Japan is famous for producing samurais in history. Samurais are military nobilities during the medieval and early modern Japan. In Japanese, they are called as bushi or buke. Apart from fighting skills, they were taught about military tactics and grand strategy. Even today, several Japanese martial arts school teaches their students about samurais and their teachings. During the peak periods of samurai culture in Japan, one could find several great generals and daimyōs who were brave, fierce, famous and deadly. Who are the most famous samurais in history?
Here is the list of ten greatest and famous samurais in history and their inspiring tales:
10. Sanada Yukimura (1567 – 1615)
Sanada Yukimura was a great Japanese samurai warrior from Sengoku period. He has been called as “A Hero who may appear once in a hundred years”, “Crimson Demon of War” and “The Last Sengoku Hero”. Yukimura is famous for being the leading general on the defending side of the Siege of Osaka. Shimazu Tadatsune, the famed hero of invasion of Korea called him as the “Number one warrior in Japan”.
The amazing tale of Sanada Yukimura
Late during the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Tokugawa Hidetada marched with 40,000 men against just 2,000 men of the Sanada. The Sanada could resist and fight against a larger army. In 1614, as the Winter Battle of Osaka Castle broke out, Yukimura rose against the Tokugawa. He could deliver serious blows to Tokugawa and his army. In 1615, in the Summer Battle of Osaka Castle, Yukimura attacked Ieyasu’s army but died a martyr. He was one of the bravest and legendary samurais during the Japan’s samurai culture.
9. Kusunoki Masashige (1294 – 1336)
Kusunoki Masashige is a famous 14th century samurai well-known for fighting in Genkō War for Emperor Go-Daigo in an attempt to wrest rulership from Kamakura shogunate in Japan. In 1880, Meiji government of Japan gave him the highest decoration.
Tale of the loyalist samurai – Kusunoki Masashige, an expert guerrilla war tactician
Kusunoki is a cunning and brilliant tactician. He was a brilliant strategist who easily protected two key loyalist fortresses at Akasaka during Siege of Akasaka and at Chihaya during Siege of Chihaya. This helped Go-Daigo to return to power. During the Siege of Chihaya, Kusunoki maintained a ten weeks siege against a bigger army of Hojo Shogunate. He used guerrilla war tactics to attack and defend. Kusunoki fought against bigger forces by rolling large boulders. He had used taunting techniques against opponents to unwise attacks. He became a legendary hero in several Meiji textbooks.
8. Tsukahara Bokuden (1489 – 1571)
Tsukahara Bokuden, was one of the deadliest swordsman of all time and a famous samurai during the early Sengoku period. He is famous as a kensei (sword saint) who is the founder of new Kashima style of fencing.
The tale of an unbeaten hero (Tsukahara Bokuden)
According to Tokitsu Kenji, Bokuden went to a death fight at the age of 17 and he won. He won all his 19 duels and 37 battles. Bokuden was wounded only 6 times, that too with arrows. He should have killed over 212 people during his fearsome fighting skills. Before becoming a samurai legend, Tsukahara Bokuden had gone on a fighting and learning pilgrimage (Musha shugyo). He learnt from great teachers and fought several samurais during his pilgrimage. During the pilgrimage, he encountered all those duels and won all of them. After the pilgrimage, he went to settle down with his own Japanese samurai school called the Shinto Ryu at the age of 37.
7. Honda Tadakatsu (1548 – 1610)
Honda Tadakatsu was a legendary samurai and general under Tokugawa Ieyasu. He became a daimyō later and was one of the Tokugawa Four Heavenly Kings. He was active from late Sengoku through early Edo periods. Tadakatsu was famous for his giant horns and a legendary sword.
The legendary tale of Tadakatsu
Tadakatsu is often regarded as one of the finest generals of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He almost fought in all the major battles of Ieyasu. From 1560s, Tadakatsu went to the battlefields with his armor and huge stag antlers. His look was fearsome and his armors would strike fear among his opponents. In 1570, he gained distinction at the Battle of Anegawa. He came out victorious during Tokugawa’s greatest defeat, the Battle of Mikatagahara. In 1575, during the Battle of Nagashino, Tadakatsu was one of the warriors to extract vengeance against Takeda. His skills and bravery were seen during the Komaki Campaign (1584). In the 1600 Battle of Kuisegawa, Tadakatsu played a major role. His great fighting prowess using a dangerous 67 cm blade and the scary looking deer antlers on his head made him one of the best equipped military commanders of his time.
6. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 – 1598)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi is often regarded as Japan’s second “great unifier” after his former liege lord, Oda Nobunaga. He was a famous samurai warrior, daimyō, general and politician during the Sengoku period. The period during his rule is often termed as Momoyama period, named after his castle. He financially contributed to the construction, rebuilding and restorations of many temples standing in Kyoto today.
The amazing tale of Toyotomi Hideyoshi
He is known for his service under Oda Nobunaga from 1558 to 1581. Hideyoshi supported Nobunaga in the Battle of Okehazama, Siege of Inabayama Castle and Battle of Anegawa. Toyotomi Hideyoshi efforts were highly visible in the victories and surrender during these battles. After the assassinations at Honnō-ji of Oda Nobunaga and his eldest son Nobutada in 1582 by Akechi Mitsuhide (a samurai during the Sengoku period), Hideyoshi went to seek vengeance. This led to the Battle of Yamazaki where Mitsuhide was badly defeated. He became so powerful and went to rule the Oda clan.
In 1583, he constructed the Osaka Castle which was built on the temple site of Ishiyama Hongan-ji, destroyed by Oda Nobunaga. The next year the hostility between Hideyoshi and Nobunaga’s other son, Oda Nobukatsu steepened. Hideoyshi took alliance from Tokugawa Ieyasu, a powerful samurai warrior of feudal Japan. The two fought the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute. In 1587, Hideyoshi went for the unification process of Japan. He was controlling Kii Province, Shikoku, Etchū Province and Kyūshū. Hideyoshi banished Christian missionaries from Kyūshū. He took control of Kirishitan daimyōs. He took control of peasant revolts in Japan by sword hunts and seizing weapons from peasants.
5. Tomoe Gozen (1157 – 1247)
Tomoe Gozen is the only female samurai warrior in this list. She was known for her bravery and strength. The 12th century female warrior was beautiful and a remarkable archer. She was part of the Genpei War, Battle of Awazu and the conflict that led to the creation of bakufu government in Japan.
The fearsome tale of Tomoe Gozen
During her time-period, male domination was the highest in the fields of samurai and war. Tomoe Gozen was exception. She was the paramour of another famous samurai in history – Minamoto no Yoshinaka. Gozen was the captain of the army in all the battles by Yoshinaka. She was an expert archer and skilled in long swords. In 1181, she brought the heads of seven warriors in the Battle of Yokotagawara. In 1184, in the Battle of Uchide no Hama, she was like a gladiator army with 300 troops against an army of 6,000 soldiers. She was among one of the five survivors. In one of the battle when she was asked to quit, she swiftly went through a group of 30 soldiers and beheaded their leader. She was brave and indeed fearsome.
4. Uesugi Kenshin (1530 – 1578)
Uesugi Kenshin is one of the most powerful daimyōs of the Sengoku period. He is well-known for his prowess on the battlefield. Kenshin was the ruler of the Echigo Province. Kenshin is famous for his honorable conduct, his military expertise, a long-standing rivalry with Takeda Shingen. Uesugi Kenshin was an extremely skillful administrator who is the mastermind behind the rise in the standard of living of Echigo.
The legendary tale of Uesugi Kenshin
Uesugi Kenshin’s rivalry with Takeda Shingen is legendary. Kenshin almost defeated Takeda Shingen during the fourth battle of Kawanakajima. In 1561, the fourth battle of Kawanakajima, they both saw a full-fledged war. Before the fourth battle of Kawanakajima, they had engaged in 4 other battles which all had been minor ones. In the battle of Kawanakajima, Kenshin used an ingenious technique: a special battle formation where the soldiers in the front would switch their positions with the rear ones which helped the tired soldiers to take break and recover.
Kenshin was hungry for new provinces. By 1564, Kenshin was ruling Etchū and Kōzuke Province. Again in 1571, Kenshin met Shingen in the Battle of Tonegawa. In 1576, Kenshin took up the issue of Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful warlord of that time. At this time both Shingen and Hōjō Ujiyasu (another powerful warlord) were dead. The conflict between Kenshin and Nobunaga grew into a battle which saw 30,000 troops on the Kenshin side and 50,000 troops on the Nobunaga side. Despite the large numbers on the Nobunaga side, Kenshin won the battle with flying colors.
3. Date Masamune (1567 – 1636)
Date Masamune was a famous samurai ruler of Japan’s Azuchi–Momoyama period till the Edo period. He was ruthless, reckless and violent during wars. He is from a long line of powerful daimyōs in the Tōhoku region. Masamune became iconic for his missing eye as he was often called as the “One-Eyed Dragon of Ōshu.” The great leader, warrior and legend have been part of several Japanese period dramas.
Date Masamune’s Fearsome Tales
In 1584, Masamune became the leader of his region. He went to war with Ashina clan of the Aizu region. This war was because of a retainer of Date, Ōuchi Sadatsuna who defected with Ashina clan. He went to several wars with his neighbors. During his early days as general, he lost many battles. After gaining experience, he went on to take on a thirst to conquest all neighboring provinces. After his father’s kidnap, Masamune went heavy on all the kidnappers. He became violent and eliminated all the kidnappers after his father asked him not spare anyone responsible for his kidnap. One of the battle was Battle of Hitotoribashi in 1585. He won the Ashina clan in the Battle of Suriagehara in 1589. After defeating them, Masamune made Aizu domain his base of operations.
In 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great samurai warrior and unifier wanted Masamune to join him in the Siege of Odawara. Date Masamune couldn’t refuse as Hideyoshi was the virtual ruler of Japan. Under the leadership of Hideyoshi, Masamune became the ruler of Iwatesawa in 1591. During the Korean invasions, under the leadership of Hideyoshi, Date Masamune played a prominent role. After Hideyoshi’s death, Masamune went on to show his loyalty towards Tokugawa Ieyasu. A huge and profitable Sendai Domain was offered to Masamune in return. This made him one of the most powerful daimyōs.
Apart from his violent nature, he was a good patron of the arts and ambitious. He was one of the first to open up with foreign technologies and sympathized with foreign causes. He even had contacts with Pope Paul V.
2. Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582)
Oda Nobunaga was one of the best examples of samurais. He was a powerful Daimyō of Japan during the Sengoku period. He is one of the three unifiers of Japan along with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nobunaga is famous for his innovations in the fields of organization and war tactics, made heavy use of arquebuses and grew commerce and industry. During his later years of life, he saw some brutal repressions from resolute opponents and continued eliminating those who rebelled against his principles.
Inspiring Tales of Oda Nobunaga
He was the second son of a deputy shugo (military governor), Oda Nobuhide. Oda Nobunaga was known for his strange behaviors during his childhood. In 1551, after his father’s death, the Oda clan went into the control of Owari’s shugo, Shiba Yoshimune. Oda Nobutomo, a deputy to the shugo challenged control of Owari province. After Yoshimune’s death, along with the aid of Oda Nobumitsu, a grandfather of Nobuhide slewed Oda Nobutomo and took control of Owari.
In 1557, Nobunaga’s brother Nobuyuki along with the aid of Shibata Katsuie and Hayashi Hidesada went to rebel against Nobunaga. Nobunaga won the Battle of Inō. The next year, Nobuyuki rebelled again and was eliminated by Nobunaga.
In 1559, all his oppositions were eliminated within his clan and Owari Province. In 1550, Imagawa Yoshimoto, a feudal lord wanted to take control of Owari and he came with an army of 40,000 men. Oda clans had an army of only 2000 to 3000 men. A thunderstorm rain made Yoshimoto to take shelter. This helped Nobunaga and his army to go for an ambush. The ambush was a surprise for the oppositions. In the Battle of Okehazama, Yoshimoto was eliminated by Oda army.
After winning the battle, Nobunaga rose to popularity. He went in alliance with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. This alliance was the initial foundation in the unification process of Japan. The unification led to centuries of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate.
1. Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645)
Miyamoto Musashi was an expert swordsman and ronin from Japan. He is well-known for creating and refining the two-sword kenjutsu technique called niten’ichi. He became famous for his excellent double-bladed swordsmanship and his legendary stories. Musashi went undefeated for 60 duels, next in line is the mysterious and famous samurai Itō Ittōsai. The founder of Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū or Niten-ryū style of swordsmanship is also the author of The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy. This great book is still studied today.
The Amazing Tale of Two Swords Technique
According to his book, The Book of Five Rings, in 1596, Musashi won his first fight by killing another samurai at the age of 13. After defeating his first opponent, Musashi wanted to learn new techniques and skills. In 1599, Musashi left his village to travel and fight. He spent his time traveling, wandering in the country and fighting all the people who were masters and experts in swordsmanship.
In 1600, he found his first friends, the Toyotomi clans. Musashi took to the sides of Toyotomi against Tokugawa in a war. When Toytomi lost, Musashi went into hiding and re-appeared at the age of 20 or 21 in Kyoto. Musashi was powerful now as he went on to fight against the heads of Yoshioka School of Swordsmanship. He won all the fights there and this was the time he had innovated a new style of fighting with two long swords – known as Niten-ryū style. He continued travelling more.
In 1612, Musashi fought his most fearsome and deadly opponent, Sasaki Kojirō. Sasaki Kojirō was well-known as “The Demon of the Western Provinces”. Musashi being more deadly than ever, his opponent was defeated and killed in the short duel.
His later years went traveling and then slowly with age there were no more fierce fights. He went ahead to pen down his great book – The Book of Five Rings.