Top 10 common misconceptions about samurai, cartoon warriors

They are warriors who have harbored a host of fantasies for many years, often caricatured and transformed into Hollywood films or literature. But the samurai weren’t just warriors who thrashed their swords to kill everyone and drink sake all night. We will therefore break some received ideas right away in order to see a little more clearly.

1. Samurai were simple soldiers

Well no, samurai was just a name for soldiers, it was also not a rank of the Japanese army. Samurai was a social class in its own right. If the bushi (the warrior) is indeed a military status, initially the samurai was the one who served the nobility. It was a prestigious and respected status that at its height accounted for almost 10% of Japan’s population.

2. Samurai were nobles

Another received idea would like that if they were not simple soldiers then they were all noble, which is false. Unlike our knights who were generally lords and didn’t wash every day, samurai weren’t necessarily noble. The word “samurai” meaning “one who serves” gives you an indication, and if there were many nobles who were samurai it was not a norm at all.

3. Samurai were mercenaries

Another false information, the samurais were not “swords for rent” to the highest bidder, they generally served a master and obeyed him. However some could also change sides, they were not slaves but people free to make choices and they were not all honorable and sympathetic.

4. Samurai all fought with katanas

The samurai’s combat education was extremely varied, and if most had a complete education which taught them to use several weapons, some “specialized” with the sabre, others the bow or the spear. They were therefore not all katana experts and some even used firearms (muskets) in the earliest period of the class’s existence.

5. Samurai were all men

Fake. If the women were generally not bushis in the service of a lord, they could have an education just as complete as the young boys. They were taught the handling of several weapons (spear, sword, bow) which were part of the arsenal of male samurai. When the warrior left his house, the woman or the girl were the guardians.

6. Samurai defended the oppressed

We tend to angelize the samurai a bit, but they weren’t superheroes. We can sometimes present them in this way but since they represented almost 10% of the population during the Sengoku era of Japan, you can easily imagine that everyone there was not only made up of virtuous and honorable people, especially since they very often obeyed their masters who were not just good people either.

Top 10 common misconceptions about samurai cartoon warriors
Photo credits (Public Domain): Gaspard-Felix Tournachon (1820-1910). Nadar Workshop. Paris 1862.

7. Samurai were loyal unto death

Of course there are heroic and honorable cases of devoted samurai committing seppuku (ritual suicide) as you were shown in the Samurai Facts. This is for example the case of the 47 ronins, true warriors who avenged the death of their master and agreed to commit suicide to pay the price, but not all samurai were so loyal. On the contrary, several historical examples show rebellions against their masters, such as the battle of Sekigahara (1600) where samurai changed sides in the middle of a fight to reverse the trend.

8. Samurai were uneducated

Do not think that the samurai were illiterate who only knew how to draw their swords to fight. Their teaching went through the learning and reading of many texts, which made them very cultured, reasoned and well-educated people. It was through this mode of learning that they absorbed wisdom rather than culture: they had to live the teaching and not just read it. On the other hand, some practiced various art forms, such as the art of haiku, calligraphy or painting.

9. Samurai never gave up a fight

This is also false. Written evidence records several examples of battles where samurai retreated or fled the fight when the going got tough. So forget the tireless warriors who accept their fate, they were clearly not all like that.

10. Samurai invented samurai sauce

Absolutely not. Anyway, I haven’t checked, but it would seem really weird to me that they were the ones who invented it, especially since I don’t see them eating kebabs too much on the battlefield.

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