Samurai explained

Why did some samurai shave their heads and others not?


Why did samurai have two swords?

Apart from the practical reasons for having a shorter back-up sword, it also helped set them apart from the few non-samurai who were allowed to carry one sword, such as local officials

Why were ancient Japanese swords so long?

They were mainly to be used on horseback

Why did the samurai cut their stomachs rather than their necks or anywhere else to kill themselves?

Like the Chinese, the Japanese believe that the life force (ki, chi in Chinese) is centred on the stomach. Choosing the most painful and least quick way to die also had a bit of macho posturing about it.

Why did harakiri die out?

Somewhere along the way it became a political act as much as a personal one, and as early as when General Nogi commited seppuku after the death of Emperor Meiji, people risked labeling themselves and their families as political fanatics by choosing that extreme method. There is also the practical issue of swords being just as tightly controlled as guns. It must also be remembered that it was only a very small proportion of society that commited (and were allowed to commit) suicide by this method even in the Edo period.

Why did the samurai have their strange haircuts?

Originally it was supposed to make wearing a helmet more secure and comfortable, but once people of lower classes were banned from having their hair oiled up samurai-style it became mainly a status symbol.

Why did the samurai topknot hairstyle disappear?

Apparently the first impetus to cut off the topknot (just the same as the start of wearing Western clothes and eating Western food) came from the Meiji period conscription army that replaced the samurai class. As the topknot would not fit under western-style military hats and helmets it had to be cut off. This was spread slowly to the rest of the country by a government campaign to get rid of all traditions (also spitting, mixed bathing etc) that could make foreigners think the Japanese were “uncivilised” and so extend the amount of time the Japanese had to suffer under the indignity of the same “unequal treaties” on trade that the Japanese had forced on the Koreans.


  1. Tohgoh said,

    June 16, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    I’m interested in history of samurai sword.Emperor of Japan “Tennno” is the last royal prerogative supported by ancient myth in the world.
    The Oldest japanese myth literature “Kojiki” says that Imperial treasure sword was got by the god Susanoo from eight head dragon in Izumo.
    Raw steel of samurai sword is only made by Hitachi Metals at Yasugi Izumo Shimane prefecture.However Hitachi Metals is famous high-tech steel maker,raw material of formal japanese sword is made by ancient steel making method “Tatara”. Raw steel is called “Tamahagane”(Jewel like steel).
    I hear that it is supreme one for sword making.I wanna get and forge it.

  2. alexcase said,

    June 16, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    ““Tennno” is the last royal prerogative supported by ancient myth in the world.”

    I’m not sure that is true. For one thing, by law the Japanese Emperor is not accepted as having divine origins, and most Japanese would not believe that he was decended from a god either. In places like Bhutan and Thailand, however, the king’s status as a living god is both protected in law (at least in as far as you cannot say anything bad about them) and accepted by the majority of people

  3. bob said,

    March 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    are samurai allowed to cutt of anyones head if not then when are they allowed to???

  4. Richie said,

    April 8, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    I am interested in obtaining Samurai toy hobby building a village with Samurai warriors like in the movie “Ronin” can anyone recommend where I can find these?

  5. sigh said,

    March 24, 2010 at 1:41 am

    This FAQ is embarrassingly bad. You should be ashamed.

  6. James said,

    April 16, 2010 at 12:39 am

    other than fighting what else did a samurai do?

  7. Jack Joyce said,

    December 11, 2012 at 12:57 am

    The Samurai (males) practiced guttural, loud and rapid pronunciation. While scary this made communication of subtle distinctions difficult. They also spent many hours in front of mirrors to perfect a fierce scowl. This also had a downside as most people thought they were mean. Because of the intricacy of their garments it was relatively easy for them to look concerned as they had to plan for their next opportunity to answer the call of nature. While intimately familiar with their zwards (that is how they pronounced sword ) it was not unknown for them to suffer digital loss while preparing vegetables for stir-fry. Interestingly it was the devotion to developing a perpetual scowl that caused many samurais to squint (samur is Japanese for squint) thus the name samur-eye or samurai.

    • Kevin said,

      January 14, 2013 at 12:57 am

      Please, please tell me, Jack Joyce, that you are joking. That post is truly them most inane, inaccurate, ridiculous portrait of anything Japanese, much less Samurai that I have ever read, anywhere. The Japanese don’t call Swords “zwards”, they call them Katana. The word Samurai means to serve (the nobility specifically). It is derived from the older word Saburau. The Japanese word for “eye” is “me” so to pretend it means scowl-eye is patently absurd.

    • David said,

      April 2, 2013 at 8:06 am

      this is a load of BS and an insult to Japanese people. The word “Samurai” means, to Serve

  8. alexcase said,

    January 14, 2013 at 9:29 am

    I believe the general Japanese term for sword is “ken”, katana being a particular type of Japanese sword. For example, I don’t remember any of the subtitles in Lord of the Rings having “katana” in them.

  9. crella said,

    January 16, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    He’s remembering John Belushi?

  10. Rex said,

    May 11, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Easy question….Are there any samurai today? If so, has it become as “Knighthood” in Europe where you need to be a celebrity with a liberal cause? It will sadden me if such a thing has happened.

    • alexcase said,

      May 12, 2013 at 12:42 am

      Can I suggest starting with a basic history of Japan, even if it’s just that page on Wikipedia?

      The samurai class was scrapped in the Meiji period and replaced with a European-style system of counts etc, which itself was scrapped (after WWII by the occupying Americans I think). People might well know if their family have that background, and there are certainly families which clearly have that old money feel to them, but it doesn’t have much influence on modern life. For one thing, very few family names gives a clue of an aristo background. Also, purely exam-based university entrance takes away any influence of that at that stage of life.

      Much more important is the continuing discrimination against descendants of the lowest classes in the Edo period, who were similar to the Indian untouchable class.

    • July 6, 2014 at 9:55 am

      My dad’s family is samurai, so there are those of us who are descendants, and there may be families in Japan who follow a lot of the old customs and dress, but no samurai like what you see in the movies. I read somewhere that the samurai class was closed off in the 14th(?) century, tho’ new families were allowed in from time to time. I’m sansei American, so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think there has been any new ones since the classes were abolished around 1868, & not given like British knighthood.

  11. Rex said,

    May 12, 2013 at 12:55 am

    Im already familiar with the history of Japan from the Genpei War to modern day, well familiar not an expert. So your saying, all the old aristocratic, wealthy, dominate family clans of Japan disappeared in the Meji period? Do none still exist?

    • alexcase said,

      May 12, 2013 at 8:48 am

      From Samurai page on Wikipedia
      “Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai’s right to be the only armed force in favor of a more modern, western-style, conscripted army in 1873. Samurai became Shizoku (士族) who retained some of their salaries, but the right to wear a katana in public was eventually abolished along with the right to execute commoners who paid them disrespect. The samurai finally came to an end after hundreds of years of enjoyment of their status, their powers, and their ability to shape the government of Japan. However, the rule of the state by the military class was not yet over. In defining how a modern Japan should be, members of the Meiji government decided to follow the footsteps of the United Kingdom and Germany, basing the country on the concept of noblesse oblige. Samurai were not a political force under the new order. With the Meiji reforms in the late 19th century, the samurai class was abolished, and a western-style national army was established. The Imperial Japanese Armies were conscripted, but many samurai volunteered as soldiers, and many advanced to be trained as officers. Much of the Imperial Army officer class was of samurai origin, and were highly motivated, disciplined, and exceptionally trained.

      Only the name Shizoku existed after that. After Japan lost World War II, the name Shizoku disappeared under the law on 1 January 1947”

  12. Rex said,

    May 12, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    That’s a shame Shizoku had to disappear after 1947. I didn’t know Samuraii had the right, by law, to kill an offending person of low social class. That kind of thing could lead to a lot of resentment amongst the classes, I understand it but still. I kind of see why the Boshin War happened. Im sure most samurai did not abuse this power, but there had to be some that did.

  13. Gantar said,

    June 24, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Simple question:
    Did all samurai wore Chonmage(top-knot), or was it enough to be recognized as one if you carried two swords?

    Thank you

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