Samurai – elite warrior with a legendary reputation

The samurai were a group of elite fighters from the lesser nobility who specialized primarily in hand-to-hand combat. They were loyal to their masters and their families even after death.

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The samurai of old Japan have a legendary reputation. Often they are portrayed as some kind of mercenaries. Others equate them with the Shaolin monks, who were also battle-hardened. Both is only partly correct. There are some similarities between the mercenaries and the Shaolin, but they are a separate group.

The samurai were a group of elite fighters from the lesser nobility who specialized mainly in hand-to-hand combat. They were loyal to their masters and their families even after death. Only when they lost their position did they go on the road to find new employment. What they have in common with the Shaolin is that their training as samurai began at an early age and was completed at the age of 19 or 20.

Where does the term samurai come from??

The Samurai can look back on a history of more than 1000 years. The designation under which one knows the warriors today became only from starting from 16. or 17. Century. How the samurai were called before that is not quite clear. Most likely they were called Saburai. This would also make sense, because besides the similar sound, Saburai means "protector". Since language changes over time, saburai may have then become samurai. In the early days was more common the term "Buke", which simply means warrior spreads. By the way, the term samurai is rather uncommon in Japan. Here they are called Bushi.

The history of the samurai

As with many events, the history of the samurai can only be determined by a few exact dates. It was rather a fluid development until the heyday between the 12. and 18. Century. However, the development began a few centuries earlier.

Thus, for the Japanese army in the 6. In the 16th century a compulsory military service was introduced, in which up to one third of the male population was conscripted. However, it soon turned out that this conscription was rather ineffective, so that one quickly switched to an army of volunteers. Since soldiers did not have to pay dues and taxes, many farmers gave away their land and joined the army.

Other peasants who took over this land became large landowners who needed bodyguards for their own protection and protection of the lands. The nucleus of the samurai can be found in these very bodyguards. Whereby between the 8. and 12. In the nineteenth century, only the emperor’s bodyguards were called samurais. For the bodyguards of clan lords and landowners the term "Buke" was common.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

Shoguns

The marriage of the samurai began with the introduction of shogunates and the shoguns who ruled there in the 13th century. Century. In European terms, a shogunate can be compared to a duchy and the title of shogun to the title of a duke. The shoguns came either from the imperial family or from one of the three noble families of Japan. In the following centuries, the samurai gained so much power that the heads of famous samurai families often assumed the title of shogun themselves.

The importance of the samurai as military warriors decreased in the 19th century. century. But even today they are still present in the cultural and economic life of Japan.

The samurai code of honor

Like many things related to the samurai, their code of honor is romanticized in modern times. In fact, the code of honor contains only seven virtues and five requirements by which a samurai should live and act. The seven virtues were sincerity, courage, humanity, courtesy, truthfulness, honor and loyalty. The demands were subdivided into

  • Unconditional Loyalty to the respective lord and to oneself.
  • Courtesy, which meant modesty and the observance of etiquette.
  • Bravery, cold-bloodedness, hardness, patience, endurance and quick-wittedness were summarized under this claim.
  • Openness and Sincerity were equated with a sense of honor and justice and simplicity meant purity.

In fact, for a long time there was no written tradition of the code of honor. Only in the 17. In the nineteenth century, a compilation of what was believed to be the code of honor was written. Also whether one kept to it, was left to everyone itself. The ritual suicide seppuku, known in Europe as harakiri, was to be committed when the samurai had fallen from grace. In practice, the form of suicide was usually allowed as an honorific when a samurai was sentenced to the death penalty.

Ronin – the masterless samurai

Most Europeans will not know much about the term Ronin. It is still best known as the title of various Hollywood productions. In Japan, however, it is a common term as part of the local folklore. A ronin is simply a samurai who no longer had a master. This could happen if the samurai was disowned, the master was deprived of his office or died. They were considered dishonorable and lost all privileges, so they could be mocked and insulted by the common people with impunity.

Original samurai armor

Original Samurai Armor

Although it was required that a disgraced or masterless samurai should commit seppuku, ritual suicide. In fact, this happened rather rarely. The reality was that the ronin roamed the country for years to find a new master. At times they also formed gangs and became a problem for the population through robbery and plundering. 47 ronin, who avenged the death of their master after several years, gained special fame.

The weapons of the samurai

The samurai had a whole range of weapons, the most famous of which is the katana. Today there are many legends about this longsword. The fact is that it could only be worn by the samurai and that it showed whether one distrusted the inhabitants of a house. If one entered a strange house, the katana was taken off, but kept in the hand by the handle with the blade pointing backwards. Wearing the katana in the left hand was a sign of distrust. When the samurai sat down, the sword was always close at hand.

Katana Deco Sword

Katana decorative sword

The most famous legend that surrounds the katana is that for the blade of the steel 32.is folded 768 times. However, this is a confusion between folds and layers. The steel for a katana is folded "only" 15 times, resulting in 32 folds.768 layers of steel, one above the other. Another legend says that a katana is so sharp that it could cut through a body with one blow.

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  • Chris Bradford (Author)

At least this legend is partly true, as the experiments of a TV channel have shown. Although it cannot cut a body in half, it can cut off body parts such as arms. The legend that a katana can split a rifle bullet in flight is even true. However, the sword wielder must be extremely experienced and have a fair amount of luck to do so.

Less known are the wakizashi and the kotetsu, two short swords. Unlike the katana, they were also allowed to be carried by respected peasants, people of honor and merchants. The wakizashi was also used for ritual suicide. In addition, two lances and a tanito, a dagger, were also part of the equipment.

Splendid samurai armor

Splendid samurai armor

Samurai are often portrayed exclusively as swordsmen who were characterized by hand-to-hand combat. It is also often claimed that they dispense with long-distance weapons because of their code of honor. However, this is wrong because until the age of 16. In the early nineteenth century, the preferred weapon was the bow. The swords were only used when there were no more arrows available.

Today’s situation of the samurai

Although the samurai no longer have the martial significance of centuries past, they still play an important role today. For example, the founder of the Mitsubishi company was a samurai. The founder of Honda was even a ronin, that is, a masterless samurai. Others have established smaller businesses, such as fighting schools.

However, the samurai code of honor is even more widespread and can be found figuratively among all employees. This is how unconditional loyalty is expected and demanded by many Japanese companies. Another parallel is the intransigence in business life. Thus, as an outsider, one has the impression that Japanese companies know no competition, but opponents with whom they are at constant war. Bushido is also considered a guide for training in many martial arts.

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