What is a samurai?

What is a samurai?

Fantasized legends in lots of different types of art such as movies, series or literary novels and mangas, the history of the Japanese Samuraï is exciting, full of controversies and that’s why we dedicate you today this very complete article on what is a Samuraï so that you can learn everything that there is to know about the famous Japanese warrior from ancient Japan!  But first let’s answer the question: what is the definition of Samuraï?  

The Samuraï (侍) were a group of soldiers from the warrior class that ruled Japan during its feudal period for nearly 700 years. They were mercenaries and highly trained combatants who offered their skills and their devotion to the daimyo (Japanese lord).

However, Japan’s Samuraï warrior class has always deeply fascinated the Western countries because of how intriguing was the concept of strict military trained individuals with frightening skills, but with profond spiritual customs and surprisingly refined artistic talents sometimes. #intro

What does Samuraï mean in Japanese?

japanese samurai

The word Samuraï comes from the the word Saburau (侍う) which means “to serve” or “the one who serves”. Before 1600,  warriors were mostly called “Mono no fu”, tsuwamono (強者) ou bushi (武士), but the term Samuraï raised above to become the common term used to describe this types of soldiers since the Edo period.

Samuraï were indeed those who serve their lords, the Emperor and everyone in Japan. Their faithful sense of duty is literally inscribed in the word that describes them and takes its origin from religious beliefs and cultural customs.

How do you spell Samuraï?

To pronounce the word “Samuraï” correctly you need to pronounce it like sam-oo-rahy.

What is the plural of Samuraï?

The term Samuraï doesn’t have any plural and doesn’t take an “S” at the end.


Who were the Samuraï?

samurai warriors

Samuraï and their families were generally part of a clan. However, one must ask how these clans are born, why they was their purpose and whether clans functioned as business units or extended families? Here is a section to answer these interrogations and explain the social life of the Samuraï.


Where do Samuraï come from?

The Samuraï (also referred to as bushi) were a skilled high-skilled class of warriors from Japan who worked as mercenaries and carried the words and actions of their lords (Daimyo and emperors). They were also considered as the highest class of people in the 17th century. later made up the ruling military class that eventually became the highest ranking social caste of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

When were Samuraï around?

Samuraï have been around in Japan during all the Feudal Japan Period and the Edo Period from the 12th to 19th century

Who was the first Samuraï?

Taira no Kiyomori

The first person to obtain the rank of Samuraï was Taira no Kiyomori (平 清盛, born in 1118 – died in March 20, 1181) and was a leader of a mercenary clan during the late Heian period of Japan. He is also the one who created and established the first Samuraï-dominated administrative government in Japan during the 12th century and organized into several Samuraï clans.


Samuraï Clans

samurai clans

In the beginning of the Nara and early Heian periods (794 to 1185), Samuraï did not have specific clans. Each one of them had his own network of relationships with other Samuraï and lords, but was in fact an independent unit. It was therefore common for Samuraï of this period to share their loyalty between different “clients” for whom they provided mercenary services.

These relationships were mostly commercial in nature, without the emotional connections that emerged after during the later periods. However, at the end of the Heian period, clans of Samuraï began to emerge. These clans were known as “houses” (ie, 家).

Originally, these houses were merely a contract clause of individual business relationships. A lord, who owned an estate, would offer his hired Samuraï housing in exchange for exclusive services from them. This offer of housing also extended to the Samuraï’s family members.

Over time, a strong sense of loyalty emerged between the lord and the Samuraï he hired. Eventually, the Samuraï were incorporated into the lord’s house and their bloodlines became part of his clan, thus joining the lord’s “family“. The business relationship between the Samuraï and the lord was then transformed into clan and family loyalty.


The concept of loyalty

samurai kneeling

In Japanese society, the social core has always been the rules of family, rather than individual ones. The creation of Samuraï clans therefore had created a strong and autonomous military unit whose loyalty to one another was equivalent to loyalty to one’s own blood relatives.

These new Samuraï clans that were created during the Sengoku period (1467 to 1615) played an essential role when Japan territory was fragmented into several regions. The strength of these regions were directly related to the strength and size of the Samuraï clans that controlled them. Wars inside clans were therefore an important issue that could influence the sustainability of each clan, and therefore of each Samuraï lineage.

However, this sense of family and filial loyalty to the clan and the clan lord was a double-edged sword. While the successes of the clan translated into the successes of its lord and vice versa, the same could be said of the failures of both. A lord’s political blunders reflected just as much on the clan’s honor as losing a battle, and the ultimate losses of honor for a clan were either suffering a total loss in battle or losing its lord and all of his heirs.

samurai bowing

Samuraï whose lord without an heir had been killed were known as “ronin” (浪人, lit. “drifter” or “wanderer”), those without a leader and thus without any honor. Ronin were generally expected to follow their lord in death, sometimes avenging their lord’s honor as described in the Tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin.

In some cases, ronins or Samuraïs could change clan and still keep their honor. This method was much more popular before 1603, because the political state of Japan was constantly changing. In addition, a Samuraï clan could adopt individuals into the clan, such as warrior monks or distinguished ashigaru. (足軽, lit. “light foot). However, during the Tokugawa period, also called Edo Period (1603–1867), clans were much more lasted much longer and it was therefore considered extremely dishonorable to pledge allegiance to a different clan, even for a ronin.

It is since this period that Samuraï clans started to be obsessed with the concepts of honor and loyalty as their primary function during the Edo Period had shifted from active military nobility to political nobility. At the end of the Tokugawa period, many Samuraï lost their lives because of this concept of honor, either by voluntary suicide or by sanctioned inter-clan wars.


Samuraï religion

samurai praying

The main religion among the Samuraï was Shintoism, a cult with Buddhist and Taoist origins. This religion was born as a result of the importation of many religious concepts from China and other nations over time which resulted in a mixture of these three cults that varied among individuals, families or clans, depending on the preferences and traditions of each.

For the Samuraï, Shinto religion took on additional meanings to accommodate their unique social nature as a warrior social class. For example, filial loyalty was expanded to include loyalty to the lord and leader of the clan. Similarly, while each Samuraï has his own personal commitment to his own honor and that of his ancestors, this has also been expanded to include the honor of his lord and ancestors. In all other respects, however, the Shinto customs of the Samuraï were the same as those of everyone else.



Shinto, the native religion of Japan, is based on the worship of spirits and nature. Over time, Shinto has undergone several alterations due to the ever-changing religious and political climate, but many of its fundamental principles have endured into the 19th century and beyond.

These fundamental principles include belief in Kami (神, lit. deity), protective spirits or gods, filial loyalty to the head of the family or clan, loyalty to the ancestors, the need to preserve purity from contamination of body and soul, and the belief that everything and everyone is interconnected by an intrinsic shared divine nature. These relatively simple precepts have made Shinto extremely popular in Japan throughout its history.

Even though Buddhism replaced Shintoism as the main religion in Japan after the Nara period, Shintoism remained a substantial part of daily life. The emperors of the Nara and Heian periods sought to institutionalize Shinto alongside Buddhism because of its popularity, so while adopting many Buddhist customs, the Japanese continued to pay respects to local Shinto spirits during Shinto religious festivals and prayed at Shinto shrines before making major decisions.

Samuraï Code

samurai code

In addition to Shintoism, Samuraï had their own warrior code which added its own aspects from warrior class’ views to the common religious concepts at the day. Samuraï code is called Bushido.


The term Bushido  (武士道, lit. the way of the warrior) appeared for the first time at the beginning of the Edo period, in the 17th century. Before this time, Samuraï code had remained a set of unwritten, unofficial rules and ideas that were passed down from one generation of Samuraï to the next. Although the official code of Bushido emerged relatively late in Samuraï history, it drew many of its precepts from the early concepts of Shintoism, Zen, and Confucianism that Samuraï had incorporated into their lives over time.

For example, stories of Samuraï’s reckless bravery and extreme devotion to their lord have existed since the early Heian and Nara periods, such as the Tale of Heike, which became popular in the 12th and 13th centuries and describes the honorable behavior of the great daimyo during the Gempei wars of the 12th century, long before the Tokugawa period.

Most important Bushido code precepts are justice, loyalty, honor, courage, love and courtesy. The perfect Samuraï is therefore a man who upholds justice and honor as the highest values, who is not afraid to go into battle or die for his lord, who loves all things in the world and is capable of great compassion and who is a perfect gentleman with great manners.

The underlying idea was that it should be its heart, not the dry intellectual mind, that should guide a Samuraï’s actions. These ideas unite the concepts of loyalty and connection to all things of Shintoism and the concepts of experiencing the moment and gaining glory and honor in death of Zen with the Confucian vision of the “perfect gentleman”.

In many ways, Bushido was and still is the Japanese equivalent of the European code of chivalry that was upheld by the knights of medieval times.

What does a Samuraï represent?

samurai representation

Samuraï represents the “one who serves”, who respects, who helps and protects those who need to be protected. They served by a code of honor and respect to their gods, their leaders and the people. That makes them a personnification of what the “perfect gentleman” should be.

In the modern times, Samuraï are often described as beasts that represent war and violence, probably because of all the cinematographic interpretations based only on the military life of the Samuraï. However, we have seen previously that although they are the armed hand of a daimyo, the spiritual identity of a Samuraï is much greater than that.  


How did Samuraï train?

samurai training

Samuraï’s training begins from the moment they are born and will continue all his life until he faces his time of death. Becoming an elite warriors employs to invest all its life following the bushido rules and this must get started as young as possible. 

Therefore, since his childhood, a Samuraï’s son was subjected to a very strict discipline. The time for loving and maternal time offered to him was very short and was kept away from tender gestures as much as possible to learn how to suppress the affectionate impulses of childhood.

Any idle pleasure was strictly measured and comfort itself proscribed, except in cases of illness. Thus, from the moment he could speak, a Samuraï only joy was in regard of duty as the only guide to his existence, self-control as the first rule of conduct, suffering and death as accidents of no importance from the individual point of view.

This very austere education was not without much more restrictive imperatives, intended to develop a total impassivity from which the child was never to depart, except in the privacy of his home.

The boys were accustomed to the sight of blood by being forced to watch executions. They were not to show any emotion. When they returned home, they were forced to eat a large dish of rice colored blood-red by the addition of salted plum juice, in order to suppress any secret feelings of horror.

But even more painful ordeals could be imposed, for example, they were forced to go alone at midnight to the place of execution and bring back the head of one of the condemned as proof of their courage. Indeed, the fear of the dead was considered just as despicable on the part of a Samuraï as that of the living. The young Samuraï had to learn to guard against all fears. In all these tests, the most perfect self-control was required. No bluster would be tolerated with more leniency than the slightest sign of cowardice.

As he grew up, the child had to be satisfied, by way of distractions, with those physical exercises which, very quickly and for the rest of his life, prepared the Samuraï for war: kenjutsu, jujutsu, bajutsu, kyujutsu, respectively the art of the sword, wrestling, equestrian art, archery.

samurai illustration

His companions were chosen from among the sons of the servants, older than him and selected for their skill in martial arts. His meals, although abundant, were not very refined, his clothes light and rudimentary, except on the occasion of great ceremonies. When he studied in winter, if his hands were so cold that he could not use his brush, he was ordered to dive into ice water to restore circulation. If the frost made his feet numb, he was forced to run in the snow. Even more rigorous was the military training itself: the child learned early on that the little sword at his belt was neither an ornament nor a toy.

For the religious education of the young Samuraï, he was taught to venerate the ancient shinto gods and the spirits of his ancestors. He was introduced to Buddhist faith and philosophy and taught Chinese ethics. This is to be nuanced, due to the fact that a particular clan or family or koryu (school of martial arts) tended towards a Shinto, Buddhist or Confucian vision. Thus the Tenshin shōden katori shintō-ryū inclines towards Shintoism, while the Hyoho niten ichi ryu opens its major text with an invocation to a Buddhist deity, continuing that while one should venerate the gods, one should not expect victory from them.

The Samuraï learned his trade in ancient schools that provided training in weapons, strategy, intelligence and various aspects of the art of war. These koryu, ancient schools, were the framework that shaped the technical and moral excellence of the Samuraï.

Little by little, as he passed from childhood to adolescence, the supervision to which he was subjected was reduced. He was left more and more free to act according to his own judgement, with the certainty that he would not be forgiven the slightest mistake, that he would repent all his life for a serious offense and that a deserved reproach was more to be feared than death itself.


What age did Samuraï finish training?

Samuraï’s training doesn’t end at a particular age. Samuraï’s devotion to the bushido code last one life time and only those who mentally survives the first part of training during their childhood can earn the title of Samuraï. 


What do Samuraï eat?

samurai diet

Samuraï diet was very strict and based on natural food as the Bushido code employs that the Samuraï needs to live an healthy life to maintain his body ready for war and combats on the battlefield. 

According to old documentation on the subject, we know that that base diet of a Samuraï was mostly brown rice, miso soup, fish and fresh vegetables.


What happened to the Samuraï?

meiji restoration

During the Meiji Restoration era (1867) at the end of the Edo Period, Government knew that it was necessary to proceed to the destruction of the old lordships to remodel the State of Japan and to allow all the talents of the society to bloom, i.e. to abolish the old socio-professional statutes, which, in the long run, implied the abolition of the Samuraï order.

The need for a unified Japan became necessary to the eyes of a lot and in 1871, the emperor decreed “the abolition of fiefs and the creation of departments”. These counties were headed by prefects appointed by the government in place of the former daimyo (great lords).

The whole territory was thus placed under the direct administration of the new regime. As for the daimyo, they were largely compensated while their debts were cleared. They thus came out winners of the reform.

At the same time as the administrative unification, the abolition of the order based on the old statutes was decreed. The old titles of nobility were abolished and replaced by other categories. Thus court nobles, daimyo of warrior origin and some high officials of the regime were integrated into a new nobility called kazoku, a mixture of the English-style lords and the French-style Empire nobility.

For the former Samuraï, a new order was created, the shizoku. Kazoku and shizoku represented 4.7% of the population. As for the commoners of the Old Regime, they were transformed into heimin, “the people”.


This new nobility was purely honorary. Legally, all subjects became equal before the law, and gradually the three social statuses (kazoku, shizoku and heimin) came to mean nothing more than the old social origins. Privileges related to social status were abolished and intermarriage between the three status groups was allowed.

All heimin were allowed to take up positions in the state apparatus and the new civil service, whereas previously only warriors could exercise military command. This reform, which deprived them of this privilege, was essential for the creation of a modern army through the adoption of conscription in 1872. Very quickly, through the corps of non-commissioned officers, the army was perceived as a means of social promotion, especially among the poor peasantry.

The abolition of the old statutes had significant social consequences. Thus, the common people became free to move around, to change jobs and, with the monks, were allowed to have a family name and to ride horses. On their side, the Samuraïs could abandon the traditional bun and their two swords. In 1876, the wearing of swords was forbidden in public places and limited to army and police officers.

All decided in the first years of the Meiji era, these reforms weave a set of provisions which put an end to the general framework of feudalism. This “revolution” was not a popular groundswell that overthrew the old order. But the need for radical reforms had in fact triggered a general restructuration of society.

samurai in 1800

In 1876, the government stopped paying the former Samuraï in the “old way” and instead offered them public bonds pledged in gold, corresponding to several years of their former income. Some became landowners. Others started industrial or commercial operations. Many joined the high public administration.

Among the former literate Samuraï, many were pragmatic and enterprising and became part of the “new middle classes”: teachers, journalists, lawyers, doctors… But a large number of former Samuraï were disoriented by the new measures. Unadapted to the new situation, they were unable to make their meager capital bear fruit and saw their privileged status and fortune disappear within a few years. Some then launched desperate attempts at insurrection.

The most serious affair broke out in 1877 in the south-west, in Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, where Saigo Takamori, one of the architects of the imperial victory of 1868, had retired from the government in 1873. Leading a private army of idealistic young Samuraï, Saigo led a tough campaign against the government troops. He was nevertheless defeated.

If the final victory of the government demonstrated the capabilities of the new conscript army, this bloody civil war was a blow to its prestige. But this “Southwestern War”, as it is called in Japan, was the last great armed revolt of Samuraï against the new regime.


When did the Samuraï end?

The Samuraï officially disappeared at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) when they lost all their privileges, including the carrying of the sword as well as their income. Most of them reconverted to common jobs, except for a few diehards who led the Saigo Takamori revolt in 1873.


Why do Samuraï commit seppuku?

samurai seppuku

Seppuku (Harakiri) was a ritual developed in the 12th century and performed by the Samuraï to achieve an honorable death on the battlefield by using their own weapons to end their life and thus avoiding to be captured on the battlefield defeats after a defeat.
However, Seppuku was also used as a method to pardon the Samuraï’s family name after an act of treason or to express grief over the death of leader.

Are there still Samuraï?

Besides their popularity in the 7th art and in Japanese animation (Manga and anime), we can say that Samuraï don’t exist anymore in the traditional way but still exist in Japan and all over the world: in the sports field.

Indeed, most of the traditional martial arts are inherited from the ancestral fighting techniques of the Samuraï. This is the case for judo, kendo, ju-jitsu and Kyudo.


Who was the last Samuraï?

Saigo Takamori

Saigō Takamori is considered in Japan as the last true Samuraï and was one of most important political figures during the Meiji Restoration.


Who is the greatest Samuraï warrior in history?

Oda Nobunaga

Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) is the most respected Samuraï in Japan. In addition to being a superb warrior and strategist, Nobunaga was responsible for setting in motion the chain of events that would reunify the nation and end the period of warring states.


Were there female Samuraï?

female samurai

While the word “Samuraï” is a strictly masculine term, female warriors have also existed in Japan. Known under the term of “Onna-Bugeisha” (女武芸者, lit. woman warrior), these female soldiers were trained in martial arts and war strategy to be able to fight alongside the Samuraï and defend their homes, families and their honor.


Did Samuraï have tattoos?

The bushido code employs that the Samuraï has to live by strict rules that focus into keeping him away for unhealthy habitudes like Sex, alcool and drugs. Therefore, it was not accepted from Samuraï to have tattoos, but we know that this rule wasn’t completely followed and that there was Samuraï owning tattoos beneath their armor.


Samuraï Gear

Once a Samuraï pledged allegiance to a daimyo, we was offered a small part of land for him and his family to live and received money regularly regards the fulfillment of his tasks and duty. Furthermore, expenses for armory and weapons were also covered by the daimyo. 

Here is a list of the Samuraï equipment:

Samuraï Weapons

samurai weapons

Samuraï Sword

samurai sword

The most famous but yet the least used weapon, Samuraï’s sword was the most symbolic weapon of the Samuraï during the feudal era. In combat, the sword was reserved for close combat on horseback or on the ground. However, such situations were relatively infrequent and undesirable for the Samuraï.

That said, Samuraï were always masters of the sword and trained with it constantly. The greatest test of their skills, however, was the confrontation between them, either in duels on the battlefield or in interpersonal and inter-clan feuds. During the Tokugawa period, when the military skills of the vast majority of Samuraï were no longer needed, these clan feuds and personal duels became the main focus of combat for this military elite. The main weapon of the Samuraï of this period was therefore the katana, for those who kept it rather than selling it for extra money, or the wakizashi, the little sister of the katana.


What is a Samuraï sword called?

samurai katana

The katana is the name of the long sword that has always been associated with Japanese Samuraï warriors. The katana is primarily a sharp sword, but its unique structure also allows it to be used as a dagger and parrying weapon for defense, due to its great resilience. It can be used with one or two hands, depending on the type of blow and the strength the Samuraï wishes to give to the blow.

The katana consists of a blade of 60 to 90 cm long. In general, the tang is about one fifth of the length of the blade, with a hole near its tip. The lengths of the tang and blade have changed over time, however. The wooden handle, or “tsuka”, of the katana completely covers the tang. The handle is drilled so that a pin can be inserted through the hole in the tang to secure the handle to the blade. The wood of the handle is usually covered with leather or ray skin, then wrapped with a rough silk cord, for a better grip.

The blade itself is slightly curved, with a single sharp edge on the convex side of the curve. Along the edge of the blade is a distorted pattern called “hamon”. This pattern is used to measure the quality of the blade and its composition.

Where the handle of the katana and the blade meet, there is often a guard called “tsuba”. The tsuba is both practical and decorative and can be made of more precious metals than steel. It can also be fitted with decorative accessories to match the tsuba, for a more decorative look. Sometimes spacers are used on one or both sides of the tsuba to make it tighter, and a collar is attached to the base of the blade to reinforce the point where the blade meets the cross guard.

A small decorative crest, called a “menuki”, is often integrated into the handle, and protrudes from between the two wraps. This piece of crest usually belonged to the person or clan for whom the sword was made.

How did Samuraï carry their swords?

The katana was carried with the sharp edge up, tucked into a Samuraï’s wide belt. It has undergone several changes since the introduction of swords into Japan from China. This section describes the main characteristics of the katana, its historical evolution and the manufacturing process that has been developed for it over time.

Did Samuraï carry two swords?

Yes, it was very frequent from very important Samuraï or those that worked for very wealthy daimyo to carry more than one sword on them, one long swoerd (Katana) and one short sword (Wakizashi).

The Bow

samurai bow

The early Samuraï relied heavily on the bow as their primary weapon in battle, which was fired from horseback. Due to the height of the horse, the katana was not as effective a weapon for mounted Samuraï, as the mobility of the horse meant that they could move across the battlefield while staying at a distance and continuously firing accurate shots at enemy troops

However, because the armor of the Nara and Heian periods was cumbersome and reduced the mobility of the Samuraï, it limited the range of possible shooting angles, and often hindered the effective firing and release of the bow. Moreover, the bow had only offensive capabilities and had to be discarded in favor of other weapons whenever a charge into enemy lines was necessary. Nevertheless, due to the unparalleled skill of the Samuraï with the bow and advances in the development of armor that allowed for greater mobility, the bow remained the primary weapon of the mounted Samuraï for nearly four centuries before finally being replaced by the spear.


The Spear

While in previous periods only Samurai were allowed to use bows, ashigaru were now given this privilege as well. This meant that instead of firing a few very accurate shots, an army could simply fill the sky with arrows, as the ashigaru outnumbered the small Samurai special forces. This allowed the Samurai to learn to outdo each other with a new weapon: the spear. Spears could be used as both throwing and stabbing weapons, while giving the Samurai the advantage of a longer reach than a sword and a greater distance between him and his target.


The Naginata

samurai Naginata

In the early days of Samuraï warfare, before the 14th century, ashigaru were the primary bearers of spears. Spears, known as naginata, were considered graceless and inaccurate weapons and ashigaru, who used them primarily to stop the charges of Samuraï cavalry on the front lines, were considered disposable weapons. The most noble side of the naginata was its expert use by female Samuraï, who were as well trained with the naginata as Samuraï were with the katana, which was forbidden to women.

However, around the Sengoku period, the role of the Samuraï on horseback changed. Instead of being archers, Samuraï switched from main weapon and started using a spear like European knights, sacrificing range for the ability to make a devastatingly accurate charge. This spear was known as the yari and was based on its predecessor, the naginata, but was much longer. The shift to cavalry charges also forced ashigaru spears to adapt.

The naginata of the past was relatively short and therefore extremely ineffective against the longer spears used by mounted Samuraï. Therefore, beginning in the Sengoku period, ashigaru began to use the same spear as the horse warriors, to give them a fighting chance against the reach of the spear.


The Wakizashi

Samurai Wakizashi

The wakizashi appeared between the 15th and 16th centuries, created as a short sword companion to longer blades like the tachi and katana. Just as the shorter length of the katana made it better than the tachi for urban combat, the shorter length of the wakizashi made it better for even smaller spaces such as the interior.

The lighter weight and smaller size of this sword made it ideal for stabbing and kicking, making it a popular backup and emergency weapon alongside the katana, which was often used to deliver the coup de grace to enemies. Samurai usually carry both, a combination known as daisho or “big-little”, both on and off the battlefield. In fact, it was often customary for a samurai to leave his katana at the door when entering a restricted area, but to retain possession of his wakizashi. In addition, the blade was the instrument most often used to commit Seppuku, the samurai suicide ritual. However, unlike the katana, wakizashi were not only reserved for samurai; merchants were also free to carry them.


The Tanto

samurai tanto

The tanto is the oldest of the three common blades used by Samuraï, a traditional Japanese dagger that dates back to the Heian period. The tanto has had many names throughout history and has changed in length quite dramatically. However, it has always been considered a short, stabbing weapon used for close combat and self-defense. Initially, tanto was used as a companion to tachi, the long sword for horseback combat. This association reflected the katana/wakizashi combination that followed, with the tanto being used for close combat and for finishing a fight.

There are even documents that show that the tanto was given, along with a tachi or katana, to a great lord during the Heian period, showing its importance to the Samuraï of the time. As the tachi lost its importance to the katana, the tanto remained a staple of Samuraï weaponry, although its role in combat was greatly reduced. Although for a time it was common to see a Samuraï with all three blades, tanto was eventually relegated to the lower classes, especially as a method of self-defense for women.


Samuraï Armor

samurai armor

Samuraï armor was also unique to each Samuraï, allowing him to stand out from the crowd and be recognizable even from a distance. This was important for any Samuraï who wanted to be promoted for his performance. Like the katana, the structure of the Samuraï’s armor has evolved over time. As warfare intensified in Japan, Samuraï armor became made of metal strips and eventually to full plate.


The Kabuto

The kabuto, or helmet, was easily one of the most striking elements of the traditional Samuraï image. As mentioned earlier, Samuraï wanted to be seen and distinguished from one another and their helmets reflected this.

They often had prominent embellished crests, or additional rivets and lacquer patterns in different colors. Some embellishments included items such as wooden buffalo horns or red suns painted on the sides. Also, while European helmets, such as those used by knights, covered a good part of the face to protect the head as much as possible, kabuto did not cover the Samuraï’s face.

Armors covering the face existed and were known as men-yoroi, but they were rarely used. This armor was more like a mask and served more to intimidate than to protect. Fierce faces were painted on the men-yoroi, and sometimes whiskers made of horsehair were glued to them as can be seen in the image on the next page.

It is interesting to note that the helmet itself has changed little. The main part of the helmet has remained a ridged bowl throughout the different periods. Some modifications to the original shape have been made over time, mainly for greater head comfort, but otherwise the helmet has remained the same.


The Keiko

The earliest sets of Samuraï chest armor were based on a lamellar construction, and were called keiko. Lamellar armor is constructed from rectangular scales that are pierced so that they can be joined together into a single suit of armor. This type of armor had the advantage of being relatively light, as the structure alternated between iron scales that covered the vital areas and leather pieces that looked like scales. Each scale was also lacquered to give the armor a polished appearance and provide additional hardening to the leather.

Because of its simplicity, this type of armor is easy to create and maintain. Like most examples of Samuraï armor until the 15th century, the keiko rested its entire weight on the shoulders of the Samuraï. While this allowed for slightly greater mobility, it also made the armor somewhat uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Samuraï always wore their armor when they went to the battlefield and fought there, in order to reduce the amount of luggage they had to carry separately. So comfort became a priority. Eventually, Samuraï began to strap their armor around their waist to reduce weight, similar to today’s backpacks with built-in belts.

Before the 13th century, the two main types of armor used by Samuraï in Japan were yoroi armor and do-maru armor. Yoroi armor was heavier and bulkier, designed to offer great protection to the mounted Samuraï. However, it was also rigid and limited the Samuraï’s mobility when on foot. So the Samuraï eventually adopted the more flexible do-maru style of armor, which eventually became the modern style known as tosei gusoku. The first step in this change was to shift more of the weight of the armor onto the hips, in order to make it easier to wear the armor for long periods of time.

The breastplate, known as the do, is the piece that has changed the most throughout the history of Samuraï. While it started out as a simple lamellar armor, around the beginning of the war period, the idea of creating the armor from strips of lamellar scales, or even a simple rectangular piece, became more common. Using a unified set of strips allowed the armor to have a variable width along the body, so that more weight could be transferred to the hips. This also allowed for the look most closely associated with traditional Samuraï, with overlapping layers. 

When the Europeans arrived, their plate armor sets influenced Japanese armorers to change their armor styles. In addition, the arrival of guns in Japan meant that Samuraï needed much stronger armor. The most famous of the styles created to counter gunfire was the Yukinoshota-do. The surface of this armor was completely smooth to better deflect projectiles, with all the lacing hidden underneath the surface. The creators of this armor were so confident of its capabilities that they provided samples that were literally tested on a firing range. In terms of appearance, the Japanese were very excited about the appearance of the European breastplates. After the arrival of the Europeans in 1542, stronger styles of do appeared within a few years, which were obvious copies of the European style of armor.

When the Europeans arrived, their plate armor sets influenced Japanese armorers to change their armor styles. In addition, the arrival of guns in Japan meant that Samuraï needed much stronger armor. The most famous of the styles created to counter gunfire was the Yukinoshota-do. The surface of this armor was completely smooth to better deflect projectiles, with all the lacing hidden underneath the surface. The creators of this armor were so confident of its capabilities that they provided samples that were literally tested on a firing range. In terms of appearance, the Japanese were very excited about the appearance of the European breastplates. After the arrival of the Europeans in 1542, stronger styles of do appeared within a few years, which were obvious copies of the European style of armor.


Traditionally, Samurai and other courtiers during the Edo period worn a Kamishimo (上下 or 裃), an outfit composed of an Hakama, a Kataginu and a Haori. Today, Japanese Fashion has bring back traditional outfits from this period into trendy pieces of clothing like the Kimono Jacket, an aesthetic garment that is a hip- or thigh-length jacket open on the front that Japanese people wear over their traditional Japanese kimono.


Did Samuraï use shields?

Yes, some paintings from the 13th century show us that shield had been used by Samuraï in the past. However, it was very unlikely for them to use this gear in normal combat as it restreint considerably the Samuraï’s mobility.


How to become a Samuraï?

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