Japanese samurai weapons


The bow and arrow is the oldest of all samurai bujutsu, “martial skill.” Generally known as “Shagei,” archery was once considered the chief skill of the early samurai warrior. Whether trained on mounted horse, “Kyuba No Michi,” or standing, archery was an art that was practiced by court nobles and the military class. To the court nobles, they referred to the way of the bow and arrow as “Kyudo” while the warrior class referred to it as “Kyujutsu,” which emphasizes the technique of using the bow in actual warfare. The aristocrats of Japanese society concentrated on the ceremonial aspect of archery, the seeking of mental calm and discipline of spiritual development that could be traced to Zen Buddhist studies and philosophy.



The Japanese warrior class dominated military affairs, politics, and civilian culture from the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate in 1185 until the end of the Edo period in 1868. During this nearly 700-year period, warriors controlled Japan’s government, promulgated a military code of behavior, and fostered distinctive art forms that memorialized soldierly virtues and exploits. Warrior involvement in court affairs increased as government officials, aristocrats, and religious institutions relied on military bands to enforce order in the provinces. Military rule fostered advances in weapons technology and battle tactics, as well as innovations in fortifications. Martial values including a strict code of conduct and a pledge to attain honor in both life and death distinguished Japanese warriors and fueled transformations in feudal religion, philosophy, and lifestyles. Warrior patronage resulted in revitalization of visual and performing art forms. Military ideals captured in colorful tales of heroic battles and other accomplishments immortalized leaders and inspired future soldiers.

Traditionally, the medieval Japanese warrior symbolized rigor and austerity in contrast with the indulgent, courtly ideals of the Heian period. Naturally, soldiers honed their military skills, yet the warrior classes also pursued civilian arts long linked with aristocratic refinement. Recent scholarship has noted persistent court influence in the era of military government, which may have spurred warriors to cultivate elite art forms. Further, warriors required cultural and literary knowledge in order to function as successful leaders. Many authorities now question the longstanding notion that the aristocrats and the warrior class were diametrically opposed, citing instead numerous parallels between nobles who pursued military training and professional warriors who refined their abilities in the civilian arts. Ultimately, even though aristocrats cultivated military skills, they remained unable to prevail in martial training. Meanwhile, by the Edo period, members of the samurai class gradually achieved mastery of literary traditions and administrative procedures, accomplishments that had long been considered critical resources for statesmen.

The term samurai is used to describe professionals employed for their martial skills. However, this word does not indicate a specific rank, nor does it describe the social status of a military retainer. Readers are advised that the function and socioeconomic rank of samurai fluctuated a great deal during the medieval and early modern epochs. An armed warrior of a particular era might lack some accomplishments or aspects of samurai behavior considered below. Still, the martial training and ethical codes essential to soldiers remained relatively consistent (at least in principle) throughout the feudal era in Japan, and therefore merit close examination as a unifying component of military culture. This  explores the philosophy and training required of an exemplary warrior, followed by investigations of army structure, military arts, weapons, armor, battle strategies, and key battles. The following section provides a historical overview of samurai origins and related developments in medieval and early modern Japan.


The rebellion of Taira Masakado provides us with an early example of samurai warfare at a time when many of the traditions later to be associated with the samurai were only just beginning to be formulated. The most important of these traditions, and the most relevant to the command of samurai, was the emphasis on the samurai as a mounted archer. The `Way of the Warrior’, enshrined many centuries later as the notion of bushido, was expressed in these times either as kyuba no michi (the way of the horse and the bow) or kyusen no michi (the way of the bow and arrow). Later literature and advances in technology would provide us with the idea of `the sword as the soul of the samurai’, but during the tenth century the bow was the samurai weapon par excellence. There is a curious confirmation of the relative attitudes towards swords and bows contained in one of the other stories of warriors that make up the Konjaku Monogatari collection. One night a certain Tachibana Norimitsu was attacked by some robbers when he was armed only with a sword: `Norimitsu crouched down and looked around, but as he could not see any sign of a bow but only a great glittering sword, he thought with relief, “It’s not a bow, at any rate”.’

The primacy of the mounted archer role over that of swordsman was reflected in the costume and equipment worn by the samurai of Masakado’s time. Although clumsy when fighting on foot, the box-like yoroi style of armour made the mounted warrior into a well-protected, if somewhat inflexible, `gun platform’. In marked contrast to the chain mail that constituted the styles of armour worn on the other side of the world during the tenth century, the samurai’s armour reflected its Asiatic origin in being composed of small scales laced together to make a strong but flexible composite plate. The armour scales were either of iron or of leather, combined in a pattern that concentrated the iron scales in areas where the most vital protection was needed. Horizontal rows of these scales were firmly laced together then lacquered as a protection against the weather. A set of these rows was then assembled to make the particular armour plate, the overall shape depending on which area of the body the section was to be worn. Thus the sode (shoulder plates) were large, almost square, constructions, while the kusazuri (skirt pieces) of the do (body armour) were trapezoidal in shape. The horizontal sections of the armour plates were joined together by means of vertical rows of thick silk cords, the colour and design of which gave the yoroi its instantly recognizable and attractive appearance.

As time went by, the more astute daimyo came to several conclusions concerning the ashigaru in their service. While some continued to accept into their armies a loose and uncertain rabble, others began to ask questions about both quantity and quality, and the first conclusion was that men casually recruited could just as casually disappear to till the fields and swell the armies of an enemy. The second point was an appreciation that the use of an unorganized band of untrained peasants attracted only by personal gain was not conducive to the need to fight in disciplined groups and wield increasingly sophisticated weapons. There was therefore a need for continuity, for development of skills, and above all for the inculcation of at least a little of that fanatical loyalty that was already expected from the samurai. Both these trends developed as the Sengoku period continued, with battles, sieges and campaigns growing larger in scale. The final conclusion was a recognition that, although the ashigaru were different from samurai, their fighting skills could be complementary. In other words, the successful samurai commander of the Sengoku period was one who took ashigaru seriously, and used them in a combination of arms, controlled, trained and drilled by samurai, but recognized and valued for the contribution they could make in the achievement of victory.

This practice of using foot solders as missile troops, and the additional growing trend towards large armies, resulted in the most important change in cavalry tactics in the whole of samurai history. Somehow the samurai horseman had to hit back, needing to use his mobility and striking power to provide the shock of a charge against the opposing ashigaru. The problem was that a samurai carried a bow, which was an encumbrance in hand-to-hand fighting, and even if the bow was given to an attendant, swords were of limited use from the saddle. So, in a dramatic change to established practice, the bow was abandoned in favour of the spear, and the mounted archer gave way to the mounted spearman. Some mounted archers were still retained, operating as mobile sharpshooters, but the majority of samurai now carried spears fitted with blades that were every bit as sharp as their swords. Some samurai preferred short spear blades, while others liked long ones. Some spears were fitted with crossblades to pull an opponent from his saddle, but all would be protected from the weather when not in use by a lacquered wooden scabbard. Yabusame was replaced by spear techniques from the saddle, and for the first time in Japanese history a samurai army could deliver something that could be recognized as a cavalry charge.

This pattern of warfare was to continue up to the time when firearms became common in samurai armies.


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