Brief History of the Samurai
courtesy of Mark McGee
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 "land." Only 20% of the land was
fit for farming. The struggle for control of that land 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 divine origin.
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
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 Samurai.
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 him the peace and power to serve his master
faithfully and loyally and die well if necessary. "Duty" is a primary
philosophy of the Samurai.
The Samurai rose out of the continuing battles for land among three
main clans: the Minamoto, the Fujiwara and the Taira. 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. Next, the sword tester took the new blade and cut through the
bodies of corpses or condemned criminals. They started by cutting
through the small bones of the body and moved up to the large bones.
Test results were often recorded on the nakago (the metal piece
attaching the sword blade to the handle).
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 fighting.
- 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 of
- 710 A.D. --- Nara rule began with first permanent capital.
- 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 court.
- 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.
- 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 in battle.
- 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 Japan.
- 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 world.
- 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
- 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 years.
- A sword-drawing art that includes cutting rolled straw targets
- 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 (one long - katana, one short - 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 arror fighting
- Kyuba no michi
- The Way of the Horse and Bow
- Japanese archery
- Name of a sword
- Momoyana 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
- 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 Japan
- 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 (1870)
- "New Sword" - any sword made between 1596 and 1870
- Barbarian subduing General (war lord)
- Spear fighting
- Warrior monks
- Long, deeply curved sword that mounted Samurai used in ancient
- "Inside sword" - a term for the longer of two swords Samurai wore
- Short sword
- Samurai's sensing danger
- Harry Cook - "Samurai: The Story of a Warrior Tradition" (Sterling
- Darrell Craig - "Iai: The Art of Drawing the Sword" (Charles
- Donn Draeger - "The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan" (Weatherhill
- Miyamoto Musashi - "The Book of Five Rings" (Shambhala Inc.)
- Masayuki Shimabukuro - "Flashing Steel" (Frog Ltd.)
- Nicklaus Suino - "The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship" (Weatherhill