Samurai are pervasive in popular culture, represented in film, television, and video games alike. Comic books and manga incorporate samurai culture, images, and themes into their stories, while anime has embraced numerous samurai tropes and crafted some of the best-known samurai archetypes of all time.
As warriors in feudal Japan, samurai served as military combatants, swore devotion to their lords, and aspired to live honorable lives. By the early 17th century, the duties and obligations of samurai shifted, transitioning them to more administrative and political roles. While samurai remained esteemed in Japanese society - and around the world - the realities of samurai life became much less heroic.
What popular culture has done for the interest in all-things samurai, however, has resulted in misunderstandings about the lives and activities of samurai. Even the most historically accurate samurai movies contain stereotypes or partial truths, muddying up what viewers do and don't believe about samurai. Which one of the notions below do you find to be the most ridiculous? Or, better yet, which one did you believe - until now?
Samurai Strictly Followed Bushido CodePhoto: Bushido Blade / Sony Computer Entertainment
Why Is It Inaccurate?: Similar to the medieval chivalric code, Bushidō wasn't a formal list of rules and regulations for behavior. Both chivalry and Bushidō function as ideals, emphasizing loyalty, duty, and honor. Samurai were guided by Bushidō, but the practicality of the so-called code presented challenges. Samurai who incorporated aspects of Bushidō into their lifestyle were meant to be examples of morality and propriety to non-warriors. Kindness, generosity, and obedience weren't always possible, especially in the throes of battle or in everyday life.
As the generalities of Bushidō changed over time, identifying a solitary doctrine is equally problematic. The term Bushidō wasn't used until the 16th century (and didn't become a term familiar outside of samurai society until the 19th century), but the concepts behind it can be traced to the Kamakura period (1192–1333). Lord and warriors alike adjusted their moral compasses based on political circumstances and religious influences. Confucianism and Buddhism, for example, were blended into Bushidō over the centuries.
Notable Offenders: The Last Samurai (film, 2003), Tower of God (webcomic), Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's (anime), Bushidō Blade (video game), Sword of the Samurai (video game).11217Dumb but believable?
All Samurai Who Lost Their Lords Became Wandering RoninPhoto: Seven Samurai / Toho
The Trope: Disgraced or dismissed, a lordless samurai was destined to live as a rōnin - without honor or protection. Samurai whose lords (or daimyo) passed or experienced some sort of downfall were equally on their own, unable to survive without selling their services or committing transgressions while wandering the countryside.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: Ancient rōnin - the term actually means "wave man" - were itinerant and feared for their bandit ways. As undesirables in Japan, rōnin did have a stigma attached to them, but they weren't always excluded from traditional military activities. During the Sengoku period (1467-1568), as daimyo fought for control of Japan, rōnin were enlisted to fight in each lord's army. Similarly, samurai maintained a relatively casual connection to their lords, giving them the ability to leave one master for another in search of better treatment or opportunities. As an era characterized by civil war, the chaos of the Sengoku period gave way to a unified Japan (albeit brief) under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (d. 1598), and the services of rōnin were no longer needed by weakened daimyo. A more clear division of social classes and land redistribution that characterized 17th century Japan sent rōnin and samurai alike out of service, with many men becoming urban artisans, martial arts instructors, or administrative officials as opportunities arose.
Notable Offenders: The 47 Rōnin (numerous iterations in film, literature, and legend), Sword of the Samurai (video game), Seven Samurai (1954).8218Dumb but believable?
Samurai Always Fought Ninjas Since They Have Opposing Codes Of ConductPhoto: Duel to the Death / Golden Harvest
The Trope: Samurai, noble pillars of morality and loyalty, must combat the nefarious actions of ninja - low-class spies, assassins, and mercenaries.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: Samurai and ninja did square-off against each other, but they could also work together or overlap in their activities. Ninja, associated with lower classes, are often portrayed as without morality, savage men who will use dishonorable methods.
According to Thomas Conlan, a professor of East Asian history at Princeton University: "The samurai became an identifiable social status only in the 1590s. Before then, all of society was militarized and there was no distinction between peasants and warriors." Many samurai were actually ninja, skilled in ninjitsu - the art of war from which the latter gets their name. Ninjas could also be described as samurai, at least until the defeat of the Iga province by the Oda clan in 1580s. After the Iga ninjas were subdued by the Oda, they were hired as mercenaries, lost social status, and, through the Edo period (1600-1868), became cult-like warriors rather than essential military soldiers.
Notable Offenders: Duel to the Death (film, 1983), Mr. Goemon (video game, 1986), Super Sentai (television).8828Dumb but believable?
Samurai Had Blind Loyalty To Their LordsPhoto: The Loyal 47 Ronin / Daiei Film
The Trope: A samurai considered his lord infallible and devoted himself entirely to the needs and wants of his master over his own. As part of the so-called Bushidō code, loyalty ranked among one of the fundamental characteristics of samurai behavior alongside duty, honor, and benevolence.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: In truth, samurai were much more practical than popular culture portrays them to be. While samurai did honor their lords, they had the ability to make judgments of their own, weren't naive, and had an individualistic nature. There were also social and economic aspects of the warrior-lord relationship, one that influenced the personal and political roles of samurai and lords alike.
The idea that samurai were blindly loyal is largely wrapped up in Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin who avenged their master's passing at the expense of their own lives. Chūshingura, which means "The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, has experienced extensive retellings since it was first presented as a play during the early 18th century.
Notable Offenders: The 47 Rōnin (numerous iterations in film, literature, and legend), Bleach (manga).7015Dumb but believable?