Bizarre Samurai Traditions Almost Nobody Knows About

Samurai dominated the country of Japan from the 12th to the 19th century. The fierce, disciplined warriors lived according to the bushido code, an unwritten set of rules and norms based in loyalty, sacrifice, bravery, and honor, remembered in popular culture as samurai code. Along with the code came samurai traditions and customs that defined their physical appearance, sexual relationships, how they killed and how they died. Just like pirates cherished their earrings and Vikings dyed their hair, samurai demonstrated their dedication to the code and to their lifestyle in some unique ways.


  • They Tested Their Swords On Cadavers And Criminals
    Photo: mwscheung / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    They Tested Their Swords On Cadavers And Criminals

    In order to make sure their weapons were effective and sharp, samurai carried out the practice of tameshigiri, or cutting tests. In order to test the blades, they used dead bodies, usually those of criminals but they were known to also use living prisoners who had been sentenced to death. Sometimes they would use as many as three bodies at once to put their weapons to the test. Because the sword's value was based in its strength, this was a practice that helped young metalworkers learn to hone their craft. Tests could also be done with bundles of bamboo and steel plates.

    Samurai wanted the sharpest swords possible to facilitate the end goal of their kenjutsu, or swordsmanship training, the nakiuchi - death by one single blow.

  • Samurai Had Specific Swords For Cutting Off The Heads Of Their Enemies

    Samurai carried two swords, the katana or "big sword" and the wakizashi, or "little sword." Collectively, the two swords are known as the daisho and only samurai were allowed to carry them. Samurai also carried a dagger, called a tanto. The wakizashi was shorter and thinner than a katana and was worn at all times. Because it was easier to carry and maneuver, it was easily taken indoors and kept under one's pillow at night. 

    The wakizashi was used to cut off the head of an enemy slain in battle, giving it special significance to the samurai way of life. It was also the sword used if a samurai took his own life through the practice of seppuku, a ritualized suicide that involved self-disembowelment.

  • There Was A Special Army Made Up Of Female Samurai Warriors

    Compared to the number of male samurai, there weren't a lot of female warriors but that doesn't mean they didn't exist. Nakano Takeko, a nineteenth century samurai warrior, fought for her clan against the Japanese imperial army as they attempted to weaken the power of the daimyo, or landholding warlords. Takeko fought alongside male samurai at the siege of Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle in 1868 and afterwards led forces of hundreds of women warriors called the Joshigun. They charged at the imperial army, armed with guns, with their swords and vowed to fight to the death. In her final battle, Takeko was said to have killed several men with her sword before being shot and killed. Her own sister, Masako, cut off her head so it would not be taken as a trophy, a common battlefield practice in Japan.

  • Fathers Had Their Daughters Marry Samurai To Boost Their Social Status

    At the height of their domination, the samurai made up 10% of Japanese society. The men wanted to marry women that were of comparable social status but that varied within the samurai class itself. Some samurai were quite wealthy while others were akin to simple foot soldiers. In order to get married, samurai needed the permission of the shogunate which kept close watch on the interaction of classes.

    The woman marrying a samurai brought a dowry to the relationship, essentially paying to marry a warrior. The dowry would be returned in the event of a divorce, but this was rare. Because samurai of lower classes often married commoners, it was in the interest of Japanese fathers to marry off their daughters to a samurai fighter. Linking one's family to a samurai increased social standing. Samurai also had mistresses but they too were subject to approval.