While the life of a samurai may seem exciting to outside observers, the truth of their daily existence was far from the non-stop fighting and action often portrayed in popular culture. Being a warrior was paramount in a samurai's life, but they could also be poets, politicians, and even farmers.
The word ‘samurai’ roughly translates to ‘those who serve’, and these honoured soldiers spent most of their lives doing just that. It is generally agreed upon by historians that samurai rose to the fore in around 1185 AD, when an economic and political shift in Japan saw an emergence of the aristocracy and landowners who needed paid protection. These aristocrats were looking to hire samurai for protection after leaving the imperial court and becoming independent.
Although samurai initially existed to serve the Emperor of Japan, in reality, they also served the land-owning individuals known as daimyo.
Daily life for a samurai wasn’t as packed with action as you might expect. A samurai would awaken to a healthy meal cooked for him by his servant, who would then dress him. Everyday wear included a modest kimono, usually made of silk. Colourful materials were considered conceited, so the colours were generally muted. A samurai’s hair was styled with care and pulled back into a topknot known as a chomage. The final cherry on top of this simple outfit was an obi (a belt wrapped around the waist and worn on the left side) to carry his sword.
The samurai would then meditate to achieve greater mental and emotional clarity before heading off to training. Honing his swordsmanship skills would take up much of the afternoon, but afterwards, a samurai would help his daimyo by collecting the taxes of the residents in the area or by protecting the land. Later, they would practice cultural skills such as writing and calligraphy.
Evenings were comprised of a supper of sushi and sake, praying to Buddha, and spending time with family before bed.
The samurai’s compensation for this life was land, food, and even money.
An engraving of a samurai (1669 AD)
Trials, Tests, And Training
Samurai lived according to bushido (The Way of the Warrior), a code of conduct that placed loyalty and respect to one’s master, ethical behaviour, and self-discipline above all else.
Samurai went through a rigorous training program encompassing aspects of physicality and spirituality to become respected warriors. The purpose of this training was to produce warriors who were not only competent in combat, but also in culture.
The physical training was based around weapon skills, and they would practice with katanas (long swords), the yari (spear), and wakizashi (short sword). However, horseriding and archery were also on the docket, and in their arsenal of talents.
Martial arts were, of course, included in their training. Jujitsu and kenjitsu (sword fighting) improved their combat abilities, earning them their title as history’s martial arts masters.
Mental and spiritual activities were just as important for the samurai-in-training. As well as studying the principles of bushido, they practised meditation, wrote poetry, and cultivated their refined sensibilities with tea ceremonies.
However, as Gavin Blair writes in An Illustrated Guide to Samurai History and Culture (2022), while “a well-rounded samurai was expected to be literate and appreciative of art and aesthetics, some maintained that the only arts which should be focused on were the martial arts”. This clearly isn’t the case for all samurai, as Blair goes on to mention that many samurai were “great patrons of art and culture”.