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Most Famous Samurai in Japanese History

Sucheta Pradhan Feb 29, 2020
Samurai were a class of warriors who dominated medieval Japan. They were people who killed for the honor of their masters and died for their own honor. Get a glimpse of some of the most famous samurai in Japanese history through this post.


A samurai always carried two swords with him - one to defend his master, and the other to kill himself, in order to protect his honor.
Situated amidst towering mountains and swampy paddy fields, the volcanic archipelago of Japan remained isolated from the rest of the world for several thousand years.
About one thousand years ago, while the world had very little idea about the people and life in Japan, the country itself was divided into a number of small, feudal states, each ruled by a local warlord, the daimyo.
These local warlords were constantly at war with each other in order to establish their sway and hold supremacy over a large part of land. Initially, the people who were employed as soldiers in these battles belonged to the local peasant class, and hence, were more often than not, untrained.
This resulted in heavy loss of lives. With passage of time and an increase in the number and intensity of battles, the local warlords deemed it necessary to employ full-time professional warriors, well-trained in the various arts of war.
By about 800 A.D., these local chieftains had an entire troop of their own military servants, who fought at the command of their masters and vowed their utmost loyalty to them. These warriors, called the samurai, meaning those who served, were exceptional not only in the art of war, but also for the honor with which they carried themselves.
Despite the fact that the samurai existed much before the middle ages, they came to be established as a dominant class of military aristocrats, only in the 12th century A.D. From this period to almost about the middle of the 17th century A.D., the samurai held and retained a highly respectable and honorable place in medieval Japanese society.
From about the 18th century, however, the samurai began to lose prominence in Japan as modernization and western influences made their way in the country. Finally, in 1873, Emperor Meiji, the Emperor of Japan at the time when its political ideology changed from feudalism to capitalism, abolished the rights of the samurai, as armed forces.
This led to the complete extinction of the samurai forces, as newer, western military techniques were adopted by Japan.

Famous Samurai Warriors

The samurai were extremely dignified warriors, who swore to die for their masters. Much more than mere experts of martial arts, they also studied religion and philosophy. When not at war, they engaged themselves in other gentler arts such as poetry writing.
Adhering to a very stringent moral code of conduct, these knights of honor were held in very high esteem by Japanese citizens. Following are some of the most famous samurai in the history of Japan.

Minamoto no Tametomo (1139-1170)

Also known as Chinzei Hachirō Tametomo, Minamoto no Tametomo was a samurai warrior, who fought in 1156 during the Hōgen Rebellion, a short civil conflict fought for resolving the dispute about Japanese Imperial succession. Legends tell us that he was an exceptional swordsman, and was also proficient in the art of mounted archery.
His left arm was longer than his right 1, an abnormality that he used efficiently against the enemy. Using his longer arm, Tametomo could shoot powerful arrows at the enemy, and he is said to have sunk an entire military ship of his rival clan by shooting just a single arrow. In 1170, he was captured by the enemy soldiers, who brutally severed his left arm.
Realizing that he could never use his severed arm in battle again, he killed himself by committing seppuku, a ritual suicide that the Japanese samurai committed in order to retain their honor, if captured by the enemy. Seppuku involved cutting one's stomach with a tantō, a short blade, in front of spectators.

Tomoe Gozen (1157-1247)

Very few female samurai are known in history, and Tomoe Gozen is one of them. Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Haike), an epic account of the battle between two warring Japanese clans, the Minamoto and the Taira, describes Tomoe as a beautiful woman, having a fair complexion and long, black hair.
The account also says that she was so fierce and so fearless that she could confront and win over even gods or demons.

Her master was the chieftain of the Minamoto clan, and she not only fought the brutal Genpei War, but also survived it.
Moreover, in the Battle of Awazu, a part of the Genpei War, Tomoe was even able to decapitate one of her rival samurai, whose severed head she took to her master and earned a great honor.
However, historical sources tell us that after the Genpei War, she gave up fighting and became a nun, though some believe that she got married to a samurai called Wada Yoshimori, who supposedly defeated her.

Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336)

Kusunoki Masashige fought under the leadership of Emperor Go-Daigo, who wanted to capture Japan from the hands of the Kamakura shogunate during the 14th century. Masashige is regarded as the symbol of samurai loyalty, and his image was used during World War II as a national symbol on Japanese propaganda posters.
This samurai warrior is also known for his extraordinary abilities to strategise major military campaigns. His brilliant tactics helped Go-Daigo retain the two key fortresses at Akasaka and Chihaya during his military campaign against the Kamakura shogunate. Due to this, Go-Daigo was briefly able to return to power.
However, the emperor ignored Masashige's suggestions during the battle against Ashikaga Takauji, one of the emperor's generals who betrayed him. Go-Daigo forced Masashige to follow a weaker strategy which eventually led to the samurai's defeat and death.
However, owing to his loyalty to his master, he accepted the death happily. He is believed to have committed Seppuku, just like Minamoto Tametomo, following his defeat against the traitor.

Takeda Shingen (1521-1573)

The period when Takeda Shingen lived, Japan was rife with constant and never-ending battles for supremacy among rival clams. Owing to this, it was one of the most violent eras in samurai history.
On one hand, while a lot of clans were completely vanishing due to constant fighting, the Takeda clan was one of the few clans to have dominated the Japanese countryside. Takeda Shingen was the leader of this clan.
He led some 40 campaigns during his career, including one of the bloodiest battles in samurai history. The army of Takeda Shingen was so strong - some of his generals were even better than himself - that he had the power to challenge the military giants of those times.
In spite of this, he chose not to aim for the Japanese seat of power but, take care of local problems in the territory that he controlled.
Shingen's fascination with firearms was well-known and he was reportedly, the only samurai to have made use of them in his regimen. He believed that firearms would eventually make the sword, and bow and arrow outdated. Some historians believe that he died of a gunshot.

Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582)

Oda Nobunaga is considered to be the most able general in the history of medieval Japan, alongside being a gracious master. He is regarded as one of the three unifiers of feudal Japan, the other two being Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
In the 16th century, when Japan was nearly in a state of anarchy, with several powerful clans losing their prominence following heavy financial losses in ongoing battles, some smaller clans decided to invade the capital and assume power.
Owing to this, in 1560, a warlord named Yoshimoto Imagawa of the Suruga province decided to conquer Kyoto, the then Japanese capital. Owari, the province ruled by Nobunaga stood in between.
Despite the fact that Imagawa's army was eight times bigger than that of Nobunaga's, the latter managed to defeat the former, owing to his outstanding strategizing abilities. Following the most unbelievable victory in entire Japanese history, Nobunaga quickly rose to prominence, and along with his generals set forth to unify Japan under one shogunate.
One of Nobunaga's most remarkable achievements was the expansion of international trade, thus resulting in the substantial growth in Japanese economy. However, despite his immense popularity and stronghold on the Japanese capital, he was assassinated in 1582, on the orders of Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his own generals who betrayed him.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 or 1537(?)-1598)

The story of how Toyotomi Hideyoshi became one of the greatest samurai warriors of Japan is rather exceptional. His father was a lowly foot-soldier, and he had no relation to any samurai whatsoever. He began his career as a sandal-bearer for Oda Nobunaga.
However, Hideyoshi soon proved his military skills to his master and rose to prominence. In order to become a samurai, he also gave up his peasant bloodline.
When Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, Hideyoshi was already very powerful in the Oda clan. Then, in the Battle of Shizugatake he defeated all the other prominent generals from the clan and took total control. As the daimyo, he made some very vital decisions.
For one, he banned all peasants from possessing arms, and confiscated all those which were there, through his famous 'sword hunt'. He also banned all warriors from taking up occupations of commoners, such as farming. These regulations created a clear hierarchy between the peasant class and the warrior class.
He was a staunch opponent of Christianity, and just before his death he stated that he wanted to drive out Christianity from Japan, by executing 26 Christians, so that Japanese citizens would not think of changing their religion. One of his greatest endeavors was the building of the colossal Osaka Castle which, even today, testifies Hideyoshi's might.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616)

Tokugawa Ieyasu was not at all a good tactician. On the contrary, it was his pragmatism and the capability to take calculated risks that led him to become the most famous samurai of all time. He was an outstanding diplomat and an excellent judge of the strengths and weaknesses of his contemporaries, which sought him a majority of his victories.
Ieyasu fought his first battle at the age of 16, on the side of the Imagawa clan. However, just four years later, when the powerful Oda Nobunaga became the head of the rival Oda clan, he shifted his loyalties and built strong relations with important generals and powerful allies.
After, Oda Nobunaga's death, he fought the enemy clan of the Toyotomis and their allies in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, shortly after which, Ieyasu was crowned as shogun by the Japanese emperor. He was already 60 by that time, and gave up his powers only three years after.
However, even as a retired shogun, he led a final battle to severe the Toyotomi bloodline, thus leaving the shogunate of his clan, unopposed.

Honda Tadakatsu (1548-1610)

Also named Honda Heihachirō, he is regarded as the "warrior who surpassed death", because of the fact that despite fighting in over hundred wars, he was never defeated or never even severely injured for that matter. He is hence also, one of the four heavenly kings of the Tokugawa clan, to which he belonged.
In 1584, in Tadakatsu's battle against the massive army of General Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which heavily outnumbered the former's army, he openly challenged the opponent to battle.
Touched by the kind of valor that Tadakatsu possessed, Hideyoshi gave a safe passage to him and his army. Even in the Battle of Sekigahara, that was fought in 1600 and proved to be decisive for Japan's last Shogunate to assume power, Tadakatsu fought valiantly and assured victory for his master.

Date Masamune (1567-1636)

Date Masamune, Japan's dokuganryū (one-eyed dragon), was one of the most ruthless and brutal samurai to have ever existed. He lost the sight in his right eye due to smallpox he contracted during childhood, after which he also lost his right to succeed his father as the head of his clan.
Historical sources say that he was extremely violent in nature, and infused horror in the minds of those who crossed his path.

In the initial years of his career, he suffered a number of defeats, but later went on to become one of the most feared generals in the whole of Japan.
He carried out campaigns in order to annexe the neighboring provinces to his territory. During one such campaign, the rival clan kidnapped his father in order to prevent him from advancing further. However, he not only advanced further, but also killed all the abductors, and conquered their territory. Only that, even his father was killed during the battle.
In 1590, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a daimyo, Masamune refused to accept him as his master. However, some later sources tell us that he indeed served Hideyoshi as a loyal samurai, and also accompanied him during his Korean campaigns, where he was badly defeated.
Masumune was a great admirer of foreign technology, and he was the one to have initiated a voyage to Rome in order to build relations with the Christian world and the Pope.

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1685)

Also known as Miyamoto Bennosuke, Niten Dōraku or Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Musashi was a rōnin. A rōnin was a samurai who had no master, simply because his master had died or disprivileged him. Such samurai, then worked for the betterment of society or for private individuals.
Because the rōnins were masterless, they were considered to be inferior by other samurai. Miyamoto Musashi is the most popular of the rōnins.

Musashi is known for the numerous fierce duels that he fought, and emerged victorious every time. One of his most famous duels was fought in 1612, against his rival Sasaki Kojirō, who was his equal in swordsmanship.
However, Musashi emerged victorious in the duel, at the end of which, Kojirō was killed. In 1685, Musashi died of old age. One of his most notable contributions to Japanese warfare is his treatise on martial arts and swordsmanship, the Go Rin No Sho, the Book of Five Rings.
Japanese history is filled with the heroic pursuits of hundreds and thousands of samurai warriors, and possibly many of them are also lost in its pages. No matter how much we read about them, their military skills and loyalties to their masters always seem unparalleled.
The samurai do not exist anymore. However, they still continue to capture our imagination with their seemingly impossible feats and endeavors.