For nearly 700 years, the power of the samurai held sway over feudal Japan. These Japanese warriors forged a legend unique among the history of the world. Before the Western world made contact with Japan, the country was segmented into a number of feudal states. Technically there was an Emperor, but for most of the last millennium, the Emperor ruled in name only. It was the daimyo, the individual leaders of each city-state, who really controlled the country. And at the beck and call of the daimyo were the nearly unstoppable samurai, a group of highly disciplined warriors who upheld the tenets of hard work, loyalty, and respect that have formed the foundation of modern Japanese society.
First and foremost, though, samurai were fighters. Utilizing a set of tools that made Medieval knights look like total chumps, badass samurai loomed large in Japanese society from the 12th century all the way until the late 1860s. Here are some of history’s crazy samurai tales, featuring the men and women who helped mold the Japan that we know today.
Miyamoto Musashi Was An Invincible Swordsman Who Went Into Battle With Two Swords
At the age of 13 (around the year 1595), Miyamoto Musashi killed his first opponent, a samurai from a neighboring village. Though Musashi was armed only with a wooden practice sword, he killed the other guy inside a minute, throwing him to the ground and hitting the samurai in the throat so hard that he died vomiting blood. Shortly after, Musashi began to travel the country in the hopes of perfecting his technique and becoming Japan’s greatest swordsman.
Before the age of 20, he’d distinguished himself by fighting ferociously in several battles and walking out unharmed each time. He’d also begun his tradition of wandering the country and seeking out (then murdering) anyone who was regarded as a master of the sword. He even single-handedly destroyed a famous clan of swordsmen, the Yoshioka family, in a series of duels. The last of those saw Musashi cut through dozens of men after the Yoshioka family sprung a trap.
Around this time, Musashi began to wield two blades in combat, a technique completely unheard of at the time. By around 1613, Musashi had made a real named for himself, cutting through some of Japan’s most famous duelists. It was then that he encountered Sasaki Kojiro, a man considered to be Musashi’s most fearsome opponent. Musashi made quick work of Kojiro, but the duel left him upset. It was at this point that Musashi swore off lethal duels forever, because he couldn’t bare to rob the world of any more artists.
Musashi’s story goes on like that until 1645, when the old man began to feel his end coming. Rather than sit and wait for it, Musashi moved into a cave and began writing his famous Book of Five Rings, which serves as the definitive text on classical Japanese swordplay. He also managed to crank out a guide to being self-reliant, the "Dokkodo," before dying.
Tomoe Gozen, A Female Samurai, Once Took Home Seven Heads In One Battle
In a field that was entirely dominated by men, Tomoe Gozen began her life as a concubine to one of history’s most famous daimyo, Lord Minamoto no Yoshinaka. Adept with both the bow and arrow and the long sword, Tomoe Gozen went into battle at the head of Yoshinaka’s army. In the Battle of Yokotagawara in 1181, Tomoe Gozen reportedly collected the heads of seven mounted warriors. That’s basically the ancient equivalent of Lebron James getting a triple-double and scoring a 100 points in game seven of the NBA Finals.
In the Battle of Uchide no Hama in 1184, she went total Thermopylae and led 300 of her troops into battle against an army of 6,000 enemy soldiers. She emerged as one of five survivors. Finally, in a battle before she was ordered to quit the field, Tomoe rode head on into a pack of 30 soldiers, promptly beheading their leader in one swift movement. Badass doesn't even begin to describe it.
Tsukahara Bokuden Touted An Unbeaten Record, Both In Duels And Battle
Born in 1490, Tsukahara Bokuden is one of the most prominent figures in samurai history. Over the course of 19 duels and 37 battles, Bokuden went completely undefeated, garnering a reputation as the most deadly samurai during the Warring States Period.
Then, at the age of 37, Bokuden became convinced that the true challenge was settling disputes without combat. In one famous tale, Bokuden reportedly incurred the wrath of a young samurai while traveling on a boat. When Bokuden attempted to explain the virtue of solving arguments without violence, the young samurai insisted that the boat’s captain pull up to the nearest island so he and Bokuden could duel.
When the boat docked and the young samurai jumped out, Bokuden simply grabbed the boat’s reigns and led it out into deeper water, stranding the young samurai and laughing as he left, shouting, "Here is my no sword school!"
Date Masamune, The Ruthless One-Eyed Dragon
Born in 1566, Date Masamune, the son of a regional warlord, contracted smallpox as a child. Rather than let the infection spread, he's said to have plucked out his right eye himself. Thereafter nicknamed the "One-eyed Dragon," that was the last time Masamune would let anything get the better of him. He was a blooded battlefield leader at 14 and the outright ruler of the Date clan by the time he was 17.
Masamune wasn’t someone you wanted to mess with. In response to Masamune leading his soldiers around on a rape-and-pillage tour, a rival warlord named Hatakeyama Yoshitsugo took Masamune’s father hostage, even going so far as to use the old man as a human shield on the battlefield.
Masamune’s father, by the way, shouted at his son to open fire, even though it would mean his own death. Masamune hesitated, and his father got his throat cut by Yoshitsugo. Of course, Masamune responded by ramming his army down Yoshitsugo’s throat and then torturing and killing his entire family.
The Tale Of The 47 Ronin Is The "Citizen Kane" Of Samurai Stories
The ultimate expression of Japanese honor and the national tale of Japan is Chushingura, or the story of the 47 Ronin. It begins in 1701, when two daimyo got into a kerfuffle after they were asked to entertain an envoy to the shogun.
Asano Naganori was a young leader from the country who commanded immense respect from his men. Asano was repeatedly insulted for his rural upbringing by another daimyo named Kira Yoshinaka. After being pushed to the limit, Asano lashed out with his tantō (a type of short sword), slashing Kira. Though the wound wasn’t really that bad, Asano committed a huge offense by drawing his weapon in Edo Castle. For his aggression, Asano was ordered to commit seppuku.
For 47 of Asano’s 300 samurai, the forced suicide of their master was unforgivable. At first, however, the men made no attempt to get retribution. They quietly let go of their samurai titles, adopting the title of a samurai without a master, or ronin. For over a year, the loyal ronin laid low. Their leader, Oishi, took to hitting bars and brothels and generally engaging in distinctly un-samurai-like behavior. Then, one snowy December night, the 47 ronin assembled and quietly stole into Kira’s castle, murdering him and his entire household.
After the murder, the ronin turned themselves in before carrying out the ordered sentence of seppuku.
Honda Tadakatsu Had Giant Horns And A Legendarily Sharp Sword
To begin with, samurai armor makes Medieval knight gear look like rusty garbage. In addition to the primary weapon, the katana, samurai also carried two smaller ceremonial blades, the shortened tanto, and mid-sized wakizashi. The latter of the two was used in ritual suicide, or seppuku.
Equally as impressive as the armaments was the armor that samurai wore into battle. Iron plates were dipped in a thick lacquer, and then sewn together with silk cord. The result was lighter and more durable than English chain mail. Samurai could actually wade through waist-deep water and still be ready to fight.
When he hit the battlefield in the 1560s, Honda Tadakatsu used his armor to strike fear in his opponents. To the top of his helmet, he affixed towering stag antlers that made him visible from anywhere on the field. He also eschewed the traditional katana in favor of carrying what became known as the Dragonfly Cutter, a name earned because the blade was reportedly so sharp that any insect landing on it would instantly be sliced in half. This huge, bladed polearm could apparently through several opponents with a single swing.
Kusunoki Masashige Used Guerrilla Tactics To Fight A War For His Emperor
Kusunoki Masashige was born in relative obscurity, becoming the leader of a small fief in Japan. In 1331, Japanese emperor Go-Daigo called Kusunoki to fight a losing battle for the kingdom. Though emperor Go-Daigo was captured by a swarm of shogunate forces shortly after Kusunoki joined the fight, Kusunoki managed to escape to Japan’s mountainous countryside. He then led a small group of men in a series of guerrilla-style raids that helped to turn the tide of the war. In 1332, he captured Chihaya, a fortress in central Japan that proved to be of critical strategic importance.
The emperor got wind of the victories, bribed his jailers, and returned to Kusunoki, igniting a wave of nobles to switch sides and support the emperor’s rise to power. Everything went fine until 1336, when an internecine struggle for the throne of Japan saw Go-Daigo threatened by an overwhelming army commanded by Ashikaga Takauji.
Kusunoki recommended a strategic retreat, but the emperor wouldn’t hear of it. Go-Daigo insisted Kusunoki meet the superior army in battle. Out of sheer loyalty to his emperor, Kusunoki led his troops to their doom. His unwavering loyalty in the face of outstanding odds has cemented Kusunoki’s place as one of the earliest examples of the ideal samurai.
William Adams, The First Western Samurai, Was More Politician Than Solider (But Still Insanely Cool)
William Adams didn’t exactly distinguish himself on the battlefield so much as contribute to Japan’s war technology in a big way. He was revered for his brilliance, and became extremely close with the supreme military leader of Japan, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Even before he took up with the shogun, Adams was already a tough dude, sailing out from England into the Eastern unknown in 1600. The voyage across the ocean was plagued with illness, ultimately killing 90% of the crew. Adams was one of nine crew members who survived the voyage.
After initially being imprisoned by Ieyasu, Adams ultimately became the shogun’s chief advisor, talking his way out of prison by teaching Japanese craftsman how to make Western-style sailing ships. Adams levied that success into becoming Ieyasu’s diplomatic advisor and interpreter. Though he wasn’t technically allowed to leave the country for a decade, Adams still managed to become one of the richest, most powerful men in Japan, despite the fact he started his time there as a prisoner on the edge of death.