AskDefine | Define samurai

Dictionary Definition



1 a Japanese warrior who was a member of the feudal military aristocracy
2 feudal Japanese military aristocracy

User Contributed Dictionary

see Samurai




From (さむらい, samurai).


  1. In feudal Japan, a samurai was a soldier of noble birth who followed the code of bushido and served a daimyo.


feudal Japanese soldier
  • Arabic: (samurāy)
  • Chinese: 武士 (wǔshì)
  • Dutch: samoerai
  • Finnish: samurai
  • French: samouraï
  • German: Samurai
  • Greek: σαμουράι
  • trreq Hebrew
  • Hungarian: szamuráj
  • Icelandic: samúræji
  • Interlingua: samurai
  • Italian: samurai
  • Japanese: (さむらい, samurai)
  • trreq Korean
  • Latvian: samurajs
  • Lithuanian: samurajus
  • Polish: samuraj
  • Portuguese: samurai
  • Russian: самурай
  • Slovak: samuraj
  • Slovene: samuraj
  • Spanish: samurai
  • Swedish: samuraj
  • Thai: (saamoorai)
  • Turkish: samuray

Related terms



  1. samurai

Extensive Definition

is the term for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. The word samurai is derived from the archaic Japanese verb samorau, changed to saburau, meaning "to serve"; thus, a samurai is a servant, i.e. the servant of a lord.


It is believed warriors and foot-soldiers in the sixth century may have formed a proto-samurai class. Following a disastrous military engagement with Tang China and Silla, Japan underwent widespread reforms. One of the most important was that of the Taika Reform, issued by Prince Naka no Ōe (Emperor Tenji) in 646 AD. This edict introduced Chinese cultural practices and administrative techniques throughout the Japanese aristocracy and bureaucracy, the population was required to report regularly for census, which was used as a precursor for national conscription. With an understanding of how the population was distributed, Emperor Mommu introduced the law whereby 1 in 3–4 adult males were drafted into the national military. These soldiers were required to supply their own weapons, and in return were exempted from duties and taxes.--Tsumugi (talk) 01:50, 14 April 2008 (UTC)


A samurai was usually named by combining one kanji from his father or grandfather and one new kanji. Samurai normally used only a small part of their total name.
For example, the full name of Oda Nobunaga would be "Oda Kazusanosuke Saburo Nobunaga" (), in which "Oda" is a clan or family name, "Kazusanosuke" is a title of vice-governor of Kazusa province, "Saburo" is a name before genpuku, a coming of age ceremony, and "Nobunaga" is an adult name. Samurai were able to choose their own last names.


The marriage of samurai was done by having a marriage arranged by someone with the same or higher rank than those being married. While for those samurai in the upper ranks this was a necessity (as most had few opportunities to meet a female), this was a formality for lower ranked samurai. Most samurai married women from a samurai family, but for a lower ranked samurai marriages with commoners were permitted. In these marriages a dowry was brought by the woman and was used to start their new lives.
A samurai could have a mistress but her background was strictly checked by higher ranked samurai. In many cases, this was treated like a marriage. "Kidnapping" a mistress, although common in fiction, would have been shameful, if not a crime. When she was a commoner, a messenger would be sent with betrothal money or a note for exemption of tax to ask for her parent's acceptance and many parents gladly accepted. If a samurai's wife gave birth to a son he could be a samurai.
A samurai could divorce his wife for a variety of reasons with approval from a superior, but divorce was, while not entirely nonexistent, a rare event. A reason for divorce would be if she could not produce a son, but then adoption could be arranged as an alternative to divorce. A samurai could divorce for personal reasons, even if he simply did not like his wife, but this was generally avoided as it would embarrass the samurai who had arranged the marriage. A woman could also arrange a divorce, although it would generally take the form of the samurai divorcing her. After a divorce samurai had to return the betrothal money, which often prevented divorces. Some rich merchants had their daughters marry samurai to erase a samurai's debt and advance their positions.
A samurai's wife would be dishonored and allowed to commit jigai (a female's seppuku) if she were cast off.


The philosophies of Buddhism and Zen, and to a lesser extent Confucianism and Shinto, influenced the samurai culture. Zen meditation became an important teaching due to it offering a process to calm one's mind. The Buddhist concept of reincarnation and rebirth led samurai to abandon torture and needless killing, while some samurai even gave up violence altogether and became Buddhist monks after realizing how fruitless their killings were. Some were killed as they came to terms with these realizations in the battlefield. The most defining role that Confucianism played in samurai philosophy was to stress the importance of the lord-retainer relationship; this is, the loyalty that a samurai was required to show his lord.
Bushidō ("way of the warrior") was a term attached to a samurai "code of conduct" or way of life enforced during Edo period by the Tokugawa Shogunate, so that they could control the samurai more easily. Its deceptive simplicity led to countless arguments over its interpretation. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is a manual of instruction into the way of the samurai. Even as it was published, it received a number of reviews that criticized its strict and impersonal interpretations. If the lord is wrong, for example if he ordered a massacre of civilians, should he observe loyalty to massacre as ordered or should he observe rectitude to let the civilians escape unharmed? If a man had sick parents but committed an unforgivable mistake, should he protect his honour by committing seppuku or should he show courage by living with dishonor and care for his parents?
The incident of 47 Ronin caused debates about the righteousness of the samurai's actions and how bushido should be applied. They had defied the shogun by taking matters into their own hands but it was an act of loyalty and rectitude as well. Finally, their acts were agreed to be rectitude but not loyalty to the shogun. This made them criminals with conscience and eligible for seppuku.


Maintaining the household, or ie, was the main duty of samurai women. This was especially crucial during early feudal Japan, when warrior husbands were often traveling abroad or engaged in clan battles. The wife, or okusan (meaning: one who remains in the home), was left to manage all household affairs, care for the children, and perhaps even defend the home forcibly. For this reason, many women of the samurai class were trained in wielding a polearm called a naginata or a special knife called the kaiken in an art called tantōjutsu (lit. the skill of the knife), which they could use to protect their household, family, and honor if the need arose.
Traits valued in women of the samurai class were humility, obedience, self-control, strength, and loyalty. Ideally, a samurai wife would be skilled at managing property, keeping records, dealing with financial matters, educating the children (and perhaps servants, too), and caring for elderly parents or in-laws that may be living under her roof. Confucian law, which helped define personal relationships and the code of ethics of the warrior class required that a woman show subservience to her husband, filial piety to her parents, and care to the children. Too much love and affection was also said to indulge and spoil the youngsters. Thus, a woman was also to exercise discipline.
Though women of wealthier samurai families enjoyed perks of their elevated position in society, such as avoiding the physical labor that those of lower classes often engaged in, they were still viewed as far beneath men. Women were prohibited from engaging in any political affairs and were usually not the heads of their household.
This does not mean that samurai women were always powerless. Powerful women both wisely and unwisely wielded power at various occasions. After Ashikaga Yoshimasa, 8th shogun of the Muromachi shogunate lost interest in politics, his wife Hino Tomiko largely ruled in his place. Nene, wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was known to overrule her husband's decisions at times and Yodo, his mistress, became the de facto master of Osaka castle and the Toyotomi clan after Hideyoshi's death. Chiyo, wife of Yamauchi Kazutoyo, has long been considered the ideal samurai wife. According to legend, she made her kimono out of a quilted patchwork of bits of old cloth and saved pennies to buy her husband a magnificent horse on which he rode to many victories. The fact that Chiyo (though she is better known as "Wife of Yamauchi Kazutoyo") is held to such high esteem for her economic sense is illuminating in the light of the fact that she never produced an heir and the Yamauchi clan was succeeded by Kazutoyo's younger brother. The source of power for women may have been that samurai looked down upon matters concerning money and left their finances to their wives.
As the Tokugawa period progressed more value became placed on education, and the education of females beginning at a young age became important to families and society as a whole. Marriage criteria began to weigh intelligence and education as desirable attributes in a wife, right along with physical attractiveness. Though many of the texts written for women during the Tokugawa period only pertained to how a woman could become a successful wife and household manager, there were those that undertook the challenge of learning to read, and also tackled philosophical and literary classics. Nearly all women of the samurai class were literate by the end of the Tokugawa period.


The samurai used various weapons, but the katana is the weapon that is synonymous with samurai. Bushido teaches that the katana is the samurai's soul and sometimes a samurai is pictured as entirely dependent on the katana for fighting. They believe that the katana was so precious that they often gave them names and considered them as part of the living. However the use of swords did not become common in battle until the Kamakura period (1185–1333), where the tachi and uchigatana (the predecessor to the katana) became prevalent. The katana itself did not become the primary weapon until the Edo period.
After a male child of the bushi was born, he would receive his first sword in a ceremony called mamori-gatana. The sword, however, was merely a charm sword covered with brocade to which was attached a purse or wallet, worn by children under five. Upon reaching the age of thirteen, in a ceremony called Genbuku (), a male child was given his first real swords and armour, an adult name, and became a samurai. A katana and a wakizashi together are called a daisho (lit. "big and small").
The wakizashi itself was a samurai's "honour blade" and purportedly never left the samurai's side. He would sleep with it under his pillow and it would be taken with him when he entered a house and had to leave his main weapons outside.
The Tantō was a small dagger sometimes worn with or instead of the Wakizashi in a daisho. The tanto or the wakizashi was used to commit seppuku, a ritualized suicide.
The samurai stressed skill with the yumi (longbow), reflected in the art of kyujutsu (lit. the skill of the bow). The bow would remain a critical component of the Japanese military even with the introduction of firearms during the Sengoku Jidai period. The yumi, an asymmetric composite bow made from bamboo, wood, rattan and leather, was not as powerful as the Eurasian reflex composite bow, having an effective range of 50 meters (about 164 feet) or 100 meters ([328 feet]) if accuracy was not an issue. It was usually used on foot behind a tedate (), a large and mobile bamboo wall, but shorter versions (hankyu) could also be used from horseback. The practice of shooting from horseback became a Shinto ceremony of Yabusame ().
In the 15th century, the yari (spear) also became a popular weapon. It displaced the naginata from the battlefield as personal bravery became less of a factor and battles became more organized around massed, inexpensive foot troops (ashigaru). A charge, mounted or dismounted, was also more effective when using a spear than a sword and it offered better than even odds against a samurai using a sword. In the Battle of Shizugatake where Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then known as Hashiba Hideyoshi, the Seven Spearmen of Shizugatake () played a crucial role in the victory.
The latter half of the 16th century saw the introduction of the teppo or arquebus in Japan through Portuguese trade, enabling warlords to raise effective armies from masses of peasants. The new weapons were highly controversial. Their ease of use and deadly effectiveness was perceived by many samurai as a dishonorable affront to Bushido tradition. Oda Nobunaga made deadly use of the teppo at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, leading to the end of the Takeda clan.
After their initial introduction by the Portuguese and the Dutch, the teppo, were produced on a large scale by Japanese gunsmiths. By the end of the 16th century, there were more firearms in Japan than in any European nation. Teppo, employed en masse largely by ashigaru peasant foot troops were in many ways the antithesis of samurai valor. With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and an end to civil war, production of the guns declined sharply with prohibitions to ownership. By the Tokugawa Shogunate most spear-based weapons had been phased out partly because they were suboptimal for the close-quarter combat common in the Edo period, this combined with the aforementioned restrictions on fire-arms resulted in the Daisho being the only weapons typically carried by samurai.
In the 1570s cannons became a common part of the samurai's armoury. They often were mounted in castles or on ships being used more as anti-personnel weapons though in the siege of Nagashino castle (1575) a cannon was used to good effect against an enemy siege-tower. The first popular cannon in Japan were swivel-breech loaders nick-named kunikuzushi or "Destroyer of Provinces". Kunikuzushi weighed . and used . chambers, firing a small shot of 10 oz. The Arima clan of Kyushu used guns like this at the battle of Okinawate against the Ryozoji clan. By the time of the Osaka campaign (1614-1615) cannon technology had improved in Japan to the point where at Osaka, Ii Naotaka managed to fire an . shot into the castle's keep.
Some other weapons used by samurai were , , and the Chinese trebuchets (more as an anti-personnel weapon than a siege engine).

Etymology of samurai and related words

The term samurai originally meant "those who serve in close attendance to nobility", and was written in the Chinese character (or kanji) that had the same meaning. In Japanese, it was originally pronounced in the pre-Heian period as saburapi and later as saburai, then samurai in the Edo period. In Japanese literature, there is an early reference to samurai in the Kokinshū (, early 10th century):
Attendant to your nobility
Ask for your master's umbrella
The dews 'neath the trees of Miyagino
Are thicker than rain
(poem 1091)
The word bushi (, lit. "warrior or armsman") first appears in an early history of Japan called Shoku Nihongi (, 797 A.D.). In a portion of the book covering the year 723 A.D., Shoku Nihongi states: "Literary men and Warriors are they whom the nation values". The term bushi is of Chinese origin and adds to the indigenous Japanese words for warrior: tsuwamono and mononofu.
Bushi was the name given to the ancient Japanese soldiers from traditional warrior families. The bushi class was developed mainly in the north of Japan. They formed powerful clans, which in the 12th Century were against the noble families who were grouping themselves to support the imperial family who lived in Kyoto. Samurai was a word used by the Kuge aristocratic class with warriors themselves preferring the word bushi. The term Bushidō, the "way of the warrior," is derived from this term and the mansion of a warrior was called bukeyashiki.
The terms bushi and samurai became synonymous near the end of the 12th century, according to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai—Writings of Japanese Warriors. Wilson's book thoroughly explores the origins of the word warrior in Japanese history as well as the kanji used to represent the word. Wilson states that bushi actually translates as "a man who has the ability to keep the peace, either by literary or military means, but predominantly by the latter".
It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai was replaced with samurai. However, the meaning had changed long before that.
During the era of the rule of the samurai, the term yumitori (, "bowman") was also used as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even though swordsmanship had become more important. (Japanese archery (kyujutsu) is still strongly associated with the war god Hachiman.)
A samurai with no attachment to a clan or daimyo () was called a ronin (). In Japanese, the word ronin means "wave man", a person destined to wander aimlessly forever, like the waves in the sea. The word came to mean a samurai who was no longer in the service of a lord because his lord had died, because the samurai had been banished or simply because the samurai chose to become a ronin.
The pay of samurai was measured in koku of rice (180 liters; enough to feed a man for one year). Samurai in the service of the han are called hanshi. The following terms are related to samurai or the samurai tradition:
  • Uruwashiia cultured warrior symbolized by the kanji for "bun" (literary study) and "bu" (military study or arts)
  • Buke ()A martial house or a member of such a house
  • Mononofu (もののふ)An ancient term meaning a warrior.
  • Musha ()A shortened form of bugeisha (), lit. martial art man.
  • Shi ()A word roughly meaning "gentleman," it is sometimes used for samurai, in particular in words such as bushi (, meaning warrior or samurai).
  • Tsuwamono ()An old term for a soldier popularized by Matsuo Bashō in his famous haiku. Literally meaning a strong person.
natsukusa yatsuwamono domo gayume no ato
Matsuo Bashō Summer grasses,All that remainsOf soldiers' dreams
(trans. Lucien Stryk)

Myth and reality

Most samurai (during the Edo period) were bound by a strict code of honor and were expected to set an example for those below them. A notable part of their code is , which allowed a disgraced samurai to regain his honor by passing into death, where samurai were still beholden to social rules. Whilst there are many romanticised characterisations of samurai behaviour such as the writing of in 1905, studies of Kobudo and traditional Budo indicate that the samurai were as practical on the battlefield as were any other warrior.
Despite the rampant romanticism of the 20th century, samurai could be disloyal and treacherous (e.g., Akechi Mitsuhide), cowardly, brave, or overly loyal (e.g., Kusunoki Masashige). Samurai were usually loyal to their immediate superiors, who in turn allied themselves with higher lords. These loyalties to the higher lords often shifted; for example, the high lords allied under Toyotomi Hideyoshi () were served by loyal samurai, but the feudal lords under them could shift their support to Tokugawa, taking their samurai with them. There were, however, also notable instances where samurai would be disloyal to their lord or daimyo, when loyalty to the emperor was seen to have supremacy.

Popular culture

further Samurai cinema
Jidaigeki (lit. historical drama) has always been a staple program on Japanese movies and TV. The programs typically feature a samurai with a kenjutsu who stood up against evil samurai and merchants. Mito Kōmon (), a fictitious series of stories about Tokugawa Mitsukuni's travel is a popular TV drama in which Mitsukuni travels disguised as a retired rich merchant with two unarmed samurai disguised as his companions . He finds trouble wherever he goes, and after gathering evidence, he has his samurai knock around unrepentantly evil samurai and merchants, before revealing his identity. It is then obvious to the villains that he can destroy their entire clan and the villains surrender in the hope that his punishments will not extend to their families .
The samurai-themed works of film director Akira Kurosawa are among the most praised of the genre, influencing many filmmakers across the world with his techniques and storytelling . Notable works of his include Seven Samurai, in which a besieged farming village hires a collection of wandering samurai to defend them from bandits, Yojimbo, where a former samurai involves himself in a town's gang war by working for both sides, and The Hidden Fortress, in which two foolish peasants find themselves helping a legendary general escort a princess to safety. The latter was one of the primary inspirations for George Lucas's Star Wars, which also borrows a number of aspects from the samurai, for example the Jedi Knights of the series. Darth Vader's costume is largely inspired by a samurai's mask and armour.
Samurai films and westerns share a number of similarities and the two have influenced each other over the years. Kurosawa was inspired by the works of director John Ford and in turn Kurosawa's works have been remade into westerns such as The Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. There is also an anime adaptation (Samurai 7) of "The Seven Samurai" which spans many episodes.
Eiji Yoshikawa is one of the most famous Japanese historical novelists. His retellings of popular works, including Taiko, Musashi and Heike Tale are popular among readers for their epic naratives and rich realism in depicting samurai and warrior culture.
Another fictitious television series, Abarembo Shogun, featured Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa shogun. Samurai at all levels from the shogun down to the lowest rank, as well as ronin, featured prominently in this show.
Shōgun is the first novel in James Clavell's Asian Saga. It is set in feudal Japan around the year 1600 and gives a highly fictionalized account of the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to the Shogunate, seen through the eyes of an English sailor whose fictional heroics are loosely based on William Adams' exploits.
A Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai, containing a mixture of fact and fiction, was released in 2003 to generally good reviews in North America. The film's plot is loosely based on the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and also on the story of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the Boshin War.
The movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, starring actor Forest Whitaker takes as its central character a black assassin in contemporary America who gains inspiration from the Hagakure. The soundtrack album positions hip hop against readings of the Hagakure.
Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino can be described as a glorification of the katana. It is primarily inspired by old kung-fu movies and relates little to the samurai. This same distortion of samurai culture continues onto the low-budget world of the cult film, where in films such as Samurai Vampire Bikers From Hell, the primary characters attempt to portray a lineage to the samurai but are more closely linked to the anime or comic book culture of the late twentieth century.
The samurai have also appeared frequently in Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime). Most common are historical works where the protagonist is either a samurai or former samurai (or another rank/position) who possesses considerable martial skill. Two of the most famous examples are Lone Wolf and Cub, where the former proxy executioner for the Shogun and his toddler son become hired killers after being betrayed by other samurai and nobles, and Rurouni Kenshin, where a former assassin, after helping end the Bakumatsu era and bringing about the Meiji era, finds himself protecting newfound friends and fighting off old enemies while upholding his oath to never kill again through the use of a reverse-bladed sword.
Samurai-like characters are not just restricted to historical settings and a number of works set in the modern age, and even the future, include characters who live, train and fight like samurai. Notable examples include Goemon Ishikawa XIII from the Lupin III series of comics, television series, and movies, and Motoko Aoyama from the romantic comedy Love Hina. Another more western movie is The Hunted (1995), where a surviving samurai clan protects a witness from evil ninjas. Some relevance to the samurai can even be seen in the show Beyblade, which is set in the present. One character, Jin of the Gale, seems to be a mix of samurai and ninja traits. Another anime involving samurai, which is intended for adult audiences, is 2004's Samurai Champloo, which portrays Edo-period Japan combined with modern street-culture and hip-hop. One of the show's main characters is Jin, once an accomplished samurai who became a wandering ronin after killing his master.
American comic books have adopted the character type for stories of their own. For instance, the Marvel Universe superhero Wolverine during the 1980s attempted to use the ideals and concept of the samurai as a means to control his violent urges in a constructive manner. The ronin have also been a feature in popular series such as Ronin by Frank Miller and Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai.
The concept of a samurai, as opposed to that of a knight, has led to a major gap in how a warrior or a hero is characterised in Japan and the rest of the world. A samurai does not have to be tall and heavily muscled to be strong - he can be barely five feet tall, seemingly weak and even handicapped. Females can also be samurai. Equating size with power and strength does not readily appeal to the Japanese aesthetic. Perfect examples of this can be found in the Blind Swordsman Zatoichi movie series.
It is also important to note the uses of samurai in the Hip Hop music in both American and Japanese cultures. It is commonly seen as a tangent to the “gangtas” in rap music. Fusions of this are apparent in collaborations rap artists of both cultures and inclusion of anime.

Samurai in computer games

Samurai are also heroes and enemies in many computer games, and can be found especially in RPG, strategy, action, adventure, and fighting game genres.
For example, samurai can be seen in the strategy game series Age of Empires, RTS Battle Realms and in the Ultima Online: Samurai Empire MMORPG. Samurai battles also provide the theme for the strategy simulation Shogun: Total War, which portrays Sun-Tzu war philosophy and realistic battle physics. Samurai character class is available in the famous RPG Wizardry 8. Final Fantasy V, X, X-2 and XI also contain a samurai class. Some popular Japanese titles featuring samurai include Shingen the Ruler, Samurai Warriors, Brave Fencer Musashi, Musashi: Samurai Legend, and Seven Samurai 20XX. Also, there is a lead character portraying a samurai in the sci-fi thriller game Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse named Jin Uzuki. Jin Uzuki, Shion Uzuki's brother, is a samurai who fights with a sword only and wears a traditional kimono. Other popular Japanese games featuring samurai as main characters are the Onimusha, Genji and Way of the Samurai series. In Ninja Gaiden, one boss is a mounted samurai while another is a demonic fiend who takes the form of a samurai.
Several fighting games hold samurai fighters, for example, Bishamon from Darkstalkers, and Sodom from Street Fighter Alpha. Samurai Shodown has a roster full of samurai characters. Haohmaru and Genjuro are the most traditional samurai warriors in this fighting game. Soul Calibur offers two samurai characters: Mitsurugi and Yoshimitsu.
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