In medieval Japan, armed swordsmen, known
as samurai, roamed the countryside fighting and dying in name of honor. With terrifying
skill, they wielded the finest bladed weapons in history and when joined under a common flag, these men carved out renowned Shogunates and their own place in history. In the Age of Battles, roughly 1550 to 1600 AD, the way of the samurai reached its zenith.
In this “warring states period”, changes in warfare and political chaos altered the
course of the samurai forever. The samurai or Bushi, were the military elite of Japan
who followed the Bushido code, or way of the warrior. Up until that point, one could rise
through the ranks to become a samurai, but eventually it evolved into a class system.
Increasing, the samurai warrior had to be born or legally adopted into the legendary
ranks of the Japanese fighting swordsmen. A retainer of the ancient Nabeshima clan once
wrote, “the way of the warrior can be found in death.” Like many other ancient warriors,
death on the battlefield became synonymous with honor. For a samurai, bringing shame
to himself, his kin, or his lord, was more repulsive than death, which is why so many
chose death before dishonor. Even a wounded samurai would often commit suicide by ritual disembowelment or Seppuku, rather than give himself up to an enemy. The samurai’s sense of honor and dedication was so great that if a lord died, some of
his vassals would even choose to kill themselves rather than submit to the rule of another
commander. These loyalty suicides, or Junshi as they were called, became so prevalent that
laws had to be drafted to threaten the samurai’s families if they chose this extreme act of
devotion. Not all samurai opted to follow a dead lord
to eternity, however. Some would leave the protection of their clan and become ronin,
which meant wave person. Ronin could also be banished samurai who violated the clan tenets or engaged in criminal acts. These lordless ronin wandered the land, beholden to none. Many became bandits or turned to mercenary work, while others eventually found
their way into the graces of a new master. A samurai lucky enough to be part of a strong
and stable clan, could expect a comfortable if not pleasing life when home from campaigning. Samurai typically stayed in castle barracks until they married. At that time they could
move into a small home near other married samurai in the clan. Assigned duties were
frequently rotated so men who showed aptitude would gain a robust knowledge of army management
as they rose through the ranks. All samurai received wages and in the Age
of Battles the Japanese economy focused almost entirely on rice. Wealth, at that time, was
determined by the Koku, a measurement of rice that could sustain a man for a year. The samurai
used their earnings to buy necessities that weren’t provided by their lord, but they
also bought items of leisure. Gambling dice and cards were always popular with samurai,
but tobacco, a new phenomenon in that era caught on quickly with the arrival of Europeans.
Time for leisure was fleeting for the samurai warrior and The Age of Battles did not earn
its moniker through tranquility. Outbreaks of peace were only too brief and samurai used
them to train for war. From childhood a samurai practiced his martial craft so when the time
came to march to battle, he was primed and ready for combat. The dress and appearance of the samurai warrior is one of the most recognizable in history.
From his shaved pate and topknot hairstyle to his near perfect blade and distinctive
armor, the samurai stands out as a true icon of antiquity. The samurai on campaign had to fight, march, eat, and likely sleep in his armor so it became
one of the most important and familiar parts of his military life next to his sword.
A suit of Japanese armor, or Gusoku, consisted of six basic components: Kabuto, Do, Sode,
Kote, Haidate, and Suneate. Other items included for added protection based on the
preferences of the individual samurai. A Samurai and his companions would dress from the bottom to the top and from the left to the right. Donning the armor was typically a two person job so the samurai would assist each other when the call to battle rang out. Never far from a Samurai, even while suiting up, were his weapons of war. Swords suspended from the waist like the Tachi were generally worn blade down, while those not suspended from the waist were worn with the cutting edge up. That made them ideal for a quick draw and strike motion. By the year 1580 AD it became common for a matched pair of long and short swords, or Daisho, to be worn together at the left hip. Some common groupings were: Tachi – a long sword worn edge down. Uchigatana – a shorter sword worn edge up (a precursor to the katana). Katana – a medium length blade that was lengthened and then later emerged as the primary weapon. Wakizashi – a companion blade to the katana, it was a shortened version of the uchigatana. Tanto – another small companion dagger often worn with the katana. Though the sword was the mainstay of the samurai, he often turned to his bow in combat before engaging an enemy at close quarters. Until the arrival of the musket, the Japanese bow, or Yumi, was the ultimate long range killer with an effective range of 80 meters and a maximum range of 380 meters. The lance, called a Yari, earned its place in the samurai arsenal, but were most often used by the lower ranking foot soldiers. The lengths varied, but one constant was the lance was never thrown as a spear, but rather wielded as a long, two handed weapon. By 1542 AD, the Portuguese introduced the devastating matchlock musket, or Teppo, to Japanese warfare. The samurai were forced to adopt the world-changing weapon or by risk being swept aside by history and the men who mastered this new black art of war. On the march, samurai carried a sleeping mat, a cloth rations bag, leather shot pouches, and a bamboo canteen. Rice rations would be kept in a cloth tube tied into sections and slung around the neck. Changes of clothing and any other personal items were packed in bag that was worn at the waist. A flag or banner attached to the back displayed the samurai’s clan allegiance and in the heat of battle was an unmistakable indicator of friend or foe. Battles were swift and deadly for the rank and file. Most involved frontal charges, which meant few lower ranked samurai lived long enough to see their skills decline with age. Fully armed and equipped, the samurai, like his sword, was a formidable weapon. Generations of warfare honed the skills of the samurai warriors. The powerful shogun and daimyo elevated themselves to power on the backs of the samurai who were all too eager to see their lord and clan dominate the land. The samurai truly earned their place in history with awe-inspiring bravery and shocking bloodshed in the Age of Battles.