Surely, we have all heard at some point about the samurai, those mythical warriors of Japan who followed a strict code of conduct and one of whose most important values was honor. This article will offer you 10 curious facts to learn more about this legendary and mysterious military class.
1. Their origin was plebeian
The status of a privileged class was conferred on them much later, in the 17th century, in the middle of the Modern Age. But despite this privilege, they were still considered “servants” under the orders of their masters.
2. In peaceful times, they were farmers
Not everything in the samurai’s life consisted of war. Although in the popular imagination, we always think of the samurai as fierce soldiers fighting against their enemies, in times of peace, they devoted themselves to other tasks such as farming, which was the case for a long time.
3. One of the most valuable trophies for a samurai was the enemy’s head
Despite their strict moral code, the more severed heads that were presented to the command, the greater the gratification. In fact, there was a bag of heads called “Kubi bukuro,” where they were stored until they were presented to the corresponding lord. If you are reading this article and thinking, “I will definitely write my paper for me about these great warriors,” be sure to add this small fact in your writing piece to show your deep knowledge of their culture.
4. Their philosophy is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism
Zen Buddhism, coming from China, had a significant influence on the philosophy of the samurai. Unlike other beliefs that took wisdom as the path to salvation, Zen demanded above all meditation, which made it much more attractive when facing death face to face, a quite common situation in times of war.
5. They committed seppuku as the way to preserve honor
Seppuku or hara-kiri was a ritual suicide technique aimed at safeguarding honor. This practice, which was part of bushido, generally consisted of thrusting a short weapon into the abdomen and cutting from left to right in an extremely painful manner. Surrender was not within the samurai’s standards, being preferable to die on the battlefield itself.
The ritual of seppuku could be used for many reasons: as a consequence of defeat, as an alternative to execution, as an act of protest, or as a punishment for a mistake made, among others. Still, the aim of the ritual is always the preservation of a samurai’s honor.
6. The samurai were the main and most effective helpers in defense against Mongol invasions
The samurai, with the help of typhoons, managed to repel two attempted invasions by the Mongols in the 13th century. Japan was thus one of the few Asian countries to escape the control of the hordes of Genghis Khan’s descendants. However, despite this triumph, there were many internal conflicts in the Land of the Rising Sun during this period.
7. From the end of the 16th century, the samurai were the only ones entitled to carry a sword
This was the work of the Emperor’s regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who in 1588 issued the Sword Hunt. Through this initiative, all weapons in possession of the peasantry were requisitioned. In this way, any attempt at rebellion by the commoners was prevented. From then on, carrying a sword was the exclusive privilege of the samurai.
8. They never showed mercy to their enemies and sometimes collected their noses as battle trophies
The samurai were never merciful to the enemy. Especially cruel were the Korean campaigns of the late 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi on his way to conquer China. Apart from the massive number of sliced heads, another macabre trophy was the noses of the enemy. These were preserved in salt inside wooden barrels. This cruel practice was sometimes carried out on non-combatants such as women and children.
9. The samurai code of conduct, bushido, was a 17th-century creation
Literally “the way of the warrior,” bushido was not only a code of conduct for the samurai. Bushido was not only a set of rules but also a set of principles that should govern the samurai’s life in order to fight without losing humanity and basic values. One of its maxims was that “the way of the samurai lies in death,” and it was composed of seven virtues: Gi (justice), Yu (courage), Jin (benevolence), Rei (respect), Makato (honesty), Meiyo (honor) and Chuugi (loyalty).
10. The demise of the samurai took place during the Meiji Era (1868-1912)
At this time, an intense transformation process to catch up with the West began, which led to the disappearance of feudal Japan and thus of the samurai. Those dissatisfied with the new reforms supported Saigo Takamori, a member of the Satsuma clan and considered the last true samurai until his final defeat. One film that deals with this theme is called “The Last Samurai,” starring Tom Cruise. Subsequently, Japan would begin a great expansion into East Asia that would only stop until the end of World War II. But the image of the honorable samurai warrior will always remain in the memory of the Land of the Rising Sun.