The samurai are iconic figures of Japan’s history. Decked out in one of the most aesthetically pleasing yet exceptionally efficient armors in the history of the world, the samurai spent 700 years securing Japan’s borders from outside invaders and keeping the shogun-led feudal system intact. Here are 10 interesting facts about Japan’s legendary warriors.
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1. The samurai existed for nearly a millennium
The samurai are an iconic part of Japanese history — and rightfully so. This caste rose to prominence in the late 1100s and existed until the late 1800s. While this era was not unlike many lengthy feudal systems elsewhere on the planet, it’s nonetheless impressive. The samurai caste system originated from provincial warrior groups in the 12th century. At the time, Europe was deep in the Dark Ages and Marco Polo had yet to sail to China.
By the time the samurai era ended in the 19th century, the first telephone, incandescent light bulb, and automobile were invented, with the first airplane soaring the skies less than 20 years later. It’s shocking just how well this era stayed in power throughout the world’s vast technological advances yet ended so abruptly.
2. Peacetime was rather boring
If you thought the 700 years of samurai was full of sword fighting, think again. While the samurai did get their fair share of fighting over the years, particularly against invasions from Mongolia, there were many times when they kept their katanas holstered. Keep in mind that the samurai’s job was to serve their lord, including during times of peace.
Many farmed or completed other nonviolent duties. Though they were still tasked to keep their skills sharp, the era between 1600 and 1868 saw them engaging in activities like learning a trade, becoming bureaucrats, and studying Confucian classics. The Edo period, as it was known, was a prolonged period of peacetime, ending in conjunction with the fall of a samurai and feudal system.
3. Samurai fought beyond Japan’s borders
Just because a feudal lord may not be at war doesn’t mean that the samurai’s top talents went to waste in peacetime. Many ventured beyond Japan’s borders in groups or as individuals to serve the interests of their lords. It’s believed that some of the samurai also turned to a form of piracy.
Between the 1300s and 1500s, the Wokou were a group of pirates made up of multiple Asian nationalities. Historians have found evidence of Japanese armor and weaponry on these vessels, leading them to believe that some samurai took to the seas either under orders or of their own accord.
4. Japan’s noble samurai died with feudalism…as the bad guys
To twist a popular movie line, you either die a noble member of a caste system or you live long enough to see the caste system collapse and become the rebels. Remember that by 1867, Japan had experienced nearly 250 years of peace during the Edo period. Many samurai, though still capable as warriors, took on other nonviolent roles in society.
The modernization of Japan led to abandonment of the feudal system and a return to Imperialism. Known as the Meiji Restoration, many samurai resigned from their post, and eventually rebelled against the new government. The Satsuma Rebellion ended with the deaths of Japan’s last remaining samurai.
5. There was a failed samurai colony in California
As Japan’s landscape changed in the 1800s, many people left the country, including samurai. In 1869, an ex-military advisor to a Japanese ruler arrived in San Francisco with three families in hopes to create a colony for other expats with loyalties to the decaying feudal system.
Although they were led by a Prussian man named John Henry Schnell, the immigrants sailed to California to create Wakamatsu Silk and Tea Farm in hopes that hundreds of other samurai and Japanese citizens would follow in fleeing the ongoing civil war. Sadly, none ever did. A drought of both water and financing for the farm eventually saw the colonists dispersed, marking the end of the only samurai colony established outside of Japan.
If you’re longing for a lengthy trip through the history of Japan, Trafalgar’s Classic Japan tour presents you with 11 days of soul-stirring experiences. FromTokyo to Osaka, you’ll ride a bullet train to Hiroshima, see geishas in Kyoto, and take selfies with Mt. Fuji.
6. Don’t expect to see anyone carrying a katana in Japan today
The good news is that you can visit Japan and have your very own personalized samurai sword made the traditional way.
The bad news is that you can’t carry it around the streets of Japan.
It’s illegal to carry a katana in Japan. In fact, you can only legally own a katana in Japan if you have it registered according to the Japanese Firearms and Sword Law. This includes both antiques and newly made katanas.
7. They used other weapons, including guns
If a katana is the only weapon you envision a samurai using, think again.
Bows and spears were the main weapons for samurai and soldiers alike for hundreds of years in Japan. They also carried two other blades alongside their katanas: knives called tantos and short swords called wakizashi. While katanas were almost exclusively used by the samurai, tantos and wakizashi were commonly used.
And guns? Those were holstered beside their katanas.
By the 16th century, the introduction of firearms in Japan changed the way the samurai battled. In fact, the country had more guns within its borders than any European nation and the samurai were not hesitant to use this weapon to their advantage.
But, fearing an uprising by armed peasants, the shoguns outlawed guns in Japan in the 1600s.
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8. We have the samurai to thank for many modern martial arts
Just as we don’t think of samurai wielding pistols like a cowboy, we don’t usually envision a Japanese warrior using chokeholds and takedowns in combat like an MMA fighter.
But they did, indeed.
Jujutsu was developed in feudal Japan to provide samurai with a means of attack in close-range combat when their swords and knives weren’t available.
As traditional Japanese jujutsu was modified by its many individual instructors, it naturally evolved into different styles, many of which consider themselves separate classes of martial arts. Aikido, judo, sambo, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu all trace their origins back to the samurai’s style of hand-to-hand combat.
9. Seppuku was just as brutal, common, and recent as media portrays it
There are so many films and television shows that portray a Japanese character, often a samurai or ninja, nobly enacting an honorable death via “hara-kiri”. Also called “seppuku”, this ritualistic form of suicide makes for a dramatic moment in the media.
And while its frequent use might seem like more of a Hollywood trope than historical hallmark, seppuku was actually quite common.
It was first developed in the 12th century so that a samurai could achieve an honorable death and evade capture on the battlefield. However, samurai also employed it when mourning the death of a leader, and by the 14th century, the act had evolved to become a common form of capital punishment.
Although its use did dramatically fall as the samurai did at the end of the 1800s, it was used as recently as 1970 when a Japanese novelist failed to lead a coup against the government.
10. The Last Samurai movie was based on a real person
Sorry, Tom Cruise fans, The Last Samurai isn’t entirely accurate. Many of the characters and events were actually fictionalized for the film.
Foundationally, the movie does use the real rebellion to the Meiji Restoration as its setting. Tom Cruise’s character is loosely based on a real French Army officer who trained military forces in Japan, and the character of Katsumoto Moritsugu is also based on a real-life samurai, Saigō Takamori.
From there, the screenwriters begin taking more liberties with the true historical accounts, but it’s nevertheless a good popcorn flick that honors some of Japan’s most important samurai history.
Immerse yourself in the land of the rising sun on Trafalgar’s 13 day Splendours of Japan tour. You can spend the night in Kyoto, cross the Seto Inland Sea to Awaji Island, and choose to celebrate the Takayama Festival.