War of Words – ‘samurai’

with Marc DeSantis

‘Samurai’, meaning ‘one who serves’, derives from the Japanese verb samurau, ‘to wait on’. These warriors were the elite military class of feudal Japan, akin to the knights of medieval Europe. A samurai (the word is both singular and plural) lived and died according to a severe martial code, bushido, or ‘the Way of the Warrior’.

Koboto Santaro, a Japanese military commander, wearing traditional armour. Photograph by Felice Beato, c.1868. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Collection

The earliest appearance of ‘samurai’ in English came in Johann Gaspar Scheuchzer’s 1727 translation of German doctor and world traveller Engelbert Kaempfer’s German-language History of Japan. Kaempfer resided in Japan between 1690 and 1692, and highlighted the pair of bladed weapons that distinguished the samurai from other Japanese. ‘Tis from thence they are call’d Samurai, which signifies persons who wear two swords.’

Perceiving the Japanese warriors to embody uncompromising ethics, author H G Wells, in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, employed ‘samurai’ as the name for his proposed cohort of philosopher-kings. ‘These people constitute an order, the samurai, the “voluntary nobility”, which is essential in the scheme of the Utopian State.’

The typical samurai of Japan’s 16th-century Sengoku Jidai (‘Age of the Country at War’) was equipped with a spear (yari); a sword (katana); a short sword (wakizashi); heavy, often highly decorated, armour; and, being a mounted warrior, a horse.

Samurai were renowned for their loyalty to their lord, which might even extend beyond his death. In the famed example of the ‘Forty-Seven Ronin’, 47 samurai vowed revenge on Kira Yoshinaka, a samurai who in 1701 had engineered the demise of their master, Asano Naganori.

After the incident, the Asano samurai parted company, but only to lull Kira into thinking they were no longer a threat to him. In December 1702, they reassembled for a surprise attack on his home in Edo (Tokyo), which resulted in Kira’s death.