History of the Samurai Sword

English: Armoured samurai with sword and dagge...

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Japanese Samurai Warriors were members of the top social hierarchy of Japan. This social class existed for hundreds of years until about the 19th century. Around this period, the Shogun reigned supreme.

The samurai sword is said to be one of three sacred treasures of the Japan. The Sacred Mirror and the Comma Shaped Beads are the other two. As early as 3 B.C. the Samurai Sword was used as an offering to the Gods. It is said to possess the three critical holy elements of purity, rarity, and value. The sword would later become the symbol of the Samurai Code or the Code of the Warrior.

The samurai sword is considered by many to be the spirit of old Japan. The history of Japan in many ways reflects the history of the Samurai Sword. In the Samurai Sword, we can trace the lineage, the history and the countless wars. In the sword, we see the craftmanship, the quality, the heart and soul of the people of Japan that would later go on to become a technological world leader. The sword was a predecessor to Modern Japan.

Japanese sword history can be divided into eight periods.

  1. Ancient period (before A. D. 650): The art of making the weapon was introduced from the Mainlands of China and Korea. Many artisans and skilled black smiths from China and Korea emigrated to Japan to further develop the art of sword making. Swords during this period was yet to be perfected and the blades were designed straight.
  2. Nara period (650 ~ 793): In the year 710, the first permanent Japanese capital was established in Nara. It was a city modeled after the Chinese Capital. There were large Buddhist Temples and monasteries. Later the capital would be moved to Nagaoka and then finally to Heian (Kyoto) in 794 where it would remain there for over a thousand years. This was the “Golden Age” of religious art, architecture, painting and sculpture. The art of making the sword was still primitive but some progress had already been made. Many wars ensued during this period, and he national army’s demand for swords were insatiable.
  3. Heian period (794~1191): The Fujiwara family controlled the political climate during the Heian period over several centuries through strategic marriages with the Imperial Family and by occupying important polical offices in Kyoto. Japanese smiths began to produce their own swords with their own distinctive styling. The art of Japanese sword making had already improved dramatically. This was also the period where Japan found it’s own identity, gradually “Japanizing” all of it’s imported ideas and customs. It would become a more distinct culture, a Japanese culture, apart from Korea and China.
  4. Kamakura period (1192 ~ 1336): Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan during this period from China and Korea, otherwise known and Chan Buddhism. Large number of Samurai warriors became followers of Zen. The Samurai class would become a leading social hierarchy. Also during this period, Confucianism became widespread, instilling loyalty and social order to the people. Another noteable event in history during this period is the Mongol Invasion. The Mongols had already conquered China and was eyeing Japan. A large fleet of Mongol ships had made it’s way to Kyushu Japan, but was later forced to turn back because of horrendous weather conditions. A quite favorable event for the Japanese, as the Mongol army outnumbered the Japanese by a large number. Several more attempts would be made, but the Mongols would be forced back countless times due to hostile weather. Japanese smiths began experimenting with different kinds of metals and steel types to further improve the sword. The government demand for swords continued to fuel development and manufacturing.
  5. Muromachi (Ashikaga) period (1337 ~ 1573): The Era of Civil Wars. Considered to be a very dark period in Japanese history. Bloody civil wars had broken out and the fuedal Lords and Shoguns of Japan raged relentless battles. The pouring of blood and death appeared to be without end. The demand for more fighting weapons and swords continued to rise. Ironically, this was the same period that the Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries arrived in Kyushu Japan and introduced the firearm and Christianity to the people.
  6. Azuchi-Momoyama period (1574 ~ 1602): A more peaceful period. The arts in Japan began to flourish. Shogun Hedeyoshi made social distinctions between the Samurai Class and the Farmer Class. He forbade all Samurais from farming and had them live in castles. These attempts were made to create social order. With some new found peace, the people could now concentrate on developing their spirits. The art of sword making too, reached new heights.
  7. Edo (Tokugawa) period (1603 ~ 1867): Edo was the Shogun’s capital at the time. Continued peace brought much economic anc cultural prosperity. This was also a period of international seclusion as the nation was closed from outsiders. Only a handful of foreigners including the Chinese, Koreans and some Dutch traders were allowed to enter the Land of The Rising Sun. It was a capital offense at the time to enter or leave the country. This closed border policy continued until the 19th century. Commodore Perry of the American Navy is credit with opening up trade relations with Japan. Shortly thereafter, internal strife combined with foreign pressure ended the Tokugawa period and initiated the emergence of Modern Japan.
  8. Modern period (since 1868): After 1876, the national government forbade the public wearing of swords. Industrialization was introduced, factories were built, Japan became an active trading partner with the Europeons and Americans. Their military power continued to rise. They would later annex Korea and China. They would win a war against Russia and later lose in World War II. They would then rise from the ashes to become an economic power, manufacturing world class goods and their brands becoming household names such as Toyota, Honda, Sony, and Panasonic.

There was a legend from the smiths of Yamato Province in the history of Japan. The legend was about that the smith Amakumi in Yamato about A. D. 700 made the first samurai sword. Amakumi and his son gathered and examined the sword remnants after they found that nearly half of the returning soldiers from the war were carrying broken swords that they made. At that moment, Amakumi made a vow to himself that, “If they are going to use our swords for such slashing, I shall make one which will not break.” After that, Amakumi and his son prayed for seven days and nights to the Shinto gods. Besides, Amakumi selected the best sand ore he could obtain and refined it. They worked hard and tried to improve of making the better swords. Later, the smiths emerged with a single-bladed sword, which had curvature. Finally, Amakumi and his son continued with their work and made many improved types of swords. After the other war during the spring, all the returning soldiers were carrying the swords in perfect condition.

Generally, there are four categories of samurai swords as weapons, which are made of steel, single bladed, curved, and tempered. Besides, there are four periods in the history of the samurai swords:

  1. Ancient sword (Chokuto or Ken) Period (until A. D. 900): The swords chiefly made by the smiths from China or Korea or by the early Japanese smiths during this period. The swords were made of steel and mostly were straight (chokuto) type. The imitation of Chinese sword was gradually developed into the typical samurai sword. Top officials usually carried expensive swords made in China.
  2. Old sword (Koto) period (900 ~ 1530): Power was obtained only by means of warfare during this time. So, the sword became an everyday weapon and was carried constantly by the samurai. The swords with the cutting edge of more than 4 feet were often employed. The straight sword for stabbing was replaced by a single-bladed sword with curvature. About the year 900, the smith Yasutsuna in Hoki began forging excellent samurai swords. The most famous swords’ smiths appeared in Japanese history during the years 900 to 1450. After the year 1467, the smiths turned out blades in mass production due to the increasing demand for swords. So, there were only a few swords can be considered very good.
  3. New sword (Shinto) period: The end of the long civil war caused the sword lost its functional value. The length of the long sword (daito) was shortened, the cutting edged being reduced to about 2 feet, and the samurai began carrying it by inserting it between the hip and the sash. The smiths engraved extravagant of flowers, shrubbery, and dragons on the swords, instead of the simple Sanskrit characters or grooves of older swords. Besides, pictures of maple leaves, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, or Mount Fuji could be found in the tempered lines of the swords. More than half of the samurai swords in today were made during this period.
  4. Modern (Shin-shinto) period: The feudal system and the prestige of the samurai came to an end. Swords could no longer be worn. The smiths of swords lost their trade and turned to make hoes, scissors, and knives for their livelihood. So, a lot of the swords and its ornaments were exported to Europe and United States. Many books about the swords and its ornaments were published. Since 1926 until now, there has not been a single great smith of sword. A stamp of a cherry blossom with the character for Sho (1/8″ diameter) could be found above the signature of the smith on the tang of many blades. Besides, many swords like police and parade sabers, which were manufactured during the last forty-year cannot be considered samurai swords because of the plating and methods of forging contrary to the conventional methods of hand-forging and tempering of samurai swords.

Statistically, there were around 1 1/2 million swords existing before World War II. Around 1/3 of them were over 2 feet in length (daito). At present, there are more samurai swords in the United Sates than there are in Japan. Japan has no more than 100,000 swords today. Around 250,000 to 350,000 swords has been brought into United States as war souvenirs by returning servicemen after the end of Pacific War during the occupation of Japan. Most of them are long sword (daito) which is formerly used by Japanese commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Around 70% of the long sword are in United States today. Swords of buke-zukuri type, neo-army (shin-gunto) type, proto-army type (kyu-gunto) type, police sabers, army parade sabers, navy types, ken and jindachi-zukuri types have been brought into United States.

Samurai swords can be classified by length or by the types of mountings.

Classifications of swords by length

Japanese use the shaku to measure the length of the cutting edge of the samurai swords. 1 shaku = 11.903542 inches.

  1. Long Sword (Daito): over 2 shaku in length; there are the longer of the two swords commonly worn by the samurai; difficult to temper a daito because of its length.
  2. Medium Sword (Wakizashi): 1~2 shaku in length; worn by samurai as auxiliary sword, or by non-samurai, who were allowed to wear no more than one sword of this length.
  3. Short Sword (Tanto): less than 1 shaku in length; the shorter of the two swords worn by the samurai as auxiliary swords. Women and tradesmen used them as protective weapons. Commonly called as hara-kiri knives. They are usually the hira-zukuri (without ridgeline) types.

Classifications of Swords by mountings

  1. Ken mountings: The oldest type known for swords of the ancient sword period. Straight, either single or double-edged blades.
  2. Jindachi-zukuri mountings: For the long sword of the Old Sword period and were 4 ~ 5 feet in length. There were two rings on the scabbard because the swords worn suspended from the hip by cords. Many imitations of these mountings copied in the past one hundred years in some areas of Japan.
  3. Buke-zukuri mountings: Come from the New Sword period. The handle is bound with narrow tape or leather thongs. There were no rings attached to the scabbards because the words were worn on the left hip, inserted between the hip and the sash and not suspended. The full length of this mounting was 3 ½ ~ 4 ½ feet. This is the most common and is of great interest to connoisseurs. There have pockets for a kozuka (utility knife), a kogai (skewer), or a set of wari-bashi (split chopsticks) near the mouth of the scabbard. At the most, only two of these three itens were carried in the pockets of a scabbard.
  4. Shira-saya mountings: Made of plain wood and were used to protect the blade or to replace a damaged mounting. It has no guard. It is also called as yasume-zaya (resting scabbard). This type is convenient for protecting a blade or an original mounting. A substitute blade (tsunagi) of wood or bamboo will be inserted to preserve the mounting when a blade is not kept in its original mounting.
  5. Gunto (Army and navy swords) and their mountings:
    1. Kyu-gunto (proto-army sword) mountings: The scabbard was chrome plated. The handle was wrapped with shark or giant-ray skin and bound with gold-colored wire. There was a strip of metal starting at the base to the top of the hilt.
    2. Shin-gunto (neo-army sword) mountings: The scabbard of this type resembles that of jindachi-zukuri mounting but is made of brown-colored metal and usually covered with leather when used in combat area. The handle, which is bound by leather thongs or cord, resembles that of buke-zukuri type. The handle usually has cherry-blossom designs on its pommels and ornaments. Blue color of tassel is for company grade; red is for field grade; red and gold is for general grade.
    3. Kaigunto (naval sword) mountings: Three types of swords used by the officers of the Japanese navy: (1) about 15 inches long short sword; (2)long and bears a close resemblance to the jindachi-zukuri type or new-army type; having two rings attached to its dark scabbard. (3) long, but narrow and looks like a police saber.
  6. Shikomi-zue (Sword cane) mountings: Made after the Meiji Restoration and most of them are of a poor grade.

There are two main parts of the sword:

  1. The blade
  2. The mountings

Composite of the blade

  1. The point (Kissaki):
    1. The point is the most difficult part of a sword to forge and to polish. The value of the sword is mainly determined by the condition of its point. Tempered lines (boshi) on a point need not necessarily be identical on both sides of the blade. Points can be classified into different types of the blade regardless of size, by size and shape, or by their tempered lines (boshi):
  2. Dividing line of surface and point (Yokote)
  3. Ridgeline (Shinogi): This line will not be found on hira-zukuri blades.
  4. Upper surface or ridge area (Shinogi-ji): Wide or narrow
  5. Surface (Ji) and surface decoration:
  6. Grooves: were made for preventing the sword from bending and to lesser weight originally. Gradually were made for pure decoration.
  7. Carvings and inscriptions: A sword is not necessarily a good sword only because of its carvings or inscriptions on its surface or upper surface.
  8. Tempered line (Yaki-ba): It is a continuous straight or wavelike line running the length of the blade. When skillfully polished, the tempered line, which is the hardest part of the steel, takes on a white color. It represents the most beautiful feature of samurai swords and is the most important item in their appraisal.
  9. Back or top ridge (Mune)
  10. Curvature (Sori): It is measured at the top ridge of a sword. Curvatures are classified into 2 types: deep and shallow.
  11. Tang (Nakago): It fits in the handle or hilt. It is important in appraising samurai swords because they often reveal the date of a sword’s construction and the identity of its maker. It can be classified by the shapes of tangs, shape of tips of tangs, file marks on tangs (yasuri-me), rivet hole in the tang (mekugi-ana) or the inscriptions on tangs.


Including all the fittings and furniture of the sword exclusive of the blade. Mountings are classified by:

  1. Scabbard (Saya): It is made of wood to protect the blade. It is lacquered or inlaid usually. Some scabbards have pockets that we mentioned before.
  2. Guard (Tsuba): It is made of steel, copper, silver or some other metal to protect the palm of the hand when holding the sword. It is usually has patterns or designs on both sides. More decorative design with maker’s signature will usually at the front side and the backside is usually less decorative. People like to do collection of tsuba because of the beautiful craftsmanship displayed in their construction. The front side of tsuba always face toward the hilt when mountings are assembled.
  3. Hilt or handle (Tsuka): It is made of wood and is wrapped in ray skin and taped that made of silk, leather, or cotton and may be either broad flat tape or cords wound in sets.
  4. Collar (Habaki): It is made to prevent the blade from rattling in the scabbard and from slipping out of the scabbard.
  5. Spaces or washers (Seppa)
  6. Pommel or metal sleeve (Fuchi)
  7. Rivet hole of the hilt (Mekugi-ana)
  8. Hilt ornaments (Menuki): A hilt has a pair of menuki with identical designs or companion or counterpart designs.
  9. Pommel at base (Kashira)

Commonly, the samurai-sword blades are divided into the hira-zukuri type (without ridgeline) and the shinogi-zukuri type (with ridgeline). There are eight different types of the common samurai-sword blades:

  1. Shinogi-zukuri, which is the most common and mostly found in long swords (daito).
  2. Kanmuri-otoshi.
  3. Unokubi-zukuri, which is found in short swords (tanto) after the late Kamakura period.
  4. Shobu-zukuri, which was popular in the Muromachi period and generally, found in short blades.
  5. Moro-ha, which is found in the tanto from the mid-Muromachi period. Straight blades with two cutting edges are known as ken.
  6. Kata-kiri-ba, which is found in the short blades and was popular in the late Kamakura and the Momoyama period.
  7. Kata-shinogi, the blades are generally short.
  8. Hita-zukuri, which is the most common type for short blades without ridgeline.

Besides, there are five different types of construction of the blades:

  1. Maru-gitae, which is with one grade of steel and used for mass production. Usually the swords reveal a smooth, grainless appearance on their surfaces.
  2. Wariba-gitae, which is a better construction than Maru0gitae because harder blade-steel is applied to the blade.
  3. Makuri-gitae, which is with the soft core that, surrounded by hard steel.
  4. Hon-sanmai-awase-gitae, which is the skin steel cover the soft core and harder blade steel.
  5. Shiho-zume-gitae, which is same as Hon-sanmai-awase-gitae with the addition of back steel.

The metal is heated, stretched and folded as many as twenty times before the sword assume its final form. Fine layers appear on the ridge area and surface that is called the grain (hada). There are different types of grains:

  1. Plain (muji)
  2. Straight grain (masame-hada)
  3. Wood or wood-vein grain (itame-hada)
  4. Burl grain (mokume-hada)
  5. Curved grain (ayasugi-hada)

There were a lot of problems that faced the smiths in ancient times. The smiths discovered that a sword with a razor-sharp blade very often broke off when used against armor. However, an unbreakable blade made of soft steel would bend. Another issue was to make the light sword for use in combat. The smiths found that the most satisfactory weight for a sword is around 2 or 3 pounds. There are many methods of making swords. Some of the methods have to go through many times of repeating process of heating and folding of the steel. After that, the smith engraved his signature and the blade was transferred to the polisher. Meanwhile, different artists will work on different parts of the swords like hilt ornaments, handle bindings, guards, and the sheaths.

Care and maintenance of the sword

The beauty and the value of the samurai sword are chiefly on the excellence of its flawless polish. The blade should never be touched with the hand because it is dangerous and will lead to eventual rusting. The best way to prevent rust is to keep the sword lightly oiled with lightweight oil because the heavyweight oil will soil the interior of the scabbard by causing dust to collect. Apply oil once a month to the sword if it is kept in a salty atmosphere. If in mountainous areas, the sword should applied with oil once every three months. Do remember to wipe off the old oil from the sword with a soft fabric, such as soft tissue before we reapply the oil to the blade. Then, sprinkle special oil-removing powder or talcum powder on the blade surface. After that, wiping off the powder by a clean before apply the light oil to the blade. Please do not use metal polish on the blade or on the metal mountings, especially the guard (tsuba). Finally, the tang should never be polished because it contains vital information about the maker.

Samurai Sword History

The samurai sword, made from the heat and pounding of the skilled artisans, these weapons of single destruction bring homage and honour to the warrior that carries them. The samurai sword is priceless as it is one and the same with the warrior class that has defined the ultimate Zen Master of Fuedal Japan

Japan has a history that dates back thousands of years. Scientists believe the Japanese people descended from many groups that migrated to the islands from other parts of Asia, including China and Korea. As early as 4500 B.C., the Japanese islands were inhabited by fishermen, hunters and farmers. The early culture was known as “Jomon,” which meant “cord pattern.” That’s because the people made pottery decorated with rope-like designs. Scientists believe a caucasian race called the “Ainu” were the first inhabitants of what is now Japan. The Ainu still exist today, mostly in the northernmost islands of Japan called “Hokkaido.” The next major Japanese cultural changed occured about 200 B.C. The people were known as “Yayoi.” The Yayoi were mostly farmers. Scientists believe the present-day Japanese closely resemble the Yayoi in appearance and language.

War played a central part in the history of Japan. Warring clans controlled much of the country. A chief headed each clan; made up of related families. The chiefs were the ancestors of Japan’s imperial family. The wars were usually about “land.” Only 20% of the land was fit for farming. The struggle for control of that land eventually gave rise to the Samurai.

One of the important dates in the history of the Japanese warring class is 660 B.C. That’s when, according to legend, Jimmu Tenno became head of a confederation of warlike clans. Tenno was known as “The Divine Warrior.” He led his people from Kyushu to the Kinki region and conquered the people there. Tenno settled in the area of Yamato. This eventually gave rise to the Yamato dynasty and state. The leaders of Yamato believed themselves to be of divine origin.

The Yamato clans conducted many military campaigns on the Asian mainland. The targets included Korea and China. These campaigns led to the importation of Korean and Chinese culture, technology and martial arts.

Legend says that Emperor Keiko was the first person with the title of “Shogun.” The word meant “Barbarian-subduing General.” Legend continues that Keiko had a son named “Prince Yamato.” He was cunning, fearless, strong and a great martial artist. Many believe that Yamato was a role model for future Samurai.

Ancient Yayoi warriors developed weapons, armour and a code during the ensuing centuries that became the centerpiece for the Japanese Samurai. Early weapons included bows, arrows and swords. Armour included a helmet that protected head and neck, a breasplate that protected the chest, arm and shoulder protectors, and a belly wrap. Later armour included protection for the legs and thighs. Armour changed as the type of battles changed. A big change occured in the 5th century when horses were introduced to Japan. Another change occured in the 15th century because of the constancy of war and the introduction of guns into battle. The code developed from the Chinese concept of the virtues of warriors doing battle to the Samurai code of chivalry known as Kyuba no michi (“The Way of Horse and Bow”) to the Bushido (“Way of the Warrior”) code.

“Bushido” means “Way of the Warrior.” It was at the heart of the beliefs and conduct of the Samurai. The philosophy of Bushido is “freedom from fear.” It meant that the Samurai transcended his fear of death. That gave him the peace and power to serve his master faithfully and loyally and die well if necessary. “Duty” is a primary philosophy of the Samurai.

The Samurai rose out of the continuing battles for land among three main clans: the Minamoto, the Fujiwara and the Taira. The Samurai eventually became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D. They were called by two names: Samurai (knights-retainers) and Bushi (warriors). Some of them were related to the ruling class. Others were hired men. They gave complete loyalty to their Daimyo (feudal landowners) and received land and position in return. Each Daimyo used his Samurai to protect his land and to expand his power and rights to more land.

The Samurai became expert in fighting from horseback and on the ground. They practiced armed and un-armed combat. The early Samurai emphasized fighting with the bow and arrow. They used swords for close-in fighting and beheading their enemies. Battles with the Mongols in the late 13th century led to a change in the Samurai’s fighting style. They began to use their sword more and also made more use of spears and naginata. The Samurai slowly changed from fighting on horseback to fighting on foot.

The Samurai wore two swords (daisho). One was long; the other short. The long sword (daito – katana) was more than 24 inches. The short sword (shoto – wakizashi) was between 12 and 24 inches. The Samurai often gave names to their swords and believed it was the “soul” of their warriorship. The oldest swords were straight and had their early design in Korea and China. The Samurai’s desire for tougher, sharper swords for battle gave rise to the curved blade we still have today. The sword had its beginning as iron combined with carbon. The swordsmith used fire, water, anvil and hammer to shape the world’s best swords. After forging the blade, the sword polisher did his work to prepare the blade for the “furniture” that surrounded it. Next, the sword tester took the new blade and cut through the bodies of corpses or condemned criminals. They started by cutting through the small bones of the body and moved up to the large bones. Test results were often recorded on the nakago (the metal piece attaching the sword blade to the handle).

Japanese samurai warriors were ranked at the top of the Japanese social hierarchy for hundreds of years until 19th century. Shogun were the most powerful samurai who ruled Japan at the time.

The medieval swords of Japan was typically a long, straight or slightly curved blade having 2 two cutting edges set into a hilt or tang. There are many tang types. There is the full tang, the encapsulated tang, the rat tail tang, the half push tang, the half tang and the full push tang. The full tang is best because it will give your sword the most stability when making full contact. The sword was the samurai warrior’s most treasured weapon. It was a part of him. Swords were awarded as medals and some Samurai’s even died to retrieve a treasured sword for their Shogun.

Samurai Sword Timeline:


*1185 – 1333 Kamakura Bakufu (rule of the Minamoto family)

*1336 – 1574 Ashikaga Bakufu

1567 – 1600 Period of Unification

*1603 – 1868 Tokugawa Shogunate

1868 – Age of Modern Japan Begins (Imperial Restoration) *PERIOD OF MILITARY RULE Dictionary Notes: Japan A country of Asia on an archipelago off the northeast coast of the mainland. Traditionally settled c. 660 B.C., Japan’s written history began in the 5th century A.D. During the feudal period (12th-19th century) real power was held by the shoguns, whose dominance was finally ended by the restoration of the emperor Mutsuhito in 1868. Feudalism was abolished, and the country was opened to Western trade and industrial technology. Expansionist policies led to Japan’s participation in World War II, which ended after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945). Today the country is highly industrialized and noted for its advanced technology. Tokyo is the capital and the largest city. Population: 124,961,000.

(Reference: Dictionary.com)

Notable Samurai Warriors



Famous poet

Matsuo Bashô stands as one of the greatest – if not greatest – of Japan’s haiku composers. A samurai turned wandering priest, Bashô wrote a book called ‘Narrow Road of Oku’ and many of his poems remain well-known in Japan – and around the world.




Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose real name was Sugimori Nobumori, was born in Nagato Province and into a minor samurai family. He was at first a monk, then returned to secular life and established himself at Osaka. Starting at around age 30, he would become one of Japan’s most prolific and beloved playwrights, composing as many as 160 plays for the Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) theatres. Many of his pieces were historically based and as many were on contemporary subjects that appealed to the common people. One of his favored devices was the tragic love between either a samurai or a townsman and a courtesan. In most of his plays, he presented a moral dillemna – the hero was presented with the confliction of duty and emotion – of what society expected and with what the hero felt in his heart. His most famous work was Chushingura, the story of the 47 Rônin. It may be that part of his ability came from the demands of writing for the Bunraku – he once commented that writing for that stage required him to make his dialogue as compelling and vivid as possible, given that, after all, the audience was looking at simple puppets.

Hasegawa Tôhaku


Noted painter

Tôhaku was born at Nanao in Noto Province. After painting a number of Buddhist-influenced works in his native Noto, he moved to Kyoto around 1471 and studied the Kanô school of painting. He produced a volume of work over the next 30 years and in 1603 was given the title Hôkyô. He died on March 20 1610. Tôhaku’s paintings were done in a number of styles, from his earlier buddhist efforts to his later, black-ink genpitsu tai productions. His most famous works include ‘Picture of Pine Forest’, ‘Picture of Monkey in Dead Trees’, and ‘Picture of Flower and Trees’. Tôhaku is attributed with the ‘Portrait of Takeda Shingen’ (which has long defined the popular perception of Shingen) but recently scholars have wondered if the subject of that work was in fact a Hatakeyama lord.

Ihara Saikaku



Saikaku was one of the mid-Edo Period’s most popular authors. Like Chikamatsu’s plays, Saikaku’s works appealed to the common people and were often amusing while being supurbly crafted. His favorite theme was the life of the bourgeois, which provided him with a volume of material to depict both realistically and in a skillfully light manner.

Imai Sôkyû


Noted tea master and merchant

Sôkyû was one of Sakai’s most important merchants and a member of the city’s leadership council. When Oda Nobunaga demanded that Sakai acknowledge his authority, Sôkyû urged the council to submit and sent Nobunaga two valuable tea items (Matsushima no Tsubo and Jôô no Nasu) as a good-will gesture. Nobunaga awarded Sôkyû for his efforts by giving him a lucrative commisson to manufacture firearms for the Oda. Shôkyû instructed Nobunaga in the tea ceremony and as a tea master later enjoyed the favor of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was present for the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony.



Noted author

Chomei was the second son of Kamo-no-Nagatsugu, an important figure at the Kamo Shrine. Chomei proved himself a talented poet, being published in the Imperial poetry anthology Senzai-wakashu and a member of a number of notable poetry circles. He became a monk in 1204 and moved into the countryside. During his self-imposed exile he wrote the Hôjôki, a powerful view of the harshness of the world around him. In addition, he produced an anthology of his own poetry called the Kamo-no-Chomei-shu.

Kano Eitoku


Noted painter

Eitoku was the son of Kano Shôei (1514-1562) and carried on the Kano school of painting as established by Kano Masanobu (1434-1530). Eitoku was likely tutored at a young age by his talented grandfather Motonobu (1476-1559), who introduced him to shôgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru in 1552. In 1566 Eitoku produced a number of paintings for the Abbot’s Quarters of the Jukônin in the Daitokuji. He was contracted by Oda Nobunaga to produce a series of wall paintings (shôhekiga) for Azuchi Castle around 1578 but these were all lost when Azuchi was destroyed in 1582. He afterwards worked for Toyotomi Hideyoshi and produced work for Juraku and Osaka Castle. Eitoku died suddenly in 1590 and his unfinished projects were completed by his son Mitsunobu. His most famous works included ‘Chinese Lions’, ‘Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons’, and ‘Scenes In and Around Kyoto’ (a screen Nobunaga sent as a gift, along with ‘Tale of Genji’, to the eastern warlord Uesugi Kenshin in 1574). The last is useful to historians in picturing life in Kyoto in the mid-16th Century.

Murasaki Shikibu


Famous novelist

Shikubu was the daughter of a certain Fujiwara Tametoki and married Fujiwara Nobutaka. Beyond educated conjecture, little is known of her early years. Her husband’s death in 1001 marks the first date in her life history can assign with any certainty. She seems to have retired to her home after Nobutaka’s death and presumably began work on the her great work, the ‘Tale of Genji’. Around 1005 her father arranged for her to become a lady-in-waiting to the consort of the Emperor Ichijô. Even here the details of her life remain obscure, despite her diary. We might assume that Shikibu accompanied the Empress of the late Ichijô (who died in 1011) into the latter’s retirement at a detached palace but when she retired or died is unknown – she simply disappears from history after about 1525. Despite this fact, her ‘The Tale of Genji’ (Genji Monogatari) remains as one of the world’s literary milestones – it is believed to be the first example of what we today would describe as a novel (or, strictly speaking, a psychological novel). Genji was also one of the world’s longest novels – at 630,000 or so words, it stands at twice the length of ‘War and Peace’. The novel’s scope is broad, occuring over the course of about seventy years and involving some 430 characters. (For a detailed look at Murasaki Shikibu, her novel, and times, see Morris: The World of the Shining Prince’).

Rai San’yô



San’yô was the son of Rai Shunsui, a historian and author of such works as the Fushin-shi. San’yô, who was also something of a poet, produced the Nihon Gaishi and Nihon Seiki. He was also notable for his sympathy for the cause of Imperial Restoration, which did not occur for decades after his death.

Samurai Notable Warriors Who Wielded The Samurai Sword

Satomura Jôha


Poet of linked verse

Jôha was the younger son of a temple servent at the Ichijôin in Nara who died when Jôha was 12. After a period of monastic life, Jôha became a priest though he elected to devote himself to poetry and traveled with noted renga composer Shûkei to Kyoto in 1542. He trained under Satomura Shôkyu and assumed the Satomura name after the death of the latter in 1552 – as well as becoming a foster father to Shôkyu’s son Shôshitsu. As head of the Satomura school of renga, Jôha’s fame gradually increased and he gained as patrons both Miyoshi Chokei and Matsunaga Hisahide and later became a teacher for Chokei’s son Yoshioki. He gained the favor of Oda Nobunaga in 1568 when the latter entered Kyoto and over the next ten years composed verse with such great names as Akechi Mitsuhide and Hosokawa Fujitaka. When Akechi killed Nobunaga in 1582, Jôha managed to spirit the crown prince out of Nijô and harm’s way – which held him in good stead when Hideyoshi questioned him afterwards (he had been involved in a provocative linked-verse session with Mitsuhide only days before Nobunaga’s death). He became active in politics under Hideyoshi and a companion of Toyotomi Hidetsugu – which led to his banishment to Miidera when Hidetsugu was ordered to commit suicide in 1595. He was allowed to return to Kyoto in the fall of 1596 and was soon forgiven by Hideyoshi. While enjoying the reputation of being Japan’s last true renga master and a discerning critic, Jôha’s reputation suffered from what some saw as opportunism and ambition in his character. His most notable works included the Renga shihôshô (Book of the Supreme Treasure of Renga) and his own journal, which detailed a trip he took to view Mt. Fuji in 1567.

Sei Shônagon


Famous author

Shônagon was the daughter of Kiyowara Motosuke and a maid of honor to the consort of the Emperor Ichijô. A colorful figure, she produced the famous ‘Pillow Book’, or Makura no Sôshi, which provides the reader with an insider’s view of the going’s-on of the Imperial Court as well as Shônagon’s opinions on such subjects as love, good looks, commoners and gossip. Written around 1002, the Pillow Book stands as the second of the two great literary works of the day – next to Murasaki Shikibu’s ‘The Tale of Genji’. Shônagon was known for her wit and openness on all matters, leading Murasaki Shikibu to pen in her own diary, ‘Sei Shônagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction.’. (TWSP, pg.263)

Sen no Rikyû


Master of the tea ceremony

Sen no Rikyû was a man of merchant background from Sakai and was known for much of his career as Sôeki. His father was Sen (Tanaka) Yohyôe, himself the son of a certain Sen’ami whom we are told fled Kyoto during the Ônin war and took up in Sakai. Rikyû’s first mention in surviving documents is a listing (as ‘Yashiro’, which he was known as in his youth) as a contributor to a Sakai temple in 1535 (AWC, pg. 211). A practitioner of the tea ceremony from at least the age of fifteen, Rikyû had been trained as a tea man in the elegant Ashikaga style. He would in time reject this school in favor of a very different approach. The nobility’s tea ceremony had been developed to cater to the sorts of individuals that partook of it, with elegant Chinese utensils and great pains taken to avoid offending any guests of higher status. In his own vision, Rikyû substituted the pricey utensils with simple, practical ones, and replaced the expensive and often gaudy teahouses of the nobility with the Sôan, or ‘grass hut’ style teahouse. The only way into the tearoom of a Sôan was through a small door, the nijiriguchi, which was only some two and a half feet square. Guests therefore entered by crawling, a deliberately humbling device intended to create a sense of equality once inside. Rikyû intended for the tea ceremony to be an activity free from social and political trappings, though in this he was to be ultimatly disappointed. As Rikyû was making a name for himself, the warlord Oda Nobunaga was also gaining fame through his steady expansion and at length came to meet Rikyû. Rikyû’s early connection with Nobunaga is uncertain, as are the specifics of their relationship in general. However, it seems clear that Rikyû’s prestige grew over the roughly 14 years Nobunaga dominated Kyoto. His star would contine to rise under the good graces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi after Nobunaga’s death in 1582; in fact, Rikyû was performing ceremonies at Hideyoshi’s behest at Yamazaki (the site of the latter’s victory over Nobunaga’s destroyer) before the year was out. It has been speculated that Rikyû and Hideyoshi had known one another since the 1570’s – yet even their later relationship is hazy. Clearly, however, Hideyoshi – who used culture as a tool in the legitimization of his rule – saw many uses for Rikyû. This is perhaps ironic – the warlord who basked in the ostentatious – the teaman who stressed the humble. At any rate, as Rikyû’s prestige grew, so did his opportunities to throw his voice into the political arena. The most obvious case in point may be the visit of Kyushu daimyô Ôtomo Yoshishige (Sôrin) in 1586. Ôtomo had come out of retirement to beg for Hideyoshi’s assistance against the encroaching Shimazu family. After the fact he would observe that Rikyû’s assistance was most vital for anyone hoping to have an audience with Hideyoshi (AWC, pg.216). Rikyû’s career seemed to be at its height when he assisted Hideyoshi in a tea ceremony held for the emperor Ôgimachi in 1585. Two years later he accompanied Hideyoshi on the latter’s invasion of Kyushu; he would also entertain him during the 1590 Odawara Campaign. Yet, in 1591, Hideyoshi suddenly ordered Rikyû placed under house arrest in Sakai and was two weeks later made to commit suicide. This shocking turn of events provides historians with one of the great mysteries of Hideyoshi’s later career. Various theories have been presented over the years but none quite seem to satisfy. The official cause for Rikyû’s fall from favor and subsequent suicide concerns a gate to the Daitokuji in Kyoto. In 1589 Rikyû had donated money so that the gate (which had gone uncompleted since the 1520’s) could be finished and in tribute a statue of Rikyu had been added at the top of the structure. Hideyoshi, then, was infuriated at the notion of passing under the image of an inferior should he enter the temple and thus brought his fury down on Rikyû. In fact, Hideyoshi had the offending statue crucified along with ordering Rikyû’s suicide. Certain scholars have suggested that Rikyû had also incurred Hideyoshi’s displeasure in another way – that he was selling tea utensils for a great profit, thus abusing his position (and the fact that he could set the prices as he saw fit) (AWC, pg. 220). An alternate theory has Rikyû caught in the midst of a struggle within the Toyotomi ranks. This holds that Rikyû, who evidently favored a softer hand in dealing with the daimyô and their rights, was executed to appease those who took a harder line (such as Ishida Mitsunari). At any rate, Rikyû’s passing has been described as the end of an era – for Japanese culture in general and the tea ceremony in particular. Rikyû stands as one of the more complex and fascinating figures of Japan’s 16th Century, his fatal association with Hideyoshi somehow very appropriate and in keeping with the nature of that colorful time.

Suzuki Harunobu


Woodblock artist

Harunobu was a noted painter in the ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’) style and is thought to have been the first to produce a full polychrome print. His trademark was his delicate depiction of his female subjects.



Pioneer of Nô drama

Zeami was the son of the playwright Kan’ami (1333-1384). In 1374 one of Kan’ami’s plays was preformed before the shôgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and the latter was much taken by the young Zeami, an actor in the work. Yoshimitsu arranged for Zeami to be placed in his custody and saw that the young man received a strong education and cultural refinement. Under the patronage of that great patron of the arts, Zeami flourished. The leader of his own troupe, he developed many plays (though scant few traces of his original work remain) and refined what would become known as ‘classic’ Nô drama. Yet his later life was to be marred by misfortune. His two sons would predecease him and after 1429 he suffered a troubled relationship with the shôgunate. In that year Zeami and his son Motomasa (himself author of the famous drama ‘Sumida River’ and others) were banned from entering the shôgun’s palace by Ashikaga Yoshinori and in 1434 Zeami was exiled to Sado Island for reasons unknown. He returned to Kyoto around 1441 but died only a few years later. His heir would be a son-in-law named Komparu Zenchiku (1405-1468). Among the many works attributed to Zeami are counted ‘Atsumori’, ‘Hanjo’, ‘Izutsu’, and ‘Yamamba’. Nô would remain a favorite of the upper-class into the Edo Period, when it was to fall out of favor somewhat at the start of the 18th Century.



Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi Harvard University Press, 1982 Ellison, George and Bardwell L. Smith, eds. Warlords, Artists, and Commoners The University Press of Hawaii, 1982 Hall, John Whitney and Toyoda Takeshi. Japan in the Muromachi Age University of California Press, 1977 Kamo-no-Chomei Hojoki Stone Bridge Press, 1996 Morris, Ivan The World of the Shining Prince Peregrine 1969 Sansom, G. B. Japan. A Short Cultural History Tuttle 1973 Tsunoda, Ryusaku, Wm. Theodore De Bary, Donald Keene. Sources of Japanese Tradition Columbia University Press, 1965 Tyler, Royall (ed.) Japanese Nô Dramas Penguin 1992


Word History: Stamp collectors know that Nihon and Nippon on Japanese stamps mean “Japan” what they probably don’t know is that Nihon, Nippon, and Japan are all ultimately the same word. In the early part of the Chinese Tang dynasty in A.D. 670, to be precise Japanese scholars who had studied Chinese created a new name for their country using the Chinese phrase for “origin of the sun, sunrise,” because Japan is located east of China. In the Chinese of the time (called Middle Chinese), the phrase was nzyet-pwun. To this the scholars added the Chinese suffix -kwuk, “country,” yielding a compound nzyet-pwun-kwuk, “sun-origin-country, land of the rising sun.” The consonant clusters in the word were not pronounceable in Old Japanese, so the form was simplified to Nip-pon-gu or *Ni-pon-gu, the latter developing by regular sound change to Ni-hon-gu. The forms Nippon and Nihon of today are the same as these, minus the “country” suffix. Interestingly, the Chinese themselves took to calling Japan by the name that the Japanese had invented, and it is from the Chinese version of the name that English Japan is ultimately derived. In Mandarin Chinese, one of the forms of Chinese to develop from Middle Chinese, the phrase evolved to Rìb nguó, an early form of which was recorded by Marco Polo as Chipangu, which he would have pronounced. The early Mandarin word was borrowed into Malay as Japang, which was encountered by Portuguese traders in Moluccas in the 16th century. These traders may have been the ones to bring the word to Europe; it is first recorded in English in 1577, spelled Giapan. (Reference: Dictionary.com)



Japanese military rule; rule of the shogun


The Way of combat; a name adopted in the 20th century for martial arts in general with an emphasis on their peaceful aspects


Warrior; name given to all the warriors who made up families with a warrior tradition


Way of the warrior; a code of honor and social behavior; succeeded the unwritten code of the Way of the bow and the horse


a feudal lord; maintained a great number of samurai in their service, who all swore an oath of allegiance to them according to the rules of Bushido


The warrior art of the sword; art of using the sword as soon as it is drawn from the scabbard, in order to attack the enemy; transformed into the art of kendo


Way of the sword; a martial art (budo) of using the sword (ken). This art was developed from the earliest times by the warriors (bushi) of Japan, and from the 14th century on by the samurai. Ken-jutsu was prohibited in 1876 when the samurai were forbidden to carry swords, but was transformed into a martial sport (kendo) for physical and mental training of the young.


weapon used by foot soldiers against horsemen or to cut the tendons of horses or to disembowel them; also favorite weapon of the wives of samurai and of warrior monks


a group of men and women specially trained for espionage and assassination; generally drawn from the lower classes and used by the daimyo to assassinate enemies and penetrate enemy fortresses


during the Tokugawa period, name given to all bushi and samurai who did not serve a particular master, either because the master had died or because his lands had been confiscated. A number of these ronin became martial arts teachers or began some other job which was compatible with their samurai status (e.g., bodyguards).


a class of bushi (warriors). The original samurai were there for the protection of their lord and were especially trained in martial arts. Later the name was given to all bushi of a certain rank belonging to warrior families


the act of ritual suicide performed by the samurai (The expression hara-kiri, to cut the abdomen, more widely used in the West, is considered more vulgar.)


title given by the emperor to the daimyo who showed himself to be the richest and the most powerful of all the lords


techniques of using the lance, and performed wearing the ancient armor of the samurai

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