The Onodera clan was a relatively minor noble family living in Japan in modern-day southern Akita in the midst of the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period). By all accounts they were able and competent rulers: they were loved by their people, and served loyally by their retainers. After the climactic battle of Sekigahara, the final battle that ended the Age of the Samurai engaging in mass open warfare, the Onodera clan was punished for backing the losing side. Their lands were stripped from them, and their loyal followers were made masterless rōnin.
The Rokugō Rebellion was a last stand of over 1,000 of these rōnin. In 1601, the rōnin launched an unsuccessful rebellion in a “final suicidal gesture” for their old masters, the Onodera, to whom they remained steadfastly loyal. When the ‘new’ master of the region came to occupy his castle, he found it barricaded against him by former Onodera retainers. He was thus forced to storm his own castle. Once he did however, he found himself besieged by the rōnin. Lacking support or even a coherent plan, they were quickly defeated. However, it was an unprecedented show of solidarity and loyalty to their former lords.
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Minamoto no Tametomo
Go far back enough into history, and one is likely to find figures whose exploits are more legend than provable fact. Regardless, Minamoto no Tametomo earns a spot on this list due to the immense influence his life had on the development of Bushido. Living in the hectic era of the Heian Period, when the great rival families Minamoto faced off against the Taira for control of Japan, Minamoto was a legend amongst legends. It is said that he was an astoundingly talented archer: supposedly, his left arm was about four inches longer than his right, enabling a longer draw of the arrow, and thus more powerful shots.
Another legend holds that he was able to sink an entire Taira ship with a single arrow, by puncturing its hull below the waterline from the shore. After the Hōgen Rebellion and his family’s defeat, the Taira cut the sinews of Tametomo’s left arm, limiting his use of his famed bow. He was banished to an island off the coast of Japan, and when he saw the sails of Taira agents coming to kill him, it is said that Tametomo became the first Samurai to practice the method of seppuku: ritualized suicide by cutting deep into the abdomen and disemboweling oneself.
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The exploits of the famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi are enough to fill a list all their own. He is probably the most famous historical Samurai in the modern era, directly as a result of his highly acclaimed martial arts text: The Book of Five Rings, which is used by sword-wielding enthusiasts and Japanese Businessmen alike as a guide to governing oneself in both thought and deed. The warrior claimed to have fought over sixty duels between 1604-1613, dispatching all who stood in his way and building a fearsome reputation for himself as the finest swordsman in the country. What differentiated Musashi from his contemporaries was his approach to fighting. He was often focused on psychology, attempting to distract or otherwise get under the skin of his opponents so as to break their concentration.
A famous incident occurred when Sasaki Kojiro challenged him to a duel, promising to meet him on an island the next day. Kojiro showed up on time, however Musashi made his opponent wait, knowing that his turning up late would anger him. Kojiro’s anger only increased when his opponent did finally arrive, sporting his usual dirty rags instead of attire befitting a man of their social class. Kojiro had his swords made just a little longer than the average sword length to give himself reach advantage over his opponents. However, Musashi knew this and devised a strategy to combat it. He fought with a wooden sword that he fashioned out of an oar on the boat ride to the island, making it longer than his opponent’s sword in order to beat him at his own game. The angry Sasaki attacked Musashi, who calmly leapt from the boat as it hit the shoreline, smacked Sasaki hard across the head just as he nicked Musashi’s robe with his sword, and killed him instantly.
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Takeda Shingen & Uesugi Kenshin
No rivalry was fiercer or more famous than the one between Takeda Shingen and Uesuki Kenshin, two warlords during the Age of the Samurai who vied for control over northern Japan. Both were skilled generals, and over the course of their rivalry they would fight no less than five battles over the course of ten years (1553-1564) at the same site: Kawanakajima. It was the fourth of these battles, that one of the most celebrated moments in Samurai history occurred. During this battle, Kenshin managed to break the Takeda lines, and ride right up to Shingen. The warrior slashed at him with his sword while Shingen fended off the blows with his iron war fan, or tessen. Kenshin failed to finish Shingen off before a Takeda retainer drove him away, Shingen then made a counter-attack and the Uesugi army retreated.
The rivalry forged an intense respect between the two enemies. There was an incident when a rival clan boycotted salt supplies to Takeda Shingen’s home province. When Kenshin heard of Shingen’s problem he sent salt to the Shingen from his own province. Kenshin commented that the Hōjō had “performed a very mean act,” He added: “I do not fight with salt, but with the sword”. His respect for Shingen is evident from when he died, Kenshin privately wept and stated, “I have lost my good rival. We won’t have a hero like that again!”
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Siege of Katsurayama
A part of the ongoing feud between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, the Siege of Katsurayama is a quintessential example of fierce loyalty, stubborn defense, and commitment to the Samurai Code. In March of 1557, Takeda Shingen besieged a strategically vital Uesugi stronghold in the border province between them. The perfect opportunity to attack Katsurayama came when late snow made the passes from Echigo into Shinano impassable and thus isolated the castle from Uesugi reinforcements. As a result, a Takeda army of 6,000 men launched an assault. This attack was effectively a race against time, as the Uesugi would send reinforcements as soon as the thaw set in and the mountain passes were open again, and so the castle had to be captured before that could happen.
The Takeda men repeatedly attempted to scale the walls of Katsurayama, but the castle garrison was able to beat off the attacks. The fighting was fierce, leading to heavy casualties on both sides. For example: the Takeda samurai Chino Yugeinojo, who fought in all the Battles between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, collecting eight heads in total from duels; of these, he took four at Katsurayama alone. The Takeda eventually made one final attempt to storm the castle. This time, the attackers managed to set fire to the castle buildings, and thus broke Katsurayama’s defenses.They overran the last defenders, who died fighting in a last stand. With the majority of the castle garrison killed in combat, the wives, female attendants and children of the defenders committed mass suicide by jumping off the mountain cliffs.
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A unique personality on this list, Tomoe Gozen is remembered primarily for her unique place in Samurai history as a legendary and celebrated Female Samurai. Similar to Minamoto no Tametomo, Tomoe fought during the Gempei war on the side of the Minamoto family. According to The Tale of Heike, “Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.”
After defeating the Taira in the Gempei War, the Minamoto clan began to feud amongst its members for control of Japan. During these fights, Tomoe distinguished herself, fighting alongside her lord at the Battle of Awazu and personally taking the head of at least one enemy, escaping capture when her lord was killed in the fighting.
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Easily the most famous example of the extremes of Samurai honor and the lengths that men will go to to show their determination, the story of the 47 Rōnin has inspired countless legends, movies, and homages, including the famous Western film The Magnificent Seven. The truncated version of the story is that a group of Samurai were left without their master, after their Daimyō (feudal lord) Asano Naganori was compelled to perform seppuku for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka.
47 of Asano’s men refused to allow their lord to go unavenged, even though revenge had been prohibited in the case by the Shogun. They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew that they would be severely punished for doing so. Kira was well guarded, however, and his residence had been fortified to prevent just such an event. The rōnin saw that they would have to lull the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, so they dispersed and became tradesmen and monks. For two years they kept up the charade, until finally Kira led his guard down. They stormed his mansion, slaughtered Kira, presented his decapitated head to their master’s grave, and then honorably committed mass-seppuku.
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Tsukahara Bokuden was a famous swordsman of the early Sengoku period. He was so influential as a swordsman in fact that many of modern day Japanese sword techniques are often credited to him as the founder or originator. According to legend Tsukahara fought his first duel to the death at the age of 17 and won. He would duel again 19 times and fight in 37 battles. He was wounded 6 times in total, but only by arrows. In total, his death toll reached nearly 212. Given that he lived to the ripe old age of 82, that’s quite the accomplishment.
Once, Bokuden was challenged by a mannerless ruffian. When asked about his style, Bokuden replied that he studied the “Style of No Sword.” The ruffian laughed and insultingly challenged Bokuden to fight him without a sword. Bokuden then agreed to fight the man without his sword but suggested they row out to a nearby island on Lake Biwa to avoid disturbing others. The ruffian agreed, but when he jumped from the boat to the shore of the island, drawing his blade, Bokuden pushed the boat back out, leaving the ruffian stranded on the island. Bokuden, laughing explained: “This is my no-sword school!”
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There are few more famous figures in medieval Japan than the legendary warrior monk Benkei. According to legend, the monstrously tall Benkei was said to have been wandering around Kyoto every night on a personal quest to claim 1000 swords from defeating their beares. He was on his final one when he met his match. The two warriors fought at Gojo Bridge in Kyoto where the bigger Benkei ultimately lost to the smaller warrior, who happened to be Yoshitsune no Minamoto. Not long after the duel Benkei, frustrated and looking for revenge, waited for Yoshitsune at Kiyomizu where Benkei lost yet again. Suitably impressed by the young man’s prowess, Benkei swore allegiance to him. Henceforth, he became Yoshitsune’s bodyguard and fought with him in the Genpei War.
After his master was defeated and forced into hiding, Benkei accompanied him into outlawry earning further legend for his exploits. In the end, they were encircled in a castle. As Yoshitsune retired to the inner keep of the castle to commit seppuku on his own, Benkei fought on at the bridge in front of the main gate to protect Yoshitsune. It is said that the soldiers were afraid to cross the bridge to confront him, and all that did met swift death at the hands of the gigantic man, who killed in excess of 300 fully trained soldiers. Realizing that close combat would mean suicide, the enemy soldiers decided to shoot and kill Benkei with arrows instead. Long after the battle should have been over, the soldiers noticed that the arrow-riddled, wound-covered Benkei was still standing on the bridge. When the soldiers dared to cross the bridge and look more closely, the giant fell to the ground, having died standing upright.
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Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Siege of Inabayama Castle)
The Siege of Inabayama castle was the final battle in an epic campaign by the great unifier Oda Nobunaga to defeat the rebellious Saitō clan in their mountaintop castle. However, despite Nobunaga’s brilliance as a military commander, it was his loyal second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who credited with this astounding victory. Having started his career as Nobunaga’s sandal-bearer, Hideyoshi had quickly become a seasoned battle commander and a loyal follower.
In the years leading to the battle, he negotiated for the support of local warlords, which ensured a ready-made army by the time of the attack, and built a castle on the edge of the enemy’s territory to serve as a staging point for the attack. Hideyoshi then led a small assault force around to the back of the mountain the Castle stood on, where they climbed the steep slopes by the light of a full moon. At dawn, while Hideyoshi’s mission was in progress, the main force proceeded with its attack on the castle.Sometime after dawn, Hideyoshi’s team infiltrated the castle, set fire to a storehouse and the powder magazine, and then rushed to open the front gates, cutting down whomever got in their way. With explosions erupting from the powder magazine and the other building burning fiercely, the castle defense quickly devolved into chaos, as the shocked and exhausted defenders thought they were under a full-scale attack from behind. The castle garrison was thrown into complete disarray as men were pulled from the parapets to face the nonexistent assault, while others threw down their weapons and surrendered. Hideyoshi took the castle and added to his infamy.
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It takes a certain kind of loyalty – even for a Samurai – to earn a statue in front of the Japanese Imperial Palace itself. Kusunoki Masashige was a man of that loyalty. Born a Samurai in the 1300s, Masashige was by all accounts a brilliant military strategist, and an early proponent of low-scale Guerilla warfare. Supporting his patron, the Emperor, Kusunoki led a six year campaign to restore power to the Emperor after the Shogunate took power. He was largely successful for the first part, capturing the then-capital of Japan: Kyoto and establishing the Emperor in his Imperial Seat. However, when one of his retainers defected and weakened their forces, Kusunoki realized they could not win in a pitched battle and suggested to the Emperor that they temporarily abandon the Capital and resume Guerilla warfare.
The Emperor was unwilling to leave the capital however, and insisted that Kusunoki meet his opponent’s superior forces in the field in a pitched battle. Kusunoki, in what would later be viewed as the ultimate act of samurai loyalty, obediently accepted his Emperor’s foolish command and knowingly marched his army into almost certain death, where they were annihilated to the last man. According to legend, his last words were Shichisei Hōkoku! (“Would that I had seven lives to give for my Emperor!”)
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Battle of Dan-no-ura
Bushido was not always exemplified by the courage of Samurai alone. Sometimes, it was their family and loved ones who showed immense bravery in keeping to their honorable ways. The Battle of Dan-no-ura was the final conflict of the Genpei War. By this point, the Taira family had been nearly destroyed by the Minamoto. The Taira Emperor had fled the Capital, and many of their retainers were defecting en masse to the Minamoto. Taking the Emperor and what remained of their fleet, the Taira docked off of the coast of the Shimonoseki Strait.
The Minamoto attacked with their own fleet. Soon the battle turned against the Taira after a Taira general defected and attacked them from the rear. He also revealed to the Minamoto which ship the six-year-old Emperor Antoku was on. Their archers turned their attention to the helmsmen and rowers of the Emperor’s ship, as well as the rest of their enemy’s fleet, sending their ships out of control. With the battle lost and all hope gone, Antoku’s Grandmother, Taira no Tokiko grabbed her young Grandson as well as all of the Imperial regalia (including the legendary sword and the Imperial Jewel) and leapt from the boat, drowning them both and saving her Grandson from humiliation and death at the hands of the Minamoto.
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Tadamachi Kuribayashi and the Death Poem
Few men exemplified the Samurai code in the modern era better than Tadamachi Kuribayashi. A general in the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, Tadamachi was the General in command of the garrison at Iwo Jima and defended it from overwhelming American forces. Even before the battle, General Kuribayashi insisted upon sharing the hardships of his men. He also refused to permit suicidal banzai charges, which he regarded as an unnecessary waste of his men’s lives. Although the US Marine Corps had expected to capture Iwo Jima in five days, Kuribayashi and his men held out 36 days.
In Samurai culture it is customary to write a Death Poem before going off to battle. They tend to offer a reflection on death—both in general and concerning the imminent death of the author—that is often coupled with a meaningful observation on life. His last communication with Japanese High Command before the Island was taken was this Poem:
Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.
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At the tail end of the Samurai Era, Tanaka Shinbei was an elite Samurai watching as his very way of life was dying. The modern era had arrived, and machine guns and train tracks were replacing ceremonial dueling swords and horseback as a means of warfare. Tanaka was instructed by his master to assassinate Ii Naosuke, the head of the administration for the Tokugawa Shogunate, whom Tanaka’s master blamed for the introduction of Westerners into their society. This would lead to years of instability and set a trend for Imperial assassinations as a means of solving political crisis.
Over the years, Tanaka faithfully carried out his master’s orders. By the end of his career Tanaka was known as ansatsu taicho or “Captain of Assasins.” Tanaka met his end, however, after his most recent assassination went awry. After assassinating the senior official Anenokoji, he was taken in for questioning in Kyoto. His sword had been found at the scene of the crime, and it was highly likely that the Shogunate would blame both Tanaka and his master for the act. When they showed Tanaka the bloodied sword, he claimed that it wasn’t his, and asked to see it to confirm its authenticity. When they gave him the sword, he immediately committed seppuku to protect his master from the fallout.
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