Top 10 Fascinating Samurai
The samurai were the great warriors of Feudal Japan who were respected and feared for their gracefulness in peace and brutality in war. Dignified by the strict code of honor that bound them, the samurai were more than ready to give their own life than suffer a harsh existence of dishonor. In the few hundred years that they existed as Japan’s most dominating warriors, they filled the pages of history with their heroic tales, and for a select few who cast a shadow upon all of Japan, they generated a legend larger than any one man could ever hope to attain. People still marvel centuries after the height of their reign at the innovations in warfare and politics that were born from the minds and hearts of a class of warriors like none other.
As the only female on this list, Tomoe is one of the very few women who took the battlefield alongside her male counterparts though her exploits and history still are uncertain.
In The Tale of Heike, Tomoe is described as a woman of exquisite beauty with fair skin and long black hair and as an excellent archer and swords woman who was “ready to confront a demon or a god.”
Serving under Minamoto Yoshinaka, Tomoe was one of his finest soldiers, and her skills in battle dwarfed many of those held by even the strongest men in her unit. She is believed to have fought and survived through the Genpei War, the first major war between samurai clans and a place of origin for many popular attributes that would become associated with the samurai warrior over the years. It was here at the battle of Awazu where Tomoe even took the head of a rival samurai, an incredible honor for any samurai who defeated an opposing warrior in combat.
After the battle, Tomoe was said to have retired from being a warrior, instead taking up an occupation as a nun, though it is also said that she became the wife of a samurai named Wada Yoshimori who she supposedly pledged her devotion after being defeated by him in battle.
Today, samurai are legendary for their exquisite swordsmanship that is synonymous with the iconic katana, and while they were indeed proficient in the art of sword-fighting, the samurai that we are familiar with today are descended from warriors who were skilled in their practice of mounted archery. That tradition never faded as the samurai grew, and for all the great swordsmen who garner mention throughout the history of the samurai, there are just as many archers whose skills were worth mentioning. One of such men was Minamoto Tametomo whose legend may very well precede the skills that forged it.
Tametomo is said to have had a left arm that was up to six inches longer than his right, which could generate far stronger shots due to the increased distance of which he could draw the bowstring. These powerful shots would have been essential for Tametomo during a conflict between the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan, where Tametomo is said to have sunk a full-sized Taira ship merely by firing a single arrow below the craft’s waterline.
Tametomo committed seppuku in 1170 as the Taira captured him and severed the tendons in his left arm, leaving him useless for battle. In the end, he decided to take his own life by way of seppuku, one of the first samurai on record to do so.
Masashige began as a small time land owner who answered emperor Go-Daigo’s request for military assistance during the Nanbokucho Wars. Starting as a small-time leader with only five hundred men to his credit, Masashige rose through the ranks serving as a general loyal to the emperor Go-Daigo during the Nanbokucho Wars. Masashige is most famous for his undying devotion to his emperor that persisted even through the emperor’s exile and up until his death at the hands of fellow samurai, and traitor, Ashikaga Takauji. Leading up to the battle with Takauji, Kusunoki pleaded with his emperor to refrain from a direct battle with him, opting instead for the guerrilla-based tactics that had served them well to that point. Go-Daigo dismissed his Kusunoku’s concerns, and despite his knowledge that the emperor’s orders were basically a death sentence, Kusunoki marched onward to face Takauji where he suffered a massive defeat and was forced to commit seppuku.
Following his death, Masashige was seen as the forerunner for a samurai’s undying loyalty. Upon the removal of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century Kusunoki Masashige become a national symbol of loyalty, and his image was again used in World War II in propaganda posters to keep soldiers loyal to the emperor.
Some of the most interesting tales in the samurai’s decorated history involve the ronin, which translates roughly to “men of the waves” in English. The ronin were samurai who paid no allegiance to a master for one reason or another, and as such they found their work as mercenaries. Some worked for the benefit of the people as they were hired to protect small villages or for rich men who could do little to defend themselves. Others traveled to other countries or worked as pirates.
Incessant conflicts between warring clans brought samurai masters to an early grave, thus breeding thousands of ronin who wandered the countryside as independent warriors who were often seen as inferior by their fellow samurai. Of these many wandering swordsmen, none were more popular than Miyamoto Musashi.
Few samurai have been celebrated in modern culture more throughout the course of history than Musashi, who has seen countless works of film and literature devoted to his gaudy resume as a swordsman and duelist that has often been embellished to the point of absurdity, sometimes by Musashi himself. Still, for all of the uncertainties that remain about his legend, the fact that Musashi was a magnificent combatant still remains indisputable.
Born in 1584 to his father Munisai, also an accomplished martial artist and swordsman, Musashi was raised under his father’s tutelage until the age of seven when his uncle took him in. At thirteen, Musashi experienced his first duel against which he won with little difficulty. At age sixteen, Musashi took part in the war on the side of the Toyotomi clan against the Tokugawa clan, and following the Toyotomi clan’s defeat at the Battle of Sekigahara, where Musashi was rumored to have fought, he fell from the public eye until the age of twenty-one when he surfaced in Kyoto to challenge the renowned Yoshioka School of Swordsmanship, and following several successful duels against the heads of the Yoshioka school where he innovated the niten’ichi sword-fighting style which involved Musashi battling with his katana held in one hand and the shorter wakizashi held in the other, Musashi set out to travel all across Japan as a part of a developmental pilgrimage where he further improved his skills as a warrior.
In 1612, Musashi fought in his most famous duel against his most daunting opponent, master swordsman Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro was exceptional in his precision and speed with the nodachi, a curved sword much like the katana but several feet longer. In an effort to unsettle his opponent, Musashi arrived over three hours late for the duel, and after heckling Kojiro and coaxing the first attack out of him, Musashi killed him almost effortlessly with a single blow from a wooden sword he had apparently crafted from one of his oars.
In Musashi’s later years, his life of battle and dueling slowed down greatly as one would expect from an aging man. Just before his death in 1630, Musashi authored the Go Rin No Sho or The Book of Five Rings, a book describing various techniques of the sword that is still widely studied by both martial artists and businessmen.
As a samurai who was one of the generals belonging to the aptly titled Four Heavenly Kings of Tokugawa and one who has been blessed with the fortunate and equally grandiose moniker “The Warrior who surpassed Death,” Tadakatsu could easily be said to be a warrior without any match.
As a subordinate of Tokugawa, Tadakatsu was a veteran of over a hundred battles, and never once was he bested by an opposing general in combat. On top of that, Tadakatsu never suffered a significant wound in all of his years of service, hence his appropriating of the nickname above.
In combat, Tadakatsu was adept in the wielding of a long spear that was dubbed one of the “Three Great Spears of Japan,” and in 1584, with only a small army that was outnumbered greatly by an army headed by general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he stood tall and challenged the opposing army to battle, an act that struck so deeply with Hideyoshi that he ordered the safety of Tadakatsu and all of the men accompanying him.
Tadakatsu served valiantly in the Battle of Sekigahara which ended the contentious Sengoku period and ushered in a new era of peace led by Tokugawa Ieyasu who would go on to construct Japan’s final shogunate not long after this victory.
Ruthless was a term that was used to describe many samurai during the Sengoku period as it was a quality that was needed by any daimyo if they were to make a run at ruling Japan. Few samurai, however, fit the bill better than Date Masamune who struck fear into all of those who crossed his path due to his violent nature and reckless approach in times of war.
Masamune was born as the eldest son to the renowned Date clan who served honorably in the Genpei Wars. As such, it was expected that Masamune would succeed his father as the head of the clan, but after losing the sight in his right eye to a case of smallpox as a child, he was deemed unfit to take control of the clan by his mother.
After suffering several defeats as an inexperienced general early in his career, Masamune gained his footing as a leader and soon became one of the most feared men in all of Japan. As he branched out and began a campaign to conquer all of his clan’s neighboring provinces. The neighboring Hatakeyama family pleaded with Masamune’s father, Terumune, to reel in his son’s aggressive campaign. When his father said that there was nothing he could do to control his wild son, the Hatakeyama family kidnapped Terumune, and were subsequently trailed by an enraged army led by Masamune who was ordered by his father to wipe out all of his kidnappers, even if it meant killing him in the process. Masamune did as he was told, and Terumune, along with all of the other kidnappers were killed. Masamune’s brutal reputation would only grow from there as he proceeded to brutally torture and murder the families of all of his father’s kidnappers.
In 1590, with Masamune at the head of the Date clan and Japan under the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Masamune outwardly refused Hideyoshi’s demands to report for battle. When Masamune finally confronted an enraged Hideyoshi, he did so fearlessly with the expectation that he would be executed on the spot for his defiance. Fortunately for Masamune, Hideyoshi decided to spare him.
Masamune, for all of his insolence toward Hideyoshi, did serve loyally in Hideyoshi’s ill-fated campaigns in Korea, and following Hideyoshi’s death, he became a loyal general under Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Despite the cloud of suspicion that always hung over the head of Masamune regarding his true intentions and the fear he invoked due to his seemingly heartless nature in times of war, Masamune held a successful reign over his territory under the supervision of shogun Tokugawa. Masamune was known for opening the doors to his province to foreigners and to Christian missionaries, and with an undying hunger for foreign technology, he initiated a voyage to Rome to begin relations with the Pope, and along the way his ship, the Date Maru, become a part of the first Japanese voyage to sail around the world.
In Japan, there was a saying in regards to Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu: “Nobunaga pounds the national rice cake, Hideyoshi kneads it, and in the end Ieyasu sits down and eats it.”
Tokugawa Ieyasu stands tall as possibly the most famous samurai of all time and the only one of the three great unifiers of Japan, the others being Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to be crowned shogun. Tokugawa reveled in all of his successes despite the fact that he wasn’t the great tactician or leader that Nobunaga and Hideyoshi made themselves out to be. What Tokugawa was, however, was a pragmatic man who dealt only in common sense and took calculated risks to put himself in the best position to climb to the top of the pack. He played the field of feudal Japan like pieces on a board game, and when it came to capitalizing on the strengths and weaknesses of his contemporaries, there was no-one better at doing so than Ieyasu.
From Ieyasu’s birth in 1543, he was caught in between the perils of war as his own clan, the Matsudaira clan, was torn in its allegiance to the Imagawa clan and the Oda clan. At age six, Ieyasu nearly found himself to be a casualty of this conflict as he was kidnapped by the same Oda clan whom he would eventually ally himself with as an act of hostility toward his father and his allegiance to the Imagawa clan, however, a year later the young Ieyasu was rescued by the Imagawa clan and returned home.
Ieyasu fought his first battle for the Imagawa clan at age sixteen, and at twenty, following the appointing of the cunning Oda Nobunaga as the head of the Oda clan, Ieyasu showed flashes of his wisdom that would later become famous as he switched his allegiance over to the powerful Oda clan.
The next few years strengthened the core of his power by surrounding himself with strong generals and allies whom he rewarded with sections of the land they conquered together.
Following Oda Nobunaga’s death and later that of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s, Ieyasu stood ready to take control of Japan with the Toyotomi clan as one of the few obstacles remaining in his path, and upon gathering the help of the Toyotomi clan’s enemies, he engaged in a massive battle with the Toyotomi clan and its allies at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which is seen as one of the most important battles in Japanese history as it ultimately allowed Ieyasu to stake his claim as shogun only a few years later.
Tokugawa’s overwhelming victory at Sekigahara ushered in a long-lasting peace for all of Japan, and in 1603, he was finally crowned shogun by emperor Go-Yozei. Already at the ripe old age of sixty, Tokugawa lasted as the shogun for only a handful of years, abdicating himself of his powers only three years after being crowned shogun.
As a retired shogun, Ieyasu still had one loose-end to tie up: that of Toyotomi Hideyori, the son of Hideyoshi who stood as the last beacon of rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate. Living in Osaka Castle, Tokugawa stationed a siege of the area led by his son Hidetada, and after refusing an order to vacate in 1615, Ieyasu ordered an army of 155,000 troops to attack all of those in the castle, in an assault that killed Hideyori, his entire family, and all of his supporters. With Hideyori’s demise, the Toyotomi bloodline had been severed, leaving no further opposition against the Tokugawa shogunate.
Ironically, the Tokugawa shogunate that was born from the most violent period in Japanese history brought in a new age of peace that lasted for 250 years and effectively brought an end to the samurai who relied on the contentious times of war to stay relevant.
During the Sengoku period in Feudal Japan, the countryside was rife with incessant fighting that characterized the most violent period during the era of the samurai. With the constant wars that crippled or completely destroyed entire clans who vied for power, the Takeda clan, led by Takeda Shingen, was one of the few constants that stood out on a landscape dominated by the likes of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Takeda was a veteran of over forty campaigns, including the five battles of Kawanakajima, and during the fourth battle, one that is seen as the bloodiest that the samurai had ever seen, Takeda was met by his rival Uesugi Kenshin in a one-on-one battle where he fought off a mounted attack with little more than a lessen, or battle fan.
Of all of the clans in Japan, the Takeda clan could boast a military might that was by far the most powerful of all the clans, even more so than the Oda-Tokugawa alliance that rivaled it, and after a period of weakness following his war with Uesugi Kenshin, Shingen was able to restore the power of his army due in large part to the prowess of Shingen’s “Twenty-Four Generals” who often outweighed Shingen’s own skills on the battlefield. It is widely believed that with his superior military power, Shingen was the only daimyo who had a chance to stand up against the superpower Oda Nobunaga in his quest to take over Japan, however, he chose to focus his efforts on more local problems that pertained to the provinces under his control.
Shingen is also credited with being one of the first warlords to widely integrate firearms into his regimen of soldiers as he believed that these new marvels of war technology would eventually render bows and arrows obsolete. Coincidentally, it is speculated that Shingen himself was killed by a gunshot wound.
Born as a peasant to a low-ranking foot soldier, Hideyoshi carried no samurai lineage, and since a samurai’s bloodline played such an integral role in any samurai’s standing amongst his peers, it should have been impossible for him to become the formidable general and innovative leader that he became.
Hideyoshi was awarded no luxuries that were given to noble families of samurai bloodline, and his dignified career began humbly as a sandal-bearer for Oda Nobunaga at the bottom of the Oda clan’s hierarchy, but as Nobunaga dominated the battlefield of Feudal Japan and set himself from the competition to become Japan’s fiercest warlord, Hideyoshi also separated himself from his peasant bloodline to become a magnificent general under Nobunaga.
Following Nobunaga’s assassination, Hideyoshi’s power within the Oda clan continued to grow until he assumed all control over the clan upon defeating the clan’s own preeminent general at the Battle of Shizugatake. Hideyoshi would only continue to prosper from here as he blossomed as an strong leader that built upon the resolute demeanor that Nobunaga had himself possessed.
Hideyoshi constructed the massive Osaka Castle, a structure that still stands today as one of Japan’s most recognizable landmarks. Ironically, Osaka Castle would be the site where his son Hideyori was killed by Tokugawa, effectively ending the line of Toyotomi.
Along with Osaka Castle, Hideyoshi also put into effect many groundbreaking laws that sought to end rebellion against his regime and bring an organization to Japan that the country had been lacking. In an effort to create a clearer social hierarchy, Hideyoshi banned peasants from taking arms in 1588 with the Separation Edict and confiscated what weapons they had in a massive “sword hunt.” The weapons he seized were promised to be melted down into a giant statue of Buddha, though he merely armed his troops with the weapons he stole. Both the Separation Edict and the sword hunt brought an end to rebellion under his leadership as the lowly peasants no longer had a means to arm themselves, and soon after that, he banned samurai from living with the common populace and from taking part in common occupations such as farming or trading to further bring a dividing line between the class of samurai and that of the peasants.
In Hideyoshi’s final years, he saw his legacy’s glory fade some with two very bold and ultimately unsuccessful invasions of Korea that left his regime weakened and conflicted. Only a year before his death, Hideyoshi made one of his final statements as a leader as he sought to suppress Christianity in Japan by ordering the execution of twenty-six Christians that he used to deter Japanese citizens who looked to convert to Christianity.
During the peak of the samurai’s presence in Japan, no samurai was stronger or more cunning that Oda Nobunaga. His name is one of the most recognizable in Japanese history, and it isn’t without reason.
Following a long and costly war that saw the preeminent daimyo in Japan – Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin – greatly weakened, many clans broke out in war with the hopes of filling the void of power left by them, though none of them held sufficient power to risk marching upon the capital to take the throne.
In 1560, when Yoshimoto Imagawa of the Suruga province finally attempted to take the capital of Kyoto, all that stood in his path was a simple conquering of the Owari province and the small time daimyo who ruled it, Oda Nobunaga.
Imagawa marched with an army of twenty-five thousand men that outnumbered the small forces of Nobunaga eight to one. During a thunderstorm that forced Imagawa’s troops to take shelter, Nobunaga set his troops into motion, waiting until just after the rains ceased to launch a swift attack that left Imagawa and his entire army stunned. Before he could even realize what was happening, Imagawa was killed, and Nobunaga had completed the unlikeliest victory in Japanese history.
From his success in his battle with Imagawa, Nobunaga’s stock only rose as he struck an alliance with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu to begin the building of a foundation that would lead to the unity of Japan to centuries of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate.
Nobunaga’s rise from a lowly daimyo to an unstoppable general is due to the revolution he brought the battlefield that saw him bring to life a class system based on merit that saw warriors designated to specific roles based on ability and skill rather than heritage. Most importantly, though, was Nobunaga’s adoption of firearms and his ingenious creation of the rotating volley tactic that ensured his troops would unleash a never ending barrage of gunfire as one troop of gunmen always stood in reserve ready to attack and unleash hell when the first troop was forced to reload.
Apart from being a magnificent general, Nobunaga was a gracious leader who carried his intellect over to the field of business and politics. He reconstructed an economy based exclusively on agriculture to one that operated as a free market and focused more on the manufacturing of goods and services, and he expanded international trade during his reign to include countries in Southeast Asia as well as Europe. To streamline his growing economy, Nobunaga commissioned the construction of roads between towns under his control which incidentally helped not only with trading but also in transporting his massive armies across his land.
Despite all of Nobunaga’s achievements and his dominating presence on the field of battle, he was never able to achieve the position of shogun that so many believed him to be was destined for. In 1582, while lounging in a temple with only a small entourage acting as his guard, one of Nobunaga’s own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, ordered his army to attack Nobunaga’s stronghold in an act of betrayal. With Nobunaga surrounded and trapped within his temple that had been set aflame, he retreated away from the fighting where his few troops were being slaughtered and committed seppuku.
Nobunaga’s death would not go without justice for long, however, for not more than two weeks after his death, Toyotomi Hideyashi intercepted Akechi Mitsuhide and enacted revenge for his master at the battle of Yamazaki, and along with Tokugawa Ieyasu, the two of them ensured that the progress made by Nobunaga wouldn’t die, as they would both use the framework of Nobunaga’s contributions to the country to create the foundation of what would be the final shogunate to rule over Japan.