Have you ever see a “naked” katana?

Here it is.

Katana blade
Katana blade from 1526, in steel. Dimensions: overall length 91.8 cm; length of cutting edge 75.1 cm; sori (curvature) 2.4 cm. On display at the MET, New York.

Made on August 12, 1526 (as per date), and signed on the tang by Masazane, an important wordsmith active in Ise (in present-day Mie prefecture), this steel katana is still in perfect condition despite its five hundred years.

The blade has a simple structure.

Blade parts

As we have already saw, the nakago is the tang to be inserted into the tsuka; the mekugi-ana is the matching hole where a small bamboo peg, call mekugi, is tightly inserted to keep the blade and the mountings together. The mune is the back, the ha the cutting edge, and the kissaki the sharp point. The blade ridge is called shinogi, while shinogi-ji is the flat section. The sori is the degree of cuvature.

The hi or better the bo-hi is a groove that can be present or not. The following katana, an antique piece from the early 17th century, shows it clearly:

Katana with bo-hi
Katana blade from 1622, in steel. Dimensions: overall length 92.8 cm; length of cutting edge 71.5 cm; sori (curvature) 1.5 cm. On display at the MET, New York.

The bo-hi is the groove made near the back to reduce the overall weight of the sword, without compromising its structural integrity and durability. It shifts the balance point closer to the wielder: the katana becomes faster in the hand but slightly less powerful in its cutting action. Moreover, the bo-hi amplifies the tachi-aze, the sword wind sound, that unique “swish” sound it makes when wooshing through the air. You can find antique katana swords with one, two, or no bo-hi.

The sword average weight could vary between 0.7 and 1.4 kg; a 16th-17 centuries European rapier (espada ropera, rapière, striscia) had an average weight of 1 kg, but this last was not designed to be a two-handed sword like the katana.

For Stephen Turnbull, a famous English specialist in Japanese history, «the deadly curved sword of the samurai is probably the finest edged weapon in world military history» (cit.). It was indeed an extraordinary weapon, equipped with as much sharp and hard thread as an elastic and robust body. It could behead a man in a single strike and at the same time, although it wasn’t designed to be a defensive weapon, it could block an arrow, and be so flexible to absorb an intense blow. Of course, behind so much perfection there were some secrets: firstly, the superb quality of carbon steel used to forge it, the tamahagane, and secondly a long and complex manual processing involving a differential hardening which gave the katana its gentle curve and its one-of-a-kind feature: its hamon or temper line.

Different katana swords showing different patterns of hamon.


Fire and tori

The legendary katana sword arises from a mixture of violent fire and ritual prayers.

In feudal Japan, all of the different smiths involved in the making of a sword used to perform purification ceremonies: the “sacred art” of making the katana was accompanied by a panoply of Shinto religious rituals throughout its duration.

Before the exhausting melting process begins, «prayers are performed in front of a nearby Shinto shrine that houses the deity of metal production, Kanayago-no-kami, and a portable shrine within the workshop overlooks the whole process. The workshop itself is separated from the material world by a sacred rope called a shimenawa» (Paul Martin, Oku-izumo’s Annual Sword Steelmaking Begins, in “Japan Forward”, February 3, 2018).

The following blade forging process was filled with ritual elements as well. The swordsmiths had to go through a sort of purification rite to be irreproachable. In ancient times, it was believed that, if during the process of making the blade he harbored evil thoughts, the sword would never be of easy use.

Swords by some makers were thought to bring good fortune to certain military families, while others, though masterly made, were believed to be crazy or too bloodthirsty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the blades made by Muramasa were considered to be cursed or unlucky by the Tokugawa, the shogunate clan. Many samurai owning a Muramasa katana got desperate at that time: they had no money to buy another super expensive katana, but how did they dare to wear a katana supremely hated by the supreme shogun?

Necessity is the mother of invention everywhere, and in Japan as well. The samurai came up with a witty solution: the blades made by Muramasa were signed by two characters. Many samurai removed or altered one of the two, and at the same time added a new one to turn the signature by Muramasa into the faked signature by fictional Masahiro, Masamune, Muratada, Muramune, or Hiromasa.

Katana Muramasa
Katana blade made by Muramasa in the 16th century, signed “Sei-shū Kuwana jū Muramasa”, on display at the Tokyo National Museum (JP). (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).
  1. The steel production

The mineral ore used to create a legend is special blackish iron sand called satetsu, collected from the river beds, and smelted in the traditional Japanese clay furnace (tatara) at approximately 1370-1500° C, a temperature reached by burning oak and soft pine charcoal. During 72 hours after reaching the right temperature, 4 or 5 people constantly add iron sand and charcoal in alternating layers every 30 minutes, under the direction of a supervisor (murage) who is forced to stay awake during this non-stop cycle. At the end of this process called hitoyo, the tatara is destroyed and the steel bloom at its base, called kera-oshi, is removed. Its outer surface is covered in a mix of pig-iron, steel, semi-reduced steel, slag, and charcoal; its inner core contains first-grade tamahagane with a carbon content of 1% to 1.5%, while other parts include second-grade tamahagane with a carbon content of 0.5% to 1.2%, and zuku (pig-iron) with a carbon content of over 1.75%. The tamahagane is then cooled and broken into chunks, analyzed, graded, and sold to swordsmiths.

9 Tons of satetsu and 13 tons of charcoal give about 2.8 tons of kera and 0.8 tons of pig-iron; 2.8 tons of kera give only 0.8 tons of the first-grade tamahagane, which today costs 50 times the value of common steel. In the past centuries, it was even worse. We can already say, although we are only at the first step, that the katana was a tremendously expensive legend.

A piece of tamahagane (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported).
  1. Forging

The swordsman checks the various pieces of tamahagane: the ones with the higher content of carbon, hard and fragile, will be used to create the cutting edge (kawagane and hagane); the pieces with a lower content of carbon, more flexible and resilient, will be used for the core of the sword (shingane). This way, the katana will bend and flex under pressure without breaking, and at the very same time, will boast a super-hard, super-sharp cutting edge.

The various pieces of tamahagane are heated and crushed with a hammer to get flakes or small flat plates, which are carefully pile up to form a small block, wrapped in a special rice paper dampened by water containing clay and rice straws to prevent oxidation on the surface, and then put back in the fire. Here, at a temperature of approx. 1300° C, they began to fuse together. In this way, the swordsmith prepares different blocks of steel which will be worked in different ways.

In the next phase, called orikaeshi, each block is repeatedly heated, hammered, folded both horizontally and longitudinally, a variable number of times. After each folding, the piece of steel is heated and then cooled in water to oxidize its surface; the following hammering removes the oxidized layer, further removing the impurities and facilitating the even, homogeneous distribution of carbon throughout (and thus slightly reducing its content). This long and tiring process will produce a kind of steel that is more “pure” and of higher quality: impure sword blades have areas of concentrated levels of carbon, which turn out to be dangerous weak points during combat.

The kawagane and hagane steel blocks can receive 12 to 16 folding rounds; 16 foldings will produce approx. 65,000 layers: in a bar 2.5 cm thick, each layer has a microscopic depth. The shingane receives a much smaller number of foldings.

Depending on how the steel has been folded, patterns will emerge in the surface grain (jihada) of the finished blade; the jihada will give experts an indication of the dating, location of production, and swordsmith who has made it.

Forging hot iron

At this point, all is ready for the tsukurikomi phase. The higher-carbon steel block (hagane) is shaped to form a sort of U, and the lower-carbon steel block (shingane) is inserted into it like a Vienna sausage into the slit of a partially sliced bun to create a hot dog. Sometimes, some sauce was added: some kawagane steel was added on the sides and or on the back. It was from this kind of hot dog with or without the sauce that the swordsmith obtained the first, straight draft of the sword, called sunobe.

sezione katana
  1. Quenching the blade

This phase, called yakiire, is probably the most delicate and critical of all. It entails a differential heat treatment to create a difference in hardness between the cutting edge made of high-carbon steel and the back that can be made of high-carbon or medium-carbon steel, to enhance both the hardness of the ha and the elasticity of the mune. The method is as easy to say as hard to realize: you have to heat the sword to a red-hot temperature and then cooling different parts of it at different rates, turning the edge into very hard martensite and the back into softer pearlite.

To get this result, the swordsmith prepares a thermal insulation paste, called yakiba-tsuchi, mixing clay, charcoal powder, sharpening stone dust, water, and other ingredients that have been kept secret through the centuries. The yakiba-tsuchi paste is then spread on the surface of the blade with a different degree of thickness: abundant on the ridge, thin on the blade, very thin on the cutting edge, or nothing at all. The variable thickness of this clay coating is not a simple detail, as it will determine the cooling rate in quenching.

Once the yakiba-tsuchi has dried, the sword is heated up to 720-780° C and then immersed in a tank full of water (mizubune) whose temperature is another crucial factor as it will determine the hardening speed. Therefore, like the composition of yakiba-tsuchi and the style of coating, this third factor is part of the secret formula developed by every swordsmith.

The edge cools very quickly, turning it into a very hard microstructure (the martensite), while the thick layer of yakiba-tsuchi paste causes the rest of the blade to cool slowly, turning it into a soft microstructure (the pearlite). The characteristic visual pattern called hamon is the border between the martensitic steel and the softer pearlitic one.

The martensite undergoes a 4.4% volume increase, and this phenomenon induces a characteristic deformation: the curvature of the katana and its degree (sori). Suffice a small mistake in this phase to break the blade.

To relieve the residual tensile stress in the cutting edge, another tempering (aitori) is performed at 650° C.

The last steps are the finishes at the point (kissaki), the drilling of the mekugi-ana (the hole on the tang), and the signature on the omote side of the tang.

  1. Sharpening and polishing

The last phase of the process, entrusted to a specialized master artisan called togishi, is not a simple finishing touch, nor a cosmetic polish: it’s a long and delicate work, which includes the refinement of the shape of the blade and of its kissaki (point), the adjustment of the curvature, and the razor sharpening of the cutting edge. It’s easy to understand, therefore, why the togishi work has been considered both a specialized art and a solemn practice.

A good togishi reveals the soul, the power, and the beauty of a katana, bringing out the hamon and the jihada created during the previous phases. A bad polisher can ruin a blade forever: suffice to remove any more steel than is required to irredeemably damage the fine geometry of the blade.

Shaping, grinding, sharpening and polishing are also patient and dangerous manual activities which can require 2 to 4 weeks of intense daily work with different kind of polishing stones and techniques. This process hasn’t changed much since the days of feudal Japan and still today is carried out without the use of acids or chemical treatments.

Polishing tools
Japanese sword blade, sharpening stone and water bucket at 2008 Cherry Blossom Festival, Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington. Photo by Joe Mabel (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

On some katana, the mune and the shinogi-ji were polished to a mirror-like surface both to enhance their beauty and to make these parts of the blade better reflect the ground below, when the katana is angled down in a certain way: some samurai did it in combat so that their foe could not estimate the length of their blades.

Here we see the perfect fusion of form and function: the sword is a  masterpiece of intense beauty, the result of traditional sacred art; at the very same time, it is probably one of the most lethal cold weapons ever created by humans.

In the traditional Japanese worldview, these two features – being a lethal sword, made for killing, and being an art masterpiece – are not discernible and cannot be separated: the artistic value of the katana springs from insistent research to obtain the sword’s perfect functionality. However, I see here an inescapable ambiguity that perfectly summarizes the intense lights and pitch-black shadows of the lost world of samurai.


The making of a katana was a complex process, which required, and still requires, many steps, many people, and much time: at least 15 people and 6 months for a single good quality piece.

Today, a superb katana, made following the antique processing, could reach 60-80 grand (60,000 to 80,000 euros). In the past centuries, it was expensive as well, and the majority of samurai could not afford it. The low to medium-ranking samurai wore off-the-peg kazuuchi-mono and only higher-paid bushi ordered individual chûmon-uchi. These last were customized swords, made according to order; the kazuuchi-mono were hand-forged katana swords, mass-produced with a quicker process using higher percentages of cheaper low-carbon oroshigane than expensive tamahagane. It was an obliged choice, but not a stupid one: most warriors weren’t expected to survive the battle, hence they needed something that could not break and last them (most swords were passed down from a male generation to the next one).

The katana, whatever its quality, was the samurai’s most prized possession, always white-glove treated: it was dangerous, expensive, and provided with a “personality” of its own. To tell the truth, in feudal Japan all swords were treated with respect, but the katana stands out: it was an object of worship, considered to be sacred. Still today, Japanese bow in front of it.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543~1616), the very first Tokugawa shōgun of Japan, was also the very first to say that “the sword is the soul of the warrior”. Since then, the katana has been constantly portrayed as “the soul of the samurai”. It is a weird definition, however, as the samurai and the katana weren’t born and didn’t even die together.

Did you notice the hairstyle of all the high-ranking samurai of this movie?

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), «it became customary for samurai to shave or pluck the hair from the center of their pates (sakayaki), from the hairline back to the crown. The hair was worn long elsewhere on the head, oiled and tied into a ponytail, which was then folded onto the top of the head» (Vaporis, Samurai: An Encyclopedia, cit.). This hairstyle, known as chonmage, developed in the 13th century and ended in the late 19th, after the Meiji Restoration.


Japanese Periods

The earliest warriors or bushi in ancient Japan «were provincial fighters who performed essential military services for aristocratic families and the imperial court, in Kyoto. Their political role gradually increased during the late 12th century» (C. Vaporis, see Bibliography), when after the Genpei civil war (1180–1185), Minamoto Yoritomo established a military-based dictatorship, the Kamakura shogunate or Kamakura bakufu (1185~1333) in eastern Japan. This

was Japan’s first warrior regime that coexisted with the government of the imperial court in central Japan, politically relegated to a symbolic figurehead.

During the Kamakura period, the Hōjō clan, regents of the Kamakura shogunate, had to face the Jōkyū civil war (1221), fought against the forces of Retired Emperor Go-Toba, and later the Mongol invasions of Japan under Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281.

In these centuries, the most powerful warrior clans, allied to the shogun and gathered around him in the capital city of Kamakura, started to develop a shared identity: «It represented the first step toward a broader notion of warrior culture and identity that would develop over the subsequent centuries» (M. Wert, see Bibliography).

In 1333, the 96th Emperor Go-Daigo successfully overthrew the Kamakura shogunate thanks to his military alliance with Ashikaga Takauji, a warlord who had abandoned the shogun in favor of the Imperial House. The Kenmu Restoration, however, had a very short life: Ashikaga Takauji overthrew the Imperial government and founded the Ashikaga shogunate in 1338. As the Ashikaga clan was headquartered in the Muromachi district in Kyoto, the period of their military dictatorship is called the Muromachi period (1338~1573).

As to the warriors, both the Kamakura and the Muromachi periods see the so-called “way of the horse and bow” (kyûba no michi) or “the way of the bow and arrow”: the bow and arrow, not the sword, was the primary weapon of choice for elite warriors. They still lack a general warrior code: «A study of the many warrior house codes of the period reveals the lack of a universal standard of behavior for samurai of the pre-Tokugawa periods» (C. Vaporis, cit.).

The katana was yet to come, as well.

Samurai on horseback
Samurai on horseback, wearing armor and horned helmet, carrying bow and arrows, ca. 1878.

«Arrows accounted for most injuries and fatalities up to the fourteenth century. (…). But the sword was merely a sidearm until the fourteenth century, and even then it was used only to gain an advantage over an enemy during close-range combat, to finish off a downed opponent, or to decapitate him for later reward» (M. Wert, cit.).

For centuries, the bushi (the Japanese warrior) was a mounted archer. He had two blades, however: a long tachi with an average cutting edge length of 70–80 cm and a greater sori (degree of curvature); hung from the belt with the cutting-edge down, it was used on horseback to strike footed soldiers. The bushi had also a dagger, a short blade stuck into the belt of the armor, used to behead the enemies, mortally wounded with an arrow.

The katana sword, which was the result of nearly a thousand years of sword refinement, appeared in the mid-Muromachi period and became increasingly popular among the bushi, as the battlefield clashes started to be fought mainly on foot. In the late-Muromachi period, it was the main weapon of the warriors. «Every samurai on every battlefield of the Sengoku period wore a sword» (S. Turnbull, cit.), preferably a katana.

The late-Muromachi period was a stormy and troubled one: a civil war known as the Ōnin War lasted 10 years, from 1467 to 1477, and involved the Ashikaga shogunate and several daimyō in many regions of Japan. This war and the evident disintegration of the Ashikaga power initiated the Sengoku period or the “Age of Warring States” (1467~1573) a hundred years of struggles and conflicts among the most powerful warlords, served by armies of landed samurai retainers.

Color woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1858, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This print depicts general Yamamoto Kansuke Haruyuki at the end of the fourth battle of Kawanakajima (1561), fought in the Sengoku period.

The Azuchi–Momoyama period (1573~1603), the final phase of the Sengoku period, was dominated by three warlords known as the “great unifiers of Japan”: Oda Nobunaga (1534~1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537~1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543~1616).

Oda Nobunaga, daimyō of the powerful Oda clan, defeated many warlords and could unify nearly one-half of the country before he was betrayed and died in 1582. Toyotomi Hideyoshi «was able to build on Nobunaga’s efforts and by 1590 extend political control across the entire realm. His death without a mature heir led to a military struggle for power that culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, one of the largest battles in global history, in which more than 150,000 samurai and other men fought. Three years later, the victorious general, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543~1616), was appointed shogun by the emperor, thereby founding a dynasty of fifteen hegemons who would rule Japan until 1867» (C. Vaporis, cit.).

3 Unifiers
LEFT TO RIGHT: Oda Nobunaga (1534~1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537~1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543~1616). Woodblock prints.
2 Castles
LEFT: The Hiroshima Castle sometimes called Rijō (“Carp Castle”) was built by Mōri Terumoto, a daimyō of Toyotomi Hideyoshi; it was destroyed by the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945, and rebuilt in 1958 as it formerly was.
RIGHT: Himeji Castle, known as Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō (“White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”) because of its snowy color, was remodeled in 1581 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who headquartered in it.

In 1588, Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued a famous decree which disarmed the nation: the “Taiko’s Sword Hunt” forbade civilians – ordinary peasants, farmers, artisans, merchants, and monks – from owning weapons, both firearms and swords, which were all confiscated. This act not only stopped peasant revolts but stiffened the separations in the class structure, turning the bushi, the professional armed warriors, into a well-defined caste. That of samurai.

«The image of the samurai as a relatively strictly defined group distinct from other types of people in Japanese society can be attributed to the Tokugawa period. In earlier times, “warrior” was a plastic concept; some men were born and raised as warriors or served as military vassals or retainers, but others might have been part-time warriors, pursuing other occupations when not at war. (…) But it was only under the Tokugawa shogunate that warriors became distinct from commoners culturally and politically. With some exceptions, the birth was the only entrance into the warrior status group» (M. Wert, cit.).

Tokugawa Ieyasu created the last warrior regime in Japan, headquartered in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo), and his successors ruled as shoguns with few real challenges from the imperial court and the daimyo until the 19th century. The Tokugawa shogunate, or the Edo period (1603~1868), was an era of relative peace and (paradoxically) the age of the samurai: the most powerful warrior households formed the ruling class and filled the highest levels of both government and military. Moreover, this era saw the beginning of the very first idealized image of the samurai. «One could even argue that the real age of the samurai began in the Tokugawa period» (M. Wert, cit.) when no samurai had to fight on a battlefield, but all had to carry out many bureaucratic tasks. We’ll talk about it again.

«The head of each samurai household was a male who held a particular rank and received a specified fief or stipend in his lord’s household. This position conferred on him a house and its property, a guaranteed annual income, and high social and legal status that set him above the villagers, townspeople, and other commoners who made up over 95 percent of the population. This position was inherited» (Luke S. Roberts, see Bibliography).

The samurai caste enjoyed social and legal privileges and was granted some exclusive rights: among them, the right to wear the daishō (the matching pair made up of a katana and the smaller wakizashi sword, as we saw talking about omote and ura), and the right to use a surname or a family name, denied to all civilians (who had only duties and no right whatsoever).

Osaka Castle
The Osaka Castle was built in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi; after the defeat of the Toyotomi clan, it fell into the hands of the Tokugawa clan. The second shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, began to reconstruct it in 1620 and built the main tower in the picture. During WWII, the American bombing destroyed large portions of the castle. The 1995 restoration brought it back to its Edo-era splendor (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International).

In this relatively peaceful period, the katana was still a killing blade but no more a battlefield weapon. Much more emphasis was placed therefore on its beauty and “bling”: the hamon was molded following complex artistic patterns (there was even the “Mount Fuji” line); the tsuba and the tsuka became jewels, embellished with the use of soft metals such as shakudō, silver, and gold; the mountings were decorated with urushi lacquer and maki-e, lacquer sprinkled with pure gold or silver powder.

Two traditional melodies (Edo Lullaby and Azuma Jishi) and a series of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, all from the Edo period. The music is played by the Ensemble Nipponia. The video is by Ungern Sternberg.

In 1866, the 122nd Emperor of Japan Meiji, taking advantage of the weakness of the shogun and of a new alliance between the two powerful daimyō of the Satsuma and Chōshū domains, challenged the military bakufu (government) to restore the full imperial power. He succeeded: on November 9, 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th Tokugawa shōgun, “put his prerogatives at the Emperor’s disposal” and resigned.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868, that was not a peaceful transition, ushered in a sweeping abolition of the shogunate, the nearly 280 extant domains, and warrior status itself.

«The newly formed Meiji oligarchy first asked the lords to voluntarily “return” their domains to the emperor, effectively eliminating them. Prominent daimyo with large domains who led the Restoration forfeited their domains first. Later, the government forced all daimyō to do so. Some were moved across the country to become governors in one of the 72 newly formed prefectures, but many were not. For the most part, daimyō did not bemoan their new status». (M. Wert, cit.).

The caste of samurai was abolished and all of their feudal privileges were eliminated; samurai could no longer carry swords or maintain their distinctive hairstyle. And they no longer monopolized the military, which was now open to all male subjects. The Restoration marked not only the end of the shogunate, of the Edo Period and of feudal Japan but also the crumbling and the subsequent fall of the entire samurai world.

In 1874, the samurai were given the option to convert their stipends into government bonds, and in 1876, they were obliged to do it. «When the Meiji government (1868–1912) tried to calculate how many former male members of warrior households it had to remunerate with interest-bearing bonds, it arrived at a figure of 408,823 households, with a total of 1,892,449 people, dependents included, living in those households». (C. Vaporis , cit.).

They were about 5-6% of the population and they did not disappear. On the contrary.

Let’s have a quick peek at some numbers, which give us a real picture of the ruling class during the Meiji Era.

«The Restoration was a ritualistic “changing of the guard”» (Ratti & Westbrook, see Bibliography): the members of the old samurai clans allied to the shogunate left their ruling places to the members of all the warrior clans tied to the Emperor. «Significantly, we are told by Yazaki that the Kyakkan Rireki Mokuroku or Directory of government officials for the Council of State held in 1867-68, listed the following percentages by lineage in its composition: 78.9% belonging to the warrior class, 18.1% to the higher class of daimyō, 1.8% to the ancient imperial court, and 0.7 to the commoners» (Ratti & Westbrook, p. 41, cit.).

«In 1881, the ex-samurai and their families made up 5.3% of the total population. This small group occupied 68,556 of a total of 168,594 official posts or 40.7%» (1, cit.). The official posts this study is talking about were in central/local government, navy, army, police, court. «Moreover, the higher the official post the higher the rate occupied by the ex-samurai. At the level of central and local government, about 70% of the official post holders were ex-samurai.

In 1885 among 93 high-ranking officials who were above the bureau heads of the central government, we find 4 peerages (ex daimyō), 88 samurai, and 1 commoner. Calculating from these data, we conclude that about 16% of the ex-samurai were official post holders in 1881» (Sonora Hidehiro, see Bibliography).

Samurai by Beato
Samurai of Yokohama, albumen silver print from glass negative, 1864–65, by Felice Beato, one of the finest professional travel photographers of the 19th century, who lived and worked in Japan from 1862 until about 1885. This photograph was made a few years before the Meiji Restoration. MET, New York.

Would you like to “see” one thousand years of Japanese history in a spectacular reconstruction-parade held in 2016 at The Kyoto Imperial Palace? Here it is.

The samurai’s right to carry their katana and wakizashi in public ended with the Haitorei Edict of March 1876 which prohibited all people, with the only exception of military and law enforcement officials, from carrying weapons in public.

A legend, however, never dies, and the katana did not disappear. It did have difficult moments but is still alive.

Today in Japan there are licensed swordsmiths who continue the tradition of forging Japanese nihontō using the same methods that were developed hundreds of years ago. There are around 300 swordsmiths in Japan, but only 30 are able to make swordsmithing their sole job. The polishers and the tsuba makers are even rarer.

A katana made strictly following the tradition by a master swordsmith, like Yoshindo Yoshihara in Tokyo, costs at least US$ 60,000 (that’s only the starting price). As to the antique katana, they are highly sought-after among rich collectors and museum curators. I myself I’m more than happy to collect tsuba.


Were the samurai rich and powerful, romantic, spiritually mature, honorable, and honest as they appear in many recent Western and Eastern mass media?


In the Edo Period, during the peaceful Tokugawa shogunate, the members of the samurai class lived mostly as an urban-based bureaucratic elite. They were no longer called to fight, but to exercise representative functions and carry out administrative and bureaucratic duties. They became stipended officials, financially dependent on the shogunate or a daimyō (feudal lord). The samurai households made up the ruling class, directly or indirectly controlled with a firm hand by the shogun. Below the warrior caste, there was 94-95% of the entire Japanese population.

«The administration of the Tokugawa bakufu consisted basically of three ranks of hereditary vassals to the Tokugawa family: the high-ranking fudai, the hatamoto or “bannermen”, and the group known as gokenin, the so-called “housemen” of the shôgun. The fudai (…) received strategically important fiefs as well as high political posts. The gokenin carried out most of the basic administrative functions of the bakufu and also formed the base of the standing army. The hatamoto ranked somewhere in between, depending on their income and the importance of their family origin, and held managerial posts and controlling functions» (Markus Sesko, see Bibliography).

Fortunately, there are much data about the income of these three ranks of hereditary vassals, which, generally speaking, were better paid than all the retainers of the daimyō. «The samurai retained by daimyō received a lower income than the bannermen for each comparable position within the hierarchy» (Kozo Yamamura, see Bibliography).

The income of a hatamoto consisted of a basic salary (hondaka or kokudaka) plus an increase (yakudaka) depending on his office or rank. The basic salary was received through the grant of a fief and was paid in rice or cash. A medium-ranking hatamoto samurai had an overall income, which ranged from 100 to 10,000 koku a year. «In 1705, 1,268 bannermen were receiving between 100 and 200 koku; 1386 receiving between 200 and 300 koku: 1,298 between 300 and 400 koku; 339 between 400 and 500; only 2 received as much as 9,000 koku. This skewed income distribution remained essentially unchanged throughout the Tokugawa period» (Kozo Yamamura, cit.).

With his salary, every hatamoto samurai had to support his entire household: his family and servants like maids, cooks, handymen that he was socially expected to have; moreover, he had to pay «those samurai and non-samurai employees whom he was required by the bakufu to maintain, the number of which was determined by the level of stipend» (Kozo Yamamura, cit.).

Here some cases: a bannerman samurai with an income of 200-235 koku had to maintain and supply with arms 5 soldiers (1 lancer, 1 swordsman, 3 manservants). A samurai bannerman with an income of 9,000-10,000 koku has to maintain a small army: 20 riflemen, 10 archers, 30 lancers, 16 swordsmen, 10 cavalry men plus the horses, 3 banner carriers,  and 149 manservants (source: Kozo Yamamura, cit.). Moreover, they had representative functions and had to host higher-ranking samurai, to make semi-obligatory donations to higher officials, keep up appearances. These last were extremely important for all samurai: Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659 ~1719), a samurai of the Saga Domain, used to say “A samurai will use a toothpick even though he has not eaten. Inside the skin of a dog, outside the hide of a tiger”.

Did medium to high-ranking samurai succeed to make ends meet?

Kunisada woodblock print
Woodblock print, ink and color on paper by Utagawa Kunisada, Edo period. MET, New York.
Satsuma samurai during Boshin war period
Samurai from the Satsuma domain, allied with the Imperial House, during the Boshin war-period (immediately after the Meiji Restoration), photo by Felice Beato.

Absolutely not. They struggled to make ends meet, and in the vast majority of cases, they were continually losing their battle. How could their households survive? «As the 17th century progressed (…), an increasing number of them were forced to depend on the loan to make ends meet» (Kozo Yamamura, cit.). A chronic indebtedness was the lowest common denominator of the many medium to high-ranking samurai households in the Edo Period.

The situation for the medium to high-ranking samurai retainers of the daimyō was worst: «The rising consumer demands of an urban lifestyle were difficult enough to manage a fixed income, but by the middle of the 18th century most daimyō, themselves in financial straits, were demanding that samurai return a portion of their stipends to the domain as forced loans, known euphemistically as onkariage (“loan to the lord”), that would never be repaid. Pressed further in this manner, samurai generally experienced a state of impoverishment. As one historian has written, “In the Edo Period, the economic life of samurai general was one of terrible suffering”. Or, as contemporary essayist Seifû Murata (1746~1811) wrote, “For years now, the samurai have suffered from poverty and their minds have been occupied by making a living: Buy this, sell that, and Pawn this to pay for that has become all of their lives”» (C. Vaporis, 2, see Bibliography).

Under pressure to maintain standards of appearance, many medium-ranking samurai had to pawn their katana swords.

And the low-ranking poor samurai?

Well, sometimes they could not pawn their katana as they could not afford to pay for a good one. In his article, Markus Sesko wrote that in the 18th century, a good katana made by a swordsmith called Inoue Shinkai in the Ôsaka-Shintō domain, cost about four times the amount of an average hanshi´s annual basic income. The hanshi was the typical fief of a gokenin or lower-ranking retainer of the shogunate. A katana costed a sum equivalent to 4 years of stipend. Like a Ferrari car for a middle-class average professional today.

Hence, the more disadvantaged the samurai were, the more intense was their distress.

«Many samurai supplemented their meager hereditary income with small-scale work. Called by-employments, these included micro-farming, weaving, pottery-making, trade, and handicraft production (like toys and umbrellas ). But not all samurai used their time so nobly. Some of the lowest-ranking samurai gambled, begged, and borrowed their way through life» (M. Wert, cit.).

Many became barbers for higher-ranking samurai and many others, especially second or third born, left the samurai class to become scholars, writers, teachers, priests.

As for the pre-Edo Periods? We do not have objective data, but we can say that for many samurai, life was more troublesome and unsteady.

Here’s a short presentation of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai (1954), which is set in the late Warring States or Sengoku period, and tells the story of a farming village that hires a group of masterless samurai (rōnin) to be protected from marauding bandits.

Kurosawa, who descended from a samurai lineage, wrote the script together with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Two of the seven samurai had been molded after real models: Kyuzo after the legendary Musashi Miyamoto, while Kanbei was based on Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, a zen swordmaster. Kurosawa’s general aim was to achieve historical realism in many ways, including allowing only historically accurate construction materials on his sets. The characters have the depth and substance of individuals, and the world that they inhabit is life-like.


During the Edo Period, all samurai, from the lower to the higher-ranking ones, were stipended officials, financially dependent on the shogunate or a daimyō. A moral virtue such loyalty has to be a free choice, but what margin of freedom do you think you have when you are a stipended official, stuck in a vertical power dependency relationship you did not choose?

Imagine (and it’s certainly not difficult to do so) that your daily bread depends on a superior you cannot change at will; imagine, as well, to have no other choice. Do you think you can call “loyalty” your relationship with him? And no matter how you call it, do you think it could be a moral choice? (not wanting to kill your boss does not matter). «Logic suggests that loyalty must be voluntary, thus the use of coercion undermines assertions of samurai loyalty» (Joshua Archer, see Bibliography).

Therefore, to investigate the typical loyalty of a samurai we have to consider the pre-Edo periods: so did all the historians. And for once, historians fully agree: in pre-Tokugawa times, «disloyalty was favored among samurai to further their personal ambitions or interests. Disloyalty between medieval samurai was not always considered morally deplorable, nor was it considered divergent to ‘normal’ samurai behavior. Moreover, it is erroneous to argue that the majority of samurai were ‘loyal,’ when in fact many were often being coerced or manipulated by those in power» (Joshua Archer, cit.).

During the Sengoku period (the Warring State era), in particular, the country was in chaos, plagued by constant infighting. The low to medium-ranking samurai had to obey their immediate superiors, allied themselves to different warlords. These alliances were highly unstable and often shifted, and the low to medium-ranking samurai had to go with the tide and with their superiors (they had no choice).

«During the Warring States period, the samurai were (…) renown for treachery and lawlessness – whatever it took, including betraying their overlords, to advance their own causes» (C. Vaporis, cit.).

«Lawlessness and treachery were crucial strategic elements used by samurai to establish each military government. Moreover, examples of such behavior cannot be limited to the few who usurped power for their own ends. Those who took power by force were acutely aware that any of their subordinates might react in kind if allowed too much power and autonomy» (Joshua Archer, cit.).

In those years, the majority of bushi behaved led by selfish motives of personal gain, and not in compliance with a commonly accepted behavior code. Loyalty was not at the core of a code of honor simply because there was no common code of honor at all: «A study of the many warrior house codes of the period reveals the lack of a universal standard of behavior for samurai of the pre-Tokugawa periods» (C. Vaporis, cit.).

However, in the developing bushi culture, there was a core concept at those times: that of zanshin or “alertness”. The practice of zanshin was highly praised. Being mentally and socially alert meant being vigilant, watchful, wary, and always able to maintain a sort of cynical state of distrust of both friends and enemies. «The idea that a samurai must be ever on guard, always prepared for, and always expecting an attack is expressed frequently in early modern commentaries» (K.F. Friday, Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, New York, Routledge, 2004). The reason is easy to understand: they «were trained to expect betrayal (…) and to use deception, lawlessness, and treachery as legitimate means, and a good strategy in either war or politics» (Joshua Archer, cit.).

The conclusion?

«Samurai were interested in serving their own interests, in as much as they served their lord at any given time»; «the stereotypical notion of samurai loyalty is fallacious». (Joshua Archer, cit.). In other words, the image of a loyal samurai, tied to his own warlord by an unconditional devotion, undisputed obedience, and an absolute spiritual dedication has no historical basis.

Battle Kawanakajima
This 19th-century woodblock print of one of the five major Battles of Kawanakajima, fought in the Sengoku period, features Takeda Shingen on the left and Uesugi Kenshin on the right. Both of them were prominent daimyō trying to gain control of the plain of Kawanajima (in today’s Nagano Prefecture). The battles were ultimately inconclusive.


How were the samurai paid in pre-Edo periods, before they were given a fixed income by the Tokugawa bakufu (the feudal military government of the shogunate)?

«For much of Japanese history, compensation was the key to obtaining service from warriors. The success of Minamoto no Yoritomo <1147~1199, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate> hinged on his ability to reward allies. The Hōjō clan lost support when they could not deliver enough rewards to those who fought the Mongols; and emperor Go-Daigo <1288~1339> was able to buy samurai away from the last enemy general who tried to fight him in 1333. So how did warriors prove their service? By submitting reports and petitions for rewards, and collecting evidence – namely, heads» (M. Wert, cit.).

Yes, the most wanted and rewarded evidence was made up by the enemies’ heads. During the feudal pre-Edo period, victorious warriors received rewards, ranking promotions, even land only if they could furnish indisputable proof of their military achievements. And the best, incontrovertible proofs were the decapitated heads of enemies. One of the earliest cases was that of Taira no Masakado, a lord who led a rebellion against the imperial power in Kyoto; he was defeated at the Battle of Kojima in 940 and beheaded by a cousin; his head was taken to the capital to get the bounty. The legend says that his head wandered desperately in search of his own body, like a malevolent ghost, eventually coming to rest in an obscure fishing village called Shibazaki (the future Tokyo).

To be paid, the samurai had to display the enemies’ heads to the lord following a ritual ceremony (kubi-jikken). The heads of soldiers were typically ignored, while those of generals, high-ranking bushi, and warlords were cleaned up from the blood as a mark of respect, their hair was combed, and some makeup applied to hide scars and blemishes. The teeth were blackened to showcase their owner’s noble status (still in the 19th-century the geisha blackened their teeth as a sign of refined beauty). Then, the heads were wrapped in a white cloth and put on a wooden display with two tags indicating the name of the owner and the name of the killer. Lastly, they were presented to the warlord, usually flanked by some prisoners who could confirm the identification. The confirmation step was requested by the frequent deceits committed by the bushi, who sometimes lied about the identity of their victims. «Warriors also gamed the system by scouring the battlefield for wounded men who were not yet dead, beheading noncombatants, forging or switching nameplates, and looking for abandoned heads» (M. Wert, cit.). Moreover, some samurai left the battlefield once beheaded some notable enemies, before the end of the clash, feeling they had already accomplished their job and gained the prize.

Head taking was also a time consuming and risky process. Some warlords, therefore, to get rid of these side-effects, ordered their warrior to bring simpler and faster evidence. «During the Imjin War, the Japanese invasions of Korea of 1592–1598, for example, the samurai collected the ears and noses of enemy troops and civilians as trophies. (…). Warriors had brought them back to Japan, instead of decapitated heads, for reward» (M. Wert, cit.).  The Japanese samurai killed and indiscriminately mutilated peasants, including women, children, and the elderly, to obtain more body parts to send home for rewards. In Kyoto, the monument called Mimizuka or the Ear Mound enshrines the severed noses and ears of at least 38,000 Koreans killed during that invasion (and still represents an open issue in the diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan).

In the peaceful Edo period, this weird practice ended necessarily to resurface, however, during WWII; moreover, other expressions of the brutality that impregnated the samurai world did not die with the birth of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Double Beheading
On the left: the daimyō and samurai Matsushita Yukitsuna (1538~1598); on the right: the daimyō Konishi Yukinaga (1555~1600). Both are woodblock prints by Utagawa Yoshiiku, 1867.
Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Ieyasu Examining the Head of Kimura Shigenari at the Battle of Osaka Castle, woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1875.


Today tameshigiri, the test cutting, is a martial practice done with special targets to show the practitioner’s skill with a katana. The common target is a rolled tatami mat, sometimes with a hard bamboo stem in its core.

In the 17th century, samurai used to practice tameshigiri on live criminals to perfect their skills and test the quality of their swords.

There were different cutting techniques to be used on live human beings and different complex techniques of stake and tie them in suitable positions. O-kesa was the diagonal cut made on a standing man, usually from left shoulder to the right hip; taitai was likely the most difficult technique whose aim was to quickly cut the body across the chest just below the armpits; hiza-guchi was the slicing through the knees, and tabi-gata through the ankles.

Fortunately, this practice was banned during the 18th century.

«In the Edo period, it was customary to test the katana on the corps, a practice called hiemontori: young samurai were allowed to test the effectiveness of their swords on corpses at the execution grounds. In the Satsuma domain, there was a competition among young samurai in neighborhood schools known as gojû, the winner of which gained the right to be the first to use his sword on a cadaver. In practice, the elder group of boys in the school would gather at the domain prison and wait for the executioner to sever the head of the condemned person and then rushed forward to seize the corpse. The first to bite off an ear or finger and show it to his companions was deemed the winner and awarded the first round of practice on the cadaver» (C. Vaporis, cit.).

Not a pretty good educational method, I guess.

Warrior by Hokusai
A Warrior, monochrome woodblock print, ink on paper by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Edo period. MET, New York.
Felice Beato Execution
Execution, photo by Felice Beato, ca. 1860.

Please, do not look at the following image if you are sensitive.

Warning: the next picture is graphic in nature and is meant for a mature viewing audience.



Ashikaga Yoshinori (1394~1441), the 6th shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate during the Muromachi period of Japan, was known for his unpredictable sadic whims: he used to put to the sword the cooks who did not satisfy him and the gardeners who dared to make slight mistakes; he killed 59 members of the nobility, and not a few warriors. He died murdered (beheaded by an enemy, to be said) at the age of 47, after perfectly personifying the proverb “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword”.

In feudal Japan, higher-ranking samurai had a lot of leeways that got lost in the Edo period. The Tokugawa shogunate exerted an efficient and firm political control over all daimyō and tore the right of self-determination away from all samurai while granting them many privileges and a lot of window dressing.

In the Edo period, the samurai could demonstrate their collective superiority over commoners through their legal right to execute a person of lower status such as a commoner or a servant, for an act of rudeness or disrespect. This right was known as burei-uchi (“disrespect killing”) or kirisute gomen (“permission to cut down”). It was granted the samurai for two reasons: to coerce the civilian into developing “sacred” respect for the status system, and to give the samurai a right that, in reality, was only a residual legacy of the past and lost power.

«For the exercise of lethal violence against a commoner to be recognized as burei-uchi two conditions had to be met: one, the commoner’s act had to be deemed truly offensive to the samurai; and two, the samurai had to have killed the commoner on the spot, not at a later time» (C. Vaporis, cit).

This right was a highly ambivalent concession, indeed: «It was also in effect, an obligation: if a samurai did not take action to address an insult from a commoner or was not successful in killing the commoner on the spot, there could be negative consequences for him. Moreover, if the samurai did not act immediately to redress the insult, and instead decided at a later time or even date to redress his grievance, this also could result in his punishment» (C. Vaporis, cit.). Last but not least, a samurai who did not have a witness confirming the extreme rudeness of the dead could have gotten into a world of trouble.

In brief, the Tokugawa shogunate let the samurai regain his lost “honor”, or to better say, obliged him to defend his “honor”, but with scraps of freedom.

«How often did burei-uchi take place? There are no national statistics available. However, a study of Okayama, one of the country’s largest domains, reveals that there were fifty-one cases over the period 1670–1860. This amounted to roughly one every four years» (C. Vaporis, cit.).

Namamugi incident
The Killing at Namamugi, woodblock print by Hayakawa Shōzan, 1877.

This woodblock print depicts the “Namamugi incident”: on September 14, 1862, Charles Lennox Richardson, a British merchant was killed by a samurai of the retinue of Prince Shimazu Hisamitsu, the regent of the Satsuma Domain, under the kirisute gomen rule. Richardson (in black, in the central panel) was traveling on horseback with other British merchants. On the road, they met the large retinue of the prince, and none of them dismounted despite being gestured repeatedly to do so. Richardson received ten mortal sword strokes and two other merchants were severely wounded. The killing gave rise to a diplomatic crisis. In late 1863, a delegation of four samurai from the Satsuma clan came to Yokohama to negotiate an indemnity with the British diplomats, and to normalize relations between their clan and Britain. In the following portrait of the Satsuma Clan Envoys, the Italian-British photographer Felice Beato captured the samurai’s mood of defiance and the tension of the time.

Satsuma samurai
Portrait of the Satsuma Clan Envoys, albumen silver print, by Felice Beato, November 1863. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, US), digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.


The Tokugawa shogunate was a peaceful period but not a peaceful society: it was a military dictatorship steeped in structural violence, dramatic inequalities, and social injustice. «Below the peace that was taking place at the national level with no wars, there was still a fair amount of violence in Tokugawa society» (C. Vaporis, cit). The shogunate took the use of force and violence upon oneself, after having ripped it off from samurai but its iron fist engendered new violence and could not erase the violence intrinsic to the old bushi culture.

A widespread phenomenon at the time was that of “crossroads killings” or “street murders”, in Japanese tsujigiri: some samurai killed for sport, pleasure, or just to test their new katana, while young, unemployed rōnin killed passersby mostly to rob them. Both were usually nighttime crimes.

The low-ranking samurai Asahi Shigeaki (1674~1718) noted in his Ōmurōchûki (Diary of a Parrot in a Cage) that «even some daimyō were reputed to have engaged in this activity, including Tokugawa Mitsukuni, the lord of Mito domain, during his youth. The Tosa samurai Mori Masana while traveling to Edo in 1829 reported stories that the retired lord of Wakayama would go out at night with four or five attendants, enter people’s homes, and kill them. He is reputed to have killed hundreds of people in this way» (C. Vaporis, cit.).

The Tokugawa shogunate prohibited the practice in 1603. When caught, offenders would receive capital punishment. When caught.

Jirozaemon Murdering a Courtesan
Sano Jirōzaemon Murdering a Courtesan woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892), 1886, Collection Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1696, a wealthy lord, Sano Jirōzaemon, had a mental fit, and murdered dozens of prostitutes and courtesans with a katana in Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Edo. He killed over 100 women in a single day: a slaughter that will be called later the “Yoshiwara spree killings”. Despite his class and heritage, the samurai was treated by authorities as a spree killer, sentenced to death, and executed.


Inuoumomo or “dog shooting” was a traditional activity enjoyed by samurai both as military training and a recreational social moment. It was “played” inside an enclosed area (whose diameter was about 15 m) where dogs were released by some handlers, and “chased” by warriors on horseback, armed with bows and arrows. The dogs, frightened by the situation, started to react and run in unpredictable ways. It was thought that a samurai who could shoot a small terrified dog, could also hit a person on a galloping horse. This “sport” became popular during the Kamakura period, and we know that at a later time, thanks to the intervention of some Buddhist monks, the arrows were padded or blunted to be non-fatal. In the Edo period, it was still practiced by the samurai, though with decreasing success. The last recorded instance of inuoumomo took place before the Meiji Emperor in 1881.

The Mounted Archery Chasing Dogs, from “Chiyoda no Ohyoh”, Meiji era. By Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912).



In the lost world of the samurai, there was no space for romantic love. Before and during the Edo period, marriages were typically arranged by a higher-ranking samurai or by parents for different reasons.

Firstly, the marriage had to ensure the continuity of the household by raising an heir and maintaining the male head. An elite samurai might have a wife (seishitsu), and one or more concubines (sokushitsu) not just for fun, but to prevent the lack of a male heir. In the Edo period, the sons of concubines could inherit their’s father’s social status: «Any child born to a servant or concubine would be recognized only if the samurai father acknowledged it» (Luke S. Roberts, Growing Up Manly, see Bibliography).

Secondly, the marriage was a “social” and a “political” issue: before the Edo period, the wife of a samurai was to be chosen inside the warrior or the noble households based on a strategy of alliances and prestige considerations. As «during the Warring States period daimyō often used marriage to seal political alliances, the Tokugawa wanted to restrict such a use that might have challenged its authority». In the Edo period, therefore, a law made daimyō marriages and castle construction or repairs subject to the shogun’s approval». (Constantine Vaporis, Samurai: An Encyclopedia, cit.).

Last but not least, youthful males and females of samurai status had little or no chance for interaction outside their families. Couples often did not even meet until the wedding.

In the pre-Edo period, among elite samurai households, political issues clearly prevailed over any kind of romantic or emotional attachment. «When Tokugawa Ieyasu was forced to decide between maintaining his alliance with Nobunaga or killing his own wife and son under Nobunaga’s orders (they were suspected of secretly colluding with enemies), Ieyasu chose the latter» (M. Wert, p. 65, cit).

In the peaceful Edo period, this kind of choices had no space whatsoever, but the samurai and their wives did not live together all the time (when together, they did not sleep in the very same room) and their relationship was more similar to an ante litteram joint venture than a truly emotional bond. Generally, love «was condemned … as an irrelevant and possibly disruptive element». (Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black, 2003).

daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi
The daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537~1598) with his wives and concubines. His powerful wife, Toyotomi Yoshiko, daughter of a samurai, was politically powerful but did not bear any children. Hideyoshi then took up several concubines. Among them, the most prominent was Yodo-dono, who will become the mother of his son and successor, Hideyori, with whom she committed seppuku, after being defeated by Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Woodblock print by Choki
Woodblock print by Eishōsai Chōki, Edo Period, 19th century. MET New York.


 Some literary references, as the Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu, prove the social acceptance of homosexual relationships (nanshoku, “male colors”) since the 11th century. The emotional and sexual relationship between a male adult and a younger male partner was common both inside the Buddhist monasteries and the samurai world during the entire feudal period. It started to be discouraged only in the late Meiji era, after the Restoration, due to many factors, including Western influences. In feudal Japan, sexuality was considered as a fluid orientation: male bisexual behaviors, male-exclusive homosexuality or heterosexuality were socially accepted and not at all stigmatized (in a strict patriarchal society, the female sexuality has always been a horse of a different color).

The samurai nanshoku (homosexual relationship) was known as wakashudō, or the “Way of adolescent”: it was an intensely erotic and affective relationship between a nenja, an adult, and a wakashu, a more or less adolescent. This erotic and affective bond lasted for some years only (until the passage to adulthood of the wakashu), but could easily turn into a lifelong friendship, and was not only commonly accepted but praised. «It fulfilled a pedagogical function in that the elder provided mentorship in samurai values and skills while at the same time encouraging the elder to prove himself worthy of his partner. This tie between male partners was widely viewed as a form of personal obligation subject to the codes of loyalty, similar to the bonds between lord and vassal». (C. Vaporis, cit.).

It was likely the only “romantic” and “emotionally intense” partnership a samurai could feel in all of his life. In his Diary, the samurai Mori Hirosada (1710~1773) characterizes this homosexual relationship as an intimate friendship, full of infatuation and love (chiin, shūshin, nengoro) that male youths had for each other, and «it is significant that no such language is used for the relationships between youthful men and women or between adult men and women, although records of heterosexual relationships abound in his life and diary. This probably had to do with notions of masculinity that were tied to a gender hierarchy that demeaned women and to a large degree turned them into men’s property. Social norms promoted a feeling that it would be degrading to display affection for a woman too publicly. For a man to express his close relationship with another young man made him manly, while to do so concerning women put him in danger of becoming “womanly”». (Luke S. Roberts, Growing Up Manly, cit.).

Samurai and wakashu
Samurai and Wakashu, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, by Miyagawa Isshō, Edo period (1615–1868), early 18th century. MET, New York.
A nanshoku scene in a shunga handscroll by Miyagawa Chōshun (1683~1753).

Alyx Becerra




Did you inherited from your aunt a tribal mask, a stool, a vase, a rug, an ethnic item that you have the faintest idea what it is?

Did you find in a trunk an ethnic mysterious item you don’t even know how to describe?

Would you like to know if it’s worth something or is a worthless souvenir?

Would you like to know what it is exactly and if / how / where you might sell it?