They were elite soldiers, highly trained and skilled in the use of the bow and sword. Samurai became an essential component of the Japanese armies in medieval times.
The first records of the term ‘Samurai’ date back to the 8th century and were used to refer to people who took care of the elderly in the household. Over the years, the meaning evolved, and finally, in the 10th century, it began to be used to refer to an elite class of warriors who served a lord. Samurai served in the military until the 19th century.
Warfare in medieval Japan was bloody and uncompromising, with money being the main drive for many Samurai to participate in the battle. However, although these warriors have been constantly romanticized since the 18th century as a symbol of chivalry and honor, there are also many examples of them showing great courage and loyalty to their masters, particularly if they would commit ritual suicide in case of defeat or death of their master.
It was not until the 17th century that they were no longer needed for military purposes, and eventually the Samurai became very important teachers of morals and counselors within the community.
Their amazing skills
Trained in martial skills from the age of 10 or even earlier, these warriors rode and fought on horseback in the early medieval period, using as their main weapon a bow and also a long, curved sword when necessary.
They also had a shorter sword, and in 1588, the ruler Hideyoshi decreed that only full samurai could carry two swords, which quickly became an important status symbol.
His most prized skills were horsemanship, archery, and swordplay. From the XVII century onwards, the sword ended up replacing the bow as the samurai weapon par excellence, thanks to the fact that the bow was much cheaper and more accessible to foot soldiers. The sword was more exclusive and became known as the ‘soul of the samurai’. These two weapons conformed to the samurai ideal that battle should be in personal duels.
Bows were usually made of bamboo strips laminated around a wooden core; sometimes cane was added to give it more resistance, and it was varnished to protect them from the rain.
The length of the arrows varied according to the skill of the archer. The shafts were made of young bamboo, and bird feathers were used to make three or four feathers to give stability to the arrow in flight. When shooting on horseback, the saddle, which was very heavy and made of wood with leather stirrups, was designed to provide a stable platform to allow the rider to stand while shooting.
On the other hand, samurai swords were curved and made of steel that was worked by master artisans who carefully controlled the carbon content in various parts of the blade for maximum strength and flexibility. Thus, Japanese swords became one of the finest and sharpest swords ever produced in the medieval world.
Elite samurai used to carry two swords, one long and one short. The longer sword was called ‘katana’ and had a blade of about 60cm; the shorter one called ‘wakizashi’ had a blade of 30cm. Both were carried with the edge upwards.
An earlier sword called ‘tachi’ was even longer than the ‘katana’ as it had a blade of up to 90cm; it was carried with the edge downwards, hanging from the belt, unlike the other types that were attached to the belt.
The handles of the swords were made of wood and were covered with the tough skin of the giant stingray; they were later tied with a silk braid. A small circular guard separated the blade from the handle. As a last resort, a samurai could also carry a short dagger. Both swords and daggers were kept in lacquered scabbards that could be decorated.
Armors made of metal plates sewn together and protected with a varnish made movement difficult, so they later evolved into more flexible armors with narrow strips of bronze or iron that were joined with cords or leather ties. From the Heian period onwards (794 - 1185) samurai often wore a silk cap over their armor that was fastened around their neck and waist while riding. It was designed to inflate with the passage of air and deflect arrows or act as an identifier for the wearer.
The ‘haramaki’ costume is simpler and more flexible; it had a tighter torso armor and a short skirt made up of eight sections. Guards called ‘haidate’ were in charge of protecting the thighs, the lower legs were protected by greaves, and the hands and forearms by half-armor magasins.
It is curious and interesting to mention that the samurai, despite the hard body armor they wore, did not protect their thighs. They only wore socks and simple rope sandals, as if they had never heard the story of Achilles.
Their helmet called ‘kabuto’ was made of riveted iron or steel plates and had the shape of a skull cap with flaps protruding from the sides and neck for added protection.
Sometimes they also wore a face masks with sculpted fierce features and whiskers. Also, on occasion, some helmets bore impressive crescent-shaped crests, tufts of mane or horns, and even animal antlers that could be real or stylized.
For better comfort under the helmet, samurai shaved the front part of their hair, which became a fashion in the 16th century. The remaining hair was worn long and tied at the back of the head in a bun or a cylinder of hair folded three times. At the time of the battle, the samurai would untie its hair.
Armor and helmets often indicated a samurai’s rank, division, and region of origin through their colored stitching, heraldic insignia, and painted symbols, sometimes associated with their families or military house.
The decadence of legends
When the stabilizing policies of the Tokugawa shogunate appeared and brought relative peace to Japan, the importance of the samurai and local armies declined.
Despite this, the samurai still enjoyed a high social status, belonging to the ‘shi’ rank, which placed them above merchants, artisans, and farmers in the ranking system.
Their great martial feats were a popular theme in the warrior tales of the 14th and 15th centuries, which looked back on a long history of the samurai.