The Soul of the Samurai - Misconceptions of the Japanese Sword

By A. Knowles
Jul 13, 2018

samurai with swordThe Japanese sword has acquired mystical significance in the wake of Samurai history, but to what extent is this image justified? This article will attempt to shatter a few myths surrounding both the use and omnipotence of the sword in the samurai arsenal. Tokugawa Ieyasu's famous remark that the sword was the 'soul of the samurai' should not be taken at face value. This was most likely a comment made reflecting the relatively peaceful years of Sekigahara (1600) to Osaka (1614) when battlefield weapons (i.e. firearms, spears and bows) were being pushed to the back of samurai life and the sword as the weapon of everyday life.

It is necessary to look at both the use and importance of other samurai weapons in relation to the sword in order to discover whether it would have been valued and utilised above all else. The comment made by Ieyasu (1543-1616) was more than likely aimed at samurai (including the lowly ashigaru) in the wake of Hideyoshi's Separation Edicts of 1587 and 1591. This edict sought to ensure that the vast armies of the Sengoku period would never be raised again; by providing a clear distinction between peasant and samurai. It should be noted that the ashigaru were not completely integrated into the samurai caste until the Edo period, forming the lower echelons thereof. As a result, I will be paying far more attention to the weapons used by the samurai, as opposed to the sohei (warrior monks) or ashigaru.

The Japanese sword in all its forms - the tachi, katana, wakizashi and no-dachi - has acquired mythical status largely due to its portrayal in films, books and theatre; not necessarily factual in content. The image of the lone sword-wielding samurai fending off gangs of other sword-brandishing lesser warriors is one born of the Edo period. As the Edo period (1603-1867) was a relatively peaceful one for the samurai it will be regarded with far less importance when seeking the 'favourite' (so to speak) samurai weapon.

Perhaps the most obvious fact about the use of the Japanese sword is that it has always been used. For example, whilst fashion and necessity dictated many changes in primary weapon use (i.e. bow - spear - gun), the sword has been a constant. It has existed since the birth of the samurai caste as a secondary weapon, but one that is of vital importance nevertheless. This importance is exemplified by the tendency for the primary weapon to break during combat, despite impressive manufacturing methods. The bow would be of little use in hand-to-hand combat, the spear could break or the firearm could become inoperable.

Therefore despite the romance of the Edo period, both the practicality and use of the sword has not been entirely blown out of proportion by subsequent artistic licence. The first swords used by the some semblance of a Japanese 'army' were straight bladed weapons, sharing far more similarities with the Chinese and Korean swords than the curved katana we know and love today. The curvature of all (except ninja-type) incarnations of the Japanese sword was adopted after government battles with the emishi (native Japanese 'barbarians') and recognition of the curved sword they utilised. A curved blade could be used for thrusting and slashing, and is superior to a straight blade when used from horseback.

The tachi (long sword) was then born, which became an ideal secondary weapon to the preferred bow during the Gempei Wars (1180-5) till the time of the Onin War (1467-77). This then evolved into the katana, most noticeably through the difference in hilt and the widespread adoption of silk cord to provide a secure grip. The manufacturing process of a good quality sword could take up to a year, and the blade forging and tempering process is far too lengthy and complex to be discussed in detail here. Suffice to say, not all swords made were of sublime quality (Turnbull, 2004 p150), which meant swordsmiths could trade quality for the advantages of mass production. Besides which, swords were often given as gifts or commissioned by daimyo, therefore a certain extra degree of elbow grease would be expected for such prestigious customers.

The basic design of the sword had various applications, usually relating to the size of the weapon itself; for instance - the tanto (dagger), wakizashi (short sword), katana (long sword) and no-dachi (extra-long sword) all have the same design characteristics in common; but with modifications that allowed them to specialise in different circumstances of combat. For example, the tanto (as we shall see later) was perfect for grappling with the enemy in single combat. Therefore while the flexibility of the sword design and variations in quality allowed it to be used by all samurai and ashigaru, it was not necessarily the preferred weapon for common battle situations.

The myth of the lone samurai honouring the bushido code with his bloodstained blade held aloft is just that - a myth. While there were a number of notable sword masters during the Edo period when the sword and its legends became popular, the samurai class had fallen from grace somewhat. More than a few samurai were reduced to selling their sword blades to survive, or found work as seedy bouncers, hired thugs or highwaymen. This stood in sharp contrast to the glory days of the Sengoku period (1467-1603), as the opportunities of peace brought prosperity to the Japanese merchant class and courtier bureaucrats. Therefore while there were a number of schools of swordsmanship and masters thereof, the Edo period was largely one of peace and the sword saw little use outside circumstances of petty revenge or crime.

As previously noted, the Edo period was the age of sword; mainly due to its constant civilian wear and the lack of warfare that demanded the length of a spear or the raw power of an arquebus. Because of an absence of battle deeds, other sword-swinging tales of revenge that would have been eclipsed during the Sengoku era were written about and celebrated instead. Therefore the sword, while commonplace in the Japanese battlefield since time immemorial, only became the primary samurai weapon once all wars had ceased; and although an excellent flexible weapon to fall back upon on the battlefield, it was more suited to gaining honour through civilian vendetta than when charging towards the enemy host in the true bushido way. I will now look at which weapons were considered of primary use during each era of samurai history, in order to discover which were most preferred by the samurai and when.

The term 'samurai' (from a defunct Japanese verb meaning 'to serve') stems from the soldiers who were given the task of serving at the Emperor's Palace in Kyoto, but they had not arisen as a class until a short while before the Gempei Wars (1180-5) so I shall begin my investigation with that conflict. For the reader who wishes me to cut to the chase as-it-were, I will begin by saying that the samurai weapon of choice, both on and off the battlefield during this time, was the bow. Indeed, the martial way of the samurai was known as 'kyuba-no-michi', or the Way of the Horse and Bow. The design of the bow remained similar, if not identical throughout samurai history, but while it would be used by foot soldiers in later centuries it was primarily used from horseback during these turbulent years. While the sword was always carried by samurai as an invaluable secondary weapon, battles were won and lost by use of the bow. In fact, even duels between samurai were carried out with the bow; in the style of medieval jousting with a flying arrow instead of a lance.

In fact, there are only two references to use of the sword in the entire Shomonki (war chronicle dealing with the revolt of Taira Masakado). Therefore the sword was not only considered secondary by the fighting samurai, but of little importance to the war chroniclers themselves. Although the bow became more of a ceremonial weapon for samurai (as opposed to ashigaru archer squads) in later samurai periods, skill with the bow was still valued on both the battlefield (Turnbull, 2004, p121). Therefore, the weapon par excellence of many samurai (especially those mounted) until the Sengoku Jidai (1467-1603) was most definitely the bow, with the sword coming into play at close-close quarters or if the bow became in some way inoperable.

During the Gempei Wars, the naginata (glaive) was also an important weapon, mainly through its use with foot soldiers, although there were a number of instances where naginata were used from the saddle - from a stationary position standing up in the stirrups. The naginata was the weapon of an individualist, as its strength was through slashing (rather than the tightly-knit thrust of the spear) it required enough space to be manoeuvred effectively. As a result use of the naginata largely died away during the Sengoku Era, except in the hands of many sohei (warrior monks); but this is due to the lack of cohesion in sohei armies when compared to those of disciplined samurai. However, while during the Sengoku Era the spear was the common weapon of choice for mounted and foot soldiers; times before this turbulent period saw the naginata - and definitely not the sword - as the favoured weapon of Pre-Sengoku infantry.

Therefore; in conclusion of Pre-Sengoku times I would have to state that the preferred and tactically decisive weapon of almost all mounted samurai was the bow. The foot soldiers of the Gempei War, during the Mongol Invasions and the Nanbokucho Wars (1331-92) generally chose the naginata. While it would be foolhardy to conclude that the sword was neither used nor revered during the above period (approximately 950-1400 AD), it could be said that it was for five hundred years considered a secondary weapon and only used in battlefield emergencies - such as if one's bowstring suddenly snapped or the enemy was uncommonly close. To conclude the first part of my study into the use of the Japanese sword; widespread use of the bow (and to some extent the naginata) in days before the Sengoku Era mean that the sword during these times was definitely not the 'soul of the samurai' as put by Ieyasu, but a back-up weapon of comparatively little battlefield or civilian importance.

With the Onin War in central Japan (1467-77) any semblance of central government became a shambles; although provincial daimyo paid respect to the office of the Shogun, they did not respect his authority. Therein began the Sengoku Jidai (much like the Chinese Warring States Period) whereby various warlords grabbed at land, or in some cases attempt unification of Japan. The beginning of the Sengoku Era (1467-1603) marked a change in samurai warfare; the primary weapon changed (evolved if you will) from the bow to the spear. This evolution stemmed from advancements in armour and weapons technology and adaptation to more practical battlefield tactics. Another differentiation from warfare pre-Sengoku times was that armies could now be much larger. War was no longer a honourable pastime of the aristocracy, but became an opportunity, if not a necessity for many.

This is marked most pointedly by two changes - the employment of massed ranks of low-class ashigaru and the emergence of peasant Ikko Ikki armies. In fact, one daimyo is noted as commenting that if a thousand spears can be purchased for the price of one sublime sword then get the spears! (Turnbull, 2003 p96) Although the samurai were still the most respected warriors in an army and given a primary role on the battlefield, the worth of superiority in numbers and specialised ashigaru squads were also recognised. The use of the spear thus became widespread. As the bow slipped into foot-soldier's hands, the mochi-yari (held-spear) fell into cavalry hands to help them charge effectively. Therefore extra-long spears (nagai-yari) were required to protect the missile troops on foot; being given to ashigaru squads to hold the cavalry at bay while the arquebusiers reload.

The spear was the weapon par excellence of samurai throughout this era, though other weapons could be seen throughout the battlefield also. Again, while the spear prevailed on the Sengoku battlefield the sword remained a secondary weapon as before; the sword usually only being drawn if one's spear shaft had been broken. Although the yoroi (box) armour of pre-Sengoku times prevented the sword being used effectively, the new more flexible styles of armour (i.e. do-maru) did not enable the sword to become the samurai weapon of choice either. It could be noted with hindsight that if Japanese armies had taken the direction of the tightly wedged 'press of pike' formations of European warfare at this time, then perhaps use of the sword would have died out altogether; being limited to cavalry and officer class.

Arquebus technology came to Japanese shores with the Chinese during the early Sixteenth Century, but came into widespread and pivotal use soon after Portuguese sailors were shipwrecked on the island of Tanegashima in 1543. Their firearms technology would start a revolution in samurai warfare - if used correctly, this weapon had the power to annihilate one's enemies and even unite Japan. Oda Nobunaga for example was an early exponent of the use of guns, using them successfully against the Ikko Ikki and at Nagashino in 1575; failing to unite Japan only through his betrayal and murder in 1582. The daimyo who failed to make use of this new innovation either quickly changed their ways or were crushed by those less idealistic (Bryant, 1989 p25). By the mid to late Sixteenth Century the strength of armies was now counted in guns, particularly proving their worth in defensive situations.

Many sword-smiths now branched out into gun manufacture, and skilled gunsmiths were inundated with orders and beneficial patronage. In fact, one smith is recorded as exchanging his daughter for a series of lessons in arquebus manufacture! Such were the avaricious days of the Sengoku Era. The invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597 saw yet more primary use of firearms - Shimazu Yoshihiro asked for further supplies of them to be sent above all else. However, while guns were primarily put in the hands of trained ashigaru squads (see the battle of Nagashino - 1575), spears were incredibly important to samurai. The sword therefore retained its role as a secondary, but flexible weapon; becoming out-scored and out-gored by the bow, spear and arquebus. Painted screens, some of which are still maintained today, provide further evidence of this practice during the Sengoku period. Something that can be noticed straight away is that samurai often brandish spears, and firearms used by ashigaru. While all carry swords, very few are seen to use them out of choice.

The tanto or aikuchi (Japanese dagger) was created much in the style of the katana, but being far shorter and often dispensing with the tsuba (sword guard). Although their advantages are obvious for carrying out clandestine missions or in confined conditions, many samurai carried them into battle, thrust through their obi (sash-like belt). The wakizashi was often discarded in favour of the katana and tanto. There is considerable evidence to suggest that extreme close-quarters conflicts between samurai were often ended with the tanto, a good case in point is that between Etchu Zenji Moritoshi and Inomata Noritsuna at the battle of Ichi-no-Tani in 1184 (Turnbull, 1996 p28). This example and many others outline the reality of samurai warfare throughout its history - that mass-conflicts and single combat could be messy, desperate affairs; wholly removed from the graceful sword duels of movie and legend.

From studying the use of other weapons in samurai history, I have discovered what no Hollywood director would admit - that the sword was always a secondary weapon on the samurai battlefield, and that first bows, then spears and firearms were favoured more so. Even in close quarters or confined spaces, the dagger would often prove more appropriate. The sword only came into its own once all wars had ceased; the few conflicts of the Edo period (i.e. Osaka or the Shimabara Rebellion) saw samurai reverting to the spear and the arquebus. The Japanese sword has perhaps gained only such a reputation through sheer volume of Edo period movies that have been filmed; romantic tales of revenge and intrigue during civilian life stand out as good movie plots, rather than the constant conflict of the Sengoku period. One more important reason why the sword has gained such significance throughout the world is that of its nature; it is beautiful yet deadly, strong yet graceful.

In conclusion, in the harsh reality of samurai warfare the Japanese sword was never that highly regarded (Turnbull, 2003 p95). First the bow, then the spear and arquebus was a samurai's primary weapon of choice - the sword being utilised in cramped conditions or when the primary weapon became inoperable. For example, bowstrings were easily split, spear shafts easily broken and use of the arquebus often dictated by the weather. Therefore; one could proclaim the sword as a pretender to the samurai throne, and considerably more reverence should be paid to the bow, the spear and even the arquebus when discussing samurai conflict and the martial values of samurai themselves. Though the sword is undoubtedly a masterpiece of weapons manufacture, its present veneration is somewhat undeserved if it is merely because of its association with the power of the samurai; the noble bow, rugged spear and deadly arquebus are often sadly overlooked.

While the quick-eyed amongst you will notice that Turnbull appears in almost all of my quotes, this is because I have used his extensive work to provide me with facts or likelihoods; while I provide the analysis. The reader must forgive me for being unable to read Japanese, and having limited access to complete translations, therefore I have found Turnbull's work to be the most accessible.


Bryant, A.J. The Samurai (1989) / Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Turnbull, S. The Samurai Sourcebook 2nd Edition (2004) / Cassell.

Turnbull, S. Samurai - The Story of Japan's Noble Warriors (2004) / Collins & Brown.

Turnbull, S. Samurai Warfare (1996) / Cassell.

Turnbull, S. Samurai - The World of the Warrior (2003) / Osprey Publishing Ltd.