Images of the Samurai, Japan's Warriors

01
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An 1869 Print of a Ronin (Masterless Samurai) Being Attacked

Ronin (Masterless Samurai) Fending off Arrows by Yoshitoshi Taiso, 1869
Woodcut Print of "Ronin (Masterless Samurai) Fending Off Arrows" - 1869. Artist- Yoshitoshi Taiso. No known restrictions due to age.

People the world over are fascinated by the samurai, medieval Japan's warrior class. Fighting according to the principles of "bushido" - the way of the samurai, these fighting men (and occasionally women) had a profound influence on Japanese history and culture. Here are images of the samurai, from ancient illustrations to photos of modern re-enactors, plus pictures of samurai gear in museum displays.

Ronin like the one depicted here fending off arrows with a naginata did not serve any particular daimyo, and often were seen (fairly or unfairly) as bandits or outlaws in feudal Japan. Despite that unsavory reputation, the famed "47 Ronin" are some of the greatest folk-heroes of Japanese history.

The artist, Yoshitoshi Taiso, was both extremely talented and a troubled soul. Although he struggled with alcoholism and mental illness, he left behind a body of amazingly vivid prints like this one, full of movement and color.

Read about the history of the samurai, and see photos of some of the famous feudal-era castles of Japan.

02
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Tomoe Gozen, the famous female samurai (1157-1247?)

Print of an actor portraying Tomoe Gozen
Actor portrays Tomoe Gozen, the female samurai. Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

This print of a kabuki actor portraying Tomoe Gozen, the famous twelfth-century samurai woman of Japan, shows her in a very martial pose. Tomoe is decked out in full (and very ornate) armor, and she rides a lovely dapple-gray horse. Behind her, the rising sun symbolizes Japanese imperial might.

The Tokugawa shogunate banned females from appearing on the kabuki stage in 1629 because the plays were becoming too erotic even for relatively open-minded Japan. Instead, attractive young men played the female roles. This all-male style of kabuki is called yaro kabuki, meaning "young man kabuki."

The switch to all-male casts did not have the desired effect of reducing eroticism in kabuki. In fact, the young actors were often available as prostitutes for customers of either gender; they were considered models of feminine beauty and were highly sought-after.

See three more images of Tomoe Gozen and learn about her life, and peruse prints and photos of other Japanese samurai women.

03
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Samurai Warriors Board a Mongol Ship at Hakata Bay, 1281

Samurai warriors attacking a Mongol Ship at Hakata Bay, 1281
Samurai board a Mongol Ship during the 1281 invasion. From Suenaga's scroll. Public domain due to age.

In 1281, the Mongol Great Khan and Emperor of China, Kublai Khan, decided to send an armada against the recalcitrant Japanese, who refused to offer him tribute. The invasion did not go quite as the Great Khan planned, however.

This picture is a section of the scroll created for the samurai Takezaki Suenaga, who fought against the Mongol invaders in 1274 and 1281. Several samurai board a Chinese ship and slaughter the Chinese, Korean, or Mongolian crew-members. These sorts of raids took place mainly at night in the month after Kublai Khan's second armada showed up in Hakata Bay, off Japan's west coast.

Read more about the invasion of Japan by Yuan China, led by Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan.

04
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Excerpt from Takezaki Suenaga's Scroll

Suenaga Fights Three Mongol Warriors, 1274 Samurai Takezaki Suenaga charges Mongol invaders as shell explodes overhead, 1274. Scroll created between 1281-1301; public domain due to age.

This print was commissioned by the samurai Takezaki Suenaga, who fought against the Mongol-led Chinese invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. The founder of the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan, was determined to force Japan to submit to him. However, his invasions did not go as planned...

This part of the Suenaga Scroll shows the samurai on his bleeding horse, firing arrows from his long-bow. He is clad in lacquered armor and a helmet, in proper samurai fashion.

The Chinese or Mongol opponents use reflex bows, which are much more powerful than the samurai's bow. The warrior in the foreground wears quilted silk armor. At the top center of the picture, a gunpowder-filled shell explodes; this is one of the first known examples of shelling in warfare.

05
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Samurai Ichijo Jiro Tadanori and Notonokami Noritsune fighting, c. 1818-1820

Samurai Ichijo Jiro Tadanori and Notonokami Noritsune fighting, c. 1818-1820.
Woodcut print of Japanese samurai Ichijo Jiro Tadanori and Notonokami Noritsune fighting, 1810-1820. Created by Shuntei Katsukawa (1770-1820). Library of Congress / No known restrictions.

Two samurai warriors in full armor on the beach. Notonokami Noritsune seems not to have even drawn his sword, while Ichijo Jio Tadanori is poised to strike with his katana.

Both men are in elaborate samurai armor. Individual tiles of leather or iron were bound together with strips of lacquered leather, then painted to reflect the warrior's clan and personal identity. This form of armor was called kozane dou.

Once firearms became common in warfare in the Sengoku and early Tokugawa eras, this type of armor was no longer sufficient protection for samurai. Like European knights before them, Japanese samurai had to adapt to the new weaponry by developing solid iron-plate armor to protect the torso from projectiles.

06
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Portrait of samurai warrior Genkuro Yoshitsune and monk Musashibo Benkei

Print of samurai Genkuro Yoshitsune and monk Musashibo Benkei by Toyokuni Utagawa, c. 1804-1818
Woodcut print of samurai warrior Genkuro Yoshitsune and warrior monk Musashibo Benkei by Toyokuni Utagawa, c. 1804-1818. Library of Congress / No known restrictions

The famed samurai warrior and Minamoto clan general Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), shown here standing at the rear, was the only person in Japan who could defeat the fierce warrior-monk, Musashibo Benkei. Once Yoshitsune proved his fighting prowess by beating Benkei in a duel, the two became inseparable fighting partners.

Benkei was not only ferocious but also famously ugly. Legend says that his father was either a demon or a temple guardian and his mother was a blacksmith's daughter. Blacksmiths were among the burakumin or "sub-human" class in feudal Japan, so this is a disreputable genealogy all around.

Despite their class differences, the two warriors fought together through the Genpei War (1180-1185). In 1189, they were besieged together at the Battle of Koromo River. Benkei held off the attackers to give Yoshitsune time to commit seppuku; according to legend, the warrior monk died on his feet, defending his lord, and his body remained standing until enemy warriors knocked it over.

07
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Samurai Warriors Attacking a Village in Japan

Samurai Warriors Attacking Japanese Villagers, c. 1750-1850
Edo-period samurai warriors attacking a village in Japan, created between 1750-1850. Library of Congress / No known restrictions

Two samurai strike down villagers in an otherwise idyllic winter scene. The two local defenders appear to be part of the samurai class as well; the man falling into the stream in the foreground and the man in the black robe at the rear are both holding katana or samurai swords. For centuries, only samurai could own such weapons, upon pain of death.

The stone structure on the right side of the picture appears to be a toro or ceremonial lamp. Initially, these lanterns were placed only at Buddhist temples, where the light constituted an offering to the Buddha. Later, however, they began to grace both private homes and Shinto shrines as well.

See the entire 10-part series of prints depicting this samurai attack on a village.

08
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Fighting Inside the House | Samurai Raid a Japanese Village

A homeowner defends his household from an attacking samurai warrior, Japan, c. 1750-1850.
A samurai warrior and a homeowner prepare to fight inside the house, while a woman is disturbed from her koto playing. c. 1750-1850. Library of Congress / No known restrictions

This print of a samurai fight within a home is so interesting because it provides a peek inside a Japanese household from the Tokugawa Era. The light, paper and board construction of the house allows panels to basically break free during the struggle. We see a comfortable-looking sleeping area, a pot of tea spilling on the floor, and of course, the lady of the house's musical instrument, the koto.

The koto is Japan's national instrument. It has 13 strings arranged over movable bridges, which are plucked with finger picks. The koto developed from a Chinese instrument called the guzheng, which was introduced into Japan circa 600-700 CE.

See the entire 10-part series of prints depicting this samurai attack on a village.

09
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Actors Bando Mitsugoro and Bando Minosuke portraying samurai, c. 1777-1835

Two samurai warriors, portrayed by actors Bando Mitsugoro and Bando Minosuke (c. 1777-1835)
Actors Bando Mitsugoro and Bando Minosuke portraying samurai warriors, woodcut print by Toyokuni Utagawa, c. 1777-1835. Library of Congress / No known restrictions

These kabuki theater actors, probably Bando Minosuke III and Bando Mitsugoro IV, were members of one of the great acting dynasties of Japanese theater. Bando Mitsugoro IV (originally called Bando Minosuke II) adopted Bando Minosuke III, and they toured together in the 1830s and 1840s.

Both played strong male roles, such as these samurai. Such roles were called tachiyaku. Bando Mitsugoro IV was also a zamoto, or licensed kabuki promoter.

This era marked the end of the "golden age" of kabuki, and the beginning of the Saruwaka era, when fire-prone (and disreputable) kabuki theaters were moved from central Edo (Tokyo) to the outskirts of town, a region called Saruwaka.

10
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A man uses a magnifying glass to examine famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi

Man holding up a magnifying glass to examine famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi, c. 1847-1850
Woodcut print of a man examining famous samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, by Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1798-1861). Library of Congress / No known restrictions

Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645) was a samurai, famous for dueling and also for writing guidebooks to the art of swordsmanship. His family was also known for their skill with the jutte, a sharpened iron bar with an L-shaped hook or handguard protruding from the side. It could be used as a stabbing weapon or to disarm an opponent of his sword. The jutte was useful for those who were not authorized to carry a sword.

Musashi's birth name was Bennosuke. He may have taken his adult name from the famous warrior monk, Musashibo Benkei. The child started learning sword-fighting skills at the age of seven and fought his first duel at 13.

In the war between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's death, Musashi fought for the losing Toyotomi forces. He survived and started a life of travel and dueling.

This portrait of the samurai shows him being examined by a fortune-teller, who is giving him a thorough going-over with a magnifying glass. I wonder what fortune he predicted for Musashi?

11
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Two samurai fighting on the roof of Horyu Tower (Horyukaku), c. 1830-1870

Samurai warriors fight on top of the Horyukaku (Horyu Tower), c. 1830-1870
Two samurai fighting on the roof of Horyu Tower (Horyukaku), Japanese woodcut print c. 1830-1870. Library of Congress / No known restrictions

This print shows two ​samurai, Inukai Genpachi Nobumichi and Inuzuka Shino Moritaka, fighting on the roof of Koga Castle's Horyukaku (Horyu Tower). The fight comes from the early nineteenth-century novel "Tales of the Eight Dog Warriors" (Nanso Satomi Hakkenden) by Kyokutei Bakin. Set in the Sengoku era, the massive 106-volume novel tells the story of eight samurai who fought for the Satomi clan as it reclaimed Chiba province and then spread into Nanso. The samurai are named for the eight Confucian virtues.

Inuzuka Shino is a hero who rides a dog named Yoshiro, and guards the ancient sword Murasame, which he seeks to return to the Ashikaga shoguns (1338-1573). His opponent, Inukai Genpachi Nobumichi, is a berserker samurai who is introduced in the novel as a prison inmate. He has been offered redemption and a return to his post if he can kill Shino.

12
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Photo of a Tokugawa-era samurai warrior

Photo of Tokugawa-era samurai in full armor
Samurai warrior in full gear, 1860s. Public domain due to age.

This samurai warrior was photographed just before Japan underwent the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which ended up demolishing feudal Japan's class structure and abolishing the samurai class. Former samurai were no longer permitted to carry the two swords that had signified their rank.

In the Meiji Era, a few ex-samurai worked as officers in the new, western-style conscript army, but the style of fighting was extremely different. More of the samurai found work as police officers.

This photo truly depicts the end of an era - he may not be the Last Samurai, but he is certainly one of the last!

Read about the history of the samurai, and see photos of some of the famous feudal-era castles of Japan.

13
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Samurai Helmet in the Tokyo Museum

Samurai Helmet with metal plumes, Tokyo, Japan
A samurai warrior's helmet from the collection of the Toyko Museum. Ivan Fourie on Flickr.com

Samurai helmet and mask on display in the Tokyo National Museum. The crest on this helmet appears to be a bundle of reeds; other helmets had deer antlers, gold-plated leaves, ornate half-moon shapes, or even winged creatures.

Although this particular steel and leather helmet is not as intimidating as some, the mask is rather unsettling. This samurai mask features a fierce hook nose, like a bird of prey's beak.

See helmeted samurai in action in this series of prints, Samurai Attack a Japanese Village. Also, learn more about Samurai Women of Japan.

14
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Samurai mask with mustache and throat-guard, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Samurai mask at Asian Art Museum, with neck-guard to prevent decapitation
Photo of a samurai mask on display at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Marshall Astor on Flickr.com

Samurai masks offered a couple of advantages for their wearers in battle. Obviously, they protected the face from flying arrows or blades. They also helped to keep helmets seated firmly on the head during a fracas. This particular mask features a throat guard, useful for hindering decapitation. It seems likely that from time to time, as well, the masks concealed the true identity of a warrior (although the code of bushido required samurai to proudly proclaim their lineage).

The most important function of samurai masks, however, was simply to make the wearer appear fierce and intimidating. I for one would hesitate to cross swords with any samurai who showed up in this bristly wooden face-gear.

15
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Body Armor Worn by Samurai

Full suit of Japanese samurai body armor in Japan's National Museum, Tokyo
Samurai body armor, Tokyo, Japan. Ivan Fourie on Flickr.com

This particular Japanese samurai armor is from the later period, likely the Sengoku or the Tokugawa era, based on the fact that it has a solid metal breast-plate rather than a mesh of lacquered metal or leather plates. The solid metal style came into use after the introduction of firearms into Japanese warfare; armor that was sufficient for fending off arrows and swords would not stop arquebus fire.

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Display of samurai swords at London's Victoria and Albert Museum

Sheathed samurai swords at London's Victoria and Albert Museum
A display of samurai swords from Japan in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Justin Wong on Flickr.com

According to tradition, a samurai's sword was also his soul. These beautiful and lethal blades not only served the Japanese warriors in battle but also signified the samurai's status in society. Only samurai were allowed to wear the daisho - a long katana sword and a shorter wakizashi.

Japanese swordmakers achieved the elegant curve of the katana by using two different types of steel: strong, shock-absorbing low-carbon steel at the non-cutting edge, and sharp high-carbon steel for the cutting edge of the blade. The finished sword is fitted with an ornate hand guard called a tsuba. The hilt was covered with a woven leather grip. Finally, artisans decorated the beautiful wooden scabbard, which was crafted to fit the individual sword.

Altogether, the process of creating the best samurai sword could take six months to complete. As both weapons and works of art, though, the swords were worth the wait.

17
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Modern Japanese Men Re-enacting the Samurai Era

Samurai re-enactors looking stern, Tokyo, 2003
Modern-day Samurai re-enactors in Tokyo, Japan. September, 2003. Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images

Japanese men re-enact the Battle of Sekigahara to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Tokugawa Shogunate's 1603 establishment. These particular men are playing the role of samurai, probably armed with bows and swords; among their opponents are arquebusiers, or infantry troops armed with early firearms. As one might expect, this fight did not go well for the samurai with traditional weapons.

This battle is sometimes called the "most important battle in Japanese history." It pitted the forces of Toyotomi Hideyori, son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, against the army of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Each side had between 80,000 and 90,000 warriors, with a total of 20,000 arquebusiers; as many as 30,000 of the Toyotomi samurai were killed.

The Tokugawa Shogunate would go on to rule Japan until the Meiji Restoration, in 1868. It was the last great era of feudal Japanese history.