A HISTORY OF THE SAMURAI
This is a brief history of the Japanese Samurai. If you
want to research the subject further, read the other material I have gathered and check the bibliography at the end of this
Japan has a history that dates back thousands of years.
Scientists believe the Japanese people descended from many groups that migrated
to the islands from other parts of Asia, including China and Korea. As early as
4500 B.C., the Japanese islands were inhabited by fishermen, hunters and
farmers. The early culture was known as "Jomon," which meant "cord pattern."
That's because the people made pottery decorated with rope-like designs.
Scientists believe a caucasian race called the "Ainu" were the first inhabitants
of what is now Japan. The Ainu still exist today, mostly in the northernmost
islands of Japan called "Hokkaido." The next major Japanese cultural changed
occured about 200 B.C. The people were known as "Yayoi." The Yayoi were mostly
farmers. Scientists believe the present-day Japanese closely resemble the Yayoi
in appearance and language.
War played a central part in the history of Japan. Warring
clans controlled much of the country. A chief headed each clan; made up of
related families. The chiefs were the ancestors of Japan's imperial family. The
wars were usually about the
struggle for control of land which eventually gave rise to the Samurai.
One of the important dates in the history of the Japanese
warring class is 660 B.C. That's when, according to legend, Jimmu Tenno became
head of a confederation of warlike clans. Tenno was known as "The Divine
Warrior." He led his people from Kyushu to the Kinki region and conquered the
people there. Tenno settled in the area of Yamato. This eventually gave rise to
the Yamato dynasty and state. The leaders of Yamato believed themselves to be of
The Yamato clans conducted many military campaigns on the Asian
mainland. The targets included Korea and China. These campaigns led to the
importation of Korean and Chinese culture, technology and martial arts.
Legend says that Emperor Keiko was the first person with the
title of "Shogun." The word meant "Barbarian-subduing General." Legend continues
that Keiko had a son named "Prince Yamato." He was cunning, fearless, strong and
a great martial artist. Many believe that Yamato was a role model for future
Ancient Yayoi warriors developed weapons, armour and a code
during the ensuing centuries that became the centerpiece for the Japanese
Samurai. Early weapons included bows, arrows and swords. Armour included a
helmet that protected head and neck, a breasplate that protected the chest, arm
and shoulder protectors, and a belly wrap. Later armour included protection for
the legs and thighs. Armour changed as the type of battles changed. A big change
occured in the 5th century when horses were introduced to Japan. Another change
occured in the 15th century because of the constancy of war and the introduction
of guns into battle. The code developed from the Chinese concept of the virtues
of warriors doing battle to the Samurai code of chivalry known as Kyuba no michi
("The Way of Horse and Bow") to the Bushido ("Way of the Warrior") code.
"Bushido" means "Way of the Warrior." It was at the heart of
the beliefs and conduct of the Samurai. The philosophy of Bushido is "freedom
from fear." It meant that the Samurai transcended his fear of death. That gave
the samurai the peace and power to serve his master faithfully and loyally and die well
The Samurai rose out of the continuing battles for land among
three main clans: the Minamoto, the Fujiwara and the Taira (see Minamoto history). The Samurai
eventually became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries
A.D. They were called by two names: Samurai (knights-retainers) and Bushi
(warriors). Some of them were related to the ruling class. Others were hired
men. They gave complete loyalty to their Daimyo (feudal landowners) and received
land and position in return. Each Daimyo used his Samurai to protect his land
and to expand his power and rights to more land.
The Samurai became expert in fighting from horseback and on the
ground. They practiced armed and un-armed combat. The early Samurai emphasized
fighting with the bow and arrow. They used swords for close-in fighting and
beheading their enemies. Battles with the Mongols in the late 13th century led
to a change in the Samurai's fighting style. They began to use their sword more
and also made more use of spears and naginata. The Samurai slowly changed from
fighting on horseback to fighting on foot.
The Samurai wore two swords (daisho). One was long; the other
short. The long sword (daito - katana) was more than 24 inches. The short sword
(shoto - wakizashi) was between 12 and 24 inches. The Samurai often gave names
to their swords and believed it was the "soul" of their warriorship. The oldest
swords were straight and had their early design in Korea and China. The
Samurai's desire for tougher, sharper swords for battle gave rise to the curved
blade we still have today. The sword had its beginning as iron combined with
carbon. The swordsmith used fire, water, anvil and hammer to shape the world's
best swords. After forging the blade, the sword polisher did his work to prepare
the blade for the "furniture" that surrounded it. If cutting tests were performed, the results were engraved on the nakago opposite the Mei of the swordsmith.
Samurai Dates of Importance
- 660 B.C. --- Legend says Jimmu Tenno became Japan's first
emperor and set up the ruling Yamato State. Weapons and armour develop.
- 400's A.D. --- Horses introduced into Japanese
- 500's A.D. --- Buddhism arrived in Japan; becomes a powerful
philosophy for rulers and warriors.
- 500's A.D. --- Soga clan dominated the Yamato court.
- 645 A.D. --- Taika Reforms began.
- 702 A.D. --- Taiho law codes established the Great Council
- 710 A.D. --- Nara rule began with first permanent
- 781 A.D. --- Emperor Kammu came to power and moved capital
to Kyoto a few years later.
- 794 A.D. --- Heian period began.
- 858 A.D. --- Fujiwara family gained control of imperial
- 935 A.D. --- Taira Masakado revolted and proclaimed himself
"The New Emperor." Other Samurai leaders exerted their influence across the
land and changed the history of Japan.
- 1180-85 A.D. --- Minamoto Yoritomo takes up arms against the
Taira clan in The Gempei War.
- 1192 A.D. --- Yoritomo became first permanent shogun of
Japan and set up his Samurai government in Kamakura (see History of Kamakura).
- Late 1200's A.D. --- Mongols invade Japan. The Samurai
defeat the Mongols after many years of fierce fighting. The Samurai developed
a style of formation combat and depended more on the sword as a primary weapon
- 1318 A.D. --- Go-Daigo became the 96th Emperor of Japan. He
attempted to overthrow the Hojo regents, but gave rise instead to a new
dynasty of Shoguns, the Ashikaga family, who set up their government in the
capital city of Kyoto.
- 1400'a A.D. --- Master swordsmen established schools to
teach their style of ken-jutsu.
- 1467-77 A.D. --- The Onin War saw the decline of the
Shogun's power and began the Sengoku Jidai ("The Age of the Country at War")
which lasted 150 years.
- 1542 A.D. --- Portuguese guns were introduced into
- 1560 A.D. --- Oda Nobunaga began the process of unifying
Japan. Toyotomi Hideyoshi continued the quest after Nobunaga's death.
- 1592 A.D. --- Hideyoshi invaded Korea on his way to invading
China, but died in 1598 before succeeding.
- 1603 A.D. --- The Tokugawa family began ruling Japan. The
regime lasted more than 200 years.
- 1605 A.D. --- Miyamoto Musashi, Japan's most famous Samurai,
began his musha-shugyo (warrior pilgrimage). Musashi fought and won more than
60 sword fights before the age of 30. He founded the Individual School of Two
Skies and taught for many years. At the age of 60, Musashi wrote Gorin No Sho
("The Book of Five Spheres"), the most famous writing about the Japanese Sword
Arts. He also wrote "The 35 Articles on the Art of Swordsmanship."
- 1615 A.D. --- Tokugawa Ieyasu drew up the "Buke Sho Hatto"
(Rules for Martial Families) before his death. It gave Samurai 13 guides to
living as a warrior during peace time.
- 1630 A.D. --- Japan cut its ties with the outside
- 1854 A.D. --- Commodore Matthew Perry opened trade between
the United States and Japan.
- 1867 A.D. --- Emperor Mutsuhito regained his traditional
powers and took the name Meiji. It was the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.
Meiji (Mutsuhito) set up his new capital city in Edo (Tokyo).
- 1868 A.D. --- Emperor Meiji introduced the "Five Articles
Oath" which began the dismantling of the Samurai class.
- 1873 A.D. --- Emperor Meiji established an army based on
conscription; an army open to anyone.
- 1876 A.D. --- Emperor Meiji declared a new law that ended
the wearing of swords. The Samurai had lost their profession and their right
to wear swords. Their position as a special class ended after almost 1,000
- A sword-drawing art that includes cutting rolled straw
- Staff fighting
- Martial or Fighting Arts
- The Way of the Warrior
- Straight sword used in Japan's early history
- Feudal landowner
- Samurai's two swords (katana & wakizashi)
- Edo Period
- 1600 - 1867 when Tokugawa government ruled Japan
- Samurai's duty
- War fan
- Divided skirt-pants Samurai wore
- Heian Period
- 782 - 1184 when Japan's capital was located in Kyoto
- Art of Drawing the Sword
- Kamakura Period
- 1185 - 1332 when the capital of Japan was in Kamakura. Known
as the "golden age" of the Japanese sword.
- Long sword
- Sword - refers specifically to an ancient, two-edge sword
made before the ninth century
- Art of the Sword
- Swords made before the Edo Period
- Bow and arrow fighting
- Kyuba no michi
- The Way of the Horse and Bow
- Japanese archery
- Name of a swordsmith
- Momoyama Period
- 1573 - 1599 when Samurai began wearing daisho. Also
beginning of the Shinto (new sword) period.
- Family crest worn on montsuki
- Kimono top Japanese wore at formal occasions
- Famous sword maker
- Muromachi Period
- 1392 - 1572 when constant civil wars greatly increased the
production of swords.
- Warrior pilgrimage
- Long pole with curved blade on one end
- Way of the Naginata
- Nambokucho Period
- 1333 - 1391 when two emperors were vying for power in
- Long sword
- Master-less Samurai
- Particular school or style of martial arts
- Member of the warrior class
- Ritual suicide
- Shin Shinto
- "New New Sword" - any sword made after Meiji Restoration
- "New Sword" - any sword made between 1596 and 1870
- Barbarian subduing General (war lord)
- Spear fighting
- Warrior monks
- Long, deeply curved sword worn cutting edge down that mounted Samurai used in
- "Long sword" - a term for the longer of two swords Samurai
wore with cutting edge up
- Short sword
- Samurai's sensing of danger
- All Stephen Turnbull BOOK's
- Harry Cook - "Samurai: The Story of a Warrior Tradition"
- Darrell Craig - "Iai: The Art of Drawing the Sword" (Charles
- Donn Draeger - "The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan"
- Miyamoto Musashi - "The Book of Five Rings" (Shambhala
- Masayuki Shimabukuro - "Flashing Steel" (Frog Ltd.)
- Nicklaus Suino - "The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship"
- Samurai-Archives web site
Return to SAMURAI / Email to Elliott at Shibui Swords