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 Were Only MenPhoto: The Last Samurai / Warner Bros. Pictures
The Trope: Samurai were loyal, honorable, and esteemed men. Women, in contrast, were relegated to domestic - or seductive - roles.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: In medieval Japan, there was an entire group of female samurai called onna-bugeisha. These women became experts at wielding a naginata, a long pole weapon with a blade fastened at the end. Onna-bugeisha also used daggers (called kaikens) and other knives, serving as members of the noble warrior class.
Once notable female warrior was Tomoe Gozen, a 12th century fighter who was, "a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot." During the Genpei Wars, she was said to have, "flung herself upon Onda [the enemy general] and, grappling with him, dragged him from his horse, pressed him calmly against the pommel of her saddle and cut off his head."
In most depictions of samurai in popular culture, especially film, women do not take up arms, but function as a romantic interest. When they do fight, it's with an elegance (or sexuality) uncharacteristic of actual combat. Furthermore, women are always portrayed with naginata, but they were used by male soldiers as well.
There have been some changes to this presentation of female fighters in video games (like Total War: Shogun 2) but, generally, women have remained noncombatants due to an incorrect understanding of the role of women in Japanese history. This is the result from efforts during the Edo Period to emphasize the duties and femininity of women as wives and mothers.
Notable Offenders: Princess Mononoke (animated film, 1997), Samurai Warriors (video game), The Last Samurai (film, 2003), The Twilight Samurai (film, 2002).458Dumb but believable?
The Only Form Of Punishment Good Enough For A Samurai Was SeppukuPhoto: Seppuku (Harakiri) / Shochiku
The Trope: A disgraced samurai had one true option to make amends - ritual suicide. Called seppuku (or harakiri), this type of demise was meant to atone for wrongdoing by ritualistically stabbing oneself in the stomach before driving the blade up and then from left to right to complete the disembowelment. While committing seppuku, another samurai (a kaishaku or "second") looked on, prepared to cut off the doomed warrior's head, if necessary.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: Seppuku could be taken on willingly by a samurai or pronounced as a punishment, but many of the nuances of the practice are lost in popular-culture presentations of the act. By the 18th century, seppuku was much more formal than it had been when it developed during the 12th century, and it wasn't uncommon for condemned men to resist their fate. During the 17th century, men sentenced to seppuku could resist, even turning their dagger on the men tasked with overseeing the act. Over the course of the 18th century, it became common to give the condemned man a wooden sword or fan as a symbolic implement used as the executioner cut off the samurai's head.
Notable Offenders: Rashomon (film, 1950), The Last Samurai (film, 2003), Shogun (miniseries, 1980), Airplane (1980), Seppuku (or Harakiri) (film, 1962), 47 Ronin (2013).4814Dumb but believable?
Samurai Only Used KatanaPhoto: The Last Samurai / Warner Bros. Pictures
The Trope: A samurai is always at the ready, armed with his principle weapon - the katana.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: A katana was one of numerous weapons used by samurai. Initially archers, samurai used a bow and arrow, especially while riding on horseback in cavalry combat. Alongside the long blade of a katana, samurai also carried short sword called a waskizashi. While a katana measured about two feet long, the waskizashi was half or two-thirds as long, a bit thinner, and only required one hand for use. Additional weapons used by samurai included a dagger (tantō), a polearm (naginata), or a four-foot long sword called a nodachi.
Samurai also used firearms as early as the mid-sixteenth century, although many traditionalists refused to give into changing military technology. During the 1540s and 1550s, the Japanese produced 300,000 tanegashima muskets (based on Portuguese-style guns), some of which were used by samurai.
Notable Offenders: The Last Samurai (film, 2003), Yojimbo (film, 1961), 47 Ronin (film, 2013), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (film, 2003), Ghost of Tsushima (video game, 2020).5118Dumb but believable?
Samurai Either Fought Or Practiced Fighting All DayPhoto: Samurai Rebellion / Toho
The Trope: As warriors, samurai spent their days training and preparing for their next battle. When not engaged in some sort of combat, samurai practiced martial arts, honed their skills, and sharpened their mental acuity until the next fight came along.
Why Is It Inaccurate?: The training that went into becoming a samurai was extensive, but the amount of time individuals dedicated to practice was dictated by wealth. Practice was important, however, with samurai sparring with one another during peacetime to keep their fighting skills in check. Until the late 16th century, samurai could be both warriors and farmers, indicating many samurai held both positions in order to survive. Samurai could essentially move in and out of warrior status, residing with their lord or live with their families.
As samurai became a formalized social class, their marriages became increasingly tied to political and economic alliances, but their activities also expanded beyond just fighting. During the Edo period (1603-1868), samurai spent large amounts of time at the imperial court and functioned as administrators more than warriors. This was largely influenced by the increasing emphasis on Confucian values and concern for peace and prosperity.
Notable Offenders: The Last Samurai (film, 2003), Samurai Rebellion (film, 1967), 13 Assassins (film, 1963 and 2010).5221Dumb but believable?