Samurai were the great warriors of feudal Japan who were respected and feared for their grace in peace and brutality in war. Dignified by the strict code of honor that bound them, samurai were more than willing to lay down their lives than suffer a harsh existence of dishonor.
The samurai I am going to introduce to you are known from the two feudal conflicts that made the history of Japan: the Genpei war (1180-1185) and the last years of the Warring States period (1467-1590).
Recognized in his time as Japan's greatest warrior, Sanada Yukimura (1567-1615) fought valiantly against the threat of Tokugawa power over the nation. His relentless defense of Ueda Castle in Nagano was to ensure that Tokugawa Hidetada's 40,000 soldiers would not arrive in time to support his father the famous Leyasu, at the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600.
Leyasu prevailed nonetheless, and although he quickly took control of all of Japan, Yukimura led the final defense against the Tokugawa regime at the siege of Osaka from 1614 to 1615, fighting so fiercely that he forced the superior Tokugawa forces to accept an armistice after the first winter war.
However, Leyasu returned a few months later with 150,000 men for the summer war, and although Yukimura bravely led his own 60,000 soldiers, he was exhausted and killed.
Yasuke was an African slave brought to Japan in 1579 by the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. No one in Japan had ever seen a black man before, so his presence caused a sensation. He was summoned to an audience with Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful warlord of his time, who was so amazed by his appearance that he made him strip to the waist and rub his skin to prove that he was not colored with ink.
Nobunaga was so impressed by Yasuke's strength and size - about 188 centimeters tall - that he made him his personal servant and bodyguard. In 1581, Yasuke was raised to the rank of samurai and stationed at Azuchi Castle.
When Nobunaga was betrayed by Akechi Mitsuhide and forced to commit suicide at Honno-ji temple in 1582, Yasuke was there, and fought Mitsuhide's forces. He escaped to Azuchi Castle and briefly served Nobunaga's son until he too was attacked by Mitsuhide and committed suicide.
Yasuke then handed his sword to Mitsuhide, unaccustomed to a samurai surrendering rather than killing himself after the death of his lord. He ordered Yasuke to return to the Jesuit mission in Kyoto out of pity.
The fourth son of a powerful warlord, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578) emerged from a succession struggle and internal conflict with peasants and warrior monks to take control of Echigo province. Sometimes called the Dragon of Echigo (越後の龍・Echigo no Ryu), in addition to his military prowess, he was famous for his rivalry with Takeda Shingen, who was making inroads in northern Shinano.
Between 1553 and 1564, the two samurai fought five times at Kawanakajima, located in the southern part of what is now Nagano City. Although most of these battles were mere skirmishes, in the fourth battle, Kenshin almost defeated Shingen. Without any preparation, Shingen repelled Kenshin's assault with nothing but an iron fan, holding him back until one of his servants could spear Kenshin's mount and drive him off.
When the Hojo clan, based in Kanto, placed an embargo on the supply of salt to the fortress of Shingen in Kai province (now Yamanashi prefecture), Kenshin sent salt from Echigo, saying, "I do not fight with salt, but with the sword. It is said that he even cried when he heard about Shingen's death in 1573, saying: "I have lost my good rival. We will never have a hero like that again!"
Kenshin later fought against the growing power of Oda Nobunaga, Japan's first military leader, even inflicting a major defeat on him at the Battle of Tedorigawa. He gathered an army - even allying with the Takeda - to continue his assault on Oda's territory, but he died of ill health before he could attack.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) was one of the leaders of the Genpei war (1180-1185) between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans.
As a child, many of Yoshitsune's family members were killed in the Heiji rebellion of 1160. His half-brother Yoritomo was exiled to the Izu peninsula, while Yoshitsune was entrusted to the monks of Kurama temple in the mountains north of Kyoto. In 1174, he settled in Hiraizumi, in what was then the province of Mutsu, and is now the eastern half of the Tohoku region in northern Japan. For years, Yoshitsune was protected by Fujiwara no Hidehira, head of the powerful Northern Fujiwara clan.
Yoshitsune joined Yoritomo when the latter raised an army to fight the Taira clan in 1180. Yoshitsune led his clan to a succession of victories, culminating in the battle of Dan-no-ura. However, after the victory and the foundation of Kamakura shogunate by Yoritomo, he distrusted his half-brother, cancelling his titles and forcing him to go back to hide in Hiraizumi in 1185. After the death of his patron Hidehira in 1187, Yoshitsune was betrayed by his son, who surrounded his residence and forced him to commit suicide.
The incident is particularly famous for the standing death of Benkei, a fearsome warrior monk who had been Yoshitsune's servant since Yoshitsune defeated him on a bridge in Kyoto. On the last day, Benkei alone was said to have killed more than 300 men while guarding the bridge leading to Yoshitsune's residence, after which the soldiers attacked him from afar with arrows. Although he eventually stopped moving, he did not fall, and when the soldiers finally had the courage to cross the bridge, they found that Benkei was dead on his feet.
Although he never held his own lands or served a lord as an Official Samurai, as a duelist, none can compare to Miyamoto Musashi (1584~1645). Undefeated in at least 60 duels, he founded several schools of swordsmanship, and later in life wrote The Book of Five Rings (五輪の書・Go Rin no Sho), which is still read today to understand his tactics and philosophy.
Musashi wrote in the Book of Five Rings that he was born in Harima province. Musashi's father was an accomplished swordsman in the service of the lord of Takeyama Castle, which dominated the village.
Bold and reckless, Musashi won his first duel at the age of 12 or 13, accepting an open challenge from a traveling samurai whom he knocked out with a sudden attack with a wooden pole, then beat to death on the ground. Coming of age just after the end of the Warring States period (1467-1590), there is debate about which specific battles Musashi engaged in, and even on which side, with some placing him on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), which consolidated Tokugawa rule, while others say he was at war elsewhere at that time. He was also placed on both sides of the Siege of Osaka (1614-1615), where the Tokugawa eliminated the last threat to their power.
Best known for his many duels won with a wooden sword only. Early in his career, he defeated several members of the Yoshioka school, ending the reign of the Kyoto sword school. He then traveled to Japan on a warrior's pilgrimage, where he faced various martial arts masters.
In 1612, he won his most famous duel against Sasaki Kojiro on the small island of Funajima, located in the Kanmon Strait. In a fierce but brief duel, he then hit him with a wooden sword that he had carved from an oar on his way to the island.
After the siege of Osaka, he traveled again for a time, offering himself as a sword instructor to various major figures, including Tokugawa Ieyasu himself (who rejected him), until in 1633 he finally settled at the daimyo of Kumamoto Castle, at which time he fought less and was interested in learning painting. In 1643 he retired to a cave in western Kumamoto, known as Reigando (霊巌洞), to write The Book of Five Rings. He completed the work in February 1645, then died in the cave around June 13 at the age of 62.
The Takeda clan descended from the Minamoto clan, which derived from the ancient imperial lineage of Japan in the ninth century.
Takeda Shingen (1521-1573) was sometimes called the Tiger of Kai (甲斐の虎・Kai no Tora), particularly because he opposed Uesugi Kenshin, the Dragon of Echigo, tigers and dragons being traditional enemies in Buddhist imagery.
After ousting his own father from power to take control of the Takeda clan in 1540, Shingen set out to conquer Shinano province. Fortress after fortress fell before him, until he finally approached the forces of Uesugi Kenshin in Echigo province to the north. Although the two fought unsuccessfully from 1553 to 1564, Shingen finally succeeded in keeping Kenshin's forces out of Shinano, allowing Shingen to concentrate on campaigns to the south. At the beginning of Oda Nobunaga's rise to power, he joined forces with Tokugawa Ieyasu to claim the province of Suruga in 1569, and then, feeling secure in his position, he betrayed Nobunaga and Ieyasu to attack the combined Oda-Tokugawa forces in 1572.
Shingen was considered the only daimyo with the martial and tactical ability to counter Nobunaga's conquest of Japan. While defeating Ieyasu at the battle of Mikatagahara, Shingen died in his camp in 1573, either due to illness or a war wound. After his death, the Takeda were largely destroyed by Nobunaga and Ieyasu at the battle of Tenmokuzan in 1582. However, Shingen's well-constructed system of administration, laws and taxes influenced later rulers, including Ieyasu himself.
Date Masamune (1567-1636) was born in Yonezawa Castle. He led his first campaign at the age of 14 and succeeded his father at 17, conquering much of what is now the Tohoku region in 1589. He joined Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the siege of Odawara in 1590 and, after Hideyoshi's unification of Japan, also participated in the failed campaigns in Korea.
After Hideyoshi's death in 1598, Masamune sided with Tokugawa Ieyasu, joining Ieyasu in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and again in the siege of Osaka in 1615. Ieyasu rewarded him with the Sendai estate, which has since been divided between Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures.
Masamune founded the city of Sendai in 1604, and in 1613 he sent the Western-style ship Date Maru (伊達丸), also called San Juan Bautista, to Mexico with the intention of sending a diplomatic envoy to the Pope in Rome. Respected for his ethics, Masamune is quoted as saying, "indulgent benevolence sinks into weakness."
Having lost the sight in his right eye to smallpox as a child, Masamune was known as the One-Eyed Dragon, or Dokuganryu (独眼竜). He was easily recognizable by the huge crescent moon on his helmet.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598). Son of a simple infantryman from Owari province, he joined the Oda clan as an infantryman in 1558. He was one of the sandal bearers of Oda Nobunaga at the battle of Okehazama, where Nobunaga defeated Imagawa Yoshimoto to become the dominant power in Owari.
Hideyoshi then repaired Sunomata castle in Mino province to support Nobunaga's siege of Inabayama castle, which Hideyoshi facilitated the victory by bribing Mino samurai to desert or change sides. Nicknamed Kozaru, or "little monkey", because of his facial features and slim appearance, he quickly became one of Nobunaga's most distinguished generals.
Hideyoshi became daimyo of part of Omi province after helping to conquer the Azai clan area, and in 1576 Nobunaga sent him to Himeji Castle to confront the Mori clan and conquer western Japan. After Nobunaga was betrayed and forced to commit suicide by Akechi Mitsuhide in 1582, Hideyoshi annihilated the Akechi forces at the battle of Yamazaki, and then supported Oda Hidenobu to succeed Nobunaga. Although the Oda general-in-chief, Shibata Katsuie, opposed him, his defeat by Hideyoshi at the battle of Shizugatake in 1583 made this former sandal-wearer the warlord of all Oda forces.
Before his death, Oda Nobunaga had already conquered the southern half of mainland Japan and Hideyoshi seized the large islands of Shikoku and Kyushu. In 1587 Hideyoshi banished the Christian missionaries who had begun to make incursions into Kyushu, and while Nobunaga had welcomed such missionaries to counter the troublesome influence of the warrior monks, Hideyoshi continued to crucify 26 Christian missionaries and converts.
In 1590, the fall of the Hojo clan at the Siege of Odawara finally ended the Warring States period (1467-1590). Hideyoshi then turned his attention to Ming China, which he hoped to conquer through Korea. However, two battles in 1592 and 1597 put an end to such ambitions. Hideyoshi himself did not survive to carry out the second campaign, as he died in September 1598 with his troops still abroad.
In addition to being a ruthless warlord and shrewd negotiator, Hideyoshi was a fan of the tea ceremony - although at one point he ordered his tea master to commit suicide - and he also enjoyed performing in Noh plays, forcing his daimyo to join him on stage as the main characters. He also reformed the class system, forbidding commoners (like himself) to take up arms, and implemented strict internal controls on migration, thus laying the foundation for the social structure over which Tokugawa Ieyasu would eventually rule.
Although he is best known for the shogunate that took his name, the first Tokugawa shogun was equal parts warrior and cold-blooded strategist. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) was the son of the daimyo of Mikawa province. At the age of 5, he was kidnapped by the Oda clan and held hostage for political influence in Nagoya. At the age of 6, his father was murdered by his vassals, who had been paid by the Oda. At the age of 9, after the sudden death of the Oda patriarch, Oda Nobunaga agreed that Ieyasu be transferred to Sunpu, where he then lived as a hostage of the Imagawa clan until the age of 13 when he joined the Imagawa in their fight against the Oda.
After the Imagawa leader Yoshimoto was killed in a surprise attack by Nobunaga, Ieyasu decided to switch sides and join the Oda. His soldiers were part of the force that took Kyoto under Nobunaga in 1568. He allied with Takeda Shingen to take over the province of Suruga, then teamed up with Uesugi Kenshin to turn against his former ally.
When Hideyoshi died in 1598, Ieyasu was one of five elders chosen to administer the newly unified country until his five-year-old son Hideyori came of age.
In 1603, at the age of 60, Ieyasu received the title of shogun from Emperor Go-Yozei. He built his capital in Edo (now Tokyo) on the land he had won from the Hojo, thus beginning the Edo period (1603-1868) of Japanese history.
Ieyasu died in 1616 at the age of 73. It is also interesting to note that one of the most famous vassals of Ieyasu was the ninja Hattori Hanzo who I will tell you about in another article.
If Miyamoto Musashi is perhaps the most internationally known "samurai", Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) is the most respected in Japan. In addition to being a superb warrior and strategist, Nobunaga was responsible for setting in motion the chain of events that would reunify the nation and end the Warring States period.
Nobunaga was born into a family that owned property in Owari province, and after his father's death in 1551, he united his clan and took control of all of Owari around 1559. He then defeated his main rival Imagawa Yoshimoto.
At the request of Ashikaga Yoshiaki, Nobunaga then went to Kyoto in 1568 to install Yoshiaki as the new shogun, Nobunaga hoped to use him as a ruler at will. However, as Nobunaga's power grew, strong forces began to unite against him. He wiped out the opposing warrior monks of Mount Hiei in 1571, besieged the Ikko-ikki peasants and warrior monks at Nagashima and Ishiyama Hongan-ji, and when Shogun Yoshiaki raised his own forces against his former ally, Nobunaga defeated them and sent Yoshiaki into exile, thus ending the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1573.
Nobunaga also crushed the Asakura clan in Echizen province and the Azai clan in Omi province in 1573, and after Tokugawa Ieyasu withstood the onslaught of the Takeda forces in Mikawa province, the two joined forces to defeat the Takeda clan in the battle of Nagashino in 1575.
Through his own strategies and the work of his allies and vassals, Nobunaga succeeded in bringing the southern half of mainland Japan under his control, thus creating the basis for the reunification of the nation. After Nobunaga's betrayal and death at Honno-ji temple in 1582, Toyotomi Hideyoshi continued to complete what his leader had begun.
While Hideyoshi and Ieyasu reaped the fruits of conquest, Nobunaga is considered the greatest warrior of the three.
Of the Three Great Unificationists of Japan, it is said, "Nobunaga pounded the rice cake, Hideyoshi kneaded it, and Ieyasu sat down and ate it."
In the few hundred years that they existed as Japan's most dominant warriors, a select few generated a legend greater than any man could ever hope to achieve. We still marvel centuries after the height of their reign at the innovations in warfare and politics that sprang from the minds and hearts of a warrior class like no other.
If you enjoyed this article and you particularly like samurais and what comes from them, don't hesitate to fill this passion by going to see the Traditional Japanese Swords and the Japanese paintings !