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Sword University

Who were the Samurai?

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The samurai – some of the most feared and revered warriors in all of history have a lot more to their storied past than most people are aware of.

The History of the Samurai

Samurai Warrior

Samurai left such a mark on this world, perhaps in part because they have been around for such a long time. From the 700’s to the 1800’s the Samurai were a going concern with arguably the last Samuai conflict noted in 1877 in the Battle of Shiroyama.

The word “Samurai” is roughly translated to “one who serves (the nobility)”. The humble beginnings of the samurai were as the armed employ of wealthy landowners and aristocrats. They came into power around the 12 th century and were in their full glory for around 300 years around this time. In these years, it is estimated that as high as 10% of the Japanese population were samurai. 

By the late 16 th century, the need for samurai lessened and many of these warriors had to take up trade. Around this time, Japan ruled that only the samurai were allowed to carry weapons. 

This was around the time that the daisho (long sword / short sword pair) was popularized with the samurai. They would traditionally leave their katana at the door when entering someone’s (or their own) home while continuing to keep their wakizashi (short sword) on their belt.

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The Weapons of the Samurai

Katana

Through the years, the samurai have used many different weapons including swords, pole arms, bows and even guns. Though they are generally thought to be synonymous with the katana, they were proficient in many other weapons as well. In fact, the samurai didn’t begin forging the katana until around the 14 th century and even before the 10th century, the blades they used didn’t even have a curve to them.

700 years ago, the katana was well ahead of other weapons used around the same time. Comparing it to the medieval broadsword, for example, the katana was lighter, more agile, faster and sharper. Samurai were trained with the katana from the age of 3, made to believe there is something special and sacred about the sword. A samurai warrior would name his katana – they believed that the warrior spirit was contained in the sword.

The samurai wore a scaled armor where strips of leather or iron were bound together into a chest plate and skirt. They wore a helmet and lightly armored arm sleeves generally leaving the right hand bareto allow for maximum mobility. A full suit of armor would weigh 60-80 lbs. Compared with a medieval full plate armor or even chain mail, samurai’s armor was much looser-fitting and designed to allow maximum mobility.

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Hara Kiri / Seppuku (suicide by blade) was real.

Seppuku

A disgraced samurai was, by tradition, allowed to regain his honor by passing into death through his own hand and blade. This was typically done by the samurai disemboweling himself with his short sword (wakizashi) or knife (tanto). The samurai believed that the soul was located roughly in the gut which is the reason this particular method was required. 

Contrary to popular culture, this act was quite rare. Generally a defeated samurai generally would take an alternative to hara kiri; surrender, become imprisoned, run, beg for mercy, and so forth. A disgraced samurai would rarely seek this ultimate path to regaining honor. They were, after all, regular people.

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In Closing

While the samurai have been glorified in pop culture, there seems to be a sub-culture / community that seems all to eager to point out the various flaws and shortcomings of this infamous social class. While it is true that many movies have overblown many aspects of the samurai (size, skill, honor, customs, heritage, etc.), they were a major cultural and military force for over 1000 years and played a large part in shaping modern Japanese culture. 

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