The word “samurai,” derived from a Japanese verb meaning “to serve,” refers to the warrior nobility of feudal(pre-industrial) Japan. Early samurai had their roots as clan warriors who put down rebellions and as armed “enforcers” hired to protect tax collectors while they made their rounds. By the 14th century, however, samurai had evolved into a politically well-connected caste of superb fighters who carried edged weapons and sometimes wore armor.
Samurai were masters of the yumi (bow and arrow) and the yari (spear), but their warrior image is inextricably linked to their most famous weapon, the katana, a sword with a 24- to 30-inch blade. In addition to the katana, or “long sword,” samurai usually carried the wakizashi. Its 16- to 20-inch blade worked best for close-in fighting and for decapitating a defeated enemy. It also was used to commit seppuku – ritual suicide perhaps better known by the colloquial term hara-kiri. As a pair, the katana and wakizashi made up the daisho. For stabbing an opponent, samurai used the shorter, dagger-like tanto, which had a 6- to 12-inch blade.
The “uniform” of most samurai was the traditional Japanese silk kimono. However, similar to Europe’s medieval knight, Japan’s highest-class warrior, the shogun, wore armor. The most distinctive component of the armor was the kabuto. Composed of a helmet, shikoro (neck guard made of iron and leather) and sometimes a facemask, the kabuto was often very decorative. Thus it not only protected the head and neck of the samurai but also helped identify his status in society. From shoulder to knee, the body was protected by do, sode, kote, kusazuri and haidate. These were made of kozane, lacquered iron plates laced together with leather thongs and suspended in horizontal rows by silk cords. Suneate (shin guards) covered the lower legs.
The segmented armor was extremely flexible due to its unique construction (in contrast to a knight’s awkward plate armor). Since samurai enjoyed freedom of movement during battle, they were able to employ the bow and sword to maximum effect. To afford even greater mobility, they often did not wear protection on the arm used to draw the bow and wield the katana. Samurai were legendary swordsmen; few of history’s Great Warriors matched the élan of these highly trained fighters in combat. They lived by the Bushido, a Japanese warrior code that stressed the importance of justice, honor, altruism, sincerity and – perhaps above all – self-control. Influenced by Confucianism, Zen Buddhism and Shinto, Bushido taught samurai to be fearless in battle and to be extremely loyal to the lords they served. “Death before dishonor” was not an empty slogan to the samurai. They lived and died by the strict warrior code, believing that death in battle or even seppuku was preferable to living a life of dishonor.
When Emperor Meiji (ruled 1868-1912) ended Japan’s 200- year-old shogunate and restored imperial powers – in the process Westernizing the country’s political and military structures – samurai were effectively abolished. However, they did not go quietly. The confrontation between Meiji’s armies and the remaining samurai holdouts, known as the Satsuma Rebellion (January-September 1877), culminated in the Battle of Shiroyama. On September 24, 1877, a small force of 300-400 samurai armed with traditional weapons was pitted against 300,000 Western-armed and -trained imperial troops. The samurai fought with characteristic ferocity, but their swords and arrows were no match for modern rifles and cannon. (This bloody, climactic encounter was dramatized in the 2003 film The Last Samurai, starring Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise.)
Although samurai disappeared as a warrior class in 1877, the “samurai spirit” fueled Japan’s martial ambitions in the country’s wars against China (1895, 1937-45), Russia (1904-05), and the United States and its allies (1941-45). As a symbol of that enduring spirit, Japanese officers proudly carried “samurai swords” into battle until the end of World War II – long after such edged weapons had become anachronisms in modern combat. Perhaps fittingly, the swords became American GIs’ most coveted battle trophies.
Jerry Morelock, PhD, ARMCHAIR GENERAL Editor in Chief.