Samurai History - The Japanese Warrior Class
Many people believe that Japanese Samurai were fiction or that, if they did live, they lived many many years ago. What surprises people is to learn that they were still around until the mid 1800s. Who were these warriors?
Ninth century Japan saw the rise of the samurai, warriors who believed in duty above all and received land for their service. Land, being in short supply as only around 20 percent of Japan was fit for farming, was a valuable commodity and the cause of much dissension between clans. Over time, the samurai developed their own class and their own philosophy of chivalry, known today as 'bushido' or 'the way of the warrior'.
The word "samurai" means "to serve" and they served with their skill at arms, unarmed combat and horse riding. They were the only class allowed weapons and carried both a short and a long sword. The oldest swords were over 60 centimetres long and straight. Newer designs were curved and the iron blended with carbon which was beaten, folded and beaten again until it could cut through bone effortlessly. These swords were the best in the world at that time. Samurai often named their swords and were very superstitious about it.
As well as swords, samurai also had bows and arrows which they could fire equally as well on the ground or from a horse. Their armour was often colourful and included a helmet, breastplate and protectors for each limb. As time passed, the sword became the main weapon of the samurai although the unarmed combat techniques that they used led to much of what is still in use today.
Hara kiri - The Samurai Art of Ritual Suicide
Bushido has at its forefront the transcension of the fear of death which allowed them to serve loyally and die if necessary. Dying in itself was not sufficient however, it was necessary to die 'well'.
If a samurai disgraced himself, and therefore his master, he would commit 'seppuku' or ritual suicide. This is also known as 'harakiri' although this is often mispronounced by westerners as harikari.
In harakiri, the warrior would kneel, use his small dagger to cut the left side of his stomach before slicing across to the right. The last step was to cut up towards the heart through the ribs. Usually another samurai would stand behind and cut off the head of the first if they couldn't go through with it themselves or if they were in too much pain.
What happened to the samurai?
Samurai were still a force until the mid 1800s when Japan finally allowed contact with the outside world again after nearly 200 years of isolation. In fact, one of the legendary heroes lived in the 1600s. Miyamoto Musashi was an incredible warrior as well as being a skilled teacher who wrote some of Japan's best known articles on swordsmanship.
After Japan opened its doors, Emperor Mutsuhito reclaimed his throne, changed his name to Meiji and began introducing conscription to form an army. In 1876, he abolished the wearing of swords and the samurai class ceased to exist.