The Japanese Samurai
Samurai were an important part of Japanese history. Part of the military class, these warriors were known for their code of ethics and their adeptness with their weapons. The Samurai lived their lives according to the code of bushido, or the way of the warrior. This code dictated that they be loyal to their master, that they were disciplined and respectful. The Samurai came into being during the Heian period, and were finally abolished at the end of the feudal era in Japan in 1868.
In the beginning, some Samurai were relatives of the lords they served. Some had served as guards of the imperial palace under the last emperor of Japan. Some started as farmers who learned to use weapons in order to protect themselves and their lands. Eventually, the Samurai formed their own clans and the privilege of becoming a Samurai was passed down through the family. The Samurai gradually became minor nobility.
Samurai were trained in the use of spears, bow and arrows and of course, the sword. They were often hired by Japanese feudal lords known as Daimyo to protect their properties or to help them conquer new lands. In between fighting wars, the Samurai would work on farms. They also studied many disciplines, such as planning, strategy, art and war. Many Samurai also mastered the arts of poetry and calligraphy. When Japan went to the caste system after 1573, the Samurai were forced to choose between being a farmer or a warrior. The caste system put Samurai at the top, followed by farmers, artisans and merchants. Inside each caste was an individual hierarchy. The Samurai lived in castle towns at this time, and they were paid in rice by their Daimyos. When war was not being waged, the Samurai became bureaucrats, teachers or artists.
The Samurai began as archers. They would fight on foot or on horseback using very long bows called yumi. Swords were used to finish off enemies who had been wounded in battle. After fighting off the Mongols in 1272 and 1281, they began to use their swords more frequently. They also used spears and poles topped with curved blades known as naginata. The famous Samurai swords were actually a pair. Together they were called daisho, which means "long and short." The short sword was the wakizashi. It was one to two feet long and was used for stabbing. The longer curved sword was the katana. It was over two feet long and used for slashing. They wore full body armor into battle, including a helmet that sometimes had horns.
In battle, Samurai would make temporary fortifications when possible. They would also use shields and make formations to be able to advance and protect themselves at the same time. Archery was a main method of attack. Mounted archers would form groupings surrounded by circling infantry. The methods of grouping and regrouping they did in battle have been compared to dogfights in the air. Signals were used to control troops from a distance. They used things like conch shells, flags and drums. Like most other areas of Japanese life, battles were highly ritualized. Rituals were performed before battle and after a victory. For some Samurai, losing was unthinkable. They would commit ritual suicide known as seppuku by cutting into their abdomens.