Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Rise of the Samurai

In the history of Japan from the Middle Ages to the present day the order of men known as Samurai has taken a part of the greatest importance. What was a Samurai? He was, first of all and last of all, a soldier —a man who had the right to bear two swords, to wield one in defence of his lord, to use the other to take his own life before he would suffer dishonour. The Samurai were the knights who formed the military clans, each of the latter under the rule of a great lord who was served with the utmost devotion by his followers.

When Chinese influence swept into Japan, one of its effects was to divide the officers of the State into two separate classes, those who took charge of civil affairs, matters of government, and those who took in hand the campaigns which the empire waged against its foes. Some great families showed much skill in military affairs, and these leaders little by little gathered around them a military class.

In former days the Japanese farmer had been a warrior too, when occasion called him to lay aside the pruning-hook for the sword, but now the husbandman was left in peace to till his fields while the bolder spirits followed a great lord to war. Thus a famous commander came to have a body of troops who were ready to obey his commands and were always at his service. To maintain these men a tax was laid upon the farmers, who had to find the rice which supported this military order. In time this order became the Samurai of Japan. It stood entirely apart from the main body of the nation and ruled with absolute sway over farmer, craftsman, and merchant. Its ranks were filled by its own children, and as generation after generation was born into and grew up in the order it became a great military caste, bound by rules as strict as ever held together any order of chivalry.

The young Samurai was brought up in a school of the most severe discipline. He was made to endure hardship without complaint, to despise pleasure and gain, to practise self-denial without hope of praise, to fear nothing save dishonour. Above all, he was trained to give perfect obedience and perfect loyalty to his lord. His life was to be nothing to him it his lord required it, or if his honour would be stained by keeping it. One of the first things he was taught was the ceremony of hara-kiri, the manner in which his own life was to be taken if need should arise. He slew himself by plunging his sword into his body in a certain prescribed fashion. He wore two swords, one large and one small. The large sword, as we have said, was to use against the enemies of his lord, the small to use upon himself if overcome in the fight, for those stern warriors preferred death to captivity. He was also expected to slay himself if he committed any crime worthy of death, for it would not have been in keeping with the dignity of his order that a Samurai should be handed over to a common executioner.

The training of a Samurai began in his very infancy. His first lessons were those of supreme faith and loyalty to his elders and teachers, of utter disregard of self. The following true story will show how deeply such instruction sank into the minds of Samurai children. A certain prince had been offended by a Samurai gentleman and ordered that he should be put to death. A freshly severed head was brought to the prince, but he was not sure if it was the head of the man whose life he sought. The man's son, a Samurai boy only seven years old, was in his power, and he sent for the boy.

"Is that your father's head?" demanded the prince. The child saw at once that it was the head of a stranger, and in a flash he grasped the situation. His father had escaped and was in flight. How could he be given more time to make good his escape? There was one dreadful way, and the child took it without a tremor. He bent before the head and saluted it with every sign of reverence and grief. Then, whipping out his tiny sword, he thrust it into his own body and slew himself upon the spot. The prince was completely deceived. He thought the boy had killed himself in pure grief for his father's death, and he made no further search for the Samurai, who gained a place of safety.

Another story is told of an elder Samurai. He was one of the garrison of a besieged castle, and the lord of the castle knew not whether he could hold the place until a relieving army should arrive. But he believed that the enemy also was weak, and he sent out a Samurai to discover the strength of the foe. The knight crept into the camp of the besiegers, and soon found that they were little to be feared. But he was captured and threatened with crucifixion unless he reported to his friends that resistance was hopeless owing to the strength of the enemy. He pretended to consent, and was led to the bank of the moat which surrounded the castle. There, in full sight of his wife and children, he shouted the true tidings of the weakness of the enemy and bade his comrades fight on in hope, and then went to his most cruel death, his face shining with joy at the glory of this opportunity of serving his friends.

Official in State Robes


The Samurai were a well-educated class. The school day of a young Samurai was divided into two parts. In the earlier portion of the day he worked under teachers who taught him to love the learning and literature of Japan, while the latter part of the day was spent in training his body to the use of arms. He learned how to ride a horse, how to shoot with the bow, how to handle the spear, and, above all and beyond all, how to wield a sword. The sword of a Samurai was not only the emblem of his rank, but also the idol of his heart. It was the most precious thing he owned, and he took the greatest care of it; if it bore the name of a famous maker that was a matter for especial pride.

The sword of the Samurai had a blade about three feet long, its handle fitting into a long hilt which was grasped with both hands. The blade had only one edge and was slightly curved toward the point. It was carried in a scabbard thrust through the obi or belt, and the edge was uppermost. The best of the old Japanese swords are said to be the finest blades ever known, and a sword by a great maker was handed down from father to son as the most precious of family heirlooms. Every Samurai spent much time in sword-play and sword-practice, until he was completely master of his formidable weapon. He did not thrust, but cut and slashed, and his sweeping blows came with the swiftness and force of a thunderbolt.

Japanese tales are full of wonderful stories of the prowess of heroes when handling this beloved weapon, of the enemies they sliced from head to foot, of a whole group cut in half at a single blow. It is no wonder, then, that an old law-giver says, "A girded sword is the living soul of the Samurai."

The keen edge and perfect temper of these blades were often proved by the feat of cutting through a pile of copper coins. The sword would be driven through the heap of metal without nicking its edge. Another feat, intended this time to test the swiftness of handling, was to set a chop-stick on its end and allow it to fall. Before the slip of wood (about six inches long) reached the table the young Samurai had to seize the handle of his sword, draw it from the scabbard, and cut the chopstick in two.

For centuries, then, the people of Japan were ranged in these four classes—Samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants—and the Samurai bore rule over the rest. Their authority rose even to the power of life and death. If a Samurai drew his great sword and cut down an inferior no one could call him to account. He had only to point to the words of a famous law giver: "The Samurai are masters of the four classes. Farmers, craftsmen, and merchants may not behave in a rude manner towards Samurai . . . and a Samurai is not to be interfered with in cutting down a man who has behaved to him in a manner other than is expected."

It might be thought that this privilege would cause the Samurai to be overbearing and cruel to the lower orders. It was not so. The instances of men being slain wantonly by the warrior class were very few and far between. The training of the young knight all went to make him a polished gentleman, thoughtful for others, courteous and dignified, a terrible being when his own dignity was attacked, but otherwise tolerant and amiable to the last degree.