Things You May Wonder about the Samurai

Are there still samurais in Japan?
Not really. Although more than 5% of Japanese population can trace their lineage to the samurai families, they are ordinary citizens with ordinary jobs who don’t carry a sword and who don’t know how to use a sword. They also never brag about having the samurai blood because in today’s society it’s been considered a bit irrelevant. In 1870s the han system (the feudal clan system) was abolished, and the ken (the local government system) was installed. The annual salary of the samurai (3 tons of rice) were suspended, their land was confiscated and they were prohibited from carrying arms and armors. Therefore, the samurais lost their jobs and tried to find new jobs. Some become office workers, bankers, military or police officers

How can you become a Samurai?
In the Edo era, samurai’s life was ruled by the shogunate, therefore the only way to become a samurai was to be born in the samurai family, adopted by a samurai family with a permission of authorities or get married with a samurai.
However, in the warring states period, some talented peasants eventually became samurais. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned the peasants from carrying swords in 1590s, it was almost impossible for someone to become a samurai.

How did the samurai armies fight?
The samurai armies did not have one big group. The army consisted of multiple sonae (regimen) consisting of 300~800 warriors. Within each sonae there were several “kumi,” a group consisted of about 20~30 men. The whole army was led by So-Daisho (daimyo), the sonaes were led by samurai taisho, the ashigaru (foot soldiers) were led by ashigaru taisho, kumis were led by kumi gashira. Each sonae had ashigaru archers and arquebusiers on the front line followed by ashigaru spearmen, followed by low ranking samurai and followed by mounted high ranking samurai.
The war used to start by ashigarus shooting arrows followed by the pikemen ashigarus slowly advancing towards the enemy. The samurai then used to attack the rival forces and their actions used to determine the result of the war. The daimyo led the war from all the way back giving the commands to the regiments communicated by the men called gunkan.

Were there female samurais?
Yes! If you were female born in the Samurai family, with no male heir or your relatives had no ability to be a samurai, then you needed to rule the family and serve for your masters. Additionally when a samurai died in the batte field his wife must have protected the household which required strength and training. It so said, about 5% of warrior were female in the warring age. There are also many famous female samurais such as Tomoe Gozen who fought in the Genpei War (1180~85). The legend goes that she was so strong that she could battle against 1000 men alone. Most Japanese are familiar with the white-skinned brave fighter Tomoe Gozen.

Why does the samurai mask have a mustache?
If you were born in the samurai family, you became samurai when you were around 13 years old. Once you become samurai, you were sent to the battle field, if you did not have any face cover, the opponents could easily recognize you as an unskilled warrior. To prevent this happening, the samurai wore masks and intimidated their opponents.

What were the weapons of the samurai?
The first samurai were the mounted archers, the bow and arch were very important for the samurai though they were mostly used for hunting in the past 400 years. When a baby samurai was born he was given a small bow and arrow to convay wish for the health and success of the baby boy. The asymmetric (so that the samurai can shoot by kneeling) Japanese bow is known to be the longest in the world.
The katana was the most important tool for the samurai but it was more commonly used during the Edo period since it is not designed for dueling. The rifles were heavily used during the warring states period but mostly by the foot soldiers (ashigaru). Not because it is dishonorable to kill the enemy from the distance, but because it does not require much training unlike the katana. So that job was given to the ashigaru. The cannons were commonly used during the sieges of Osaka Castle and Shimabara.

How did the samurai train?
Once you were born in the Samurai family, you held a wooden sword in your both hands before you have chop sticks and needed to practice sword fighting from the early childhood. When you become 5 years old, you needed to practice sword fighting with other children in the clan taught by sword masters or someone in your family members. The samurai kids were given real wakizashi around the age of 7 and sent to live in a sword master’s house around the age of 9. Samurai boys were sent to the battle field at the early age of 13. Samurai did not practice any of the modern martial arts (karate, judo, etc.). Their practice is most similar to kendo or iado (sword fighting by using bokken).

Why did not the shogun kill the emperor?
Emperor was considered to be the son of a god who can communicate with many gods. If Shogun wanted to change or kill the emperor, he needed to find someone else to become the new emperor. Shogun could not have become an emperor even if he killed emperor. Because, the shogun was not an Emperor but a military leader.

Were the samurai best warriors in the world?
The last war the samurai got involved was fought 420 years ago (The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600) and the last armed conflict took place about 380 years ago (the Shimabara rebellion in 1639). Being a samurai was more about the honor and the principles, not necessarily the fighting ability. The most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, was actually a ronin, a low level samurai. Contrary to the common view, the samurai actually did not usually fight in the front rows, in the front rows there were foot soldiers “ashigaru” (who usually carried the rifles after 1550s). Behind them there was a different level of foot soliders who carried very long spikes. Behind them the cavalry, or the samurai who were mounted swordsmen. Contrary to the common belief, the katana was rarely used in the battles because it gets dents so easily and it cannot kill a samurai with an armor. Most of the time, the samurai threw stones at each other or used spears with spikes to pull the enemy from their horses. When the enemy lost the balance, then the samurai took out their dagger (tanto) or wakizashi to stab from the points that are not covered by the metal armors (belly, the corners of the torso, etc.).

Why did the samurai commit “seppuku” (harakiri)?
Although the word harakiri is in Japanese, the Japanese word for ritual suicide is seppuku. The samurai cut their belly off because they believed the spirit rested in the belly. Seppuku is done if a samurai is disgraced, heavily wounded or shamefully defeated. Since it is very painful, the samurai cannot cut the belly all the way; a few moments later another samurai (kaishakunin) who is standing behind finishes the job. There are two kinds of seppuku: the one where the samurai voluntarily commits the act and the one where he is charged with the seppuku (e.g. the case of 47 samurai). In the latter case, the samurai wears a white kimono, writes his death poem, gets his last meal where the last plate has a blade without a handle. After half way through, the kaishakunin chops the head but only 60% to make sure the samurai’s head does not roll on the floor (not honorable) or fly away and hit someone. At the end, it looks like the samurai is holding his head in his hands.

How did the Samurai fight with heavy helmets?
Samurai leaders or feudal lords wore decorative helmets that can weigh up to 10kg. These men stayed at the intrenchment, and gave commands. So that their men needed to recognize the leader from the distance. This was especially important in the battles where many rifles with heavy smoke were used. The actual warriors wore simple and lighter helmets.

Kyoto’s Samurai Spots

Genko-an Temple

At summer’s end in 1600, a castle fell. With his reduced garrison of three hundred samurai, Torii Mototada knew he didn’t stand a chance against the advancing wave of the Western Army, lead by Ishida Mitsunari. To the man everyone stationed at Fushimi Castle would die, but in doing so they would delay Mitsunari–just enough–so that Tokugawa Ieyasu and his Eastern Army could close the gap between them and crush this uprising once and for all. The sacrifice would be worth it.

The siege lasted twelve days. Fires broke out. The defenses fell. One by one the small garrison was cut down or committed suicide to avoid capture and dishonor. In the chaos, impressions of footprints, handprints, and faces were pressed in blood to the floorboards, memorializing the final hours of bravery of the warriors of Fushimi Castle.

Following the battle of Sekigahara which saw Mitsunari’s final defeat, Ieyasu ordered what could be salvaged from the burnt out ruins of the castle be brought to Kyoto. There, the blood stained floorboards were fixed to the ceilings of newly constructed temples to rest the spirits of the fallen samurai in peace. One such temples is Genko-an.

Genko-an was originally founded in 1346, however it has undergone significant renovations and restorations since then, and has a fresh, vibrant feel to it that is accentuated by its several wide terraces to the gardens outside. Two notable features at Genko-an are its round Window of Realization representing Zen maturity, completeness, and enlightenment, and the square Window of Delusion, representing confusion, ignorance , and samsara. The well-kept gardens are a delight to view at any time of year, showcasing Japan’s seasonal flora in all their spectacular beauty. Genko-an’s chitenjou can be viewed from the main hall. One can see footprints and handprints here in sobering clarity, reminding guests of the sacrifice of Mototada’s garrison that fell over four hundred years ago.

Genko-an was originally founded in 1346, however it has undergone significant renovations and restorations since then, and has a fresh, vibrant feel to it that is accentuated by its several wide terraces to the gardens outside. Two notable features at Genko-an are its round Window of Realization and enlightenment, and the square Window of Delusion.

Nijo Castle

Following his decisive victory over Mori Terumoto and the Western Army at Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu was eager to consolidate his power. As part of his plan to do this, he ordered the construction of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, not far from the Imperial Palace. Although Tokugawa operated out of Edo (present day Tokyo), the position of Nijo Castle in what was then the seat of the Imperial court was symbolic of his unification of the west and east of Japan. Tokugawa wouldn’t be officially recognized as shogun until 1603, however the construction of Nijo Castle from 1601 until its completion in 1626 is largely considered to be the starting point of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Nijo castle remained the central location of Tokugawa power in Kyoto until November 9, 1867 when the 15th Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu officially resigned and returned governing power to the Emperor, following a period of civil unrest in the Kansai region. Ironically, this makes Nijo Castle both the start and end points of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Today, Nijo Castle sits on 275,00 square meters of Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward. Having survived fire, flood, and lightning strike, as well as modernizing updates and building additions from other historic locations, Nijo Castle nonetheless retains much of its historic, picturesque beauty from its days as the palace of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Comprised of two concentric rings of fortifications, the castle boasts moats, gardens, towering parapets, opulent reception halls, and the famous chirping nightingale hallways designed to alert residents of potential intruders. Yearly cultural events are staged at Nijo Castle, including dazzling light ups of both sakura and momiji. Steeped in history, Niji Castle is a visually stunning destination for those looking for a quiet return to the days when shoguns ruled Japan.

Today, Nijo Castle sits on 275,00 square meters of Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward. Having survived fire, flood, and lightning strike, as well as modernizing updates and building additions from other historic locations, Nijo Castle nonetheless retains much of its historic, picturesque beauty from its days as the palace of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Honnoji Temple

It is early morning on June 21, 1582. The air is warm and slightly humid from the rains. The sun has not yet risen and under the cover of darkness an army surrounds Honno-ji, a small temple in central Kyoto. Inside sleeps Oda Nobunaga, warlord at the height of his power. With only three weakened enemy clans left to defeat before his goal of consolidated power is complete, Nobunaga rests easy. Unbeknownst to him, his enemy comes not from the Mori, Hojo, or Uesugi clans, but from his own army. Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Nobunaga’s generals, has chosen this night to betray his master. Caught off guard with only a small retainer and the bulk of his army suppressing rebellion elsewhere, Nobunaga’s fate is sealed. To avoid the dishonor and humiliation of having his head captured by a mutineer, Nobunaga orders his loyal servant Mori Ranmaru to burn the temple to the ground before committing suicide. The reasons for Mitsuhide’s betrayal are not altogether clear, but most historians agree that he harbored a grudge against Nobunaga for a combination of factors ranging from public humiliation to fears of exile. Mitsuhide did not profit off of his betrayal for long. He was defeated by Hashiba Hideyoshi at the battle of Yamazaki, and while fleeing was killed by bandits.

Today, Honno-ji sits near Kyoto Shinkyasho-mae Station, having been rebuilt several times following devastating fires. Its location in downtown Kyoto makes it an easy stopover for shoppers perusing Teramachi, or the Shijo shopping district. The small grounds are the site of several memorials, including one for Oda Nobunaga. For a small fee of 500 yen, guests can view items associated with the warlord, and pay their respects to a great figure in Japanese history themselves.

Enryakuji Temple

Enryaku-ji (延暦寺 Enryaku-ji) is a Tendai monastery located on Mount Hiei in Ōtsu, overlooking Kyoto. Mount Heiei is where the ninja tradition was born. In 1571, Oda Nobunaga burned the temple and hundreds of monks died during the raid. After the Enryakuji incidednt there was a big fight between the ninja and Oda Nobunaga in Iga.

Hachidai Jinja

In 1604, four years after his involvement in the battle of Sekigahara, Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan’s most famous swordsmen, challenged Yoshioka Seijuro, the head of the Yoshioka school of kenjitsu, to a duel. The Yoshioka school was one of the eight major kenjitsu schools called the Kyohachiryu, and defeating their head in a duel would cement Musashi’s legacy as one of the premier swordsmen in Japan. The duel was fought with wooden swords, and when Musashi struck Seijuro’s shoulder, breaking his arm, he was declared the winner. Seijuro later retired as the head of the school, leaving it in the hands of Yoshioka Denshichiro who quickly challenged Musashi to another duel, this time to the death. Musashi made short work of Denshichiro, killing him with a blow to the head with his wooden sword. This left the school in the hands of twelve year-old Yoshioka Matashichiro who likewise challenged Musashi to a duel, at night, outside of Hachida Jinja. Suspicious of the odd timing of the duel, Musashi arrived earlier than the appointed time and found Matashichiro surrounded by a small personal army bent on ambushing the swordsman. Having none of this, Musashi waited until an opportune moment to leap from his hiding place and run at the boy, cutting off his head. Surrounded by hostile swordsman, musketeers, and archers, Musashi drew his second sword and fled through the rice fields, cutting his way through with both blades. Thus, ni-ten ichiryu was born.

Hachidai Jinja sits in northern Kyoto’s Sakyo-ku ward, in the Ichijoji district. Its out of the way location scenically located at the base of a mountain with several other temples along the incline makes it a perfect destination for travelers looking to experience some of old Kyoto without the bustle of tourists. A piece of the Sagarimatsu, an ancient pine tree used as a waypoint for travellers in feudal Japan is preserved here. It was at this pine tree that Musashi defeated the Yoshioka school once and for all. Decedents of this pine are carefully cultivated near the original location, just down the street from Hachidai Jinja.

Hachidai Jinja sits in northern Kyoto’s Sakyo-ku ward, in the Ichijoji district. Its out of the way location scenically located at the base of a mountain with several other temples along the incline makes it a perfect destination for travelers looking to experience some of old Kyoto without the bustle of tourists.

Nanzenji Temple

During the 16th century there was a famous ninja whose name was Ishikawa Goemon. His philosophy was just like Robin Hood. However he was caught by the Shogun Toyotomi. He was boiled alive in a giant pot. The incident took place in front of the Nanzenji Temple in 1594.

Nanzenji Temple (南禅寺), whose spacious grounds are located at the base of Kyoto’s forested Higashiyama mountains, is one of the most important Zen temples in all of Japan.

Omiya Inn

The Tokugawa shogunate had fallen. A new era was dawning, not in small part thanks to Sakamoto Ryoma. But when one induces a monumental turn in history, one tends to make enemies. Though the pro-loyalists had succeeded in removing power from the shogunate, Tokugawa loyalist remained operative in Japan. On December 10, 1867, a group of assassins made their way to Omiya Inn where Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro were staying. Met at the door by Ryoma’s ex-sumo wrestler bodyguard, the assassin presented himself as an ordinary guest who wished to see the famed swordsman. When the bodyguard turned to see if his master was accepting guests, the assassin cut him down and the rest of his compatriots advanced on the upper floor where Ryoma was staying. Ryoma, hearing the noise but thinking little of it, was caught off guard. The room erupted into chaos. Lamps were overturned and the room was reduced to darkness. Both Ryoma and Nakaoka suffered fatal wounds from the altercations. Ryoma died that night, and Nakaoka followed two days later. The Shinsengumi, Tokugawa’s police force in the Gion district, were later implicated in the crime, and their leader, Kondo Isami was executed for it. An ex-member of another Tokugawa force, the Kyoto Mimawarigumi later confessed to the assassination. To this day, historians are unable to determine conclusively who, exactly, was responsible for Ryoma’s death.

The original Omiya Inn, the site of Ryoma’s assassination no longer exists. Its former location is marked by a memorial outside of a convenience store on Kawaramachi Dori, in downtown Kyoto.

Gesshin-in Temple

In 1867, Ito Kashitaro, a senior officer of the Shinsengumi broke off from the famous Kyoto Bakufu police force to form his own organization called The Guardians of the Imperial Tomb. This group withdrew to operate out of Gessin-In in southern Higashiyama. This new group was Imperialist in opposition to the Shinsengumi, and for their defection, they were hunted down and killed by the remaining Shinsengumi.

The exact details of the betrayal and the executions are unknown, however it is speculated that Saito Hajime, a captain of the Shinsengumi charged with routing out spies, was sent to infiltrate The Guardians of the Imperial Tomb. This however may be a conflation of his duties to ferret out spies within the Shinsengumi. Whether or not he was charged with spying on traitors is not within credible historical records.

Ryozen Museum of History

The Ryozen Museum of History is dedicated to the events and artifacts of the Bakumatsu–the end of the Bakufu period, which led to the Meiji Restoration. Located in the Gion district, the museum houses several artifacts from the period, as well as a gift shop selling Ryoma and Shinsengumi items.

Chion-in Temple

Located in Higashiyama-ku, Chion-in is a large temple complex dedicated to the Pure Land Buddhist sect. First established in 1234, it memorialized Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism. Chion-in houses several features unique to Japan, or otherwise interesting in nature.

Chion-in also boasts the famous nightingale floors. These chirping floorboards were meant to warn the Tokugawa shogunate when unwanted visitors were advancing in the night by rubbing two pieces of metal together when pressure was applied from above. Chion-in is also one of the locations where The Last Samurai was filmed. In the movie, the large stone steps and the grand, palatial architecture of the temple was meant to represent Edo castle.

Terada Inn

March 8, 1866 was a night of well-deserved rest for master swordsman Sakamoto Ryoma. A pro-loyalist, he had just helped negotiated an alliance between Choshu and Satsuma–two clans with a long history of rivalry. The alliance was a big step toward finally ending the Tokugawa shogunate and Ryoma was taking his rest at Terada Inn along with his friend Miyoshi Shinzo. Unfortunately, the local Fushmi bugyo caught wind of the fact that a high profile pro-loyalist was staying at the inn, and sent twenty armed assailants to arrest him. Ryoma was, however, not caught off guard and although the inn was a tight space for fighting so many people, Ryoma and Miyoshi managed to fight them back with pistol and sword, long enough for the pair to escape out of a back entrance only mildly injured.

The Terada Inn was no stranger to conflicts between the pro-loyalist and Bakufu factions. Four years earlier the inn was the stage for the failed plans of a pro-loyalist uprising that came to nothing after daimyo Shimazu Hisamitsu discovered and foiled the plot.Today the Terada Inn sits in the southern Fushimi ward of Kyoto. Although the wooden structure has been reconstructed, it still bears the marks of Ryoma’s battle against the Bakufu patrolmen in bullet holes and sword cuts. The inn also features several bits of Ryoma memorabilia for interested guests to view, as well as the stunning traditional Japanese interior that so wonderfully preserves the atmosphere of old Japanese inns.

Gojo Ohashi Bridge

In the latter years of the Heian period, as the legend goes, an immense warrior monk named Benkei stood upon Gojo Ohashi Bridge, challenging any passing swordsman to a duel. It was his goal to collect one thousand swords this way, and with his great height and incredible strength, he had won nine hundred ninety-nine battles and taken his rival’s swords each time. For his one thousandth battle, he challenged a young man named Minamoto Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune was an accomplished swordsman himself, and despite his young age and his relatively small size, he defeated Benkei on the bridge. Benkei then pledged himself to Yoshitsune, and followed him as a loyal retainer throughout his travels. When Yoshitsune joined with his brother Minamoto Yoritomo to defeat the rival Taira clan in the Genpei War, Benkei naturally fought at his side. However, Yoritomo soon grew jealous of his brother’s successes and Yoshitsune and Benkei were exiled, living their lives as pursued fugitives until they were eventually betrayed by Fujiwara no Yasuhira. Inside Fujiwara’s residence, Yoshitsune was forced to commit suicide, while on the bridge outside Benkei fought off hundreds of Yoritomo’s samurai. Retreating back at Benkei’s incredible prowess, Yoritomo’s forces launched a flurry of arrows at the lone monk and still the giant did not fall. After some time the samurai cautiously approached the arrow riddled warrior, only to discover the Benkei had died standing up. Yoshitsune’s head was captured and brought to his brother, ending the story of the famous pair of warriors.

While the actual fight between Benkei and Yoshitsune happened at the site of present day Matsubara Bridge, the event is nonetheless commemorated at present day Gojo Ohashi Bridge where a statue of the two swordsmen in battle stands. This current Gojo Ohashi Bridge was constructed in 1959, nearly eight hundred years after the Kamakura period was begun by the Minamoto victory in the Genpei War.

Ichiriki Chaya

In 1701, daimyoAsano Takumi-no-kami Naganori was appointed ambassador of envoys from the Imperial Court in Kyoto. His job was to receive official guests from Kyoto at Edo Castle on behalf of the then ruling shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. To help him in this task, Tokugawa also appointed Kira Kozuke-no-suke Yoshinaka as protocol official. Unfortunately, the relationship between Asano and Kira soon soured. On a day when Asano was scheduled to meet guests, he drew his sword on Kira in an attempt to kill him, following a spate of verbal insults directed at the daimyo. For this act of unsanctioned aggression, Asano was sentenced to commit suicide. Kira was permitted to go free without punishment. All of Asano’s lands were seized and the samurai he retained were dismissed, making them ronin–masterless swordsmen. Of these ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshi gathered forty-seven of his compatriots and withdrew to Kyoto to plot their revenge. The plot took two years to manifest. Conscious of the increased scrutiny that would be laid upon them after their master had been wronged, Oishi feigned repose at Ichiriki Chaya, a tea and geisha house in central Kyoto. There he drank, gambled and caroused until Kira let his guard down in 1703 enough for the forty-seven ronin to finally avenge Asano. Following their code of ethics, they turned themselves in for their crime shortly after, and were all sentenced to commit suicide on the same day.

Over three hundred years later, Ichiriki Chaya still stands in the Gion district of Kyoto. Its access is extremely exclusive however, and guests must have close ties to the house already established before being permitted to enter. For a limited time in 2006, at the request of the Kyoto City Tourist Association, a small number of foreign guests were permitted to enter without being chaperoned by established patrons. Entertainment at Ichiriki can be as much as $8,000 USD per night, making the tea house both economically and socially closed to most visitors.

Ikedaya Inn

In the dying days of the Edo period, characterized by brutal conflicts between the Bakufu and pro-Imperial loyalists, Emperor Komei sought a peaceful reunification via an alliance between the Imperial Court and the Tokugawa Shogunate. The peaceful resolution to a centuries old conflict was an idealistic and overly ambitious goal for a nation weakened by factitious civil conflicts and pressed by foreign interests. In Kyoto, the Bakufu’s elite police force, the Shinsengumi, fought to contain numerous plots and treasons from bands of roninacting out vengeful aggressions and assassinations. One such incident took place at the Ikedaya Inn. Following the arrest of Shintaro Furutaka, samurai formerly employed by the Choshu and Tosa han gathered at the inn to plot a mass arson in Kyoto, starting with the Imperial Palace. Through historically disputed interrogation techniques, the Shinsengumi were able to extract this information from Shintaro and staged a raid against the pro-Imperial loyalists at Ikedaya Inn. Eight shishi were killed and twenty-three were arrested in the raid. It’s worth noting that the shishi claimed they were only plotting how to rescue Shintaro from the Shinsengumi, but historians are divided on all accounts of intent and method by both the shishi and the Shinsengumi.

The place where the pro-Imperial loyalists were hiding and were caught. Eight shishi were killed and twenty-three were arrested in the raid.

Nijo Jinya

Many ninja also lived near Nijo castle. One of the famous ninja buildings was Nijo-jinya. This house was also used as an inn and a center where people traded rice. The house has an architecture that is convenient for the ninja.

Traditional house of samurai period with four hundred years history that converted into inn for residins and viewing y visitors. Best combined with a tour to Nijo Castle.

Sanjo Bridge

Sanjo Bridge was a place where the samurai displayed the chopped heads of their arch-rivals. There are also reports that Hideyoshi Toyotomi (the samurai who built Osaka Castle) displayed the chopped heads of his adversaries on the bridge and threw the head of Sen no Rikyu (The founder of Tea Ceremony who later was charged with seppuku) under the bridge. No doubt, the bridge is most famous for being the last battle stage for Shinsengumi and the Choshu clan during the Bakumatsu period.
The second half of the 19th century was a turbulent time in Japan. Tensions between pro-Imperial loyalists and shogunate loyalists starkly divided the country. Old grudges from the founding of the Tokugawa regime continued to fester. The Mori clan, which had been defeated by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the battle of Sekigahara two hundred and fifty years earlier, now maneuvered for power with a series of loose alliances, calling themselves Choshu han. Unfortunately, the Choshu weren’t unified in their goals or methods. While some participated in violent anti-foreigner expulsions at the behest of the Emperor, others actively plotted against the Imperial palace in Kyoto. This had them declared enemies of the Imperial Court in 1866.

In September of that year, a signboard was erected at Sanjo Bridge, publicly announcing that the Choshu han were enemies of the state. Its placement was strategically significant, as Sanjo Bridge was historically the final leg of two of Japan’s “Five Routes” for travelers embarking on long journeys. Placing the indictment there ensured that it would be seen, and travel broadly across the country. This angered the Choshu who repeatedly tore down the sign whenever it was replaced. Finally, a detachment of Shinsengumi was sent to capture the vandals and bring them to justice. Thirty-four Shinsengumi were sent in three units. Two dressed as beggars on the side of the bridge, laying in wait. When eight samurai approached the sign to destroy it, three were brought down while the remaining five escaped.

If you go to the Sanjo Bridge from the Sanjo Shopping Street side (Starbucks would be on your left) the 2nd pole on your right still has the scratches from the last fight between the Choshu clan samurai and the Shinsengumi fighters. There is no explanation in English so you can stop by the Kyoto Samurai and Ninja Museum which is 3 minutes from the bridge to learn more about the samurai.

Sanjo bridge is also special as you can still see the supports under the bridge that are about 400 years old. In the Spring and summer, many people sit by the river and some musicians perform near the bridge. You get a very unique small town feeling passing on the bridge in the early evening anytime of the year.

Sanjo bridge is also special as you can still see the supports under the bridge that are about 400 years old. In the Spring and summer, many people sit by the river and some musicians perform near the bridge.

Yogen-in Temple

At summer’s end in 1600, a castle fell. With his reduced garrison of three hundred samurai, Torii Mototada knew he didn’t stand a chance against the advancing wave of the Western Army, lead by Ishida Mitsunari. To the man everyone stationed at Fushimi Castle would die, but in doing so they would delay Mitsunari–just enough–so that Tokugawa Ieyasu and his Eastern Army could close the gap between them and crush this uprising once and for all. The sacrifice would be worth it.

The siege lasted twelve days. Fires broke out. The defenses fell. One by one the small garrison was cut down or committed suicide to avoid capture and dishonor. In the chaos, impressions of footprints, handprints, and faces were pressed in blood to the floorboards, memorializing the final hours of bravery of the warriors of Fushimi Castle.

Following the battle of Sekigahara which saw Mitsunari’s final defeat, Ieyasu ordered what could be salvaged from the burnt out ruins of the castle be brought to Kyoto. There, the blood stained floorboards were fixed to the ceilings of newly constructed temples to rest the spirits of the fallen samurai in peace. One such temples is Yogen-in.

Yogen-in is a tiny temple first established in 1594. It was reconstructed with the floorboards of Fushimi Castle in 1621. Sitting behind the much larger Sanjuusangen-do temple, all Tokugawa shoguns starting from Hidetada are enshrined here. The temple offers guided tours in Japanese, and aside from the chitenjou–the blood ceiling– it is most famous for its decorative cedar sliding doors with depictions of Chinese lions, elephants, and kirin painted on them. Photography is not permitted in Yogen-in, and the dark interior gives it a somber, subdued atmosphere, suitable for the memorial it is intended to be.

Yogen-in is a tiny temple first established in 1594. It was reconstructed with the floorboards of Fushimi Castle in 1621. Sitting behind the much larger Sanjuusangen-do temple, all Tokugawa shoguns starting from Hidetada are enshrined here.

Old Japanese Photos

Samurai in Armour

Three men dressed as Samurai warriors in full traditional armor, holding longbows.

A man in an elaborate robe and apron, holding two swords.
Japanese Tattoo

View of a nude man from the back, with a red and blue tattoo covering his back and arms. He is leaning on a wooden fence.

Two women being pulled in a rickshaw by a man wearing a straw hat.
Geisha House

Two story building with several women standing on the upstairs balcony and a few men standing outside the front door. A sign over the front door reads “Nectarine/ No. 9”.
Weaving Silk

A woman operates a loom with foot pedals while another woman looks on.
Young Woman with Fan

Three-quarter length portrait of a young woman holding a fan with elaborate combs and flowers in her hair.
Dressing Obi

A woman kneeling behind another woman, arranging her obi (sash).

Two sumo wrestlers, wearing loincloths and crouching before a match, with a robed official standing behind them.
Freight cart

Two men pulling and two men pushing a cart filled with large bales of hay.
Umbrella Maker

An umbrella maker sits on a low stool, applying paper to the ribs of an umbrella. Other umbrellas at various stages of assembly are around him.
Happy New Year

Two people bowing towards each other. A boy stands to one side, carrying a large package.
Hair Dressing in Japanese Style

A man seated on the floor with another man standing behind him, arranging his hair.
Pilgrim Going Up Fujiyama

Portrait of a man wearing a broad hat, and traveling clothes, holding a walking stick, in front of a studio backdrop of Mt. Fuji.
All the licenses and royalties belong to The J. Paul Getty Museum

Samurai armor

Helmet, Mask, Cuirass, and Collar of an Armor (Gusoku)

The breastplate of this armor is overlaid with a tooled, gilded, and painted piece of leather likely imported from Holland, reflecting the growing interest in European culture and goods in Japan in the eighteenth century, and the creative ways in which this interest was manifested in armorers’ art. Decorative European leather, often originally intended as a wall covering, was used to embellish a range of equipment, including sword mountings and equestrian tacks.

Armor full set (Gusoku)

It features a kusazuri (skirt) with an extremely rare color scheme of silk lacings in red, yellowish-green, black, and white. The mon (heraldic badge), in the form of three whirling commas (mitsudomoe mon), is that of the Okabe family, feudal lords of Kishiwada (present day Kishiwada City in Osaka Prefecture). The armor is signed on the inside of the helmet: Eichizan no Kuni Toyohara jū Bamen Tomotsugu Saku (Bamen Tomotsugu living in Eichizan province, Toyohara village).

Armor (Yaroi)

The yoroi is characterized by a cuirass that wraps around the body and is closed by a separate panel (waidate) on the right side and by a deep four-sided skirt. In use from around the tenth to the fourteenth century, yoroi were generally worn by warriors on horseback.
The breastplate is covered with stenciled leather bearing the image of the powerful Buddhist deity Fudō Myō-ō, whose fierce mien and attributes of calmness and inner strength were highly prized by the samurai.

Helmet, Cuirass, Shoulder Defenses (Sode), and Arm Defenses of an Armor (Nimaido Gusoku)

Armor embossed in high relief came into vogue in the eighteenth century, a period of peace and stability under Tokugawa rule. With less concern about battlefield functionality, armorers explored new decorative possibilities, including embossing, a technique that would have compromised the armor’s defensive qualities, since it created catch points for an opponent’s weapons. The Myōchin, among the most well-known armor-making families of the period, specialized in this difficult but spectacular technique.

Armor (Gusoku)

This example comes from the armory of Date Yoshimura (1703–1746), daimyo (lord) of Sendai. The helmet bowl, signed Saotome Iyetada, dates from the sixteenth century; the remainder of the armor was constructed in the eighteenth century. The breastplate is inscribed inside with the armorer’s name, Myōchin Munesuke (1688–1735). The embossed ornament on the solid iron plates is characteristic of the Myōchin school.

Armor (Yaroi)

This armor was donated to the Kurama Temple, near Kyoto, by one of the Ashikaga shoguns. During the late Edo period, it passed into the possession of Sakai, daimyo (lord) of Wakasa, then military governor of Kyoto. Sakai had the armor refurbished and its silk lacings replaced with leather ones in the syle of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The oldest part of the armor, the helmet bowl, dates from the late Kamakura period (early fourteenth century).

Armor (Gusoku)

Although constructed in the traditional sixteenth-century gusoku (complete set) fashion, this is actually an example of the revival of earlier armor styles during the Edo period. It was part of the large collection of Japanese arms and armor formed by Arms and Armor Department founding curator Bashford Dean around 1900, during his extended stays in Japan for scientific research. The armor was included in the Metropolitan Museum’s 1903 loan exhibition of Japanese arms and armor from Dean’s private collection, which the Museum purchased in 1904.

Armor (Gusoku)

The breastplate and backplate of this distinctive armor are constructed of hinged iron plates. This design affords a similar degree of protection as solid-plate armor but provides greater flexibility and a closer fit for the wearer. Hinged cuirasses of the seventeenth century are rare, and were among the most expensive and time-consuming types of armor to produce. They are believed to have been used primarily by the Uesugi family and associated domains.

Armor (Yaroi)

During the eighteenth century, there was a revival of interest in medieval Japanese culture. As the demand for historical styles of armor began to increase among the wealthy lords, contemporary armorers studied the older forms and techniques in order to duplicate them. This example imitates a yoroi of the twelfth to thirteenth century. It is characterized by a helmet with prominent rivet heads and a wide, flaring neck guard and by a large cuirass with a separate panel on the right side, large square shoulder guards, and a deep four-sided skirt.

Armor (Gusoku) of the Maeda Family

The armor is decorated in several places with the plum blossom mon (heraldic emblem) of the Maeda family, who were daimyo (feudal lords) of Kaga Province (the southern part of present-day Ishikawa Prefecture) and the second largest landowners in Japan after the Tokugawa family.

Edo Period Mask

Muneakira’s masterpiece, this mask by Muneakira was already famous when it was first published in 1763. It represents Jikokuten, guardian of the East, one of the Four Kings of Heaven. The mask is also one of the few to retain its original silk head covering sewn to the upper edges.

Cuirass (Armor for the Torso and Hips) and Greaves (Lower Leg Defenses)

The lavish decoration of this cuirass focuses on the theme of archery. The silver character yumi in the center of the breastplate is Japanese for “bow.” Below, there is a golden arrow entwined by dragons. A large sachihoko, a mythological animal that could control rain and therefore create favorable conditions for the use of bow and arrow, is depicted in silver and gold on the backplate.

Cuirass of a Dō-maru

This armor is believed to have been given by Date Masamune (died 1636), one of the most famous daimyo (lords) of his time, to a high-ranking samurai in his service, Shiraishi Bungo.

Armor (Gusoku)

The breastplate is embossed in high relief with designs featuring a dragon and clouds. Made in late 18th–19th century in Japan.
For the manufacture of this armor, the masters used Iron, lacquer, gold, silver, copper alloy, leather, silk

Armor (Gusoku)

The helmet crest (maidate) has a gilt-copper moon flanked by rising silver waves. The shoulder guards (sode) are decorated in gold lacquer with the image of a rabbit springing from seafoam, possibly a reference to Chikubushima, a popular Noh play.

All the licenses and royalties belong to Metropolitan Museum


The role of Ninja in Feudal Japan

The ninjas were most active in the 1600s and 1700s being hired as spies and assassins for the daimyos. Although their image is usually associated by assassination, most of the time they were spies who could walk very silently, run very fast and make poisons and simple explosives. They usually worked as individuals or small groups.
In Japanese, ninjas are usually called “shinobi” which means spy. Spies always existed in the history of Japan. In the 12th century two clans in the central Japan area, Iga and Koga, were a little different from the other samurai clans. They did not have a typical samurai system and they had more communal lifestyles. Some families in Iga and Koga (e.g. The Mochizuki family) were in close contact with the Yamabushi (mountain hermits) who practiced shuugendo and some families in Iga and Koga practiced distinct martial arts, the most well known was Tokagure Ryu. These two societies emerged as the first ninja clans but they usually did not fight for or against the other samurai clans in battles except for defending their territories against Oda Nobunaga’s forces in 1579 and 1581. They won in 1579 but lost in 1581.

The History of Ninja

Japanese people believe that the ninja have some supernatural powers such as controlling others’ minds or walking on the river. This is perhaps because people in the Iga and Koga regions had long been practicing hypnosis and botanics that arrived from China in the 6th century when Buddhism was introduced to Japan.
• Prince Shotoku (574 ~ 622) reportedly had a famous spy named Otomono Sahito who is considered to be the fist ninja in history.
Despite the fact that the Iga and Koka towns are very close to Nara and Kyoto, the residents were not ruled by any samurai clan and commonly practiced shuugendo (esoteric Buddhism that promoted mountain training).
During the Nara period (710~794) the yamabushi (back-cap wearing mountain monks) emerged. They abstained from pleasurable things, maintained simple lives in the mountains and they were good fighters.
When the Tang Dynasty in China fell in 907, many monks and generals came to Japan and shared their knowledge of warfare and the eastern philosophy mostly around Central Japan including the towns of Iga and Koga.
In 1162, a samurai from the Genji clan moved to Iga after losing a battle against the Taira clan and renounced his samurai status. He changed his name to Daisuke Tokagure. He later met with Kain Doshi, a Chinese monk who was exiled from China to Iga. Together they developed Tokagure-ryu, the first organized practice of defense and stealth techniques. These techniques are also called ninpo-taijitsu.
Historical records indicate the existence of shinobi during the Muromachi Period. There are references to ninjas who secretly burned the Hachimanyama castle and infiltrated the Ototsu Castle during the Nanbukochu wars (1336~1392).
During the Sengoku period (1477~1615) everyone was aware of the guerrilla fighters in Iga and Koka who maintained a communal life different from other towns in feudal Japan. Oda Nobunaga’s son tried to invade the town of Iga in 1579 but got defeated badly.
In 1581, Oda Nobunaga attacked the town again with the army of 40,000 men, The ninja were vastly outnumbered and lost against the army. Oda Nobunaga reportedly killed most of the Ninja back then during the Tensha-Iga battle.
It is said that Hattori Hanzo from Iga, saved the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu in two occasions and was given the task of guarding the Shogunate in Tokyo. The district known as Hanzo-mon in Tokyo refers to the area where Hanzo’s ninja guards used to live.
During the Edo period (1603 ~ 1868) the need for ninja gradually decreased because of the peaceful political environment and the Kogi-Onmitsu, 3000 strong intelligence agents working for the shogunate.
Today there are dozens of Tokagure-ryu ninpo and ninjutsu dojos in and outside of Japan. The leader of Tokagure-ryu of Japan is Masaaki Hatsumi who is in his late 70s and the name of his organization is Bujinkan. Genbukan Dojo which also teaches ninpo techniques has been popular all around the world.

 Ninja facts

-Although some people consider ninjas as sneaky disloyal assassins, there are not many cases where ninjas were not loyal to their master while a number of times some samurai betrayed their masters (e.g. Akechi Mitsuhide).
-Since the ninja could not own horses and did not carry swords unlike the samurai, they had to run so fast in order to survive. Some ninjas could run more than 50km in one day. They trained up in the mountains to have larger lungs.
-Not being detected was one of the most important things for the ninja. That’s why they did not smoke and eat spicy stuff before the missions. They always took herbal showers in order to not to have any bad body odor that can alert the enemy.
-Ninjas mostly ate red beans and black rice believing that black food made them healthier. Ninjas ate lots of vegetables and carried cookies that are made of dried red bean paste.
-Most of what is known about ninja and ninjutsu are criticized for being fiction because the ninjas were spies who did not leave written records behind them. While there are hundreds of black and white photos of samurais from the 1800s, there is no verified ninja photo from the 1800s. What we know about the ninjas today are mostly the word of mouth.
-The concept of ninja became popular in the Western World when James Bond fought against a group of ninja in the 1967 movie titled you only live twice.
-Ninjas usually did not wear a black outfit in order to not stand out. Their preferred color was navy blue , the least visible color in the dark.
-Ninjas were mostly farmers, the influence of farming can be seen on most of their weapons, particularly the sickle and chain and the ninja knife kunai.
-Ninjas were expected to weigh less than 60 kgs, not because they may cause the roofs they are running on collapse but being lighter and nimble helped them spend less time looking for the food and run faster.
-The shuriken (ninja star) were rarely used as the ninja cannot carry many of them (heavy and makes noise) and it makes more sense to keep it and use it as a knife. Occasionally the ninja threw them in the opposing directions to distract the enemy.
-Many Japanese castles and temples have a kind of floor called nightingale floor, the ones that squeak one someone steps on. Those floors were made to hear the silent ninjas who raided castles in the middle of the night. No matter how light the intruder is , the nightingale floor makes the chirping sound (e.g. the floors at the Nijo Castle).
-For silent walking the ninja trained by walking on a large piece of rice paper and they were not sent on a mission if they could not walk without any sound.
-One of the less known weapons of ninja is the egg-shells. After making a hole underneath, they filled them with either gunpowder and ash or irritating chemicals.The ninja threw the chemical filled at their targets to either distract attention or gain time for escape.

Hiroo Onoda, the Last Ninja (1922 ~ 2014)

Onoda was trained in the Nagano Spy school which is considered as a modern day ninja school in Japan. He was dispatched to Lubang Island in the Philippines on December 26, 1944. The Island was taken by the US forces in August, 1945 and they announced the end of the war by leaving thousands of leaflets in the mountains for commandos to turn themselves in.
Onoda and his three friends thought the leaflets were a trick and did not surrender. Over the years, Onoda’s friends died and he managed to survive on the hills of the remote Pilipino Island. He was found by a Japanese traveler who told him the war was over. He did not believe him and refused to surrender. Finally the Japanese government found the man who was the commanding officer of Onoda. The officer, who back then was a bookseller in Tokyo, ordered him to surrender. Onoda returned his weapons including a samurai sword and a dagger that he should have used if he was to be captured. Being trained as an intelligence officer at a spy school and surviving 29 years in the wild perhaps gives him the title of the last ninja.


The Ninja Training Techniques

Nyudaki no-jutsu – Locating the weakest staff
Yogi Gakure – Using an object for distraction
Joei-on jutsu – The way of concealing the sounds
Bajutsu – Horsemanship
Sui-ren – Water skills
Bo-ryaku – Strategy. The ninja were trained to think strategically. Not only defeating one enemy but also how to overcome a group and sometimes how to defeat the enemy without fighting (acting politically etc.).
Choho – Espionage. The ninja studied the techniques of how to gain trust and how not to look or act suspicious.
Inton-jutsu – Escape techniques
Ten-mon – Meteorology
Chi-mon – Geography
Seizon-jutsu – Survival skills. Surving in the wild, hunting and gathering skills, tracking skills.
Spiritual training – Seishin teki kyoyo
Know yourself, your needs and desires
Know the nature, environment and the universe
Understand the importance of destiny
Be in harmony with the nature and society (harmony)
Understand others and have empathy (heart)
See and observe your environment (eye)
Love yourself and others (love)
Tai Jutsu – Combat Training. Fighting with no weapons
Daken-taijutsu – Punching, kicking, blocking
Jutai-jatsu – Close fighting, grappling, submission holds and escape holds
Taihen-jutsu – Silent movement, leaping, falling, rolling and tumbling
Kenjutsu – Swordmanship
Bojutsu– Staff fighting (Using Bo (Long stick))
Shurikenjutsu– Throwing blades- Throwing shuriken stars
Yarijutsu – Spear fighting. The ninja trained with the spears commonly used by the samurai as follow:
Te-yari – A short spear
Naga-yari – A long spear
Tetsu-yari – A metal spear
Sanbon-yari – A three bladed spear
Kama-yari – A spear with an additional half moon blade
Naginatajutsu (Spear with a katana ending/Polearm)
Kusarigamajutsu – Chain and sickle weapon
Kayakujutsu – Fire and explosives
Hensojutsu – Disguise Techniques . The ninja were trained to be able to impersonated at least 7 different characters as a monk, a samurai, a merchant, a craftsman, a farmer, a performer and an ordinary peasant. The ninja used to carry at least 2 costumes with them and the colors of their outfit was different inside and outside (so that they can reverse their clothes after the mission).
Shinobi-iri – Sneaking in and stealth techniques
Nyukyo no-jutsu – The correct timing
Monomi no-jutsu – Locating the weakest point

Books and Quotations about Martial Arts part 3

The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace. Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner divinity and manifest your inner enlightenment. Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all that you encounter.
One does not need buildings, money, power, or status to practice the Art of Peace. Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.
In the art of peace, a single cut of the sword summons up the wondrous powers of the universe. That one sword links the past, present, and future; it absorbs the universe. Time and space disappear. All of creation, from the distant past to the present moment, lives in the sword. All human existence flourishes right here in the sword you hold in your hands. You are now prepared for anything that may arise.
Never fear another challenger, no matter how large; Never despise another challenger, no matter how small.
Large does not always defeat little. Little can become large by constant building; large can become little by falling apart.
The penetrating brilliance of swords
Wielded by followers of the Way
Strikes at the evil enemy
Lurking deep within
Their own souls and bodies.
Do not fail
to learn from
The pure voice of an
Ever-flowing mountain stream
Splashing over the rocks.
One does not need buildings, money, power, or status to practice the Art of Peace. Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.
The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.
To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.
When you bow deeply to the universe, it bows back; when you call out the name of God, it echoes inside you.

― Morihei Ueshiba, The Art of Peace

In an argument, you may silence your opponent by pressing an advantage of strength or of wealth, or of education. But you do not really convince him. Though he is no longer saying anything, in his heart he still keeps to his opinion, the only way to make him change that opinion is to speak quietly and reasonably. When he understands that you are not trying to defeat him, but only to find the truth, he will listen to you and perhaps accept what you tell him.
Judo should be free as art and science from any external influences, political, national, racial, and financial or any other organized interest. And all things connected with it should be directed to its ultimate object, the benefit of Humanity.
Before and after practicing Judo or engaging in a match, opponents bow to each other. Bowing is an expression of gratitude and respect. In effect, you are thanking your opponent for giving you the opportunity to improve your technique.
Walk a single path, becoming neither cocky with victory nor broken with defeat, without forgetting caution when all is quiet or becoming frightened when danger threatens.
Nothing under the sun is greater than education. By educating one person and sending him into the society of his generation, we make a contribution extending a hundred generations to come.
Judo is a study of techniques with which you may kill if you wish to kill, injure if you wish to injure, subdue if you wish to subdue, and, when attacked, defend yourself
Carefully observe oneself and one’s situation, carefully observe others, and carefully observe one’s environment. Consider fully, act decisively.
The pine fought the storm and broke. The willow yielded to the wind and snow and did not break. Practice Jiu-Jitsu in just this way.
Face your fear, empty yourself, trust your own voice, let go of control, have faith in outcomes, connect with a larger purpose, derive meaning from the struggle.
To ask may be but a moment’s shame, not to ask and remain ignorant is a lifelong shame.
The purpose of the study of judo is to perfect yourself and to contribute to society.
It is not important to be better than someone else, but to be better than yesterday.

― Kano Jigoro

Humans have yet to dwell upon the consequences of their
actions. People have yet to admit the bad that they do to
nature, for example. Actually, most people spend their time
finding fault in the action of others, rather than their own.
Looking for the meaning of life, one man can discover the order of the universe. To discover the truth, to achieve. a higher spiritual state, that is the true meaning of ninja.
Don’t think that any one technique is the end. there is no end.
There is no perfect technique. Just when you think you’ve got
them, you’re dead because you didn’t.
Breathe life into the weapon, don’t take life away from it.
Keep walking, because walking is life.
If you do something and it saves your life, it was good
taijutsu. In a real fight, you aren’t worried about what’s pretty.
You’ve got to learn to utilize the space (between you and
your opponent). Distancing is very important.
Forget your sadness, anger, grudges and hatred. Let them pass like smoke caught in a breeze. Do not indulge yourself in such feelings.
When weak or injured always continue training as you should always be able to adapt in any condition.

― Masaaki Hatsumi

Japanese Castles in history

The earliest known castles date from Yayoi Period (300 BC-300 AD). During the Sengoku Period ( The Warring States Period), as many as 25,000 castles were built. There are five national treasure castles that remain largely intact: Matsumoto Castle, Inuyama Castle, Hikone Castle, Himeji Castle, Matsue Castle. Many of Japanese castles were dismantled by the Meiji Government, after the ordinance which proclaimed that each fiefdom could have only one castle. Many castles were destroyed by lightnings, earthquakes, fires or at the end of the feudal age in 1868 because as the new government considered them anachronistic.
Unlike European castles, which are known for their opulence, Japanese castles were built mainly for defensive purposes, which is why their number peaked in the Sengoku (Warring States Period) in the 16th century. This is why Japanese castles are located mainly on hilltops, resulting in a unique style known as yamashiro (mountain castles). Different from European castles most castles tend to be somewhat similar white walls, pagoda style roofs, surrounded by moats having shachihoko on the roofs (a gold-color imaginary creature that has a body of a fish and head of a tiger). In the past only daimyos and noble samurais (bushi) were allowed to live in the castles. Ronins were not allowed to live in the castles.
When the Sengoku Period was over, the style changed, and Japan’s castles started being built in the plains, where they served as military and administrative headquarters. Because the defense was their main purpose, they were made up of three defensive rings: honmaru (main circle), ninomaru (second circle) and sannomaru (third circle). The main construction material for these castles was wood, but modern-day reconstructions are mainly in stone.
Japanese castles featured many tricks and traps. One of them was tonashi (no door), a smaller gate behind the main gate, leading into a small, closed and heavily defended area. Some castles also had channels which were used to drop stones and boiling water down on enemies, as well as openings for guns and arrows. Almost all Japanese castles had a moat not only to make it difficult to enter the castle but also make it impossible to dig tunnels to penetrate inside to castle.

Fushimi Castle

The building of the Fushimi Castle in Kyoto is a replica which was built as an amusement park in 1964. In 2003 the amusement park shut down and the castle is currently closed for visitors. Unlike many other Japanese castles, Fushimi was not built only for defensive purposes, but also as a retirement home for Hideyoshi. The castle was originally built for Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the 16th century and this is where Hideyoshi died in 1598. The castle is most famous for the defense of Mototada against the forces of Western army while they are advancing to the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. During this defense it is reported that hundreds of Motoda’s men committed seppuku after he was killed. Ieyasu ordered the blood-stained castle floors to be distributed to 7 temples in the region. Two of those temples (Genko An and Yogen In) can be visited even today. Fushimi was destroyed during this eleven-day-siege in 1600. What remains of the castle today, was built in 1964 as “Castle Entertainment Park.”

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle construction started in 1603 after Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle of Sekigahara and needed a resting place when he visited the emperor who lived in Kyoto. Nijo castle is famous as a place where the Edo period started (1603) and ended as the last shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa declared in the main hall of this castle that he was giving up the power to the young emperor Meiji (1867). The castle is renowned by its nightingale floors, the floors that squeak and make the chirping noise whenever someone steps on them. These floors were made to hear the ninjas who may raid the castle in the middle of the night when people are sleeping. The castle is quite different from other castles in Japan (it does not have a big keep or many floors with large pagoda-style roofs as it was built in the peaceful period.) The castle also has original paintings on the screens that are more than 300 years old.

Himeji Castle

The most visited Japanese castle in the world. Also known as White Heron Castle and located on a hilltop in the city of Himeji, near Kobe, Himeji Castle was completed in the 17th century. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful castles in Japan and is a popular cherry blossom spot. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of Japan’s twelve original castles, having never been damaged by war or natural disasters. Himeji is a fine example of Japan’s castle architecture, as it is made up of 83 buildings, multiple gates, wing buildings and winding paths. It has tricky swirling paths that go to the keep which makes it easy to stop the enemy. Himeji Castle appeared in James Bond’s movie “You only live twice,” two of Akiro Kurosawa’s movies and multiple video games.

Osaka Castle

It was built in 1597 1 year before the legendary Sengoku warrior died. It was sieged by Ieyasu in the winter of 1614 but Yukimura Canada successfully defended the castle with 6000 men vs. the 30,000 strong Takugawa army. During the summer of 1615 this tie Osaka castle fell and burned completely. It was rebuilt but demolished in 1868 again. Later during WWII it was completely bombed by the allied forces as the Japanese army used the castle to train the army and hide the arsenal. On the wall stones the traces of the bombing can still be seen. After the war, Osakans collected millions of dollars and eventually built the current replica. There is an elevator which surprise many foreign visitors. It is an eight-storey building, made up of numerous citadels, gates, stone walls and moats. Its famous site is a museum devoted to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the shogun who unified Japan.

Matsumoto Castle

One of the rare Japanese castles not located on a hilltop, Matsumoto Castle is one of the most beautiful among Japan’s 12 original castles. It is known for its decorative turrets, a secondary donjon (castle keep) adjoined to its main keep and a red-lacquer bridge. Matsumoto Castle is also distinguished by its wooden interior and steep wooden stairs. Motsumoto castle looks like 5 stories from the outside but this is just to trick the enemy, there is a hidden floor which makes it a 6-floor building.

Kumamoto Castle

Kumamoto Castle was constructed in the 17th century, but what can be seen today are mainly modern-day reconstructions, albeit very authentic and true to original appearance. Unfortunately, the castle suffered serious damage in the earthquakes of 2016, with its walls crumbling and many of its structures falling down. It is made up of two towers, and its main attraction is Honmaru Goten Palace in which the daimyo (feudal lords) used to receive their guests. Kumamoto is also known for its formidable defensive system with stone walls and moats.

Aizu Wakamatsu Castle

This is the last castle that witnessed the modern-day fight of samurai. Also known as Tsuruga Castle, it was built in the 14th century, and destroyed during the 19th century Boshin War (1868), a rebellion against the Meiji government, because it was one of the few remaining strongholds of samurai who fought for the Tokugawa shogunate. The castle’s concrete reconstruction was built in the 1960s. It is distinguished among other Japanese castles by the red color of its roof tiles. It is surrounded by Tsuruga Castle Park with lawns and cherry trees and Rinkaku Teahouse which was used for the tea ceremony.

Hikone Castle

This is one of the smallest castles in Japan. Located at the shores of lake Biwa, Hikone Castle was completed in the 17th century and is one of Japan’s original castles, remaining largely intact. It is famous for its three- storied castle keep, which is not large, but combines multiple architectural styles. The castle is one of Japan’s national treasures. Its famous site is Genkyuen Garden, with a pond and a circular walking trail. The castle is very popular during the sakura season.

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya Castle was built during the Edo period by Tokugawa family and it served as one of their three seats. Many of the castle’s buildings were destroyed during the Second World War, so it was reconstructed in 1959. Outside the castle, there is an over 600 years old Torreya Nut Tree, which is the only government-designated natural monument in Nagoya. Nagoya Castle is also famous for its shachihoko, an animal-statue with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp, located on the top of its roof.

Harakiri and Suppuku

What is Harakiri (Seppuku)?
It can be considered as honorable death or ritualistic way of ending the life of a samurai. Only samurai can perform harakiri, commoners cannot (They can but no-one would care). The custom dates back to the 12th century as a means for the upper and samurai classes exclusively to atone for crimes, regain lost honour, or avoid disgraceful capture. When executed correctly it was considered to be the noblest way for a samurai to die, and from eyewitness accounts of such ritualistic suicide, probably the most painful.

How is it done?
Seppuku in its most common and recognizable form became a highly ritualized spectacle of noble and artistic suicide in the 1700s. The condemned man wore a ceremonial white death kimono and was permitted a final meal. The execution blade, which could range in size from a long sword to a ceremonial knife, was then served in the last plate, and he would be expected to write a death poem before stabbing himself in the abdomen and cutting first from left to the right and then upwards. Upon completing the cut, his second (kaishakunin) would step forward to issue the killing blow to the condemned man’s exposed neck. However if honour was to be preserved in the act, it was expected that this cut would not severe the neck completely, but allow just enough flesh attached for the head to fall naturally forward into the executed man’s arms. In this way, not only the viewers clothes are not stained with the blood but also the head drops among the two hands of the samurai as if he is holding his head. Women who performed seppuku–often the wives of samurai wishing to avoid capture–would tie their legs together before cutting to preserve a modest posture in death. Variations of the ritual exist without seconds, in which case the condemned man would be expected to strike the final blow to his own throat or heart.

Are Seppuku and Harakiri the same?
Seppuku and harakiri are in essence the same thing. Both refer to the same form of self-execution via disembowelment, and both ostensibly mean “[to] cut the stomach.” The difference between the two words is entirely etymological. Seppuku derives from an on-yomi or Chinese reading of the kanji characters 切腹, while harakiri is a kun-yomi, or native Japanese reading of the same characters in reverse. Due to the historico-political association of Chinese characters with early Japanese aristocratic and governmental literature, the term “seppuku” is almost always used in a written context, while “harakiri” is its verbal equivalent.
There are 2 kinds of Harakiri
Seppuku could be either voluntary or obligatory.
Voluntary seppuku was often committed to restore honour for a misdeed or a failure, or else to avoid capture by an invading army. Obligatory seppuku could be requested by the victor of a conflict as a term of surrender and subsequent peace. In such cases, the leader(s) of the losing side were compelled to commit seppuku, thus removing all further political and military opposition to the victor.
Obligatory seppuku was also used as a means of capital punishment for disgraced samurai who had committed acts of treason or violent crimes. Those who resisted such punishment were restrained while it was acted upon them by another. In the case of the “47 samurai” the seppuku was obligatory handed by the shogunate. During the obligatory seppuku, the blade without the “handle” wrapped with a fabric is given to the samurai to make sure he does not fight back.

The last harakiri in Japan
Yukio Mishima is one of the most interesting characters who ever lived in Japan. He was a famous author who worked as an actor and model. After studying martial arts and kendo, he founded his own private militia (tatenokai) consisting of martial arts students with the focus on the far right ideology and the importance of the emperor of Japan. In 1970 he and his four men from tatenokai trespassed into a Japan Self defense Forces outpost in Tokyo. Mishima encouraged the troops at the base to rise up to reinstate to imperial constitution. This was an obvious attempt for a coup in Japan. But the soldiers did not take him seriously and he ended his life by seppuku on Nov. 25, 1970. Mishima’s seppuku is especially noteworthy because of the failure of his second to correctly deliver the killing blow, resulting in an agonizing series of hacks at Mishima’s neck until his head was finally fully removed.

Why did they cut the belly?
In ancient Asia many believed that the spirit rested inside the belly, slitting the belly let the spirit go free. Also one has to be very brave and mentally strong to be able to perform such kind of act which can only be carried by a true samurai. Although it is reported that in some occasions the samurai lost themselves and collapsed before the ritual and were forcefully beheaded.
Why did the samurai commit seppuku?
Seppuku began on the battlefield as a means for routed samurai to avoid capture, torture, and dishonour. As it evolved, it became a way for disgraced samurai to regain honour by their own hands, as opposed to being executed by another. Seppuku was thus an act that required some form of permission by a figure of authority. Although in the Sengoku period some samurais committed seppuku after their lord died, this practice was banned during the Edo period.

Who did harakiri?
The earliest record of seppuku was that committed by Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180. Without any accompanying ritual or codified way of performing the act, early seppuku was likely a painful and drawn out process. Some historically notable acts of seppuku include that of Oda Nobunaga, who engaged in ritual suicide to avoid capture when surrounded at Honno-ji temple in 1582; philosopher and tea master Sen-no-Rikyu who was ordered to commit seppuku in 1591 by his lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi over differences of political opinion; Torii Mototada who in 1600 bravely and held his garrison of 300 samurai at Fushimi Castle against the overwhelming siege by the forces of Toyotomi Hideyori; Saigo Takamori who committed seppuku in 1877 after he got wounded during the Satsuma rebellion and and Yukio Mishima who committed seppuku in 1970 after a failed coup d’état.

Famous Samurais of Japan

Oda Nobunaga (1534~1582) , The Uniter of Japan I

After the Onin war (1467 ~1477) the shogun system collapsed and all the daimyos declared their independence. Japan had been in total chaos and no daimyo could establish any significant superiority over others.
The hopeless situation would one day be ended by the Demon King Nobunaga who was born in Nagoya Castle in 1534.
He was brave but unpredictable and sometimes acting bizarre. He was so disrespectful during his father’s funeral so that one of his retainers committed seppuku to protest him.
To take over the leadership the Oda clan, he first killed his uncle and younger brother.
Then he attacked an army of 25,000 men from the Imagawa clan with only 3000 men. He first intimidated them by using dummy soldiers in the dark and then ambushed them in a narrow gorge.
In 1568 The Ashikaga Shogun invited Nobunaga to Kyoto in order to protect him from other daimyos. Nabunaga helped him and announced him as the new shogun but it was an act. Nobunaga wanted to be the shogun himself so he restricted the powers of the Ashikaga shogun. Historians call this moment the end of the Muromachi (Ashikaga) period and the beginning of the period of Azuchi-Momoyama.
Even though he won many battles, his brother was killed by the warrior monks. Nobunaga also lost against the Ikko Ikki warrior monks a few times in his life. But in 1571 he burned one of the biggest temples in Japan slaughtered thousands of monks in Mount Hiei, north of Kyoto city. He repeated the same thing in 1574, he burned the Nagashima settlements of Ikko Ikki, slaughtering about 20,000 people.
In 1575, Oda Nobunaga’s forces crushed the Takeda clan’s army (famous for its cavalry) by using arquebuses Nobunaga acquired from Westerners. About 10,000 Takeda forces were killed near the Nagashino Castle. Although the leader of the Takeda clan survived, Nobunaga got all of their territories in 1582.
Nobunaga is known as the person who introduced and promoted Christianity in Japan. Some historians also claim that he converted to Christianity.
In 1578 , Oda Nobunaga built the Azuchi Castle, the biggest and perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing castle back then. It was on top of a hill overseeing the Eastern and Western Japan.
The only little problem in Central Japan was the ninja clans in the Iga region. They defeated Nobunaga’s son in 1579 and they were completely independent. 2 years later, Nobunaga surrounded the region with 44 thousand-strong army and slaughtered thousands of ninja’s in the region.
Nobunaga also was sometimes disrespectful to men around him. He called Toyotomi Hideyoshi Saru (Monkey) and Akechi Mitsuhide Hage (baldy). He also killed some high ranking war prisoners, whose relatives in turn killed Akechi’s mother.
on June 21, 1582, while resting at the Honnoji Temple with a few dozen servants, Nobunaga realized that thousands of samurai troops waiting outside to kill him. The temple was set on fire and Nobunaga and his close servants committed seppuku. These samurai troops were led by no-one else but Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Nobunaga’s closest generals.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537~1598) The Uniter of Japan II

Hideyoshi’s story was rags to the riches. He was a son of a peasant and he was just a sandal bearer for Oda Nobunaga.
He proved himself to be a smart and good warrior and he became one of Nobunaga’s generals. He avenged his master just 11 days after his death and killed Akechi Mitsuhide.
The chiefs of Oda clan did not want Hideyoshi to be the next leader since he was not from the Oda family. Hideyoshi appointed the infant son of Nobunaga as the new leader on purpose and then destroyed the forces of Katsuie, the chief of the Oda clan. Later he declared himself the head of the Oda clan and started ruling the largest territory in Japan.
In 1583, Hideyoshi built the largest castle in Japan back then: the Osaka castle. The daimyos from each region competed carrying large stones to show there loyalty to Hideyoshi.
In the following years Hideyoshi captured the lands of Shikoku island and Kyushu Island. In 1590, he captured the Odawara castle in Tokyo. Nobunaga’s dream was fulfilled, Japan was finally unified for the first time in 100 years achieved by a son of a peasant. Hideyoshi was never appointed as “shogun” by the emperor because he did not belong to the Minamoto clan.
Hideyoshi prohibited peasants from carrying swords, he confiscated all their swords and melted them into a Buddha statue. He killed 26 Christian missionaries and Japanese converts In Nagasaki to discourage people from converting.
Hideyoshi also asked Sen no Rikyu, the founder of tea ceremony and one of Hideyoshi’s closest friends, to commit seppuku, for the reason we still don’t know today.
He invaded Korea twice (1592, 1597), both incursions were somewhat successful but the Japanese forces never made it into Mainland China and eventually withdrew. The Japanese army attacked China in 1931 by following the same route used by Hideyoshi’s forces.
He could not have a child to take over after him so he declared that his nephew was the heir. But He eventually had a son 5 years before his death. He then killed his nephew and all of his family members including women and kids.
Before he died, he set up the elders council to rule Japan temporarily until his 5 year old son grows up. The elderly council, consisting of 5 generals including Ieyasu, promised to protect his son and obey his rule in the future.

Musashi Miyamoto (1584~1645)

Musashi did not have a master daimyo so he was a ronin. He had more than 60 sword duels, the highest number recorded. He is said to have killed 17 people in his battles. His first battle was when he was 13. He was very strong and a skilled carpenter, architect and an artist. He was about 180 cm while an avg. samurai was 150 cm tall. He is famous for his technique of using two swords in his two hands as usually katana is held with both hands. He wrote a book to train the samurais and the swordsmen. The book is recommended to everyone including martial arts practitioners and business leaders. Miyamoto emphasized that the techniques are less important than the overall goal. The same fighting principles apply to not only one-on-one conflicts but also army battles. The 5 rings represent the five episodes Musashi wrote:
“Do nothing that is of no use” ; “If you wish to control others you must first control yourself”; “from one thing, know ten thousand things”; “It is difficult to understand the universe if you only study one planet” ; “In battle, if you you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.”; “Do not regret what you have done”; “If you do not control the enemy, the enemy will control you” ; “Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help”; “The important thing in strategy is not to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions”; “Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”; “Accept everything just the way it is.”; “Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.”

Sanada Yukimura (1567- 1615)

Sanada Yukimura was the most famous samurai of the Sanada clan, being called “A Hero who may appear once in a hundred years“ and “Number one warrior in Japan,“ who is famous for his participation in the Siege of Osaka Castle in 1614 (Winter campaign) and 1615 (Summer Campaign). In the events preceding the Battle of Sekigahara, Yukimura and his father decided to side with Ishida Mitsunari, against Tokugawa Ieyasu, parting ways with Yukimura’s brother Nobuyuki. He participated in the Winter and Summer sieges of Osaka Castle, successfully defending the Castle with only 6000 men against Tokugawa shogunate attacked by 30,000 troops. He was killed near the Yasui Shrine right by the Tennoji temple in Osaka during the Summer siege of Osaka castle. His armor had a symbolic meaning: deer horns (deers are messengers of Gods), red color (red is the purifying color that keep evil spirits away, 6 coins (after death our spirits should pay 6 coins to the devil waiting by the river, the 6 coins on the helmet to remind the readiness for death).

Yoshitsune Minamoto (1159-1189)

Yoshitsune Minamoto faced hardship already as a 1-year-old boy, when his father and two older brothers were murdered in the Heiji Rebellion, while he and his mother managed to flee. He was raised by the monks in Kurama Temple, but did not want to become a priest himself. His famous companion was Benkei (1155-1189) who was sohei ( warrior monk). One night, Benkei was wandering around Kyoto, in his quest to take 1000 swords from samurai warriors. Having managed to take 999 swords, he faced up to the man much smaller than himself and lost- that man was Yoshitsune Minamoto. Out of respect, he became Yoshitsune’s retainer and fought alongside him in his battles against the Taira clan, becoming known in Japanese folklore for his honor, bravery and loyalty. When Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother Yoritomo and had to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in the castle of Koromogawa, Benkei died defending him, pierced by a barrage of arrows on the bridge leading towards the castle.

Takeda Shingen (1521- 1573)

Takeda Shingen, Haronubu, was one of the most famous feudal lords of Japan, during a difficult Sengoku (warring states) period. He was known for his rivalry with another famed warrior Uesugi Kenshin. Born into a clan of military governors, he forced his father to step down as a head of the clan and took over. He started expanding into neighboring areas, acquiring a lot of land for his family. In 1551, he became a Buddhist priest and took the name Shingen. Around that time, he started his rivalry with Uesugi Kenshin, with whom he fought five times in the Battles of Kawanakajima. During the only single combat between the two, Kenshin attacked him with a sword, while Shingen fought back with an iron war fan. He also defeated Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Battle of Hamamatsu. There are many accounts of his death, but the most popular is offered in Kurosawa’s movie “Kagemusha“, according to which he died of a single sniper shot wound.

Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199)

Yoritomo Minamoto is one of the most important historical figures in Japan, being the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, the first shogunate in Japan’s history. As a member of the Minamoto clan, he was destined for a clash with the rival Taira clan. His father and numerous family members were killed by the Taira clan during the Heiji rebellion, and young Yoritomo spent his youth in a Buddhist temple, preparing his revenge. His opportunity came when Prince Mochihito urged him to take up arms and rebel against the Taira. After a series of battles in the Genpei War, he managed to defeat the Taira and set up his base in Kamakura, where he was appointed as shogun and allowed to establish the offices of jito (stewards) and shugo (military governors). The conflict between the Taira and the Minamoto clan is chronicled in “Tale of the Heike“.

Date Masamune (1567- 1636)

Date Masamune was a regional ruler who founded Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. He was known as “One-eyed Dragon of Oshu“, having lost his right eye to smallpox he had as a child. In battles, he wore his well-known crescent-moon helmet, which only added to his reputation as a frightening warrior. He fought his first battle at the age of 14, fighting alongside his father in the clash against the rival Soma family. After his father’s death, Masamune became the head of the Date clan. He served shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi who once spared his life in admiration of his bravery in the face of death, but after his death pledged allegiance to Tokugawa Ieyasu who made him the lord of the Sendai Domain and one of the most powerful regional rulers in Japan.

Tomoe Gozen (c.1157-1247)

Tomoe Gozen was onna-bugeisha (female samurai), admired for her swordsmanship, bravery and strength, in addition to her extraordinary beauty. She fought in the Genpei War alongside Minamoto no Yoshinaka, to whom she was either a wife or a mistress. Her moment of glory came in the Battle of Awazu, in which Yoshinaka was killed. Yoshinaka told her that he wanted to die fighting, and urged her to leave the battlefield, because he did not want to die with a woman. There are many accounts of what happened next. According to some, she beheaded one samurai warrior and obliged by escaping the battlefield. Uchida Ieyoshi, a samurai warrior who betrayed Minamoto no Yoritomo, also died at her hands.

Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578)

Uesugi Kenshin, born in Nagao Kagetora, was the most powerful feudal lord of the Sengoku period, along with Takeda Shingen. He was not only an exceptionally skilled warrior, but also a great administrator and trader. He had a longstanding rivalry with Takeda Shingen over the province of Kanto. Uesugi took the name Kenshin (meaning new sword) and become a Zen-Buddhist, taking a vow of celibacy and becoming vegetarian. He identified with the Buddhist god of war- Bishamonten. By defeating Oda Nobunaga he managed to prevent him from taking over Japan. Kenshin either died of a stomach cancer, or was murdered by a ninja who was hiding under the latrine.

Ishida Mitsunari (1559- 1600)

Ishida Mitsunari was the general of the Western army during the Sekigahara battle. When he was a 13-year-old boy he met Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who appointed him to his staff after enjoying three cups of tea that the boy served him. He went on to become Hideyoshi’s financial manager and administrator, in charge of diplomatic relations with foreigners, among other things. After Hideyoshi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu became one of the five rulers to rule in the name of Hideyoshi’s five-year-old son, and Mitsunari soon became disillusioned with him. He was caught by peasants and executed in Kyoto.

Kato Kiyomasa (1562- 1611)

Kato Kiyomasa, was instrumental in helping Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu to unite Japan. He was the relative of Hideyoshi, and fought alongside him in the Korean campaign, earning the nickname “Devil Kiyomasa“. He was one of the Seven Spears of Shizugatake, Hideyoshi’s bodyguards at the Battle of Shizugatake, and was awarded a lot of land for his service. He built a number of Buddhist shrines and was suppressing Christianity. Having acted as a mediator between Hideyoshi and Ieyasu on many occasions, Kiyomasa fell ill and died after one such meeting.

Sakamoto Ryoma (1836- 1867)

Sakamoto Ryoma was one of the most beloved and admired Japanese heroes, known as a “Japanese Che Guevara“ and celebrated in Japan’s popular culture. He fought against the Tokugawa shogunate, and was known for his visionary work and reforms striving for a more democratic Japan, based on equality. The fact that he managed to forge an alliance between Choshu and Satsuma provinces, proved instrumental in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in the Boshin war. He is also known as the “Father of the Imperial Japanese Navy“, since he established the flotilla to fight against the Tokugawa. He was assassinated by a band of assassins in the Omiya Inn at the age of 31 (only 5-minute walk from this museum.. The Kochi Ryoma Airport is named after him and there is a Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum in the same city.

Ito Hirobumi (1841- 1909)

Ito Hirobumi was the first prime minister of Japan who was coming from a samurai family. He drafted the Meiji Constitution, looking up to Western models, owing to his England-based education. He became the first Prime Minister of Japan in 1885, and held the same position three more times, the longest tenure in the history of Japan. Following the Japan-Korea Treaty in 1905, he became the first Japanese Resident-General of Korea, and the President of the Privy Council of Japan, following Korea’s subsequent annexation. He was murdered at the Harbin Railway station, by a Korean nationalist and independence activist.

Hijikata Toshizo (1835- 1869)

Hijikata Toshizo born into a wealthy family in Musashi, went on to become the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi. He was practicing kenjutsu when he met Kondo Isamo, the fourth master of the Tennen Rishin-Ryu martial art, and became his disciple. He fought alongside his teacher at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and replaced him at the Battle of Yodo-Senryomatsu, because Kondo was wounded. It is said that, after having lost many men in these battles, Toshizo realized that he would no longer have any luck in battles. After Kondo’s death, Hijikata announced the new “Republic of Ezo“. He was killed in the final conflict with the Imperial Forces, while riding on a horseback in combat.

Akechi Mitsuide (1528~1582)

Akechi Mitsuide was a daimyo of the Akechi clan and a general under Oda Nobunaga. He betrayed his master Nobunaga and ordered his troops to kill him. Soon after he was killed by a ronin and Toyotomi Hideyoshi started ruling Japan. Although this kind of betrayal is uncommon some say he was infuriate because Nobunaga insulted him publicly and Nobunaga killed the rulers of a major clan who in turn kidnapped Akechi’s mother and killed her.

Yasuke (1555-1590)

(an artist’s illustration of Yasuke)
Yasuke was a black samurai of African origin (from Ethiopia, Mozambique or South Sudan), described as being a foot taller than other men of his time and “having the strength of ten men“. He was brought to Japan in 1579, by Jesuit missionaries and made a bodyguard to Oda Nobunaga. Upon seeing him for the first time, Nobunaga found it hard to believe that his skin was really black, so he asked him to take his shirt off and scrub his skin to prove that it was not ink. Yasuke’s career as a samurai ended when Nobunaga committed a seppuku (ritual suicide), after being defeated by his former general Mitsuhide.

Kondo Isami (1834- 1868)

Kondo Isami was a swordsman and a renowned commander of the Shinsengumi. He was adopted by Kondo Shusuke, master of the Tennen Rishin-Ryu (Japanese martial art practiced by the Shinsengumi), who was impressed by the bravery of then a 13-year-old boy who saved his family home from a group of thieves. Isami went on to become the fourth master of the Tennen-Rishin-Ryu. He was wounded at the battle of Toba-Fushimi and nearly escaped the Imperial Forces at the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma. He was finally caught by surprise during training in 1868, arrested by the Imperial Forces and beheaded at the Itabashi execution grounds. His head was put on public display, but it was stolen and buried behind an ancient shrine in Okazaki.

Saigo Takamori (1828- 1877)

Saigo Takamori, known as the last true samurai, resisted modernism and is hailed as a national hero in Japan. When he was a young man, his master died, and he, wanting to follow an old tradition of junshi, attempted to commit a suicide by jumping into a lake, but survived. When Japan was forced to signed the Treaty of Kanagawa and open its ports to American ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry, it ended Japan’s 220-year-old policy of seclusion (sakoku) and exposed the weaknesses of military dictatorship (shogunate). This event triggered the Meiji Restoration, with Emperor Meiji attempting to modernize the country and dismantle the old system of rule. When the reforms threatened samurai way of life, forbidding them from carrying their swords in public, ordering them to wear their hair in Western fashion, Saigo resigned from his government positions and established his own school, attracting as many as 20.000 young samurai. From there, he led the Satsuma rebellion against the central government. Details surrounding his death during the rebellion are not completely known, but it is believed that he committed a seppuku, either by himself or assisted by another samurai.

Samurai life in the 1800s

Title: Samurai with Long Bow

Artist/Maker: Felice Beato (English, born Italy, 1832 – 1909)

Place: Japan (Place created)

Date: 1863

A samurai kneels on the ground, drawing a longbow (yumi). Arrows are visible over his shoulder, and a sword hangs at his waist.


Title: Samurai with Raised Sword

Artist/Maker: Felice Beato (English, born Italy, 1832 – 1909)

Place: Japan (Place created)

Date: 1863

The Bakumatsu period marked the end of the samurai military class. Following the restoration of imperial rule in 1868, domains governed by feudal lords and their samurai were replaced by modern prefectures administrated by governors. The traditional class system was abolished, including such rituals as sword carrying and styles such as the traditional topknot, a haircut featuring a partially shaved head with the remaining hair pulled into a small ponytail.


Title: Samurai in Armour

Artist/Maker: Kusakabe Kimbei (Japanese, 1841 – 1934, active 1880s – about 1912)

Culture: Japanese

Place: Japan, Asia (Place created)

Date: 1870s – 1890s

Three men in elaborate Samurai outfits, helmets, and armor. One man stands while holding a large bow and arrow, while the other two men sit, holding a sword and pole, respectively.


Title: Samurai with Jousting Pole

Artist/Maker: Felice Beato (English, born Italy, 1832 – 1909)

Place: Japan (Place created)

Date: 1863–1868

A samurai wearing full armor holds a pole or staff weapon. He has a sword strapped to his waist and wears a full face helmet (kabuto).


Title: Samurai Costume – Back view

Artist/Maker: Felice Beato (English, born Italy, 1832 – 1909)

Place: Japan (Place created)

Date: 1863–1868

A samurai facing away from the camera showing the back of his Tosei-gusoku armor. He wears a helmet (kabuto), and has a sword strapped to his waist.


Title: Samurai

Artist/Maker: Kusakabe Kimbei (Japanese, 1841 – 1934, active 1880s – about 1912)

Culture: Japanese

Place: Japan, Asia (Place created)

Date: 1870s – 1890s

A man in an elaborate robe and apron, holding two swords.


Title: Portrait of the Satsuma Clan Envoys

Artist/Maker: Felice Beato (English, born Italy, 1832 – 1909)

Place: Japan (Place created)

Date: November 1863

In late 1863 a delegation of four samurai from the Satsuma clan came to Yokohama to negotiate an indemnity with the British diplomats for the murder of an English merchant in September 1862, as well as to normalize relations between their clan and Britain. In this portrait, Beato captured the samurai’s mood of defiance and the tension of the time.

Title: Koboto Santaro

Artist/Maker: Felice Beato (English, born Italy, 1832 – 1909)

Place: Japan (Place created)

Date: negative 1863; print 1868

This image shows the traditional armored costume of the samurai, the soldier of noble class who served the powerful rulers of Japan.

Information and images taken from the site Paul Getty Museum