with their own culture.

The story of the samurai

The samurai are then a group steeped in Zen Buddhism, which they consider close to the spirit of bushi. They knew the refinement and were passionate about the tea ceremony or the Noh theater. Kamakura was the great city of warriors, the first capital of the bakufu. You can still see this today through the Yabusame festival reminiscent of the contest between warriors.

The samurai know their heyday during the era Sengoku ("Warring States", the mid 15th century to the late 16th century) where the only law of the strongest, allowing them to rise quickly in society. It was at this time that the great castles such as those of Osaka, Himeji or Kumamoto were built. Appear as dojos, corresponding to different martial arts styles. These samurai are far from the image that we have now: quick to betray their masters, to change sides or to revolt, they reign terror in the countryside.

Bushido, a code of honor

It was during the Edo period (1603-1868) that the new Tokugawa shoguns created the samurai that we know, respecting a strict code of conduct, the way of the warrior, "bushido". It was at this time that the practice of seppuku (better known in the West under the name of hara-kiri, a ritual suicide) developed. These samurai are then above all faithful, sober and focused on their weapon training in times of peace.

The Tokugawa then gradually transformed them into a closed group of state officials without territory but receiving a salary. This transformation is easy to observe when visiting the splendid Nijo Castle in Kyoto.


Characteristics of a samurai

The education of a samurai was very strict, with the learning of self-control and an absence of idleness and fear. The samurai apprentice studies in a specialized school, where they would learn about the handling of swords, including katana, as well as wrestling, archery, horse riding but also strategy and various arts of war.

Samurai

Armored samurai, circa 1860

Samurai

Sengoku-era samurai helmet

Decorative lacquer on 18th century armor

18th century Japanese armor with decorative lacquer patterns

The samurai had a whole collection of swords, including the famous katana (long saber that he was the only one who could carry), but also the wakizashi, a small saber which never left the warrior, without forgetting the tanto, a dagger used in particular for the seppuku ceremony. The samurai also handled perfectly the Japanese compound bow (yami), as well as the spear (yari).

The samurai finally wore armor designed to facilitate movement. The armor consisted of many pieces of leather, waterproofed with lacquer, but also of metal or other alloys. He also wore a mask (menpo) supposed to intimidate. 


Disappearance and legacy of the samurai in Japan

The samurai officially disappeared at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) when they lost all of their privileges, including the wearing of the sword and their income. Most are retrained in current trades, except the few diehards who led the revolt of Saigo Takamori in 1873.

Bushido, however, spread to other parts of society. It was systematically taught to soldiers until the defeat of 1945, but traces of it can be found in the spirit and hierarchy of certain large companies of ancient origin, as well as in the still current practice of martial arts as a sport.


Comments Read comments from our travellers

Mr

yes, Kamakura is special just wait to go back

Found traveler of Japan

Kamakura is magical. Thank you for sharing these stories. I enjoy them very much, now when I cannot travel to Japan.