Many people think of members of feudal Japan’s warrior class as essentially having been robots programmed to be honorable, go to war and kill themselves. That was probably true for some, but among the ranks of the samurai there were also master strategists, dead eyed sociopaths and guys who were were borderline superheros, not to mention egomaniacs more gangsta’ than a dozen Wu-Tang Clans. Before you buy into the Hollywood myth of the homogenous samurai-automaton, check out the historical episodes we’ve compiled below. As the old saying goes, “truth is more hardcore than fiction.”
Even when the fiction looks like this.
Minamoto Tametomo (1139-1170) Sank a Ship With an Arrow and Robin Hooded His Way to Okinawa
What do you get when you cross King Kong with Katniss Everdeen and drop the result of your sick experiment into feudal Japan? Why Minamoto Tametomo of course, a mountain of a man and probably the most famous Samurai-archer of all time. It’s said that five men had to work together to bend a bowstring that Tametomo could use alone, and that he once shishkabobed two enemies with one arrow. (Tametomo’s arrows were said to measure “twelve hands” long and “two fingers” thick.)
Some say that Tametomo was a sort of born archer because his left arm was six inches longer than his right.
When Taira Kiyomori captured Tametomo, he spared his life but ordered that tendons in his arms be cut so that he could never again be an archer. Tametomo was then exiled to the island of Ôshima. Some samurai may have accepted their fate gracefully and spent their retirement relaxing. Other more dedicated warriors might have commit seppuku to expunge the shame of being captured and disfigured in battle.
But, since Tametomo was an O.G., exile turned out to be a minor inconvenience for him. While rehabilitating his arm in secret, he ruled Ôshima like a private kingdom, marrying the daughter of a local magistrate and refusing to pay any taxes. When the Governor sent twenty ships to collect on Tametomo’s debts, the samurai shot an arrow into the fleet to scare them off.
It worked-partially because the arrow struck one of the ships below the waterline, sinking it and selling the others on the idea of a hasty retreat. (To reiterate: he sank a ship with a goddamn arrow.) Soon after, he consolidated his power on Ôshima and started making moves to capture territory on nearby islands.
After this, the line between history and myth gets a little muddy. The Reader’s Digest version is that Tametomo proceeded to murder his way down to Okinawa where he ended up fathering the island’s first king, but come on. Nothing is ever going to top sinking a motherfucking ship with a goddamn arrow.
Nakano Takeko (1847-1868) Brought A Knife To A Gunfight And Still Kicked Ass
In 1867, modernization was coming to Japan in the form of the Meiji Imperial Restoration. Once, during the war that marked the end of centuries of Shogunate rule, a group of Imperials were preparing to lay waste to a stronghold of enemies.
When they realized that the Shogunate Loyalists that opposed them were women, the Imperials immediately softened their approach, deciding to disarm and capture the Loyalists instead of killing them. They may have even figured that the women would commit ritual suicide to preserve their honor when they realized that enemies were closing in.
This was a mistake. The Imperials were overrun by the samurai Nakano Takeko and her allies wielding naginatas, spears with a long, curved blades favored by fighters who used the Onna Bugeisha style.
But the Imperials weren’t using katanas-Remember, this was the nineteenth century. These guys had guns, and yet Takeko managed to hack through seven men before being shot in the chest.
In the end, Takeko must have decided that ritual suicide is pretty honorable, but not half badass enough for a woman capable of laying waste to half a dozen gun-toting dudes with a stick and a hunk of sharp metal. While most of the lady-samurai involved in the war were doing boring, softcore stuff (y’know, dressing grisly wounds, fortifying castles, dousing live cannonballs with water before they could detonate. Kid stuff basically.) Takeko was kicking ass.
The 47 Ronin Murdered an Old Man and Then Commit Seppuku to Protect Their Rep
Don’t let the recent Keanu Reeves movie fool you. The true story of the 47 Ronin is more like a Cohen brothers farce than a 300 knockoff. It all began when 47 samurai in the service of Asano Naganori received some disturbing news. Their master had been put to death by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi for attacking a fancypants “Master of Protocal” (see: professional polite guy) in “The Dog Shogun’s” castle. This made them all lordless samurai, or “ronin.” Since this was a pretty serious demotion, the 47 got together and started cooking up a plan that would allow Naganori’s brother to inherit his lands. (That way they would get their jobs back.) In the meantime, they all cached their weapons and took menial jobs while they waited for the status quo to be restored.
Unfortunately, the Shogun refused to let Naganori’s brother take his place. This left the 47 dishonored, stuck in crappy jobs and pretty damn angry. So, denied their rightful place as samurai, they settled for a nighttime raid on the house of the man they blamed for the whole mess: the Master of Protocal that Naganori had attacked. After offering his head to Naganori’s grave as a reminder to all that they weren’t in the business of putting up with bullshit, the 47 turned themselves in knowing full well that they’d be ordered to commit seppuku.
A lot of popular depictions of this incident portray the ronin’s final act of violence as a heroic sacrifice they made to avenge their master. But the fact is, some people just hate being dissed 47 times more than they like being alive.
Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336) Built and Defended a Castle in the Midst of Waging a Wacky Prank War
Essentially the Johnny Knoxville of medieval Japanese warfare, Kusunoki Masashige fought with the Emperor against a Shogunate that had dominated Japan for over a century. After the Emperor was captured, he escaped to the hills where he fought a guerrilla campaign against the Shogunate that utilized boiling water, hidden flanks, pitfall traps and man-made rockslides.
Once he even fooled Shogunate forces into thinking that he and his men had commit mass seppuku. Masashige’s forces slipped away while the Shogun’s men stared dumbfounded at a burning funeral pyre and listened to the sobs of a woman who’d been recruited to fake-mourn. Seriously, picture that gambit for a second. It’s like some goofball Buggs Bunny trick that uses the stereotypical “noble Samurai” iconography to help Masashige sneak away.
Eventually, Masashige managed to build a castle at a strategic location near Nara. Note that he did not capture a fuck-you-fortress. He built one. On the fly. On a mountain. He built a gigantic, strategically vital middle finger that he and other samurai could walk around in.
Ideas on how many warriors took part in the fight to take Masashige’s castle vary, but modest estimates have Masashige’s forces repulsing a hundred times as many men. The Shogunate forces suffered so many casualties trying to take the castle that “…in recording the dead and wounded, twelve scribes did not put their brushes down for three days and nights.”
Of course Masashige didn’t forget the creative battle tactics he’d learned fighting in the hill country just because he had a castle.
One night, he and some other samurai dressed a squad of dummies in armor out in front of the fortress. When dawn came, they wailed a battlecry, surprising the Shogunate forces who assumed that Masashige’s men were getting ready for a suicide attack. Around eight hundred Shogunate fighters rushed the gate, discovered they’d been tricked, and were promptly crushed by boulders dropped from the castle.
The siege started to drag. In a classic case of misplaced bloodlust, two Shogunate leaders killed eachother in a dispute over a game of backgammon. After that, the men under their command began to fight for their leader’s honor. When all was said and done, two hundred samurai were dead.
The Shogun threw everything he had into taking the fortress, but Masashige held strong and won out. The defeat resonated throughout Japan, both in that it humiliated the Shogun and that it drew his troops into a concentrated area, weakening his control over other regions. This is how a man who would be performing goofball pranks on MTV in today’s world turned the tide of a war and allowed the Emperor to return to Kyoto and reclaim power. Centuries later, the Imperial Japanese Navy named a class of battleship after the mountain where Masashige built his castle.
Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189) Was a Badass Half-Superhero So Awesome That Some Conspiracy Theorists Figure He Must Have Been Genghis Khan
Minamoto Yoshitsune has one of those stories that practically begs to be made into a comic book. After his dad was defeated by Taira Kiyormori (that same S.O.B. that maimed Tametomo’s arm) and killed in the Heiji Disturbance, a group of Buddhist monks took Yoshitsune in and raised him like a clan of enlightened Alfred Pennyworths. At the tender age of fifteen, Yoshitsune quit his job as a professional orphan and skipped town with his new sidekick, an ex-monk-current-warrior named Benkei. (Despite Benkei’s “Herculean” strength, Yoshitsune defeated him in a duel, earning his respect.) The pair was off to join up with Yoshitsune’s brother who was in the midst of fighting a war.
By twenty-two Yoshitsune became a General and subsequently started building a resume’ that would make Captain America shiver in his suspiciously stylish boots. (His greatest hits include a series of legendary battles that drove Kiyomori and his armies from their strongholds.) Yoshitsune’s brother decided he’d had enough when, on top of it all, Yoshitsune started charming his way around the Imperial Court in Kyoto. The spat between siblings ended with Yoshitsune on the run and his brother sending a series of assassins to end him. (So began Yoshitsune’s Wolverine phase.)
With a little help from Benkei, Yoshitune made it to the house of Fujiwara Hidehira, a powerful northern Daimyo who granted him asylum. Unfortunately, once Hidehira died, Yoshitsune’s luck ran out. Hidehira’s son forsook his vow to protect Yoshitune and instead sent a small army to force him to commit seppuku. Yoshitsune’s brother was so furious when he heard that he sent samurai to annihilate the Fujiwara for denying him the sweet, sweet pleasure of fratricide. (The same thing happens when you mess with any Baldwin-especially Daniel.) Soon after, Yoshitsune became a favorite subject of Noh plays because comics had not yet been invented.
That’s usually where people end the story, but some cling to rumors that Yoshitsune escaped his doom. Legend tells of Yoshitsune gathering men and supplies in the far north and then going… Somewhere. A Chinese Qing Emperor once wrote that the Qing were descended from Yoshitsune, and some conspiracy theorists even go so far as to say that Yoshitsune set up shop in Mongolia and became Genghis effing Khan. Supposedly, recovered Mongol helmets have crests that look similar to the Sasa-rindo, a symbol of a branch of Yoshitune’s family, and Yoshitsune’s lightning fast attacks against the Taira can be seen as similar to Mongol strategies. The name Genghis could have even come from attempts to pronounce Yoshitune’s name in Wo Chinese. (Chinese and Japanese characters often look the same but have radically different pronunciations.)
If this were true, it would pretty much mean that Minamoto Yoshitsune made the modern world.
Unfortunately for people who love fun, historians almost unanimously reject the idea of Yoshitsune escaping Japan at all. The most glaring problem with this hypothesis (and there are plenty) is the timing. Khan-theory says that Yoshitsune left northern Japan in 1205. That wouldn’t even give him enough time to reach Mongolia by 1206 when Genghis Khan became emperor.
Oh well. At least he has a solid following on Tumblr.
* Special thanks to the guys from the Samurai Archives Podcast for all their help with this article! If you’re interested in Japanese culture and history, be sure to subscribe and check out their website at http://www.samurai-archives.com/ *