The samurai were, during a long period of Japanese history, from 1185 to 1867, the elite military class to whom all others gave way, with even emperors at times being subservient to the shoguns who, as commanders of the samurai, held the real power in the land.
A samurai warrior would be recognizable from his dress, his weaponry, and his demeanor. When not armored for battle, he wore a kimono and flowing, skirt-like trousers. His head was shaved on top, with his side and back hair gathered into a topknot. He was permitted to carry two swords at all times, one long and one short, carried at the waist. He was proud and haughty, and demanded to be shown respect by everyone else. He had the right to kill, on the spot, anyone who showed him disrespect, although this was not something that happened very often.
The samurai were warlords and chieftains, and the soldiers who fought for them. They were entitled to an annual gift of rice, but otherwise had to work the land when there was no fighting to be done. Their wives had an important role to play, especially during times of war, as they would have to run the household and even defend it against attack when the warrior husband was away. Many samurai women were trained warriors themselves, particularly in use of the naginata lance and the bow and arrow. Some samurai couples fought alongside each other in battle.
The samurai class, although elite, was also extremely numerous. At the end of the samurai era it was estimated that between 7% and 10% of the entire population of Japan were samurai, with more than a million (out of a population of 25 million) counting themselves as "high samurai", who were allowed to ride a horse, with another half-million being "low samurai" who could carry two swords but were not allowed horses.
The samurai lived according to a strict ethical warrior code known as "bushido", as "bushi" is another name for samurai. At the heart of bushido was complete loyalty towards the "daimyo" or lord, who may or may not have been the emperor, depending on the period of history in question. This loyalty meant that personal motivations had to take second place, with desire for material possessions being discouraged. Honor and pride were of supreme importance, as was obedience to the call to fight, whatever the odds.
The seven traditional virtues of bushido were: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and glory, and loyalty. Others that have been included at various times are filial piety, wisdom, and care for the elderly.
Under the direction of bushido, during battle a samurai would seek out an opponent of similar rank and fight him with his long sword. On killing his enemy, the latter's head would be severed and taken away as a token and proof of victory, with the heads of particularly high-ranking opponents being paraded in triumph on the warriors' return.
Capture in battle was the supreme disgrace and, to meet this contingency, bushido prescribed a form of ritual suicide called "seppuku". This involved use of the short sword to stab oneself in the abdomen ("hara-kiri"), with an assistant then decapitating the samurai from behind. Seppuku was also prescribed as self-punishment for other actions, such as acting dishonorably.
Bushido is believed to have its roots in Zen Buddhism and Shinto, the two main religions of Japan, as is evident from its emphasis on subservience and loyalty, and the ethical principles that it contains. However, it is also a warrior code, and it includes such principles as admiration of the sword and the need to perfect all the martial arts. The warrior must be morally pure as well as an efficient killing machine. By looking after his body and not indulging in excesses of any kind, he will be better able to do his duty.
The samurai warrior was also expected to be educated and to cultivate the arts. Many early samurai were also poets. The samurai warrior was a fearsome enemy but a respecter of women and gentlemanly in conduct.
There is therefore much in common with the Western concept of Chivalry, which was also concerned with the fostering of an elite warrior class that was pure in mind and body, and skilled in the use of words. The medieval concept of "courtly love", by which the warrior-poet admired his beloved from afar but never touched her physically, could have come straight from the dictates of bushido.
There are even parallels with Islam, which was growing in the Middle East at roughly the same time as the samurai in Japan (from the 8th century CE). Islam means "submission" and it had military as well as religious origins.
Although the samurai were officially disbanded in 1876, the spirit of bushido has continued. The kamikaze ("divine wind") pilots of World War II, who crashed their bomb-laden planes onto US ships, were latter-day samurai in that they set the honor of their emperor above all else and had no fear of death. It could even be said that the spirit of bushido is alive and well in modern Japan, in the form of the intense loyalty that employees have towards their companies, and the tendency not to argue with the instructions of people in authority. It is even the case that modern Japan has one of the world's highest suicide rates at more than 30,000 a year, and deaths from seppuku are not unknown.
It is also interesting to note that the concepts of bushido have found favor outside Japan. The US Army's "seven core values" are either identical to the seven virtues of bushido or have close parallels. The samurai way of life is alive and well, in America as well as Japan.