History of the Samurai for Kids

Close your eyes and imagine you are in a beautiful, Japanese garden. You see a small stream leading to a calm pond covered in bright pink flowers and water lilies. The green grass around you is cut short and all of the plants and shrubbery are neatly trimmed. Flowering trees are above you. You see a wooden footbridge and cross the pond to an open area with a grand temple in the middle. It’s designed in Japanese fashion with a peaked roof. Surrounding the temple are men and women holding wooden swords. A teacher is showing them how to use the sword, swinging it upward and then down. They all follow his instructions at the same time in a coordinated dance. Then they kick and swing the swords again. Past them, in the temple, you see a group cross-legged and meditating. You suddenly realize you are observing a group of Japanese samurais in training.

Have you ever heard of a “samurai”? A samurai was an ancient warrior in the country of Japan. You could compare them to the knights of Medieval Times, because they were warriors who wore armor, fought in battles, and lived a code of honor. But they were also different from knights in other ways which we’ll talk about today.

If you saw a samurai today they’d be wearing armor, a helmet, and carrying a long sword called a “katana.” They were known for their great strength and skill and speed and their incredible use of the katana sword. The first Samurai fought on horseback. For a long time, the soldiers in Japan were peasants – simple people who farmed the land and weren’t trained to fight. So when they fought in a battle, they weren’t very effective because their job was normally farming not fighting. At the time in Japan, some of the wealthier citizens had horses and decided they might be better warriors than the peasants. Horses gave them an advantage and using a bow and arrow from the back of the horse, these wealthy Japanese became very dangerous fighters. Soon, instead of peasants fighting, more and more of the soldiers became Samurai, fighting with swords and bow and arrows from horseback.

As the samurai trained harder and from a young age, they became known for their excellent skills with the katana sword. They disciplined themselves. Discipline means to have self-control. Daily they practiced riding horses, using the katana, and doing things that were very hard but made them stronger because they pushed their body and mind to their limits. They were similar to Spartan warriors in this way, too.

Some of the legendary samurai were women, too. Tomoe Gozen fought bravely during the clan wars. She was a skilled archer and swordsman, “a warrior worth a thousand” the legends say. She was a strong horseman and could ride down steep hills. In battle, she was sent out as a captain in the best armor and the best weapons to lead the other samurai – and “performed more deeds of valor than any of the other warriors.” 

Another well known general at this time was female samurai Hangaku Gozen. Female foot soldiers were also known to fight alongside the men during clan wars.

In the Pacific Ocean, Japan is an island located off the coast of China. At the time, a powerful people called the Mongols ruled China and wanted to rule Japan, too. In 1270 A.D. Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol army,  decided to attack Japan. He sent 40,000 soldiers and 90 ships to invade the island. But for many years, the Japanese Samurai had been preparing and training to defend their country. When the Mongols invaded, they were met by the fast and powerful Samurai who used their skills to defend Japan and stopped the invasion. 

For a time, Japan was also divided into power clans, or groups of people sort of like small cities or towns. The clans were ruled by a leader called a “daimyo” (dime-yo). The daimyo hired samurai to protect their clan. Often clans fought against each other for more land so many of the samurai battles over the years were between competing clans. Samurai became distinguished for their honor in battle. Honor meant their commitment to the samurai code or set of rules known as the “bushido.” They strictly followed the rules of a samurai or “bushido” which included courage, respect, self-control and righteousness, which means doing the right thing. In battle, the Samurai were taught to never surrender or back down, to continue fighting even when they were losing and to have courage even in the most fearful moments.

In 1582, a man named Oda Nobunaga was born to a powerful daim-yo in the Owari region. Growing up, Nobunaga was trained as other samurai to fight with the bow and arrow, sword, and learned to discipline himself after the “bushido,” the way of the samurai. After his father passed away, Nobunaga and his brothers fought to rule the clan and Nobunaga became the new leader. But he wasn’t content leading one clan, he wanted to grow the clan’s power and began conquering other clans nearby. He was a skilled military leader and organized his soldiers and samurai in a way that continued to win until he ruled many other clans. Nobunaga also made alliances with other powerful clans. An alliance is an agreement that they will work together. And eventually Nobunaga’s clans and alliances brought all of the clans together. Nobunaga eventually became the leader of half the clans in Japan, also called a “shogun.” He built a beautiful castle on a lake and lived there during his rule. From there he continued to organize and strengthen his armies and make laws that he believed were in Japan’s best interest. The rule of a powerful Japanese leader was called a “shogunate” and his rule was followed by powerful leaders such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa. Under Hideyoshi, all of Japan was united under a single leader or “shogunate.” This led the way for a unified Japan up until the single country it is today. 

Back to the samurai – with Japan united, the different clans and their dime-yo leaders no longer fought for control. Because there was peace between clans, the samurai weren’t needed for fighting. Also, gunpowder and guns were introduced to Japan, so the army became made up of regular soldiers and swords were replaced with guns. The samurai became workers for the new Japanese government. They still followed the code of the Samurai but weren’t needed for battle and taught others about the “bushido” code and how to have self-control and respect for others. 

Some of the samurai who didn’t want to become peaceful government workers and who no longer were needed by the clans became leaderless. These wandering samurai became known as “Ronin” (row-nin) who often became bandits or soldiers for hire. In one of the most famous Japanese stories, 47 of these Ronin lost their master after he was murdered. They band together and seek after his murderer until they get revenge. This legendary story was made into plays and later movies and comic books called “47 Ronin.” 

As we’ve mentioned before, the way of the samurai, the special code they followed that made them samurai was called “bushido.” Without bushido, they wouldn’t have had the discipline to train and act with courage during the toughest moments of battle. Even though you aren’t a samurai, you can take the best things from the bushido code and apply them to your own life. As we talk about the principles of bushido, think about how you might use them each day.

The first principle of bushido was rectitude or justice. This meant to act in a way that made sense, was rational, even when it was very hard to do so. Also, to treat others with fairness and honor.

The second principle was courage, which means acting on what is right even when it is hard. A samurai was determined to act even under difficult circumstances. If you’ve ever done something hard, when it wasn’t easy, you’ve demonstrated courage. And courage doesn’t always come easy, it takes practice! Next time something challenging comes your way say to yourself, “I can have courage, I can do it!” With each courageous step you take, it can become easier.

The third principle of bushido was mercy. This means showing love to others and being able to forgive.

Fourth, politeness. To treat others with respect, have good manners, and say kind things. 

Fifth, honesty. We all know what that means. Telling the truth even when it’s not easy.

Sixth, honor. This meant showing personal respect. Respecting yourself and having patience. This means taking a deep breath when you might get upset and finding ways to work through problems by keeping a cool head, rather than getting angry and losing ones temper. 

Seventh, loyalty. To the samurai this loyalty to their leaders, usually the daim-yo. For you, this might mean listening to your parents or sticking up for your family, siblings, and friends, and being there for them when they need your help.

Finally, eighth, self control. One of the most important because it helps with all of the other principles. This means being able to manage your wants. There might be something you really want, but you can ask yourself if you really need it. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between wants and needs. Needs are things you do need, like good food and sleeping each day. Wants might be a toy or watching a movie, which can be fun at times but aren’t really necessary all the time. Next time you want something, but don’t really need it, try saying “no.” And you’ll find each time you strengthen that part of your brain that has self-control. Also, eating healthy and getting good sleep help with self-control. 

Those are the principles of bushido, the way of the samurai. Like I said, think of ways you can incorporate these good teachings and others into your own life to have the strength of a samurai!