Who Were the Samurai?
Students had to learn and pledge to live by a moral code known as bushido. Bushido placed utmost importance on respect and loyalty for a warrior’s masters, justice, courage, honesty and adopting ethically-based behaviour at all times.
If a samurai broke the bushido code, it was considered a huge dishonour. A dishonoured samurai would be required to end his own life by disembowelling himself, having first confessed his failings to his masters.
Samurai warriors have a mysticism about them that has inspired many books and films, such as The Last Samurai (2003) starring Tom Cruise. The film was extremely well received upon its release, nominated for several awards and grossed a total of $456 million at the box office.
However, the samurai were not just the honour-bound fighting machines we may imagine them to have been. Here’s seven facts about the samurai which may surprise you.
1. Women Could Be Samurai Warriors
Although a samurai warrior is usually imagined as male, women could be samurai too. Just like their male counterparts, their training began in childhood and included instruction in combat as well as education in the arts.
Until recently, it was believed the female samurai were trained in order to protect their homes but didn’t fight alongside the male samurai warriors. However, this is not strictly true. When excavations of the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru (1580) were undertaken, 105 samurai bodies were found. Of these, 35 were identified as female. Similar battle sites have since provided similar evidence of female samurai warriors involved in battle.
2. Samurai Armour Inspired Darth Vader’s Helmet
Most people are able to identify an image of a typical samurai warrior due to their unique armour.
European armour of the time was heavy and restrictive, whilst samurai armour was created to be flexible and light enough not to limit movement on the battlefield. This armour was carefully crafted from plates of metal or leather. The plates were bound together with leather cord and silk.
The most distinctive part of traditional samurai armour is the kabuto helmet. The main part of the helmet was made from plates of metal, riveted together. There were also ties around the head and neck. The kabuto helmet featured a very effective neck guard that protected its wearer from arrows or sword attacks from any angle. George Lucas is known to have created Darth Vader’s iconic helmet having been inspired by the kabuto helmet, specifically one worn by a samurai feudal lord called Date Masamune.
3 . Most Samurai Were Openly Homosexual
Just like the Spartans, the samurai were extremely open-minded about same-sex relations. In fact, such practices were encouraged enthusiastically.
Most homosexual relations occurred between students and their masters. It was considered a great learning experience for the student and sometimes used as a reward for an achievement in their training.
This practice was known as wakashudo and was extremely common throughout samurai culture. A master who didn’t engage in sexual activities with his students would not be considered as performing his role as mentor in the correct manner.
Editors note: Please note this practise was done in the past. This article does not justify or support the sexual abuse of students or anyone in a Martial Arts context or otherwise. It is not part of the modern world of Martial Arts.
4. Western Samurai Warriors
Although extremely uncommon, it was possible for someone not of Japanese origin to become a samurai warrior and fight alongside them. This incredible honour included vigorous training in combat, weaponry and the bushido code. The new samurai would also be required to adopt a Japanese name.
The process could only be authorised very powerful samurai, such as daimyos or the shogun.
As far as it is known, only four western men were ever honoured in this way: arms dealer, Edward Schnell; adventurer, William Adams; Adams’ colleague, Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn and navy officer, Eugene Collache.
5. Weapons of The Samurai
Both male and female samurai were trained to use several different weapons. Skilled sword makers created both straight and curved swords. A samurai was honour-bound to carry a weapon at all times.
The original sword was called a chokuto and was a slim, straight weapon. As sword making techniques improved, the samurai warriors switched to using curved swords. These curved swords evolved over time into the katana – the most widely-recognised samurai sword of all time. The katana was usually created with a matching, smaller dagger, called a daisho.
As well as fighting with their swords, samurai were creative and reactive when choosing their weapons. Yumis (longbows) were used commonly, as were throwing spears.
With the introduction of gunpowder in the 16th century, the samurai reacted by switching to using their own guns and cannons.
6. The Mini, Hairy Samurai Warriors
Popular media usually depicts a samurai warrior as a huge, menacing figure of enormous stature. In reality, this is far from the truth. The average male samurai warrior was actually 5′ 5” or under, with the women samurai being considerably smaller.
Compared to other Japanese classes, samurai had noticeably paler skin and more body hair. Their noses were also typically European in shape. These differences marked the samurai out and indicates that they descended from an ethnic group known as Ainu, who live in Hokkaido in Japan today as well as parts of Russia, namely the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.
Seppuku, also known as hara-kiri- was the ritual of suicide a samurai had to perform should he dishonour himself or face capture by an enemy.
Seppuku could occur very quickly, for example if a samurai faced capture on the battlefield he would end his own life.
If seppuku was arranged, it would take the form of a long ritual involving ceremonial bathing, a fine meal and the samurai’s writing of a death poem as his last words.
During the actual killing act, the samurai used his sword to pierce his own belly, slicing it from left to right. If possible, another samurai would then use his own sword to decapitate the dying warrior to end his suffering.
Seppuku could also be enforced as punishment if a samurai dishonoured himself or his master. It was considered a very honourable way to die.