When did the samurai disappear?

Origin of the Samurai

History of the Samurai (Japanese Knights)

The origin of the word samurai (servant, companion) is in Japan before the Heian period. It was pronounced Saburai and means servant or companion. It was only in the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and the early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, that the word samurai became common in place of saburai. At this point, however, the meaning had changed a long time before.

During the Heian period, saburai mainly referred to the guards of the imperial palace and the sword-bearers. These forerunners of those we know today as samurai were endowed by the ruler. They were required to improve their command of the martial arts at any time. The actual armies of the emperor, however, were only groups of conscripts who were assigned to the corresponding provinces of Japan in the event of war or rebellion. They were modeled on the Chinese armies and consisted of a third of the combat-capable adult male population. In contrast to the imperial guards, each soldier had to pay for his own weapons and supplies.

During the early Heian period in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, Emperor Kammu sought a consolidation and expansion of his empire in the northern Honshu region. He sent his armies to subjugate the rebellious Emishi (descendants of the Ainu) (who were inferior due to a lack of discipline and motivation to fight) and established the rank of Shogun, whereupon he relied on the strong regional clans to subjugate the Emishi. These clans consisted primarily of peasants who had been driven to arm by the tyranny of the magistrates appointed by the emperor for administration and taxation purposes. Experienced in mountain fighting and archery, the emperor soon used them exclusively to end the rebellions, while the armies were ultimately completely disbanded. By the middle of the Heian period they finally adopted Japanese-style armor and weapons and laid the foundation for bushido.

For most of the following feudal period, the era of samurai rule, the term yumitori (archer) remained as an honorary title of an excellent warrior, even after sword fighting had become more important.

The samurai had some far-reaching privileges. They were allowed to carry two samurai swords, one long and one short. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to carry weapons at all. There were even times when a samurai had the right to behead an ordinary citizen if he was insulted. Within the samurai caste there were again different ranks with different privileges. A hierarchy from the twelfth century distinguished three classes of samurai. 1st class: Kenin, which means something like "housemen". They were the stewards or the vassals.
2nd class: Mounted samurai, only samurai of high rank were allowed to fight on horseback. 3rd class: foot soldiers.

Towards the end of the 15th century, the Ashikaga shogunate had lost control of the country. Powerful feudal lords ravaged Japan in a series of civil wars that lasted nearly 100 years. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi was finally able to unite Japan, he introduced a series of reforms that changed the life of the samurai class.

He arranged for the samurai to have permanent residence in the castles. Previously, the samurai had farmed their own land in peacetime. This step was akin to transforming an army of conscripts into an army of professional soldiers. To finance the new system, Toyotomi Hideyoshi introduced a rice taxation system under which each samurai received a certain amount of rice depending on their rank. The samurai class had a code of conduct called Bushido, which means "way of the warrior". The central point of the Bushido teaching was complete loyalty to one's own master, the daimyo. Belonging to the samurai class was inherited.

Bushido - the samurai's code of honor

Bushido, the code of honor of the samurai, regulated life and death, peace and struggle of the Japanese elite warriors in a strict and indomitable manner. Bushido can be translated as "the way of the warrior". It is not about training physical abilities, it is more about mental development. Bushido describes a path through life that is independent of the martial art. This path is achieved through martial arts. Historically, it has a long tradition. In the times of the ongoing wars in Japan, the Bushido strengthened the loyalty of the samurai to his liege lord and through its regulations ensured his appearance and behavior in battle and is also responsible for seeing how the samurai reacted to the loss of their master. The loyalty prescribed by Bushido went far beyond death. It called for unselfish behavior, self-sacrifice and, in the event of a violation of the law, self-chastisement or even ritual suicide (seppuku). However, Bushido does not mean looking for death, it is not about shedding responsibility, but rather about taking on responsibility.


One of the most important thoughts in Bushido is self-sacrifice. Even if it is dangerous you should help people to do good, even if it costs your life you should overcome selfishness and thus overcome the ego. This thought of overcoming the ego finds its way into Bushido through Zen Buddhism. Self-sacrifice is part of self-education and all the different arts of self-education are referred to as Do (path).

Through the loyal, serving behavior from student to master, the sacrifice of the learner towards his chosen path or the honor of the art and the teacher. A student should always treat his teacher with due respect. He owes his knowledge to him. Therefore, one should always consider the later passing on of what has been learned from the aspect that one would like to honor one's own master by teaching what has been taught as well as possible. A student should be ready to recognize the unimportant things of everyday life and subordinate them to his path. Few things are really important other than taking back your own path for it.

Soul of the samurai

The view of the weapons also differs from that of a martial artist or a soldier. The weapon is not only used for killing, it is not just a mere extension of the body, a mere means to an end. The weapons of the Bushido followers, especially the sword, are more than just tools. They can take life and protect it at the same time, and they often even have a spirit of their own. The katana has often been said to be the soul of the samurai. This spirit has also survived to this day. So even today there are still parts of the ancient Bushido hidden in the martial arts. It is true that they are often adapted to the forced changes or have been forgotten and minimized due to the changed society, but if you take a closer look, you can sometimes still see parts of them in dojo and behavioral rules, aspects of training or the appearance of more experienced students .

The meaning of the sword

The meaning of the sword for the samurai

Tachi = pomp sword
Katana = long sword
Wakizashi = short sword

Mind and ki

For a warrior, a blade is part of the mind and at the same time an expression of the body, i.e. the body itself. The swordsman's mind and ki also work through the sword. The saying "Katana-wa bushi-no tamashii desû" (The sword is the warrior's soul) expresses the extraordinary respect that the Japanese had for the sword. For this reason, the etiquette also said that under no circumstances should one touch the saia or the sword of a warrior. If he took it off, there was still no way to step over the weapon. An offense against the two mentioned regulations usually resulted in the direct death of the perpetrator.

In the Kamakura era, swords were divided into tachi, katana and wakizashi. Tachi and katana were long swords and were very similar to each other. The difference was in the use. Tachi were worn hanging from the belt on the left side of the body, with the cutting edge pointing downwards.

The sword drawing was done with a cut running from bottom to top (earth-sky-blow). Tachi were often converted into katana and worn in the same way. The katana was worn diagonally in front of the left side of the body in the belt, with the blade pointing upwards. The sword drawing was done with a cut running from bottom to top (heaven-earth-blow).

Samurai etiquette

Samurai etiquette and the samurai sword

A swordsman usually never gave his sword out of his hand and when he did so (such as when kneeling down respectfully or to sleep) he always kept it within reach. If you visited a friend or a higher-ranking personality, you simply put the long sword in the anteroom of the house in the stand provided for it (katanakake) or gave it to a servant specially trained to use the sword respectfully for the duration of your stay. The short sword, however, was always kept with you. If you sat across from each other, you put your sword on the ground to the right of your body (with the edge pointing towards your own body) within easy reach. Dropping the sword in this way signaled that you had no bad intentions, because the sword could not be used surprisingly from this position. Still, you shouldn't get too close to your host with your sword. The blade was only pulled completely out of the Saia at the express request of the host, for example to admire the excellent swordsmith work of the same. Here too, strict etiquette was adhered to.

You held the sword at a suitable distance from your counterpart with the tip of the blade pointing vertically upwards and slowly - step by step - pulled the Saia upwards with your right hand. The receding of the blade was done in reverse order (according to the sword fighting tradition, all bushi were trained to handle the sword with the right hand; accordingly, a grip with the left hand proved the swordsman's peaceful attitude).

The host, however, was also careful, even if he did not carry his swords on his body at home. Rather, he kept long and short swords easily accessible in a sword stand, which was positioned so that the weapons could be pulled towards the door. In 1877 only soldiers and police officers on duty were allowed to carry a sword. Kendô as a way of physical exercise, of regulated competition and the training of the self continued to spread in Japan's educational institutions.

Important samurai`s

Miyamoto Musashi is called the "most famous samurai of Japan". He went down in Japanese history as a legendary swordsman and his teachings, which he left behind under the title “Gorin-no-sho” - known in German as “The Book of the Five Rings” - are almost as famous. Shimmen Bennosuke aka Miyamoto Musashi was born in Miyamoto Village in 1584. His father Shimmen Munisai, a samurai whose house had been closed, died quite early. However, he taught his son the principles of sword fighting. Although Miyamoto's motivation to take the "way of the sword" was initially to become a samurai like his father, and he is mentioned as such in the history books, he was in reality a ronin and always saw himself as such . Always independent and without the infamous loyalty to the clan prince of his house, as one would normally expect from a samurai. This display of his independence is also reflected repeatedly in the five rings and shows how much it was important for him to present the “originality” of his thoughts and insights. His aim in life was the search for the “true way of the sword”, which in his opinion can only be achieved through strict self-discipline and constant practice.

The loyalty, the code of honor that determined the behavior of the samurai and known as "Bushido", the ethics of sword fighting, their philosophy, was only established or reintroduced during the 17th century, during Miyamoto's lifetime. However, he still came from the warlike times, in which almost every citizen of Japan went hand in hand with death, and he always kept this attitude to life and it is also reflected in his teachings. He writes “According to the general term, the samurai is constantly prepared for death inwardly.” . This changed over time with the conversion of the samurai class into a civil servant class. Musashi himself fought more than 60 duels between the ages of 13 and 29 without being seriously injured and died in 1645 on the island of Kyûshû.

Tsukahara Bokuden (1489--1571)

Tsukahara Bokuden was one of the great fencers of his time. It is said that he fought 37 fights without being defeated. He attached particular importance to concentration. He was a staunch advocate of the theory that one should be patient.

An interesting story should prove this: Once, Bokuden sat on board a boat with numerous passengers during a crossing. Among the fellow travelers was a young exuberant samurai who boasted of his sword skills. He saw that Bokuden was also a swordsman and tried to engage him in a conversation. After boasting extensively about his sword style, he asked Bokuden about his. “My style is called Mutekatsu-ryu. I defeat my opponents without touching them and without using my two swords «! The samurai asked astonished and curious whether he would really fight without swords? "Why not," replied Bokuden.

The samurai flared up, believing that his counterpart was a boor: "Come on, let's fight, I want to get to know your style." Bokuden replied: "Let's go to the island there, I don't want to hurt the passengers present." They asked the captain of the ferry for a small rowboat and crossed over to the island. Bokuden, who was at the helm, headed for a slightly steeper place. As soon as the boat was close enough to the bank, the samurai jumped out of the boat with a powerful leap and immediately pulled out his katana to be prepared for the fight. However, the young samurai's violent leap drove the boat back into deep water. The samurai was now standing on the shore of the island, waving his sword and cursing. Smiling, Bokuden called out to him: "This is my swordless school!"

Gettan Tsuji Sakemochi (1647-1726)

Gettan was a Japanese sword and Zen master. In contrast to many other Kensei, he found his way from Zen to sword and not - as usual - from sword to Zen. He founded the sword style Muga-ryu. This sword style is based on Zen Buddhism. Gettan was not only one of the greatest swordsmen in Japan, but also a very deep philosopher. He lived very simply and modestly. Gettan projected the teachings of Zen into swordsmanship and practiced them there. The best-known of his teachings deals with reality: "Zen teaches the meaning of everyday life, Zen teaches that the greatness of life is not in useless possession, but in the everyday itself, in which one does ordinary things in an ordinary way. It it is a self-delusion to believe that we are special just because we call ourselves human and as such feel superior to all other living beings. And most important of all - Zen teaches reality. " Gettan found his death at the old age of 79 on June 23, 1726 while meditating.

"The 47 Samurai (Ronin)"

The term "Rônin" came from "rô" (wave) and "nin" (human) and meant "wave man" because his life was like the wave. During the feudal era, the Rônin were samurai, noble vassals who had to give up their service to their master and who neither wanted nor were able to take on a new one.

The best known Rônin were the 47 samurai of Akô, who became ownerless in 1702 after the death of their daimyô Asano. While the Tennô responded to the Shôgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi 's New Year greetings through his three emissaries at the court of Edo, Asano Takamuni no kami - the daimyô of Harima Province - was publicly insulted by Kira Kotsuke, the master of ceremonies. Angry about this, Asano drew his sword and injured his opponent. But since drawing the sword within the Shôgun palace was punishable by death, the daimyô of Akô had to commit "seppuku" (ritual suicide by "cutting the stomach") on the orders of the regent at the beginning of April 1702.After that, his castle and the rest of his property fell to the "Bakufu" (tent government) and his samurai became ownerless. Forty-seven of the Asano samurai who had become Rônin remained loyal to their employer even after his death.

Under the leadership of Ohoishi Kura no suke, they avenged the death of their master on the night of December 14th to 15th, 1702 in the capital Edo. They killed Kira, beheaded him and placed the skull on her master's grave as atonement. This act met with great applause among the entire population of the empire. Influential daimyo made petitions to the shogunate to obtain their acquittal. The Shogun replied: “I have heard of the sincere loyalty of the former Hanshi of Asano Takamuni no kami to their Lord. This is something very unusual for our time. I would only like to help them if the legal order does not require the seppuku. ”Thus on February 4, 1703 the forty-seven rônin had to self-evict on the orders of the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

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