The Samurai (also known as Bushi) were medieval Japan's equivalent of the western knight. The status of samurai was a matter of caste and social status rather than occupation as all Bushi were regarded as part of the military caste whether they were warriors or not. Many samurai were scholars or administrators, priests or artists but all were expected to have a martial role when the need arose. Low rank samurai gave allegiance to a lord or Daimyo and their loyalty was expected to be absolute even to the point of death. If a lord died without an heir his retainers would become Ronin. A samurai could also be banished from his lord's service and become ronin or could be made to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) to atone for dishonour brought upon his lord or clan. Much like in the western feudal system samurai had duties and were paid by their lord so that they could maintain their household and provide him with troops when the need arose. Much like a modern army all samurai were soldiers but many also had specialist roles such as cooks, clerks, arranging supplies, religious services, or leading particular types of low rank troops such as spearmen or bowmen.
Samurai had a strict moral ethical code called Bushido or the way of the warrior which was supposed to guide their actions on and off the battlefield. As already mentioned suicide played a big part in this code and it is important to understand Bushido when considering any serious study of the samurai. Several translations of works on bushido into English have been published but one of the best books on the subject is the Book of Five Rings.
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A Book of Five Rings
, Miyamoto Musashi. Translated by Victor Harris. An excellent and fascinating short book and a must have for any serious student of Samurai history. The book has an excellent historical introduction and the section on the life of the author is as good as the book itself. The focus of book is the way of the warrior, especially the swordsman and has much thought provoking text for the careful and diligent reader. Detailed footnotes add to the translation and the text is very interesting for any interested in Kendo or the martial arts, mixing philosophy with strategy, giving a real insight into the life and beliefs of a samurai.
A classic of Japanese cinema and a must for anyone with an interest in the Samurai. Set in 1600 Japan it tells a tale of a group of samurai hired to protect a village against bandits. Beneath this simple plot lies brilliant characterizations and insight into the role of peasants and samurai in this period. With some excellent set pieces and thankfully subtitled not dubbed this is a classic not to be missed. Available as a video or DVD.
Another classic from this masterful director, Ran meaning Chaos is a reworking of King Lear with dutiful sons replacing the daughters. It tells the tale of a kingdom torn apart by the greed of a Lords sons and the scheming revenge of a woman. In colour with spectacular battles showing use of arquebus and cavalry and a stunning attack on a fortress it is a must for those interested in samurai warfare.
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (10 March 2002), Samurai, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_samurai.html