Secrets of the Samurai: Five Surprising Facts

Samurai during the Boshin War period 1860s, via Wikimedia Commons
Samurai during the Boshin War period (1860s), via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, we launched our new Kyoto family program, a scholar-led walking tour designed for families traveling with children under 12. There’s no better way to get the entire family engaged with Japanese history and culture than our World of the Warrior tour, which covers the culture, history, and spirit of the ancient samurai. To whet your appetite, which compiled a list of five intriguing secrets of the iconic samurai. Learn even more about Japan’s legendary warriors on our Kyoto family tour.

1. There were women, too.
Samurai were part of the  warrior social class in feudal Japan. Though the term samurai is strictly male, there were also female warriors, called onna-bugeisha. The katana is the most widely-recognized samurai sword, but onna-bugeisha often used the naginata, a pole weapon with a curved blade.

2. There were foreign samurai.
Warriors were considered upper class in ancient Japan and, as it was, and remains, one of the world’s least ethnically diverse countries, you can imagine what an honor it was for foreigners to be made a samurai. There were four known foreign samurai, including William Adams and his shipmate Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, believed to be the first Englishman and Dutchman, respectively, to arrive in Japan.

Woodblock print of Empress Jingu by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1880), via Wikimedia Commons
Woodblock print of Empress Jingu by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1880), via Wikimedia Commons

3. They were an entire social class
The samurai were no small armed force. While the term samurai was originally used to note those warriors who were noblemen, it ultimately came to represent the upper-level warrior class. Samurai were generally very well-educated and were highly literate in kanji, the Chinese characters adopted by Japan.

4. Samurai named their swords.
Believing that their swords embodied their warrior spirit, samurai treated them as you could a prized possession. So devoted were they to their weapons that they often named them.

5. Some warriors were also Zen Buddhists.
How is it that someone who is trained to kill can be a practicing Buddhist? Zen Buddhism teaches the importance of looking forward and of being self-reliantboth elements of bushido (the way of the warrior) as well as the importance of clearing your mind.

During this two-hour family program, in the company one of our Kyoto scholars, kids and parents will learn just what it meant to be a samurai in Feudal Japan. Moving from the enormous temple Daitoku-ji to the 400-year-old Nijo Castle, we’ll discover together the way that these brave warriors once ruled Japan, and how they remain important even today. To better understand the samurai culture, join us for an exciting trip back in time to the World of the Warrior.