Samurai: History and Legend

Explore the literary concept of the samurai and the changing nature of Japanese warrior culture from the 12th to the 19th centuries.

By Cambridge University Library

Yoroi odoshige no sodekata 鎧威毛袖形 [Patterns of shoulder armour laces] (circa 19th century) by Compiled in 1798 by Doi Toshiyuki 土井利往 and Ise Sadaharu 伊勢貞春 (1716-1813). Copyist unknown.Cambridge University Library

Preserving history

Living in a peaceful time when samurai were like civil servants, Japanese scholars of the 18th and early 19th century gathered and copied evidence of the helmets and armour of the past to preserve the warrior history. 

This manuscript illustrates armour shoulder pieces, emphasising their design and colour. The right shows a style of armour decoration known as hiodoshi 緋縅. It features silk lacing dyed scarlet. The text around the image notes aspects of the design, such as the gold trim.

Jinbaori no zu 陣羽織図 [Pictures of tabards] (1848) by Compiled by Ōhara Munekiyo 大原宗清. Copied by [Fujikawa] Seisai 整斎Cambridge University Library

This manuscript is a collection of designs for cloth tabards (jinbaori 陣羽) to go over armour.

The design in the upper right displays a butterfly family crest, which was formerly associated with the Taira clan.

Yoshiie Ason yoroi chakuyō shidai 義家朝臣鎧着用次第 [Lord Yoshiie: the process of putting on his armour] (1828) by Compiled by Ise Sadatake (or Teijō) 伊勢貞丈 (1717-1784). Copyist unknown.Cambridge University Library

The warrior in this book is Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106). The images depict the process of dressing in armour from undergarments to his weapons. The compiler, Ise Sadatake, was a prolific writer, who researched the culture of Japan’s past.  He was a bannerman (hatamoto 旗本), a high-ranking samurai in service to the shōgun, but he lived in a time when samurai were more like civil servants than warriors. 

Music, performance, and flowers
Our popular idea of samurai centres on warfare and weapons. However, for much of their history, education and culture were also central to samurai life. Buddhist practice, appreciation of flowers and performances, and musical accomplishments were all part of this larger cultural context of the samurai.

from Kōfukuji monjo 興福寺文書 [documents from Kōfukuji Temple] (circa 1261)Cambridge University Library

In this letter, a man named Taira no Tadatsuna refuses a request to go to the capital. He excuses himself, saying, ‘'My young son has been chosen to perform yabusame at Kasuga Shrine for the Wakamiya Festival, and I'm focused solely on the preparations for that."

Yabusame 流鏑馬 was a popular form of competitive equestrian archery in which people would shoot at a series of three targets. The first shōgun, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), helped popularize the contest.

Bugaku zu 舞楽図 [Pictures of Bugaku] (1828)Cambridge University Library


This colour-printed book illustrates the costumes of dancers in various named Bugaku pieces. Bugaku is a form of music and dance that originally came from China. In Japan, it is especially associated with the imperial court

Over time, elements of Bugaku music and dance were integrated into later forms of Japanese theatre, such as Noh, that are more closely associated with the warrior class.  The dance on the right is Sanshu 散手, which is mentioned in Azuma kagami. On the left is Kaōon 賀王恩.

Yuishinken kadensho 唯心軒花伝書 [Document passing down the secrets of Yuishinken’s flowers] (1544) by By Nishinobō Yuishinken. Copied by Sōgen 宗源 of Kuwazu.Cambridge University Library

Flower arranging

This manuscript passed flower-arranging knowledge secretly from master to disciple. Flowers were use for Buddhist altars and displays, as well as for commemorating special occasions.

The text is closely linked to the illustrations. It explains the elements within the flower arrangements and the occasions for which they are appropriate. 

Myōhō rengekyō 妙法蓮華経 [Lotus Sutra] (circa 12th century)Cambridge University Library

The Lotus Sutra, or Myōhō rengekyō, is a key Buddhist text. Here the Chinese characters are pure gold on indigo-dyed paper. From classical times, Japanese copied sutras for spiritual merit, and the Lotus Sutra was particularly valued. Both warriors and nobles copied or chanted sutras for success in battle or politics.

Heraldry and hunting: Samurai Identity on Display
This 17th century compilation of warrior heraldry was printed with wooden blocks and coloured by hand. Gold and silver leaf enhances some illustrations. The banners are arranged by the name of the warrior they represent, and the names are given in both Chinese characters and phonetic Japanese.

These banners belonged to Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), the second leader of the Tokugawa shogunate, which was to last until 1867. Here he is identified by his honorific posthumous title of Taitokuin-sama.

Oumajirushi 御馬印 [Heraldry (lit. horse seals)], Compiled by Kyūan 久庵 (Yoshida Mitsuyoshi 吉田光由), 1656, From the collection of: Cambridge University Library
Oumajirushi 御馬印 [Heraldry (lit. horse seals)], Compiled by Kyūan 久庵 (Yoshida Mitsuyoshi 吉田光由), 1656, From the collection of: Cambridge University Library
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Koganegahara oshishigari no zu 小金原御猪狩之図 [Pictures of hunting at Koganehara] (circa early 19th century)Cambridge University Library

In the third month of 1795, shōgun Tokugawa Ienari 徳川家斉 (1773-1841) hunted deer and wild boar in the fields of Koganehara, which is northeast of Tōkyō. This was a rare event commemorated in art prints and multiple accounts. The next shogunal hunt would not be until 1849. 

Koganegahara oshishigari no zu 小金原御猪狩之図 [Pictures of hunting at Koganehara] (circa early 19th century)Cambridge University Library

The folding format of this manuscript allows the text and the images to spread out like a scroll but to be stored compactly, like a book.

Japan’s most famous warrior
Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) was a tragic hero, whose life was immortalised in countless publications. The facts are mixed with fiction. Long after his death, Yoshitsune’s fame continued to grow through stories, theatre, and art.

Gikeiki 義経記 [Record of Yoshitsune] (circa 17th century. 1659 imprint)Cambridge University Library

This fanciful biography of the hero includes the story of his youthful training with winged creatures called tengū. Yoshitsune learned to fight while leaping or balancing on one foot as well as to fend off attacks with his fan.

Here young Yoshitsune demonstrates both skills against the much larger and more experienced warrior Benkei. Benkei was so impressed that he served Yoshitsune for the rest of his life. This edition is a rare example of a tanrokubon 丹緑本, a book hand-coloured in green and orange.

Yoshitsune ichidai kunkō sugoroku 義経一代勲功双六 [Life of Yoshitsune: a board game of meritorious deeds] (1856) by Design by Utagawa Yoshikazu 歌川芳員 (active 1848-1863).Cambridge University Library

Like the game of Snakes and Ladders, sugoroku 双六 is a board game that lets players rise or fall, depending on the numbers they roll on a die. In this case, the scenes in the game are taken from the life of the Yoshitsune. 

Warrior past reimagined in Colourful 19th Century Publications The 1860s to 1880s were decades of great change in Japan. In 1854, Japan made its first foreign treaty with the United States when under threat from American naval ships in Edo. After that, other foreign countries demanded similar treaties. Over the decades that followed, Japanese people debated whether or how Japan should change to gain an equal standing with Western countries.

The samurai had not been able to prevent the intrusion of foreign powers, and this weakened their position. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 shifted the power from the Tokugawa Shogunate to forces supporting the Emperor. Over the course of the 1870s, the samurai were eliminated as a class. They lost the right to wear swords, and their stipends were converted into interest-bearing bonds. A national army was created with conscripts, rather than samurai.

Neko no shibai 猫の芝居 [Cat theatre] (circa 1870s to 1880s) by Illustrated by [Utagawa] Kunimasa 歌川国政 [IV] (1848-1920).Cambridge University Library

This miniature book from around the 1880s looks back to the now obsolete samurai, featuring illustrations of cats in costume, including cats dressed as Edo-period samurai with swords. Many colourful miniature books like this were produced at the end of the 19th century.

Yashima Dannoura kaitei no zu 八嶋壇浦海底之図 [A Picture of the Bottom of the Sea at Yashima and Dannoura] (Mid-19th century ukiyo-e. Later reprint as a concertina book) by Utagawa Yoshitsuya 歌川芳艶 (1822-1866)Cambridge University Library

Notice how the colours in this book are very bright; from the mid-19th century, Japanese printmakers began using synthetic dyes to achieve new colours, such as bright red and purple.

The three panels on the right show an imagined scene below two sites of famous sea battles in 1185: Yashima and Dannoura. A dragon swims by the child Emperor Antoku (1178-1185) and the defeated Taira warriors, including Taira no Tomomori (1152-1185).

Credits: Story

Curated by Dr Kristin Williams. Contributions to concepts and captions by Professor Mikael Adolphson, Dr Joshua Batts, Dr Alessandro Bianchi, Professor Peter Kornicki, Noboru Koyama, Colton Runyan, Professor Takahiro Sasaki, and Polina Serebriakova.

Object photography: Dr Riku Tono; Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University; and Digital Content Unit, Cambridge University Library. 

Object conservation led by Rachel Sawicki.

Story design by Ruth Law.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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