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The Samurai Way
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When Warriors Ruled Japan

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Photograph by Ira Block    
By Tom O'NeillPhotographs by Michael Yamashita and Ira Block

In everything from martial arts to tea ceremonies, the storied warriors of Japan remain a potent presence. Many Japanese just can't stop searching for their inner samurai.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

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.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Interactive Art
Close in on the action depicted in an antique painting of the siege of Osaka castle when 400,000 samurai clashed in a battle to the death.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
For more than 50 years Christianity was a leading religion in feudal Japan. Along with the muskets brought by Portuguese traders in the mid-1500s came Jesuit missionaries, who spread the Christian word to the poorest farmers as well as samurai barons eager to gain access to foreign guns and trade. In 1559 a Jesuit father traveled to Kyoto, the capital, and convinced Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru to grant protection and freedom from taxes to the missionaries throughout the country. Christianity thrived under Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan's great samurai leaders, and by 1580 there were an estimated 150,000 converts. Churches and seminaries sprang up in the larger towns, and samurai were seen carrying rosaries in the streets. In battle, the Christian warlords wore crosses on their helmets and, as swords clashed, cries of "Jesu" and "Santa Maria" echoed over the battlefield. 

Those cries were dampened in 1587 when Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ordered the Jesuit fathers out of the country within 20 days and banned their religion outright. The reason for his sudden edict is unclear. He may have felt threatened by powerful Christian warlords. Although many Jesuit priests did leave, the ban was largely unenforced. Dozens of fathers continued to quietly preach to as many as 300,000 followers, including some of Hideyoshi's most trusted lieutenants. This look-the-other-way attitude continued until 1611, when officials of Tokugawa Ieyasu denounced the Christian faith again.  Within three years churches were destroyed, missionaries jailed, and Christian warlords exiled. Many Christian samurai lost their lands and their status, though their faith endured until the Shimabara Revolt in 1637-38. A group of landless Christian samurai joined in a peasant rebellion against a harsh overlord in western Japan. About 20,000 held out for months in an abandoned castle against a government force thought to be 100,000 strong. After losses in the thousands, the government was forced to ask Dutch warships to fire on the castle. Christian banners imprinted with the names of saints and "praise to the blessed sacrament" fell, the rebels were slaughtered, and the Christian samurai were finally defeated.  
—Jeanne E. Peters

Samurai Women
The samurai class did not consist solely of men, of course. Though frequently overlooked in history books, women had an important role during the samurai period, particularly in the early days. Samurai wives took on the responsibilities of running the households during times of war, overseeing the crops, servants, and finances. Trained in martial arts and skilled in the use of the naginata, a type of lance, many samurai women defended their homes when under attack. Sometimes they even fought alongside the men in battle. One of the most famous female warriors was Tomoe Gozen, wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka. She fought bravely against the Taira clan during the Gempei War (1180-85) and was hailed as a gifted archer and swordswoman.
—Karen Font
Did You Know?

Related Links
Ira Block Photography
Learn more about National Geographic photographer Ira Block and browse through his online photo library.

Samurai Archives
Search a wealth of information on samurai culture and history, including genealogies, time lines, details of battles, maps, and biographies of key historical figures.

Japan A  to Z
Compiled by the cultural and public affairs department of the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., this alphabetical list covers a broad range of topics, including past and present cultural traditions, tourism, industries, and cuisine. For even more information about Japan, click on the Japan Fact Sheet and Cultural Spotlight sections of the website.

Japan Information Network
Access subjects ranging from history, culture, statistics, art, regions, and a calendar of events for all of Japan.

Tokyo Bay
Learn about modern day Tokyo, where development and pollution are fast changing the city.

Japan's Winter Wildlife
Explore Japan's diverse wildlife, and learn about efforts toward conservation.

Japan's Imperial Palace
Go beyond the moat and explore the secretive world of Japan's imperial family.

Osaka Castle Museum
Learn about the castle's history on this site, then take an online tour.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Visit the museum's website to view more vintage photographs of samurai.

Charles Schwartz Ltd. Photography: Japanese Ambrotypes (mid-1860s-1890)
This site offers an exhibit with 22 antique photographs from Japan, featuring portraits, celebrations, and family gatherings. 


Dunn, Charles J. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. Tuttle Publishing, 2001.
Kapp, Leon, Hiroko Kapp, and Yoshindo Yoshihara. The Craft of the Japanese Sword. Kodansha International, Ltd., 1987.
Kure, Mitsuo. Samurai: An Illustrated History. Tuttle Publishing, 2002.
Perrin, Noel. Giving Up the Gun, Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879. David R. Godine, 1979.
Sansom, George. A History of Japan. 3 vols. Tuttle Publishing, 1974.
Sinclaire, Clive. Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior. The Lyons Press, 2001.
Turnbull, Stephen. The Book of Samurai: The Warrior Class of Japan. Grange Books, 2001.
Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook. Cassell and Co, 1998.
Varley, Paul, and Kumakura Isao. Tea in Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 1989.


NGS Resources
Poole, Robert M. "Japan's Imperial Palace: Beyond the Moat," National Geographic (January 2001), 94-123.

Bornoff, Nicholas. The National Geographic Traveler: Japan. National Geographic Books, 2000.
Harmon, Leon. "Japan's Great Pastime," National Geographic Traveler (September 2000), 105-6.

Taylor, Gregg N. "Hagi: Where Japan's Revolution Began," National Geographic (June 1984), 750-73.

Graves, William. "Human Treasures of Japan," National Geographic (September 1972), 370-79.


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