The Samurai

The samurai, or bushi, were Japan's warrior class. They rose to prominence during the Yamato period (c. 300-710), when the use of levied infantry gave way to warlords providing full-time mounted archers. This evolution weakened central control, leading to long periods of internecine warfare.

The appearance of the samurai marked the birth of martial-arts schools, or ryuha. Each ryu taught both armed and unarmed combat, often alongside such skills as horsemanship and strategy. A samurai was expected to learn to fight both mounted and dismounted with bow (yumi), sword (tachi and later the katana), spear (yari), polearms (naginata and nagamaki), and knife (tanto), and to wrestle armored and unarmored. Different schools added other weapons, including the shuriken (p. 223), kusarigama (p. 219), axe, hammer, and flail.

Initial emphasis was on mounted archery, but the samurai evolved into swordsmen as infantry tactics became more important. Armor changed to match: boxy o-yoroi, suitable when using and facing the yumi, gave way to suits that freed the arms for swordplay. On foot, samurai wielded spears, swords, and to a lesser extent hammers, staves, polearms, and other weapons. Firearms entered the arsenal with the arrival of the Portuguese, but like Europe's knights, the samurai absorbed the gun into their fighting methods. To bulk out their armies, they raised conscript light infantry called ashigaru. These troops had sparse armor (typically a helmet and inferior torso armor) and lower-grade weaponry.

With the unification of Japan and the ensuing Tokugawa Shogunate (16031868), Japan entered a prolonged peace. Only the Shogunate was allowed firearms. Martial-arts schools became more widespread but often more specialized - those that taught only a subset of weapons or skills (or one weapon) grew more common. Weapons suited to piercing armor, such as the bow and spear, were overshadowed by the sword, which was ideal for fighting unarmored foes.

With potential masters no longer becoming battlefield casualties (or indeed, needing to prove their skill in duels), the number of ryuha boomed. Duels were forbidden and matches between schools were discouraged. Use of kata as the core of skill transmission became common. This status quo inspired a backlash in favor of contact training and led to the eventual development of Kendo (p. 175).

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