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Samurai


The samurai (from the word "one who serves") formed a military class during the Tokugawa era (1603-1878). They represented approximately 5-6% of the population and acted under the orders of a shogun, daimyo or other military chief.

There were before warriors formerly called "bushi", created from the 8th century by large families to protect their land and who were able to rule Japan from 1185 until the Meiji era (1868).

Samurai in armor
Samurai in armor

Because the Tokugawa era was a time of enforced peace, the samurai exerted not only as military and police, but also as bureaucrats and collector of taxes in rice from the daimyo's vassals.

They acted not as mercenaries and had a close relationship with their master, which was guided by a code of ethics and strict fidelity called Bushido (written in the 17th century), a continuation of the oral code of bushi. In case of dishonor, a samurai could regain his honor by practicing seppuku, a ritual suicide committed by slashing the abdomen with a sword.

They carried two swords, one long (katana) and a lower (wakizashi). This privilege was known as daisho because the rest of the Japanese population was forbidden to carry swords. However, a samurai could use a bigger arsenal of weapons, such as blades, bow and arrows, and arquebus.

The status of samurai was transmitted hereditarily. The son of a samurai must complied a rigorous training which included horse riding, saber handling, archery, along with Jiu-Jitsu or Jujutsu (which was around at this time in Japan the only unarmed martial art), in addition to learning scripture, literature, zen and Buddhist concepts.

The name given to the child often represented the association of various Kanji (parent or grandparent, or a new one). Divorces were perceived negatively and very rare. The practice of homosexuality was encouraged as a way to maintain the virility (shudo).

A samurai without a lord was called ronin and was considered an outcast. This happened in the case of death of his master or if he committed a foul.

The most famous samurai was Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1685), a ronin creator of a fighting style with two swords called Niten Ichi Ryu (or Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu Kenjutsu) and author of the treaty on martial-arts known as the "Book of Five Rings". He has never been defeated in a duel, despite having faced over sixty opponents, sometimes more than one simultaneously.

Armor

The armor worn by the samurai was laminar. It was made through the joint of metal scales on a small plate, lacquered then to become waterproof. These small plates were attached with leather straps, each covering slightly the next board. Helmets, called kabuto, were made of metal plates fastened with rivets.

The samurai armor could be composed of eight elements:

Helmet - kabuto
Mask - mengu
Armor of the bust - do
Shoulder protectors - sode
Sleeve armor, used only in the left arm, leaving the right arm free to use the bow - kote
Skirt - kusazuri
Lower skirt - haidate
Leggings- suneate

Samurai, unlike bushi, wore armor only during ceremonial purposes. In the remainder, they used kimonos.



The Meiji Restoration in 1868 marks the end of the Tokugawa era, with the shogunate losing its power back to the Emperor, then only a symbolic figure. A 1876 law banned the use of sword by the samurai, which would then be replaced by an army of reservists.

Despite a last rebellion of some most conservative samurai in 1877, most joined the new government providing an important part of politicians and businessmen.

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