The Samurai were a warrior class which existed in premodern Japan. Generally heavy cavalrymen in their most prominent phase of development, the class was largely hereditary and eventually became the main holders of power, Samurai could be thought of as rough analogues to western knights. When referring specifically to a samurai who is in a militant rather than courtly or administrative role, the Japanese preferred to use the term bushi.
In the Heian Period (794 to 1185) the Imperial government in Kyoto slowly turned to rely on a type of militarized peasants given special offices by the land holding court nobility to serve as cavalry soldiers in wars of conquest against the people of Northern Honshu and as enforcers against rebels and people late with their taxes (who were often one and the same). As they were full-time fighters, they were generally more reliable than the forced peasant levies which they had been using before. As time went on, these offices became more and more hereditary, with families of Samurai emerging. That said, it would remain possible for a commoner to become a Samurai up until 1600. Indeed, Japan's defacto unifier Oda Nobunaga was quite fond of these promotions and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga's successor, rose from nothing to eventually reach the highest positions.
After the end of the Heian Period, central power broke down and local leaders took power. In this time of division, the Samurai became the main fighters in war as well as leaders of soldiers (both Samurai and Ashigaru [peasant infantry]) on the battlefield and eventually as political leaders as well, founding powerful clans whose lords (Daimyo) ruled over fiefdoms and vied for power with each other. Several clans would attain the position of Shogun (the hereditary supreme military commander and defacto monarch of Japan) for the next few centuries, but their rule was generally weak and broke down into more infighting, especially in the 15th and 16th century.
Eventually, order was restored under the Tokugawa Shogunate, in which the land was divided among various prominent samurai clans and lower ranking samurai served as policemen, bureaucrats, and public officials. The Tokugawa also imposed a formalized hereditary class system and made it basically impossible for a non-samurai to become a samurai. After the Boshin War (1868-1869) and the subsequent Meiji Restoration, the Samurai class was formally abolished with the rest of the Japanese feudal system. In government, samurai were replaced by non-hereditary civil servants and in military affairs they were replaced by a new conscript army. While some samurai resented the loss of their power and attempted to rebel, the majority of them were able to exploit their superior education and connections and found new positions as teachers, gun makers, industrialists, military officers, and government officials. (Related historical factoid; with the abolition of the Samurai class, many of the swordsmiths who served them had to find new careers, with many turning to knife-making. Remember that next time you buy a quality Japanese knife, you literally own something descended from Japan's finest swordsmiths)
Samurai Weapons and equipment
- Yumi: Composite bows made of bamboo. The first Samurai were mainly archers and archery would remain a very big part of samurai fighting. both as mounted archers and on foot. Yumi are notably asymmetrical in shape, with the user holding the bow about one third down the shaft's length.
- Yari: Spears, usually used to fend off cavalry and as lances. Some had pronged heads, some did not.
- Kama: Originally a farming tool, like scythe-shaped sickle, it get the same role warhammers did in European warfare, or more accurately an eastern-European chekan, since it had no hammer side for bashing skulls, and it's beak was bladed. While it was mostly associated with ninja, Samurai were also fond of it, and even get the two-handed version - Nagikama when metallic armour become widespread even amongst ashigaru, and rich samurai clad themselves in bullet-proof imported Spanish plate.
- Naginata: Pole-arms with a sword blade at the end. In general, it was better against infantry than a spear and better against cavalry than a sword. It also had a more powerful slash, even if it did have more of a risk of being decapitated. Female samurai in particular favored this weapon, as its long reach allowed them to compensate for any disadvantage they might have had in raw strength. In Samurai weddings the appropriate wedding gift for the family of the bride to give the happy couple was a Naginata.
- Kanabo: A two-handed war club shaped like a baseball bat and covered in metal spikes. Either made from a wooden base or solid iron, this weapon was relatively rare as it required a lot of strength and skill to use effectively. Needless to say, you wouldn't want to get hit by one as it could smash bones on a warhorse and crush armor. This weapon is also heavily associated with Oni, due to the aforementioned strength requirement and altogether brutal nature of the kanabo.
- Tanegashima: in 1543, some Portuguese ships got to Japan in search of business opportunities (specifically the Island of Tanegashima). When they got to Japan, they sold a few of their matchlocks muskets to a Daimyo in the south of Japan, who promptly had his smiths take them apart and soon had them replicated, which inspired others to do the same. The Samurai quickly became very keen on these new weapons and made heavy use of them. By the end of the 16th century Japan had the highest number of guns per capita of any place in the world, had good line fire tactics and had worked out sights and boxes to keep rain from putting out the matches. Matchlock pistols (bajōzutsu) were used by cavalry. During the Tokugawa period, the manufacturing Japan declined (though it did not completely die away) as there was no pressing internal or external threats, so they stuck with what designs they had until the 19th century when they began buying and replicating western guns. A major reason for Imperial Victory in the Boshin War was that that the Samurai had control the key gun making regions sided with the Imperialists.
Their katanas of destructionSeveral varieties, including no-dachi (huge blades intended for anti-cavalry work with a blade up to 180cm long to cut through rider and horse), wakizashi (a short sword with a 30-60cm long blade often used either as a last ditch weapon or ritual suicide, but could also be wielded alongside a katana) and katana (the general purpose sword between 60 and 90 cm long). Originally their blades were straight, but eventually became single edged and curved. The iron ore in Japan has a high level of impurities, as such Japanese swordsmiths worked out a method of folding and refolding steel during forging to work out impurities. This made them rather sharp and fairly strong, though they were also fairly brittle and not the best weapons for use against heavier armor like metal plates. Additionally, samurai swords were more a symbol of their position and authority than the super death weapon romantics would insist (soft armor like silk and leather held no real resistance though). This is because after the unification of Japan the array of swords samurais carry were reserved to their class alone, no other class may carry the arrangement of swords samurais carry. This is why samurai normally carry out their popularized duels using their swords than their full arsenal; it is a matter of their class' honor than it being the ultimate weapon. In actual combat, however, the swords were normally reserved as backup weapons or were used against lightly armored targets, since they have long learned that poking their opponents to death with pointy sticks and/or shooting them with guns were more pragmatic options against other Samurai. It was also the go to weapon to execute people.
- Armor: Several varieties existed, including chainmail, scale armor, lamellar (Small plates of metal held together by wire), laminated high quality wood, leather and eventually metal plate. Often suits of samurai armor would incorporate several types of armor, having laminar leg and shoulder guards with plate torso armor. Generally this would be backed up with leather and padded silk (silk having a high tensile strength, which meant that it offered above average protection against arrows) and would often be laminated to keep off rust. Towards the end of the 16th century, western elements (such as western style breastplates and morion style helmets) were incorporated into this, either being bought from European merchants or made locally. In general it was fairly good for its time period, sometimes even being proofed against musket fire, though it did not offer the same degree of coverage as contemporary European counterparts and often sacrificed protection for speed and agility.
- Shuriken: Yes, samurai used these too.
- War Fan: One of the quirkier weapons in a Samurai's arsenal. They would sometimes carry normal fans for cooling themselves off or to use for signaling to allied troops. However, all-metal fans were also made, which could double as a blunt sidearm or small shield for civilian wear, especially if they were worried about assassination attempts in otherwise unarmed meetings.
As the Samurai gradually became a formalized hereditary class the term came to apply to both men and women from samurai families. The daughters of Samurai clans were like their brothers trained to fight so they could literally hold the fort while the men were off on campaign, to help train up the next generation and to protect themselves and their kids in an era of warring clans. The general term for a Female Samurai under arms is Onna Bushi (woman warrior).
As previously mentioned the Samurai were not alone during their day, backing them up would be Ashigaru. The practice began with Samurai bringing along a few peasants (either volunteers or conscripted levies) with some basic weapons (usually Yari) to help them out on and off the battlefield as infantry and offering them a cut of the loot and the prospects of promotion in society as incentives. As time went on and wars became more common, this practice continued and was gradually refined. Since the various clans of japan were in close proximity to each other some degree of military training became the norm for many peasants while organization improved, while samurai began investing in armor and better weapons for their Ashigaru, as well as better organization and training. By the 1500s, Ashigaru generally had some metal torso armor and a helmet and had been refined into professional soldiers that could be employed as pikemen and musketeers that, while not as good at fighting as Samurai were still capable of holding the line pretty damn well. Many Samurai clans had their start with a Ashigaru who managed to impress his superiors on the battlefield and eventually there was a hazy grey area between well armed ashigaru and poor samurai. When the Tokugawa Shogunate was established the Ashigaru military class was abolished with the remaining Ashigaru either being integrated into the samurai class or demobilized and sent back to the fields to be farmers.
In general samurai (or at least those who got somewhere besides an early grave) were an opportunistic, pragmatic and practical lot. Doing what was needed to be done to win and go forward and often quite innovative in how they did it. Even so, they did not want their subordinates to be a bunch of unruly armed drunken louts, a hazard to themselves and others. As such they were generally instructed to follow Buddhist and Confucian teachings and (especially for the latter) loyalty to one's superiors was a key part in this. Eventually you got rough codes of conduct emerging for samurai called Bushido (Way of the Samurai), which stressed (along with loyalty) frugality, honesty, duty and the importance of conducting their tasks and affairs in a proper manner. As is the case with other people elsewhere some Samurai were more pious than normal and some of these spent time as Buddhist Monks.
During the 1920s through the end of World War II, this rough philosophy would be blown out of proportion and mixed with a heaping dose of nationalism, at which point it became a big part of the standard school curriculum. This was done because the generals who controlled Japan at that time sought a militarized society to crank out fanatical conscripts to conquer China and East Asia with. This manifested in fanatical loyalty, a willingness to die for their cause, and utter contempt for anyone who ever surrendered. When modern people think of Bushido in the west, they are usually thinking of this, or at least a cleaned up version of it as the Imperial Japanese Army could be a rather nasty lot to say the least.
Like other "real world" things, the samurai has had a rich fictional history grow up around it in modern times that is only marginally connected to the historical realities of feudal Japan. Like the knight-errant of Medieval romances or the gunslinger of American westerns, the fictional samurai of the jidai-geki period drama is often a ronin or "wave man," an old derogatory term for a masterless samurai, who wanders the Earth bringing peace and order to a chaotic world by cutting down evil in a series of sword-battles as sensational as they are unrealistic. Bonus points if he gets tragically shot down by a wuss with a firearm, tearfully marking the end of an era as he heroically perishes while saving the day. Sure, it might not be 100% historically accurate, but do you really give a shit? Or do you want to see a badass hero solo an army with his super-sword skills?
Samurai are a prominent fixture in just about any fantasy setting with an "ancient Japan" derivative somewhere in the world, which is to say that they're a prominent fixture in just about any fantasy setting.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the samurai was introduced as a class in the Oriental Adventures supplement of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition. It never really caught on. Then, it was re-introduced in third edition. To make a long story short, it sucked. Later, under the quasi-D&D system of Pathfinder, the samurai class became a tweaked variant of the Cavalier class, which, in addition to making sense (the cavalier class is basically a mounted knight, and samurai were basically the Japanese equivalent) also makes them mechanically playable. One archetype, the sword saint, is more in line with the traditional fantasy samurai, who forgoes his mounted class features for lightning-quick draw-fighting and other melee powers that let him cause a sonic boom every time he quick-draws someone to death.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition gave D&D its most competent samurai ever in the form of a Fighter subclass in November 2016. It's essentially a super-tank, as it can give itself temporary hitpoints and advantage on all of it attacks as a bonus action for a turn three times per short rest, proficiency on Wisdom saving throws (which changes to your choice of Int or Cha saves if you've already got that power), can trade advantage on a combat strike to instead strike that target twice once per turn, and can delay taking damage that would reduce it to zero hitpoints until the end of an immediately gained bonus turn once per long rest. Oh, and it also gets to add its Wisdom modifier to its Charisma modifier when making Charisma checks to please or persuade those of high social rank along with either a bonus language or free proficiency in either History, Insight or Persuasion. Appropriate, given that the samurai were courtiers and nobility as well as warriors.
Outside the gigantic D&D juggernaut, most of the player characters in Legend of the Five Rings are going to be samurai of one stripe or another, though unlike D&D it refers to the entire social class, including courtiers and sorcerer-priests along with the warriors.
Shadowrun uses the term "street samurai" to refer to runners who tend to be of a violent persuasion, though the term no longer explicitly refers to melee-focused characters. One of the megacorps, Renraku, has got an elite hit-team called the Red Samurai, who do rock the futuristic samurai armor look, though they use guns and explosives along with their katanas.
Appropriately enough, the Japanese RPG Log Horizon has Samurai as one of its eleven base classes.
|The Classes of Pathfinder|
|Core Classes:|| Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
| Alchemist - Antipaladin - Cavalier |
Inquisitor - Oracle - Summoner - Witch
| Arcanist - Bloodrager - Brawler - Hunter - Investigator |
Shaman - Skald - Slayer - Swashbuckler - Warpriest
| Kineticist - Medium - Mesmerist |
Occultist - Psychic - Spiritualist
|Ultimate X:||Gunslinger - Magus - Ninja - Samurai - Shifter - Vigilante|