Cowboys and indians. Cops and robbers. These pretend games are just some of the activities that we love to play as children.
However, now that you’ve grown and have become a serious sword collector, it’s tempting to play pretend while performing tameshigiri all afternoon in your backyard. Especially after receiving your authentic, ultra expensive shinken katana. Right?
For sure, there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of fun, even as an adult. Who doesn’t like to play samurai for a day. With their exploits and their renowned skill with the blade, it’s hard not to imagine that you’re a Miyamoto Musashi, especially after slicing a hapless goza target or two. Or filled water bottles, for that matter.
Or perhaps Himura Kenshin, if you’re an avid fan of manga and anime. Or maybe the shinobi Sekiro and his sword, Kusabimaru, if you’re into video games. Or do you prefer Jin Sakai, the protagonist in the game, The Ghost of Tsushima? Or what about Jubei Kibagami of the Ninja Scroll franchise?
Having said all of these, does that mean you can be a samurai, even for a day? Now that we’re on the topic, what does it take to be a samurai? Read on if you want to know if you can be a samurai now that you have an awesome, traditionally-made shinken katana.
Who Were the Samurai?
Before we find out if you have what it takes to become a samurai, let’s play historian for a moment and discuss who the samurai actually were. And while we’re at it, let’s find out what makes them special and what were their contributions in history.
The samurai were an elite warrior class who served as Japan’s rulers for several centuries. Similar to the Greek Spartans, the samurai were trained to become skilled fighters at an early age, which therefore makes them a military caste. The supreme leader of the samurai is called a shogun.
Minamoto Yoritomo was the first samurai to receive this title after he established the shogunate, or bakufu, in 1192 CE. He also established the Kamakura Bakufu in that same year. With this declaration, all the governing bodies during that period, including the emperor himself, were stripped off their power to rule. As a result, the shogunate became the ruling system, and the samurai the leading social class. This political system went on for centuries, making this warrior caste a dominant and central influence over Japan’s history.
These individuals were known more for their exceptional horsemanship, particularly for their archery skills, while on horseback. In addition, the samurai were more famous for their use of the katana. However, contrary to how popular media has portrayed these warriors, the samurai only used the katana in duels and not in military skirmishes. In fact, they would only use the katana as a last resort; they would rather use weapons that have a longer reach, like the spear (yari) and naginata.
The katana only gained prominence during the Edo Period in 1610 when the Tokugawa Shogunate declared that the samurai should wear a katana and wakizashi (collectively known as daisho). This practice allowed the samurai to display their rank in public because the samurai were considered the highest caste during that period. The wearing of the daisho was proof of their nobility, which they carried around with pride and honor.
In 1868, the Meiji Restoration brought an end to the shogunate and to the samurai as a social caste after releasing the Haito Edict. The declaration also included the prohibition of carrying swords except for the law enforcement, military, and other officials.
How to Become a Samurai in Feudal Japan?
Much like the medieval knights of Europe, the samurai was a social caste that existed centuries ago in feudal Japan. They were admired for their ferocity in battle and skill in the use of weaponry, such as the bow and arrow and the katana. Back in the day, specifically, before the Edo Period (1603-1868), becoming a samurai was based on three criteria:
- One should be born in a samurai family.
- One was adopted by a samurai family.
- One was rewarded with the rank of samurai due to exceptional performance while serving in the military.
However, these guidelines changed during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when the samurai became the highest social class. In 1610, the title of samurai became a hereditary title, which means one could only obtain the samurai by birth.
Is the Samurai Exclusive Only for Men?
Men were not the only ones who could become samurai. Interestingly, there were also women samurai, and they were called onna-bugeisha or female martial arts practitioners. As samurai, these women fought alongside their male counterparts in battle, and they preferred using the naginata when fighting. Among the renowned onna-bugeisha were Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeko, and Akai Teruko were some of the famous women samurai who fought bravely in the battlefield. In fact, there were records of women who became daimyos (onna daimyo), while others participated in the battle, especially during the Warring States period.
Does Someone Have to Be Japanese to be a Samurai?
One of the cool facts about the samurai was that they accepted foreigners in their ranks. Yasuke, a 6-foot African, became one of Oda Nobunaga’s retainers and served as a weapon-bearer. According to historical records, he fought alongside Nobunaga in the Battle of Tenmozukan. After Nobunaga’s death, however, Yasuke did not commit seppuku, which was what every loyal samurai would do when their master or daimyo dies. Instead, Yasuke disappeared, perhaps sent in exile, and returned to a Jesuit mission in Kyoto.
There were also other foreign-born individuals who became samurai. Among these people were William Adams (Miura Anjin), Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn (Yayosu), Giuseppe Chiara (Okamoto San’emon) and Henry Schnell (Hiramatsu Buhei). The first three all served under Tokugawa Ieyasu, while the last served under Matsudaira Katamori’s banner.
So, Is it Possible to Become a Present-Day Samurai?
Here’s a straightforward answer: No. That’s because, as mentioned earlier, the samurai no longer exist. Even if you were able to trace your ancestry back to a famous samurai daimyo or warrior, you will still not be considered a samurai for the same reason.
The samurai was a social class which existed because of Japan’s political structure, which was centralized feudalism. With the shift from feudalism to a parliamentary form of government, Japan saw no need for an elite warrior class.
Becoming a Samurai — In Your Own Right
One can become one by developing the mindset of a samurai. Of course, this does not mean you can carry your newly-bought shinken katana everywhere and walk proudly like a true-blue samurai around your neighbourhood.
Instead, you can imbibe the lifestyle and mentality of a samurai. That’s because even though the samurai does not exist anymore, their legacy they have left behind continues to exist. Here are 5 ways on how you can become a samurai in your own right:
- Train Everyday
- Develop a Set of Values
- Be Mindful of Your Health
- Engage in Creative Pursuits
As practitioners of Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, The samurai spend most of their time meditating. Through meditation, they gain the virtue of patience and clear their mind off things. Nowadays, in the age of information technology, meditation has become an important activity, since there are a lot of distractions wherever you go.
In the film, The Last Samurai, Nobutada, the samurai who was teaching the distracted Captain Algren kenjutsu, advised: “Too many mind…No mind.” What Nobutada meant here was that through meditation or by concentrating, you can spare yourself the distractions that keep you from achieving your goal.
- Train Everyday
Apart from meditation, the samurai also trained everyday. Children from samurai families would practice conscientiously everyday at a very young age. In fact, they learn kendo at the age of five. They also had to learn other martial arts, such as jujutsu, kobudo, and aikido. Imagine what kind of warrior they would be by the time they were fifteen if they kept up with this kind of lifestyle?
Through training, we can improve our health and further our physical abilities. In other words, we are the ones who will benefit from continuous practice and working hard 24/7.
- Develop a Set of Values
Back in the day, the samurai strictly followed a code that was exclusive only to members of their class. This was Bushido, and it embodied the different values that every samurai should practice and uphold. Chief among these were respect, loyalty, honesty, courage, and compassion.
Being a modern samurai in this day and age requires a set of values that go along with the status quo, one that upholds the goodness in you regardless of the situation at hand. And like the samurai, you do not just develop those values, but also live by them everyday.
- Be Mindful of Your Health
As disciplined individuals, the samurai followed a strict diet of rice, vegetables, fish, and miso soup. This lifestyle helped them remain healthy and withstand the harshness of war.
In the present, there are lots of stuff that you can find on supermarket shelves that possess no nutritional value at all. Keeping your body strong and your mind sharp all the time requires a healthy lifestyle.
- Engage in Creative Pursuits
If you think the samurai were war-mongering warriors, you are mistaken. These individuals fostered their creativity through poetry and calligraphy. Apparently, they also engaged in musical pursuits, gardening, ink painting, and tea ceremonies.
You can channel your inner samurai by engaging in activities that help widen your creativity and keep yourself inspired all the time. Also, you get to express yourself through your art, which is an important aspect of being human.
Final Word—How to Become a Samurai
Though the samurai do not exist anymore, they are still remembered and romanticized through pop culture references, especially in films and anime. Their legend has influenced a lot of people, far and wide. That is why the katana—a symbol of their courage and honor—remains popular to this day among sword enthusiasts.
At this present day and age, however, it’s impossible for anyone to become a samurai simply because they do not exist anymore. Not even if you have samurai ancestry in your lineage. However, you can imbibe the virtues and qualities that the samurai were known for back in the day, such as courage, honor, humility, and respect, among others. Through these characteristics, you might, in your own right, call yourself a modern-day samurai.