10 Ways Your Image of the Samurai is Wrong

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Samurai are one of the most revered and respected warriors in history. We’ve talked a bit about some misconceptions of them in the past. Many kids from around the world grow up fascinated by their culture, their weapons and their warrior code. They have captured our imaginations with their colorful way of life, their system of honor and the incredibly cool way they fight with swords that we have all seen in countless movies and cartoons. Unfortunately, due to the distortion of years of myth and legend, the actuality of the Samurai and who they were has become greatly confused in the eyes of the average person.

It turns out though, that while much of what we know of them isn’t true, they were actually way more cool than anyone previously thought. The samurai were an incredible type of warrior, and the facts behind them only serve to highlight their skills and their expertise in matters of war.

10. Skill In Archery Was Prized More Than Skill With The Sword

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Samurais are the iconic warriors of Japan’s past and as they have been mythologized around the world, they have been constantly associated with the katana. It is an incredibly popular weapon around the world, and many kids think of sword fighting with the iconic weapon to be one of the ultimate tests of skill. Many people are under the impression that samurai fought most of their battles with a sword, and prized their ability to beat people in honor duels with katanas over other skills. Recently however, in an Olympic interview, a Japanese contender in the archery competition explained that in Japan’s past, archery had been much more prized than skill with a sword.

This actually makes perfect sense, as long ranged combat will always be better than close range melee. Samurai would rain arrows down on their foes from a distance, shooting them up at an angle to get their proper range and damage that they wanted. This skill was considered far more important than sword fighting, as that was the last result if ranged battle had already failed. Of course a samurai would train in all skills, but being able to properly hit a target from a long distance was more important than being able to hurt someone with your sword. If you were to talk to an ancient samurai so fervently about the importance of the katana, he would probably be very confused.

9. The Bushido Code As Most People Know It Is A Modern Invention

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The complex and ever changing history of the Bushido Code is far too long to explain even in a single article, but there are some clear misconceptions about it that are important to clear up. The code itself has been mythologized over the years and twisted for many different purposes, and this has led many people, especially those in the western world, with a completely confused picture of what it was supposed to be. While we don’t know the exact details, as much has been lost to time and propaganda, many believe the original code was once much more militaristic, and while it certainly had some noble principles, they were not nearly as based on modern western ideas of chivalry as the code we know of today. There is strong evidence that most of what the west knows about Bushido comes from a book at the turn of the 1800s that was clearly written in a way that was meant to appeal to western philosophy. This confusion however, also caused people within Japan to get a improper idea of what Bushido was, making the entire subject harder to understand.

Japanese people have never had a clear picture themselves, due to all the changes to the code. For example, over time it was revised so that what was originally loyalty to one’s lord, became loyalty to the Emperor, and then in later years, to Japan itself. There is also reason to believe that the code has been changed many times throughout Japanese history by various rulers and leaders, whenever it suited their convenience. It was often used as a propaganda tool both to better control samurai behavior, and also to better control the mythos of the samurai in the minds of the people. The history of the Bushido Code is so confused and purposely twisted that we may never have the full truth of the matter, or even close to it.

8. The Ancient Samurai Used Other Sword-Like Weapons

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Most people assume that when the samurai went into battle, they charged in with their katana’s and cut their enemies to pieces in droves. While we already explained that samurai would first start by raining arrows down upon their enemies, most would think that when the battle really got down to the nitty gritty, then the katanas would come out. However, in serious engagements, just like in historical European battles, when it came time for large amounts of people to face off in melee combat, spear-like weapons were the first line of attack and defense. In particular, the ancient Japanese had a weapon that was a cross between a sword and a gigantic spear. It consisted of a long shaft, with a sword-like blade at the end.

While the blade was smaller than a sword, it was larger a typical spearhead, and provided more ability to slash and parry than a typical spear, which is better suited for throwing or jabbing attacks. These were common weapons for foot soldiers, as they could provide distance between a group of soldiers and the enemy, provide a strong wall of defense, and do serious damage. In a frantic melee battle, a weapon like a katana with shorter range and a larger more brittle blade would not be as practical a choice. Katanas certainly had their uses, but they would likely not be a particularly common weapon in a large scale engagement on a battlefield.

7. Samurai Sometimes Used Crude Flintlock Rifles

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While it may already surprise some people that samurai relied more on bows and spears than their famous katanas, most people would still be convinced that someone in full Samurai regalia would never be using weapons that could be considered more high tech — it doesn’t fit with the mythology most people have of the time period. However, people were experimenting with guns several hundred years before they were as popular or prevalent as they are now, and Japan was no exception. In the mid 1500s guns were introduced to Japan, and they started experimenting with crude flintlock rifles known as Tanegashima. The guns were not particularly amazing pieces of technology at that time, but Japan wanted to be on the cutting edge, and while trying them out, produced somewhere around 300,000 of them in the few decades after they were introduced.

The Japanese quickly started using rifles constantly, despite them arguably not being as good as other weapons due to how primitive gun technology was at that time. Guns quickly became decisive in many important battles, and became a fairly important part of warfare, until the Edo Period began. There were not nearly as many large scale battles, and guns were simply not the most practical option, so they fell out of standard use for a few hundred years. However, the Japanese never forgot the craft. Even during this period of low gun use, historians estimate there were hundreds of active gunsmiths in the country.

6. Samurai Were Used As Tax Collectors

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We have mentioned before that the government of Japan throughout the years, whether it was the modern government, an emperor, or various feudal systems, have all subverted the Bushido Code, the philosophy and the entire existence of the samurai as they have seen fit to fulfill whatever purpose they thought they needed. While most people are under the impression that these purposes were always to be sent in some way into battle, or to go fight enemies of Japan, this wasn’t always the case either.

Samurai were almost always high ranking noble Japanese of birth before they ever became samurai. It was natural that these same people were usually high up within the government. While not all samurai were tax collectors, it can be said that the vast majority, if not all tax collectors, would have hailed from the samurai class. Some historians believe that one of the reasons the rulers of Japan worked so hard over the years to turn samurai into mythological heroes in the eyes of the people, was to make it easier for them to do work like tax collecting without facing serious resistance from the commoners. Considering Japan at the time was an extremely class based system and often had great unrest, this is a completely plausible theory.

5. Samurai Men Considered Managing Money Beneath Them

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It has always been a popular trope for the man to work all day in a sitcom, and then come home and find out that his wife blew the money on dresses or something equally comedic. While these are played for cheap laughs, it’s not uncommon for couples to have arguments about the budget, and often whichever person is the one making the majority of the money (whether it is the husband or wife), usually argues that they should have the most say in monetary decisions. These arguments often don’t end well, as the other person states what they contribute non monetarily, and how it is supposed to be an equal partnership.

While we are all familiar with the dynamics of such an argument, it may surprise you that this was not only an argument that samurai had no desire to have with their wives, but in fact they had no desire to be the one dealing with money at all. Many samurai in early feudal Japan felt that dealing with money was beneath them and would only handle it if it was part of their official duties — in this case they still tried to avoid it by dealing with notes regarding the exchange instead of the actual money itself when possible. They left handling the money to their wives, who they believed should be suited to lower tasks such as managing the purse strings. While this may seem strange, it likely had practical origins — they probably convinced themselves it was beneath them because they didn’t feel like they had the time along with their other duties.

4. Many Samurai Were Deeply In Debt To The Emerging Merchant Class

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Samurai were always more of an important social class than just a group of elite warriors, and were usually not only well respected in society, but also quite wealthy — as those of high class often are. However, the wealthy can also end up poor with the wrong decisions, and as the class based system solidified, it only made things worse for the samurai warriors. It was during the Edo Period, that the government introduced a new and stricter class based system. Samurai were the top class, and then there were those in agriculture, the artisans and the merchants. Some who were of extremely noble birth, and certain criminals or other undesirables were considered outside this system. Samurai quickly found that despite their class and power, they had to rely on the townsfolk for financial deals.

What this means is that the emerging merchant class quickly became successful and the Samurai found themselves in a situation where they needed to borrow money from the lower class in order to survive. While this may sound good for those merchants, it isn’t always beneficial to loan money to those who may never pay you back. The samurai were part of the highest class order and very militaristic, which means that many loans were simply never repaid and the merchant had to take a huge loss. However, while they may not have always paid off their debts, this began a period where many samurai simply could no longer afford the luxuries they once did, and hard to start living simpler lifestyles.

3. Samurai Hakama Pants Were Probably Not Worn To Hide Footwork

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You may not have heard the name “hakama pants” before, but you have likely seen them in media many times. They are worn today by students of the discipline of Kendo — the Japanese way of the sword — and are also seen prominently worn by samurai or those supposed to be like them in most movies, cartoons or other depictions of feudal Japan. While they are worn as a matter of tradition in the martial art of Kendo, the reason for why they were worn in ancient Japan has become somewhat misunderstood. Some people say it was to disguise a samurai’s footwork, but this may have been little more than a fringe benefit that some people pointed out later.

The fact is that these type of pants were originally designed for horse riding, and were once popular among women in Japan for that reason, before they even became men’s wear. Even then, the evidence is that they were most popular for the comfort they provided while spending a long time on horseback — something many samurai most definitely had to deal with. There was also a special version of Hakama pants with exceptionally long front and back legs, designed to create a train kind of like a dress. Sometimes samurai would be forced to wear these when visiting an Emperor or other important lord to discourage assassination attempts. The pants would make the samurai much less mobile, making the lord he was visiting feel safer.

2. They Trained In Hand To Hand Combat, But It Was A Last Resort

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It’s also important to talk about the samurai and how they approached hand to hand combat, in order to better understand how they fought as warriors. Today, the most popular export from Japan — apart from cutesy anime and manga — are the various types of martial arts that developed over the years. Perhaps because Westerners are so enthralled by martial arts, we forget that hand to hand combat was not nearly as emphasized in their culture as we may have led ourselves to believe. Just like their Western counterparts, the Japanese knew full well that weapons tended to be much more deadly, and less risky to use initially than charging into battle with just your hands to fight. Despite this, many people might still imagine samurai as having insane hand to hand fighting skills, but it simply wasn’t all that emphasized.

Like all things that you should train in, they certainly developed techniques in hand to hand combat, but many of the forms we know of today were not in existence or being seriously developed. The combat styles used by samurai were based on movements in full armor, which decreased their range of motion. Many of the holds used were designed to get the opponent in position to use a small knife called a Tanto on them as a finishing blow. In other words, even within their hand to hand combat system, mixing it with weapons was emphasized. Samurai believed that you would end up in true hand to hand combat in only the most desperate of circumstances, and emphasized skills that would avoid you ending up that situation in the first place.

1. The Rivalry Between Ninja and Samurai In Popular Legend Is Inaccurate

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When many people think of ninjas they think of people clad all in black, with only their eye slits visible through their mask. We view them as stealthy assassins sneaking into guarded palaces at night and killing important inhabits with a knife thrust or a quick dose of poison. This popular view of ninjas is very inaccurate and has given rise to people thinking of them as a kind of the opposite of the samurai. They are usually believed to be from a much lower class and are almost always viewed as the enemies of the samurai themselves. However, the truth is that the way of the ninja was essentially just another part of samurai warfare.

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Ninja were usually trained from families that were fairly high class, and usually for very specific traits, because it was a specialized warrior style. Ninjutsu itself was not specifically a style of hand to hand combat, but would be better described as the training program used to teach warriors how to be stealthy and covert in general. Ninjas rarely wore all black and usually blended in to spy on their enemies emplacements, or even pretended to be one of them for years. In other words, ninjas were not a special group of people who fought in the shadows against the samurai — they were simply another branch of the military in every feudal lords bag of tricks. In many cases those called samurai knew or were trained in many of the tricks of the ninja trade and as such there was a good bit of overlap. Many samurai were well trained in stealth and doubled as ninjas when needed. The two types of warriors are not the separate, warring factions many people understand them to be.


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