Were the Samurai over-rated?

I"ve read a good deal of books and articles about martial arts over the decades. The Japanese Samurai have received so much unanimous praise that my natural Contrarian instincts have kicked in.

Were the katana really the wonderful masterpieces they are portrayed as? Some writers make them sound like these swords were made of metal from Krypton, slicing through rifle barrels and splitting free-floating hairs. Has any of this been `documented by objective observors?

And what warriors could face a Samurai on equal terms? Bear in mind that many were much bigger and stronger, and that any man who spent his life training and fighting would be a tough, unhesitating opponent. I suggest the following could meet a Samurai head-on:

A Viking, with either the small axe or longsword they swung by pivoting the weapon on its handle.

A Zulu from T'Shaka's army, armed with an assegai or short sword.

An Apache, with a spear and knife. Here is one instance where the quality of the weapons would be greatly unequal.

And a Roman gladiator, one with a record of killing dozens of opponents armed with different weapons.

I think even Musashi would frown at seeing any of these guys marching toward him.

Part of the problem with direct comparisons between Samurai and those others you mentioned is style. Samurai, AFAIK, fought one-to-one, with a great deal of ritual involved. All of those you listed, with the possible exception of the gladiator, tended to gang up whenever possible.
In the realm of equipment, katanas were good swords, they did what they were designed to do. Regardless of what they could chop through, I think they would be damaged in a fight with a well-made broadsword or axe. Also, I’ve never read of samurai using shields.
Then, of course, there’s the size and speed factor. With all these variables, there’s only one way to settle this… Volunteers? :slight_smile:

There’s some good info in these old threads:

fiercest warriors in history

Greatest Swordsman in history - this one starts talking about swords half way into it.


I’m not sure this contributes to the OP’s quest, but Trucido’s post brought to mind the style of manny Japanese TV shows viewed during my living there as an adolescent in the mid-'60s. Several shows featured Samurai or semi-samurai (I think these were roughly the equivalent of our U.S. cowboy shows - Moon Gekko comes to mind) good guys who were regularly surrounded by about thirteen bad guys who could’ve made chopped liver out of the good guy in seconds. But they engaged him individually and he’d best them all. This made no sense to us Western kiddos, but our Japanese friends accepted it.

Yeah, I think I remember that they flipped over if you were going more than 40 miles per hour…
Oh, you didn’t mean the Suzuki Samurai? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) :slight_smile:

This is a decent read on the subject

Yes. Katana, at least the good ones, are metallurgical masterpieces. I read an article years ago in Scientific American Magazine describing the metallurgy of katana. They were made by folding metal over and over, until the blade is composed of thousands of layers of laminated metal. It is the strongest possible way to make a blade. Some of these swords were made from iron filings collected from rivers with a magnet, it could take months to collect enough iron to make a blade.

Katanas are without any doubt impressive weapons and works of art, though I would argue that the quality of the sword has a limited impact on the usefulness of a warrior. The greatest blade of all time doesn’t mean a thing when you’re playing pincushion for a Mongol archer. Think of Poitiers and Crecy, battles where the heavily armored and armed were slaughtered in short order by archery.

I agree. The sword alone does not determine the effectiveness of the warrior. Nevertheless, the samurai were proficient warriors without their weapons.

For one thing, they knew and practiced martial arts and were trained not only in fighting skills, but in the arts and in “bushido,” making them quite the all around versatile warrior. In fact, one or one, they probably could have dodged arrows…making a mongol’s advantage of using a composite bow over a katana useless.

Two things worthy of note, if not more:

Chas.E is highly conservative in the estimation that a katana was folded into thousands of layers. A really good one was composed of millions of layers. It’s an exponential thing, or a doubling thing, or one of those things a mathematician will better help you with. The katana was on occasion demonstrated to Japanese troops during WWII by slicing a .30 calibre machine gun barrel (presumably burnt out) in half.

The other thing is that within fifty years of being shown a matchlock musket for the first time, Japanese metalworkers had not only managed to mass-produce the design, they had improved on it so significantly that its rate of fire and dependability was something like a hundred years ahead of its time. A line of Japanese musketeers, trained to run into position two hundred years before the Prussians perfected the double-step, likely would have been the superior of any European adversary. I cite generally John Keegan’s [ul]A History of Warfare[/ul]. At that time, Japan was the foremost leader in metallurgy, hands down, with a nod to Korea and China.

What Japan did with that ability was commendable, or a lost opportunity, depending on how you look at it. They squashed it almost out of existence. Swordmaking arts were prized; gunmaking arts were outlawed. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. The supression of the crossbow in ancient Greece is similar. But it worked exceptionally well in Japan, an island nation. If one wants to study gun control, one needs only look to Japan for the easy answers: strictly limit trade, mercilessly prosecute the home population, and the next thing you’ve got is some seriously good Akira Kurosawa films.

Metallurgy, later steel-making, never went out of style in Japan; they kicked ass at it and they still do, as towns like Bethlehem, PA, will sadly note. It’s a tradition formed into an industry. And they still make the best katanas around.

While certainly not all this way, some of the fighters you list above worked and fought for money. Samurai fought for honor and for their daimyo’s honor. They would give their life to the cause without a moment’s hesitation. That, IMO, makes them better.

Samurai were not only trained for sword fights and martial arts, they also had access to horses and some were proficient in things like bow and arrow.

As a whole, the population of Japan (and thus samurai) greatly outnumber any of their enemies. Women could become samurai which greatly increased to pool of fighters.

I dn’t know…

With armies of thousands of samurai charging each other, is it possible that every katana was a masterpiece which took years to make?

Surely the average samurai had a lesser quality blade? Did Japan have thousands of sword makers occupied for their lifetimes, producing a handful of weapons?

I would guess the same holds true for training. There were certainly great masters but human nature being what it is, isn’t it likely that the bulk of the army was of lesser skill?

And a Viking or Apache spent as much time in practice and actual combat. Going one on one, wouldn’t a six foot Norseman have an advantage over a five foot Japanese? You don’t see welter weight boxers tackling heavyweight champs with much success.

The history of early Japanese firearms has been undergoing some close scrutiny lately, and I think you’re overstating the case quite a bit. The Japanese never learned to mass produce firearms, not in the conventional sense of mass production (interchangable, standardized parts). And the historical record does not support the legends of Japanese firearms in battle… But this is a speculative argument for the historians to work out…

Just a few points.

1.) Most Swords made for the common soldier were not those masterpieces of metallurgy. There were still well-made and with the same technique. But they were “mass-produced” weapons designed to be utilitarian and be produced as quickly as they could get away with. The truly awe-inspiring swords took ages to properly forge and were made exclusively for select noblemen that could afford that kind of extravagance.

2.) Although there has probably always been a certain mystique about the sword in Japanese warrior culture from early times, this didn’t really become these objects of veneration until the Tokugawa era. Not surprisingly that coincided with a period of more or less enforced stagnation of Samurai society, when the vast majority of warriors generally had damn little to do. Tied up in a rigid caste system in which they were essentially parasites with very limited military function, they wiled their time away in these sorts of philosophical emphemera designed to boost their own high notions of themselves.

3.) In line with the above point, swords were not sacrosanct during earlier, more violent periods. They were supplemented with battle-axes, cut down to a variety of sizes, cut up to make other weapons such as pole arms, etc. The Japanese, quite sensibly, used the weapons most appropriate to the situation. Any Samurai worth his salt would have not have been trading hacks with a Viking with an axe. The Katana is a brittle weapon if struck on the side. It would have been in fragments.

4.) Bushido, like the Code of Chivalry in Europe, was as often honored in the breach as in the practice. Samurai could be venal, lieing, backstabbing scum, just like every other group of human beings in history. It don’t think it wise to take an overly romantic view of any group.

5.) The Japanese could and did fight in large formations. The bulk of the Samurai in any given ( sizeable ) battle were generally armed with spears or polearms and supported by archers ( both mounted and on foot ). The Japanese emphasis on single combat has been exagerated quite a bit, although there is some basis in fact.

6.) The historical comparisons to other people in history is, as other folk have already pointed out, is hard to make. Japanese warfare was well-suited to Japan and Japanese culture. I tend to think the Mongols would almost certainly have eventually lost just because of problems of resupply and attrition. But put a large Japanese army out in the open steppe and it would have been annhilated. And the Japanese didn’t exactly overwhelm the Koreans during Hideyoshi’s invasions.

7.) That said the Samurai ( in the right period ) were superbly conditioned and skilled fighters. But no more so than, say, a Roman legionnaire ( during the height of that system ) or a Spartan Hoplite or a Mongol warrior. All were outstanding soldiers. Picking and choosing which is “best”, is utterly impossible in my opinion.

Still, it is an interesting subject :slight_smile: .

  • Tamerlane

As far as Japanese metallurgy was concerned, there was far more to it than mere layering.

Steel is merely iron with some carbon added. Overall hardness- or hardenability- was a simple matter of varying the amount of included carbon. More makes it harder, less makes it softer. (Also depending on how it was tempered.)

The layering is more than just folding. The easiest way to include carbon was to pound the bar out thin, stick it red-hot into a container of finely-pulverized charcoal, then fold it over upon itself, hammer it out flat and do it again.

The red-hot steel “absorbed” a small amount of the carbon from the charcoal, and the folding helped work it into the steel itself.

Few blades achieved the “millions” of layers- considering the thickness of the blade, anything over, say, several hundred layers basically formed a fairly homogenous mass.

The key here, that few know, is that the steels themselves were “layered” to vary the carbon content- and thus the hardenability- but the BLADE was also formed by layering.

In other words, a thin trip of “very” hard(enable) steel was backed by a slightly larger strip of much softer steel, and then these two were typically “sandwiched” between two “plates” of “medium” hardness steel.
(The “soft” steel obviously being itself layered relatively few times to include a small amount of carbon, the hard edge of course, being layered far more.)

So when the ingot were drawn out into a blade, there would be a very hard cutting edge, backed by a softer, more breakage-resistant spine, and reinforced on the flats with “plates” of a medium-hard steel.

Then we get into tempering- an art and subject all to itself. But briefly, the differences between the hard and soft steels was usually further blurred by careful, controlled quenching. The high-carbon edge was usually painted with a refractive clay paste (typically in a fancy pattern, which gives the trademark wavy temper line) so that when it’s quenched, the edge of the blade takes a few seconds longer to cool, which gives it a tough, springy, highly-breakage-resistant edge.

In what was considered the “mideval” times, new blades were occasionally tested on the bodies of prisoners- A good blade swung by an expert was supposed to cleave a body from right shoulder to left hip in one stroke.

As for the Samurai himself, I’d agree at, one-on-one, he’d be a formidable opponent for nearly any other warrior class within a dynasty or two either way from the era. And he’d be quite possibly the most formidable when unarmed.


And hey, a couple more posts slipped in :wink: .

I had also wanted to make the point that Chas E. just did about Japanese gunnery. It was perfectly decent, but “100 years ahead of its time” is probably not accurate. They did, however, have some surprising complex “multiple-arbalest”-like field artillery at a very early age called Oyumi. They were apparently defensive weapons designed to operate in concert with large infantry formations. It seems they were abandoned as weapons in the tenth century both because the were devilishly hard to maintain and operate and because the threat that had probably spurred there development ( T’ang China ) receded from view. Instead small, highly mobile units were needed to deal with the pacification of the Emishi( Ezo, Ebisu ) on the Northern frontier.

Also relatively few women were actually trained in combat. Only some of the daughters of high nobles. And they generally weren’t seen on battlefields ( certainly never en masse ).

  • Tamerlane

Lots of discussion about the katana already but little about the samurai himself.

The samurai fighting style was very well refined. It focused on the “one cut”. That is to say there is very little parrying in real battle, it is all about that initial strike and ending the battle there. The katana is what makes this possible, it truly is a deadly sword. Even the common swords were tested for their ability to cut through multiple shoots of bamboo (the reality is that again we are talking about human beings and some samurai masters outfitted their men very poorly in order to afford better equipment themselves. According to the Bushido this is wrong).

The method of battle in Japan was largely one on one. The samurai would travel together but when the met the enemy they would battle each other one on one. When one of the opponents fell the samurai would move on, and an assistant (if the samurai could afford one, and many could, peasants are very cheap) would tag the enemy that he killed as being killed by this samurai. The honor (and other rewards) of making the kill was very important to the samurai and so this discouraged anything other than 1 on 1 fighting. An outnumbered samurai is going to have to face enemy after enemy, 1 on 1, until eventually exhausted he is cut down. Peasant soldiers probably weren’t as focused on this since they stood little chance of improving their lot even if they did the honorable thing. Is this to say that this is how every battle was fought? No, of course not, we are talking about war, and life and death, but this is a pretty well documented fact unless all the historical accounts lie.

The samurai were one of the groups of warriors that focused very heavily on the mastery of their art. This isn’t to say that others didn’t but in some cases, like the Apache, the warrior is also a hunter and it is a crossover of his hunting skills to war that makes him valuable. But hunting isn’t war, so one has to wonder about the relative value of the hunter/warrior vs. the warrior samurai.

So, 1 on 1, samurai vs apache. Goodbye Apache. The Apache is a hunter. He focuses on throwing the spear or using the bow.

I am not familiar with the Zulu army, so no comment.

A blooded roman gladiator. This would be a great fight. Both are masters of the 1 on 1 battle. The katana is the better weapon. If we assume a equally experienced samurai. 50%/50%.

Viking. A lot of people do not understand just well defined swordmanship was in Europe. They didn’t have the katana, but the viking sword (or claymore or great sword) would easily crush your ribcage (and everything else in your chest) or your skull with a single blow. It was a mighty weapon with tremendous reach. It required a fair amount of strength to use. And although it would eventually rendered obsolete by the rapier as a sword, the swordsmanship of the samurai would not be able to capitalize on its weaknesses. The two fighting styles are similar although the European style focuses more on defense with the sword almost being used like some kind of staff (see “Medieval Combat” by Hans Talhoffer). Could a viking sword stop a katana? Probably depending on the blow. A katana could definitely cut through it, but it would have to be a direct blow. The katana is not a lightsabre. I’ll give this one to the samurai 66%/33%, 1% to me. :wink:

I don’t think this is exactly correct. I came across some information on this subject when I was teaching a women’s studies class, and here is what I know about it.

There were naturally women of the samurai caste (how else would you get baby samurai?), but there aren’t solid historical accounts of women putting on armor, taking up the katana, and going off to battle.

However, samurai caste women did play defense when their menfolk were away. They were traditionally trained in the use of the naginata (a bladed pole weapon) and could be quite effective in stopping anyone who tried to attack their homes.

A lot of interesting points have been made here.

One thing about the two handled long sword of European use should be piinted out. Many think that it was swung with both hands like an axe, making it relatively slow.

In a History Channel program, two masters of duelling showed how the longsword was held on one hand as the other hand gripped the end of the long hilt and pivotted the sword. I hope that's clear. The effect was to weild the long heavy blade very quickly. The Scots claymore was another big weapon that was surprisingly fast.
  It sounds as if the katana was not suited for a prologed duel, swords clashing against each other in the Viking or Camelot manner, but was designed for just one or two lightning fast slashes.

One final question. A modern fencer with the thrust might do well against a samurai, but he might also end up staring at his arm as it bounced on the ground.

The Samurai class existed by around 800 AD. and ended sometime in the 1860’s. During that time the Samurai warrior changed greatly. Samurai of the 1700’s spent a lot less time fighting and more time devoted to literature and other artistic endeavors then Samurai of the 1300’s.

This is a pretty good website for those interested in Japanese history expecially the Samurai. They even have a thread related to the effectiveness of the swords they used.

Katanas were excellent blades. But an excellent blade doesn’t have the magical properties that popular culture here seems to have given them. They couldn’t cut through the barrels of rifles and there’s a good chance the blade could chip just cutting through bone. All in all I’d rather have a yari (spear) in a large scale Japanese battle. But then I’d rather have a spear, mace, or pick if I had to fight a mideval european battle.