Samurai Loved Their Guns: Short History of Medieval Japan

As FX’s splendid Far Eastern tale akin to “Game of Thrones,” Shogun, commences in a magnificent fashion, I felt compelled to embark on a thorough period analysis of the series and write an article delving into the details we’ll encounter. Acknowledging the fact that much of the commonly known information about Japan in popular media, mainly the portrayal conveyed by cinema and television, is not accurate—indeed, often distorted and exaggerated—so I undertook such research. Even I, myself, realized that I had misconceptions about many aspects of the Far East, especially pertaining to medieval Japan Samurai, or, to correct myself, I had learned them as they were shown to me. Yet, Japan, particularly during the medieval period, is like a closed Pandora’s box, filled with intricate details and hero-filled stories. Given my knowledge of FX’s series being meticulously crafted and based on a true story, I wanted to prepare an extensive summary of the period and details to assist the reader.

FX’S Shogun

Japan, especially when thinking of the Far East, brings to mind the concept of the Samurai, which we will frequently encounter in the series Shogun, along with Ninjas, the famous swords of the Samurai called Katana, and the love of Guns among the Samurai, which is rarely shown to us but will be portrayed in the series. I have crafted an article that provides sufficient but concise information on these topics.



Today, we predominantly recognize the Japanese warrior known as the Samurai through cinema and thus are familiar with only what has been shown to us. However, Japanese history, especially the legend of the Samurai, has been distorted and exaggerated, and certain aspects have been withheld from us due to the dramatic nature of cinema.

The word Samurai stems from the term bushi (武士, [bɯ.ɕi]), meaning warrior, or from buke (武家), meaning “family warrior.” Essentially, Samurai translates to “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility.” The trained warriors we know as Samurai served under feudal lords known as Daimyo. Samurai were tasked with protecting the Daimyo and their families and also served in armies during times of war. However, the concept of the Samurai truly flourished in Japanese culture, particularly in the 12th century, becoming an integral part of the political system over 500 years.

In 702, with the Taihō Code and later the Yōrō Code, conscription became mandatory for every 1 of 3-4 males. This not only facilitated regular military service but also granted the right to carry weapons to the selected soldiers. However, these chosen soldiers were not referred to as Samurai.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, Emperor Kanmu introduced a new position into the hierarchy: sei’i-taishōgun (征夷大将軍), or Shōgun. The Shōgun, positioned directly below the Emperor in the hierarchy, essentially governed the country. With the rise of the Shōgun, the need for regional administrations emerged, leading to the requirement for trained soldiers to protect the regions. Consequently, the training of children in archery and swordsmanship began, giving rise to the concept of the Samurai as we know it today during the Kamakura period (1185–1333).

However, the solidification of the Samurai’s power and position in society is based on two significant events. The first revolves around their role in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. Following the rebellion’s triumph, Taira no Kiyomori emerged as the first historically recorded imperial advisor of warrior descent, leading to the establishment of a government dominated by Samurai under his guidance. Similarly, after the Genpai War concluded in 1185, the samurai transformed into political figures.

Yet, the event that truly clarified the Samurai’s position in society and proved their power was the Mongol Invasion. The Mongol invasion stands as one of the pivotal events in Japanese history. In 1274, the Mongols invaded China, establishing the Yuan Dynasty. They then sent a message to the Japanese ruler demanding tribute payments. Despite numerous diplomatic attempts by the Mongols, Japan offered no response, even refusing them entry onto their lands. Consequently, the Mongols attempted an invasion with 900 ships.

Mongol Invasion

The initial invasion proved unsuccessful for both sides. The Mongols, thwarted by the ferocity of the sea, were forced to retreat and regroup their forces. Meanwhile, the Japanese realized their numerical inferiority and vulnerability in the face of Mongol brutality. While the Samurai, who associated pride and honor with their character, were accustomed to one-on-one combat, the Mongols collectively attacked those Samurai who invited them to an honorable fight. Furthermore, the Japanese learned that their weapons were inadequate against the Mongols.

After a seven-year hiatus and several failed diplomatic attempts, the Mongols launched another invasion in 1281 with a much larger army. Despite the Japanese defense having a significantly larger army, around 40,000 strong, the Mongols once again prevailed. The battle seemed to lead to the total annihilation of the Japanese army. However, as in the initial invasion, a storm erupted. The storm was so powerful that it ravaged the Mongol ships. The Japanese attributed the sudden storm to the protection of a mystical force and named it kami-no-Kaze, meaning “Divine Winds.” Subsequent to the second failure, the Mongols abandoned the idea of invasion.

Following the Mongol invasion, the Samurai had proven their place in the army to everyone. However, a need for new weapons arose. The Samurai recognized the inadequacy of their Naginata and Tachi, thus giving rise to what is now predominantly associated with them: the Katana. The Tachi, over time, evolved into a symbol carried by high-ranking Samurai.

The concept of the Samurai began to lose its warrior aspect during the Edo period (1603-1868), the most peaceful period in Japanese history. Apart from minor internal conflicts lasting 250 years, this period witnessed significant economic and cultural development. During this time, the Samurai transitioned from warriors to officials performing societal duties. The diminishing need for Samurai during this period led to economic hardships for Samurai families. Consequently, Samurai began to seek employment as mercenaries in other countries. Among those who employed Samurai were the Spaniards in the Philippines, the Dutch of the Dutch East India Company, and the Thais of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

The Boshin War of 1867 marked the last battle a Samurai would engage in. By 1870, 5% of the population belonged to Samurai families. However, they were gradually losing their values and authorities. Over time, Samurai, whose right to carry swords was revoked, attempted a minor rebellion in 1877, known as the Satsuma Rebellion, which ended in failure. Today, while Samurai are respected members of society, they no longer hold their former power and status.


Samurai were not merely warriors; they were born and bred for education. The majority of them were highly cultured due to their education. Occupying the fourth tier of Japanese society, directly beneath the Daimyo during a certain period, Samurai were once significant political forces, playing a crucial role in societal organization. However, due to the hierarchical structure, they were deprived of certain privileges. One of these was the inability to own land like European knights. While agriculture and commerce were prohibited for Samurai, borrowing money was permissible. At one point, Samurai accrued so much debt that they were forced to work as private guards for merchants, artisans, or tax collectors.

One of the first things that come to mind when Samurai are mentioned is harakiri, also known as seppuku. According to the Bushido Shoshinshu (the Code of the Warrior), a Samurai who faced defeat in battle or lost their lord would perform an honorable death by cutting their abdomen. Harakiri is often depicted in popular culture as a standard method of death. However, not every Samurai resorted to this honorable death, and contrary to popular belief, not every Samurai was honorable. Samurai could betray and attack from behind. Similarly, not every Samurai without a lord resorted to harakiri.

Especially during the Edo period, the rise of order and new systems led many Samurai to forsake their honorable aspects and become Ronin, masterless Samurai. The mercenaries I mentioned earlier were often composed of Ronin. While some Ronin worked as personal bodyguards for specific individuals, they also participated in wars for money, particularly in Asian territories.


One of the most recognizable elements of Japanese popular culture is the image of Ninjas cloaked in black, isn’t it? Interestingly, there is no evidence to suggest that Ninjas dressed in black. On the contrary, Ninjas typically dressed like ordinary people from the populace. In fact, the Japanese referred to them as “Shinobi” rather than the familiar term “Ninja.”

The exact origins of the Ninja phenomenon are unclear; much like the Samurai, they lack a clear historical lineage. Essentially, the emergence of Ninjas stemmed from the need for clandestine operations within the societal framework. Hence, Ninjas were selected from the lower echelons of society rather than the elite, much like Samurai.

The Ninja phenomenon began to take shape after the 14th century. By the 15th century, Ninjas, recognized as a legitimate profession, began receiving training in the art of ninjutsu. When Daimyo forbade the hiring of Ninjas following the decline of the Iga and Kōga clans, they began training their own. Similar to Samurai, Ninjas also became a hereditary profession. Espionage, sabotage, and especially assassination were among Ninjas’ primary duties. They were often instrumental in the demise of many prominent figures. However, there remains uncertainty about whether Ninjas received specific training for assassination. Typically, all assassinations were attributed to Ninjas.

Depiction of Ninja (image from The Collector)

Ninjas not only didn’t exclusively wear black, but they also didn’t work alone all the time. Ninja operations could often carried out in teams. Infiltrating among the populace, Ninjas would gather intelligence before executing their missions. Like Samurai, Ninjas also carried katanas. However, since Ninjas were generally not warrior-centric like Samurai, they often used small, close combat weapons. The most popular shuriken stars, kusarigama, throwable darts, arrows, and knives were in their arsenal. Similarly, the Yumi bow was among their weapons.

Due to the secretive nature of their work and the fact that only witnesses knew of their activities, society tended to embellish Ninjas with exaggerated characteristics they did not possess. Many of these exaggerated legends originated in theater productions during the Edo period. Some believed they possessed supernatural powers, while others thought they could fly, become invisible, shape-shift, teleport, or even have elemental powers.

Like Samurai, Ninjas also began to lose their influence during the Edo period. They transitioned from assassination missions to working primarily as security and spies. Similarly, many Ninjas, like Samurai, turned to banditry when they became unemployed.


The word “Katana” originates from the combination of “kata” (meaning “one side” or “one-sided”) and “na” (meaning “blade”), signifying a single-edged sword. Prior to the Mongol invasion, Samurai typically wielded weapons referred to as Naginata and Tachi. However, realizing the need for a more potent weapon after the Mongol invasion, the Japanese turned to a new style: the Katana. Consequently, Naginata and Tachi were gradually phased out.


The lengths of Katanas varied throughout history. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Katanas ranged between 70 and 73 centimeters, decreasing to 60 centimeters in the early 16th century before returning to around 70 centimeters towards the end.

During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) in the 13th century, Samurai were required to carry a short-bladed knife alongside their Katana, known as Tanto. This approach, known as Daishō, saw Samurai using the Katana for combat and the Tanto for harakiri in case of necessity.

Katana and Tanto Knife

What sets Katanas apart is their unique production process. Crafted from special and traditional steel called Tamahagane, these swords were manufactured using a traditional steel smelting technique. The production process involved a team of 6-8 people, and each Katana bore a unique signature. The blade’s strength depended on the attention and time invested in the production process. Particularly in the 15th century, as mass production began, the quality of Katanas started to decline.

As the popularity of Katanas grew within the country, their popularity abroad also increased. It’s known that Korea sent swordsmith to Japan to learn Katana making, rewarding him for his achievements. During this period, Katanas began to be exported to China and Korea.

With the advent of the Edo period and the decrease in the need for soldiers, Katanas, like Samurai and Ninjas, transitioned from their warrior identity to an artistic form. As Katana production turned into an art form, decorative Katana designs emerged. While Samurai could use these decorative Katanas, the Tokugawa government preferred Samurai arriving at the palace to use classical Katanas.

With the end of the Edo period, the gradual distancing of Samurai from society, and the eventual ban on carrying Katanas in public, interest in Katanas dwindled. Although the use of Katanas was mandated for soldiers during World War II, the lack of mastery in traditional production techniques resulted in Katanas being of lesser quality. Today, it’s estimated that 80% of Katanas in circulation are cheaply produced Chinese swords.



In popular culture, when we think of Samurai, the first thing that comes to mind is often the Katana. We see Samurai in movies wielding their Katanas, slicing off their enemies’ heads. However, one thing that cinema frequently overlooks for dramatic reasons is that the Samurai also used firearms. In fact, Samurai quite enjoyed their firearms.

Throughout their history, the Japanese secluded themselves from the world and didn’t allow anyone to set foot on their lands until US Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships arrived at the shores of Edo in 1854, forcing the Japanese to open up to the world. However, the Japanese weren’t entirely closed off. They engaged in trade with other cultures and sent traders to each other. Ironically, considering that the Japanese knew about the European lifestyle during the Middle Ages, their preference to keep their world closed to everyone else might not be so surprising.

One of the years that changed Japanese history was 1543, when a Chinese ship manned by Portuguese sailors reached the Japanese island of Tanegashima, marking the first contact between Europeans and the Japanese. This Chinese ship contained “Portugal-made arquebus muskets.” The lord of Tanegashima purchased two of these intriguing devices from the sailors. The Japanese were so impressed by this weapon that they attempted to design and manufacture their own. Within the next 10 years, over 300,000 Tanegashima or Hinawaju (matchlock gun) muskets were produced.

However, due to the short range of these firearms, the need for training, and the preference of Samurai for traditional weapons, these guns initially didn’t change the outcome of battles significantly. That is until Oda Nobunaga emerged.

Oda Nobunaga, foreseeing the future in explosive weapons, achieved success in the Battle of Anegawa and the Battle of Nagashino with his newly devised tactics, highlighting the importance of firearms. Subsequently, although the use of firearms became more widespread, the tranquility of the Edo period also reduced the interest in firearms. While firearm production continued like everything else, its purpose shifted, mostly turning into hunting tools.

Sources and Further Information


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