Samurai (侍) were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan from the late 12th century until their abolition in 1876. They were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo (the great feudal landholders). They had high prestige and special privileges such as wearing two swords and Kiri-sutegomen (right to kill anyone of a lower class in certain situation). They cultivated the bushido codes of martial virtues, indifference to pain, and unflinching loyalty, engaging in many local battles.
Though they had predecessors in earlier military and administrative officers, the samurai truly emerged during the Kamakura shogunate, ruling from c.1185 to 1333. They became the ruling political class, with significant power but also significant responsibility. During the 13th century, the samurai proved themselves as adept warriors against the invading Mongols. During the peaceful Edo era (1603 to 1868), they became the stewards and chamberlains of the daimyo estates, gaining managerial experience and education. In the 1870s, samurai families comprised 5% of the population. As modern militaries emerged in the 19th century, the samurai were rendered increasingly obsolete and very expensive to maintain compared to the average conscript soldier. The Meiji Restoration ended their feudal roles, and they moved into professional and entrepreneurial roles. Their memory and weaponry remain prominent in Japanese popular culture.
In December 1547, Francis was in Malacca (Malaysia) waiting to return to Goa (India) when he met a low-ranked samurai named Anjiro (possibly spelled "Yajiro"). Anjiro was not an intellectual, but he impressed Xavier because he took careful notes of everything he said in church. Xavier made the decision to go to Japan in part because this low-ranking samurai convinced him in Portuguese that the Japanese people were highly educated and eager to learn. They were hard workers and respectful of authority. In their laws and customs they were led by reason, and, should the Christian faith convince them of its truth, they would accept it en masse.
By the 12th century, upper-class samurai were highly literate because of the general introduction of Confucianism from China during the 7th to 9th centuries and in response to their perceived need to deal with the imperial court, who had a monopoly on culture and literacy for most of the Heian period. As a result, they aspired to the more cultured abilities of the nobility.
Plenty of warrior writings document this ideal from the 13th century onward. Most warriors aspired to or followed this ideal otherwise there would have been no cohesion in the samurai armies.
As aristocrats for centuries, samurai developed their own cultures that influenced Japanese culture as a whole. The culture associated with the samurai such as the tea ceremony, monochrome ink painting, rock gardens and poetry was adopted by warrior patrons throughout the centuries 1200–1600. These practices were adapted from the Chinese arts. Zen monks introduced them to Japan and they were allowed to flourish due to the interest of powerful warrior elites. MusōSoseki (1275–1351) was a Zen monk who was advisor to both Emperor Go-Daigo and General Ashikaga Takauji (1304–58). Musō, as well as other monks, served as a political and cultural diplomat between Japan and China. Musō was particularly well known for his garden design. Another Ashikaga patron of the arts was Yoshimasa. His cultural advisor, the Zen monk Zeami, introduced the tea ceremony to him. Previously, tea had been used primarily for Buddhist monks to stay awake during meditation.
· Japanese swords are the weapons that have come to be synonymous with the samurai. Chokutō, swords from the Nara period, featured a straight blade. By 900, curved tachi appeared, and ultimately the katana. Smaller commonly known companion swords are the wakizashi and the tantō. Wearing a long sword (katana or tachi) together with a smaller sword became the symbol of the samurai, and this combination of swords is referred to as a daishō (literally "big and small"). During the Edo period only samurai were allowed to wear a daisho. A longer blade known as the nodachi was also used in the fourteenth century, though primarily used by samurai on the ground.
· The yumi (longbow), reflected in the art of kyūjutsu (lit. the skill of the bow) was a major weapon of the Japanese military. Its usage declined with the introduction of the tanegashima (Japanese matchlock) during the Sengoku period, but the skill was still practiced at least for sport. The yumi, an asymmetric composite bow made from bamboo, wood, rattan and leather, had an effective range of 50 or 100 meters (160 or 330 feet) if accuracy was not an issue. On foot, it was usually used behind a tate (手盾), a large, mobile wooden shield, but the yumi could also be used from horseback because of its asymmetric shape. The practice of shooting from horseback became a Shinto ceremony known as yabusame (流鏑馬).
· Pole weapons including the yari (spear) and naginata were commonly used by the samurai. The yari displaced the naginata from the battlefield as personal bravery became less of a factor and battles became more organized around massed, inexpensive foot troops (ashigaru). A charge, mounted or dismounted, was also more effective when using a spear rather than a sword, as it offered better than even odds against a samurai using a sword. In the Battle of Shizugatake where Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, seven samurai who came to be known as the "Seven Spears of Shizugatake" (賤ヶ岳七本槍) played a crucial role in the victory.
During the existence of the samurai, two opposite types of organization reigned. The first type were recruits-based armies: at the beginning, during the Nara period, samurai armies relied on armies of Chinese-type recruits and towards the end in infantry units composed of ashigaru. The second type of organization was that of a samurai on horseback who fought individually or in small groups.
At the beginning of the contest, a series of bulbous-headed arrows were shot, which buzzed in the air. The purpose of these shots was to call the kami to witness the displays of courage that were about to unfold. After a brief exchange of arrows between the two sides, a contest called ikkiuchi (一騎討ち) was developed, where great rivals on both sides faced each other. After these individual combats, the major combats were given way, usually sending infantry troops led by samurai on horseback. At the beginning of the samurai battles, it was an honor to be the first to enter battle. This changed in the Sengoku period with the introduction of the arquebus. At the beginning of the use of firearms, the combat methodology was as follows: at the beginning an exchange of arquebus shots was made at a distance of approximately 100 meters; when the time was right, the ashigaru spearmen were ordered to advance and finally the samurai would attack, either on foot or on horseback. The army chief would sit in a scissor chair inside a semi-open tent called maku, which exhibited its respective mon and represented the bakufu, "government from the maku."
In the middle of the contest, some samurai decided to get off the horse and seek to cut off the head of a worthy rival. This act was considered an honor. In addition, through it they gained respect among the military class. After the battle, the high-ranking samurai normally celebrated the tea ceremony, and the victorious general reviewed the heads of the most important members of the enemy which had been cut.
Most of the battles were not resolved in the manner so idealist exposed above, but most wars were won through surprise attacks, such as night raids, fires, etc. The renowned samurai Minamoto no Tametomo said:
Each child who grew up in a samurai family was expected to be a warrior when he grew up, so much of his childhood was spent practicing different martial arts. A complete samurai should be skilled at least in the use of the sword (kenjutsu), the bow and arrow (kyujutsu), the spear (sojutsu, yarijutsu), the halberd (naginatajutsu) and subsequently the use of firearms (houjutsu). Similarly, they were instructed in the use of these weapons while riding a horse. They were also expected to know how to swim and dive.
Nihon Eiho (日本泳法, Japanese swimming style) originates from the Sengoku period in the 15th century. The samurai developed Suijutsu (水術, (combat) water skills) which was useful in case they were thrown overboard during naval conflicts. The samurai practiced Katchugozenoyogi (甲冑御前游, full armor swimming), Tachi-oyogi (立ち泳ぎ, standing swimming) and Ina-tobi (鯔飛, flying mullet) to board enemy vessels. Activities included strokes with swords, bows and firearms. Hands were kept dry above the water to write messages with an ink brush on a paper scroll. This skill was useful for muskets which require dry gunpowder. Nihon Eiho is practiced by 28 schools and recognized by the Japan Swimming Federation.
During the feudal era of Japan, various types of martial arts flourished, known in Japanese under the name of bujutsu (武術). The term jutsu can be translated as "method", "art" or "technique" and the name that each one has is indicative of the mode or weapon with which they are executed. The combat methods that were developed and perfected are very diverse, among which are: Today martial arts are classified in koryūbudō or classical martial arts, before the 19th century, and to the modernization of Japan. Modern traditional martial arts are called gendaibudō.