Make way for the samurai. Eyes drop, and crowds step aside as a warrior strides haughtily down a congested lane in Edo, the future Tokyo. The time is the early 18th century, but it could be a hundred years earlier or later: the scene would remain the same in a Japan frozen in feudal ways. On the street there is no mistaking a samurai. Two swords, a long one and a short one, protrude from his waist. As a member of Japan's highest class, that of the warrior, only a samurai may carry both swords, lethal symbols of his authority.
He wears a kimono topped by flowing, skirt-like trousers and a short, loose jacket. His head is shaved on top, with the hair on the sides and back gathered up into a dandyish topknot. The samurai is in no hurry. The government doesn't require him to work, though he might take a job to supplement his yearly stipend of rice. He is asked only to stay in fighting form and to defend the regime in times of trouble. And should some commoner dare to disrespect him—fail to obey an order or bump into his sword—the samurai has the right (rarely invoked) to kill the ingrate on the spot.
Swagger came as a birthright to samurai. Their warrior class dominated Japanese history for nearly 700 years from 1185 to 1867, a reign as ruthless and violent—and as culturally rich—as almost anything experienced in ancient Rome or medieval Europe. Old Europe's knights, in fact, may be the samurai's closest historical kin. Like the knights, samurai (the word means "one who serves") formed a military elite, composed of clan leaders or warlords and the loyal soldiers who fought under them. Traditionally the emperor commanded the highest allegiance in Japan. But as the samurai rose to power, the emperor was relegated to a figurehead, eclipsed by a military dictator called shogun, or commander in chief, a designation that signaled the new rule of the samurai.
The samurai and the knight would have recognized each other in battle. They both wore armor, attacked on horseback, fought with swords and lances, besieged castles, and lived by a code of honor. But where the samurai and the knights differed was in their longevity. The Japanese warrior class enjoyed an amazing run of dominance that ended only when American warships sailed into Japan's harbors, exposing the inability of the shogun to defend the country. Forces rallied around a new emperor and easily overthrew the shogun's army. The samurai's reign had ended.
This year Japan is celebrating with festivals and exhibits the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Edo period (1603 to 1867), which saw the samurai reach the pinnacle of authority and privilege. Now comes the worldwide release of The Last Samurai, a Hollywood blockbuster about the final post-Edo days of the Japanese warrior. So it's true: The samurai still lives. In fact, it's hard to escape him. To walk around any Japanese city or town is to collide regularly with the image of the haughty warrior. His face and his weapons appear on posters for action movies, on billboards warning against drunk driving, on museum banners and comic book covers, in shop windows arrayed with armor, helmets, and swords to announce Children's Day on May 5, a time for families to celebrate the health and vigor—the inner samurai—of their young, particularly boys.
The enduring appeal of the samurai stems from a simple fact: Here is one of the world's greatest action figures, mythologized most often as a lone swordsman who against impossible odds slays dozens of enemies in the name of duty and individual glory. The samurai is the cowboy, the knight, the gladiator, and the Star Wars Jedi rolled into one. Who hasn't seen a samurai swing a sword? Initiation may come from viewing Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood, classic warrior films made by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, or, on the other end of the gravitas scale, from watching on Saturday Night Live the crazed samurai skits of the late comic John Belushi, who wielded his sword like a food processor.
Does the samurai deserve this iconic, leading-man stature? Actually, history demands a rewrite. Instead of the one-dimensional justice-wielding sword slinger of popular culture, the real Japanese warrior was many things. Over the course of seven centuries the samurai underwent a significant transformation, evolving from a courtly duelist to a professional soldier carrying a gun, and finally to a pampered ward of the state.
Off the battlefield the samurai also confounds stereotypes. The same warrior who took trophy heads in combat was likely a worshipful Buddhist. The religion's emphasis on austere self-control appealed to a samurai intent on perfecting his fighting techniques. And as members of Japan's highest class, the samurai, particularly clan leaders and their top generals, indulged in such refined cultural pursuits as flower arranging, composing poetry, attending performances of Noh drama, and hosting tea ceremonies.
Yet for all the attention and prominence given to the samurai, many Japanese adults are uncomfortable with the samurai mythology. The adulation of samurai heroes with their take-no-prisoners fighting spirit was used by 20th-century politicians and military officers to stoke the flames of militant nationalism, triggering Japan's involvement in World War II. With Japan's postwar embrace of pacifism, now even the word samurai may cause unease. "Samurai to many of us implies fighting, killing," Kunio Kadowaki, a photographer's assistant from Kyoto, told me after I confessed to some difficulty in getting people to discuss the samurai. "Some of us like to use another word for warrior, bushi, which has a higher, more chivalrous meaning."