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The way of the Samurai

To be a samurai was to lose yourself in the service of your master. The word samurai itself means "one who serves." In battle, the samurai were known for absolute loyalty and courage, even in the face of impossible odds.

To the samurai, "bushido" (the code of the warrior) put honor and loyalty before wealth, life and family.

Tom Cruise's new movie "The Last Samurai," opening in theaters today, offers a glimpse into the samurai lifestyle in 1868, the beginning of Japan's modern era. The movie depicts the end of the old feudal culture that brought about the samurai in the 12th century and the birth of modern Japan.

"If you think of saving your life you had better not go to war at all." — samurai quote

"When the stomach is empty it is a disgrace to feel hungry." — samurai quote


A young samurai would not only be trained in martial arts (archery, fencing and jujitsu) but also caligraphy, ethics, history and literature. Physical hardship was thought to build character. It was not unusual for apprentices to be taken on extended marches through the snow, barefoot. Improving fighting skills was a constant project. A samurai would apprentice himself to a number of masters of different fighting techniques to sharpen his skills. A samurai was taught to be continuously vigilant and ready to fight.

Samurai would burn incense in their helmets so their heads would smell sweet if decapitated.


The samurai style of fighting employed flexible fluid movements over brute force (jujitsu). Fencing techniques evolved into modern-day kendo.

Rules of engagement

(single combat)

Before engaging an enemy, a samurai would recite his name, ancestry and deeds of heroism. Upon defeating an opponent, he might compliment him on his bravery before decapitating him. Heads were often taken as battle trophies.

5 percent of the Japanese population were samurai.

The privileges of the samurai were revoked in 1871.


Kamishimo: A two-piece garment worn over the kimono when traveling or in bad weather.

Kimono: Typically made of silk. A piece of cloth 2 feet by 20 feet was required to make one garment.

Mon: Japanese family crest.

Shaved forehead: Made wearing helmet more comfortable.

Clean shaven: Facial hair common before Edo Period (1603-1867).

Top knot: Well-oiled hair.


Waraii: Sandal made of straw and hemp.

Geta: Wooden clog (associated more with peasants).


Samurai armor was constructed of lacquered iron woven together with silk cord. Its construction made it lighter (only 25 pounds) and tougher than the European chain mail. These factors made it easy to repair and store. A cotton loin cloth, a kimono and loose- fitting pantaloons were worn beneath the armor.

Helmet with visor: Lacquered mask with intimidating expression protected the face.

Iron collar: Prevented decapitation.

Thighguards: Could be removed when walking.

Shinguards: Leather with strips of iron

Metal-cased sleeve: Iron splints sewn into heavy cloth.

Swords were always worn on the left side.

Samurai usually carried a dagger and fan.

The swords

The crafting of a sword took on an almost religious aura. Craftsmen would go through a purification ceremony and wear only white while forging the blade.

A process of layering the metal (harder steel and softer steel), bending it back upon itself and hammering it thin gave the blade flexibity and strength. An edge of hard steel was neccessary to ensure a sharp blade. This was achieved by encasing most of the blade in clay and leaving the edge exposed. The blade was then heated until it glowed and then plunged into water. The exposed edge cooled quickly. This made it harder and better able to hold a sharp edge. The clay covered portion cooled more slowly and became more flexible.

A new blade would often be tested on the body of a beheaded criminal. A good blade could slice a body in half.

A time-tested sward was more valuable than a new, unproven blade.

Katana: Sword held with two hands that is used in a slashing — rather then stabbing — movement.



This form of ritual suicide was practiced by the samurai from 1192 to 1868. Suicide was ordered as punishment or chosen in place of a dishonorable death (public execution).

Hara-kiri, which means stomach cutting, was carried out quickly — and without ceremony — in such places as a battlefield. Seppuku was a formal ritual carried out at a temple, garden or villa. In the ritual, the victim is required to disembowel himself without displaying signs of pain. If he was able to complete the task, the kaishaku (a close friend or associate that acts as an assistant) then decapitated him.

SOURCES: "Early Japan," by Jonathan Norton Leaonard; World Book Encyclopedia;;