The image most often associated with the samurai is that of the two swords (daisho) - the katana and wakizashi - that under the Tokugawa bakufu denoted his place in society. While the samurai had carried two swords - a long sword and a short sword - since heishi under the ritsuryō codes in the eighth century1 they were to be utilized as a secondary weapon in place of the bow until the changing face of warfare eventually brought them to the forefront. Not only did the sword become important on the battlefield, but under the Tokugawa bakufu it would become an important societal object of the samurai and reflection of the changing nature of the samurai in Japan.

The bow was the primary weapon of fighting men in Japan long before the institution of the samurai came to exist. When the ritsuryō system was established there was specific emphasis on the development of skill with the bow with those possessing "skill with the bow and horse"2 being especially sought as officers. This indicates the fighting style utilizing mounted archers that was to remain a standard of Japanese military strategy for centuries to come. Even the usage of the mysterious ōyumi represents the importance of ranged combat early in Japanese history. Most likely the swords were carried as back-up weapons for close combat when arrows ran out or the forces were overwhelmed.

Later evidence from The Tale of the Heike demonstrate the dominance that mounted archery was to have on the battlefields of Japan. Whenever soldiers are mentioned they are almost universally referred to as "horsemen" unless referenced by name. Furthermore almost all of the combat shown is with the bow. Almost all the times when the bow is not used is when there is an attempt to take the head of an enemy3, there is a personal conflict at close quarters4, or a warrior has run out of arrows5.

This emphasis on the bow was not restricted to The Tale of the Heike alone as the Shōmonki also shows use of bows and little else. Much like Heike the references to swords are very restricted with "only two references in Shōmonki to the use of swords" with neither insinuating a direct martial use6. Varley theorizes that this was in part due to the nature of the swords themselves:

The Japanese of the tenth century probably still used a straight sword, which was not suitable to the slashing technique generally practiced by mounted warriors. Not until the evolution of the curved sword later in the Heian period did the sword become a more potent tool in the battle equipment of the warrior on horseback.7

The emphasis on warfare during this time was also one that lent itself well to the use of bows. By and large warfare was a highly formalized matter to such a point that an archery contest occurs midway through a battle during a lull in the fighting8. As much emphasis was placed on a warrior's sense of na as it was his performance in winning the battle9. In some cases this is actually at the detriment of personal safety as in the case of Yoshitsune's dropped bow10. In other cases the effectiveness of a fighter by defeating many of the opposing force was considered secondary to his ability to defeat opponents of equal or greater status11. This emphasis on personal combat seems to have been a precursor to the eventual status of the sword in later years, but as far as warfare was concerned it was still second to the bow.

The process of the sword taking over was one that lasted many centuries, but the initial events leading up to it can be seen starting in the Mongol invasions late in the thirteenth century. During this invasion the Japanese were confronted with an elite force with a radically different style of combat from that which they were previous used to. They not only utilized close formations, but also weapons such as teppō fire-bombs. The Japanese had also become lax in their archery and were utilizing Kyūshū bows (seeing as the attack was primarily fought by samurai from the island) that "were lighter and weaker than those of the Kantō ."12 Part of this can be related to the lack of a serious war in over a century, but also appears to represent a decrease in the overall quality and usage of bow. Primarily, however, it maintains the continued use of bows as essential tools of warfare for the samurai.

The beginning of the turn towards swords started with the defense of Chihaya by Kusunoki Masashige during the insurrection that would eventually lead to the Kemmu restoration. The most important change was the manner in which warfare was being conducted, in this case siege warfare against a fortress. This type of warfare "made the use of horses unnecessary except for transport" as the fighting was being conducted either on the walls of the fortress or the area immediately surrounding it. As well the armor of the samurai was being modified to make it easier to fight while dismounted. The close fighting of sieges made the bow significantly less useful as a primary weapon when compared to a melee weapon such as the sword, leading to further modification of the armor to remove features that were useful not only for mounted combat, but also for mounted archery.13 Eventually the armor was modified and improved such that a mounted archer was less effective than a foot-solider. Turnbull emphasizes though that "these changes occurred gradually between about 1350 and 1500. Yoroi were still made and worn up to the end of the sixteenth century".

The event that led to widespread usage of the sword and greater adoption of the changes that had been set in motion would occur about a century later: the Ōnin War. The war in the capital redefined many of the rules for warfare that had existed up until this point in Japan and was in many ways a catalyst leading Japan into new areas of government, society, and especially war. The two aspects of the Ōnin War that were most important to the evolution of warfare were the ashigaru and nature of the fighting itself.

The ashigaru came into being from the ikki, which were little more than semi-organized mobs of dissatisfied peasants intent on rioting and looting. The ashigaru were not much better, but were able to join the armies primarily due to their loose organization.14 While there is very little primary source material (Varley makes specific mention of cutting many of the smaller conflicts out of his translation of The Chronicle of Ōnin) much of the nature of fighting can be assumed from logical analysis. In particular the ashigaru most likely would have equipped themselves with swords. Bows required years of training in order to be used effectively, naginata are reputed to be rather challenging to master, the halberd and spear might have seen limited use, but in the confined nature of the fighting were likely to be of limited use leaving the sword. Illustration of the conflict15 in particular shows use of swords by both samurai and ashigaru. With weapons readily available from dead samurai the ashigaru would have been able to equip themselves with swords despite the prohibitive cost in acquiring them.

The nature of combat in the city would have also been an impetus for the samurai to switch to using swords instead of bows. While bows might have been useful at range or for repelling attackers (in the battle of Goryō Shrine in particular bows are utilized to great effect16) their effectiveness for an urban war largely comprised of skirmishes is questionable. It can therefore be surmised that while the bow was still in use it was quickly falling to the wayside. Accordingly during the ten-year conflict swordsmanship was likely to have been stressed and improved at the expense of archery leading to a samurai that was much more comfortable using the sword by the end of the war.

The sword had already been proven to be an effective weapon and after the changes in armor as well as warfare in previous conflicts a greater reliance on swords was likely to have taken effect, but the bow was still around and being utilized for long-range warfare. The event that would cause the sword to reach its peak in warfare was the introduction of guns to Japan. The arquebus was a weapon that, while not as accurate as a bow in the hands of a skilled archer, was more useful to the armies of daimyō as Turnbull notes:

One additional reason for the popularity of the arquebus lies with the changing social composition of the armies. We have noted a decline in the use and potential of the Japanese bow from before the Mongol invasions, and that with the increase in the size and scope of armies the lower classes were beginning to play a greater part.17

While the samurai could have devoted the time necessary to become adept at the use of the bow the lower classes forced into military service were able to much more effectively utilize the arquebus as it required only the most basic training in usage and marksmanship. Since massed ashigaru could utilize the arquebus the samurai were better prepared to utilize swords against attackers, a weapon that required greater training and allowed them to retain more in the way of honor through personal combat and skill.

After the reunification of Japan and establishment of the Tokugawa bakufu Japan descended into a period of peace which, perhaps ironically, was one of the greatest forces for acceptance of the sword. After the sword hunt (see Toyotomi Hideyoshi) in 1588 only the samurai were allowed to wear the katana and wakizashi making it much more of an item to be revered. The swords became a mark of the samurai and were as much a status symbol as they were a implement of warfare. In such an era a samurai's swords became an object to be passed along to his son and a source of personal pride. This has likely contributed more than anything else to the modern image of the samurai and perceived importance of the sword.

While the sword was important as a status symbol it also remained a potent and deadly weapon. The samurai of the Tokugawa era were raised on the war tales of centuries past, on the notions of honor, duty, and death-worship that are staples of such works of samurai philosophy as the Hagakure and The Book of Five Rings (Go Rin no Sho) and as such were ready and willing to prove their worth as warriors. With no wars to fight and a distinct desire to prove themselves the samurai became increasingly reliant on duels and other forms of personal combat. The sword was an ideal weapon for such fights. Furthermore proficiency with the sword was a slightly less violent way in which to prove one's worth in battle without any battles to fight in.

The use of the sword in actual combat is well-justified, but in the end much of the modern imagery has little basis in historical fact. The bow was the primary weapon of most samurai for the majority of the warfare in which they participated only giving way to sword as the dominant weapon once they began to die out. Even so the nature of Japanese warfare changed greatly over the millennia or so during which the samurai grew to, held, and eventually lost power and the sword and its rise played a vital role in much of it.


1.Friday, Hired Swords, p.16
2.Friday, Hired Swords, p.18
3.Kiku tries to take the head of Tsuginobu with a halberd;The Tale of the Heike, p. 656
4.The Tale of the Heike, p. 669
5.The Tale of the Heike, p. 680
6.Varley, Warriors of Japan, pp. 13-14
7.Varley, Warriors of Japan, p.14
8.The Tale of the Heike, pp. 658-661
9.Varley, Warriors of Japan, pp. 17-19
10.The Tale of the Heike, p. 663
11.The Tale of the Heike, p. 680
12.Turnbull, The Samurai:A military history, p. 90
13.Turnbull, The Samurai:A military history, p. 98
14.Turnbull, The Samurai:A military history, p. 113
15.fig. 41; Turnbull, The Samurai:A military history, p.114
16.Varley, The Ōnin War, p.163
17.Turnbull, The Samurai:A military history, p. 140

Works Cited

Karl F. Friday, Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992

trans. Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida, The Tale of the Heike Vol. I, Tokyo:University of Tokyo Press, 1975

Paul Varley, Warriors of Japan as portrayed in the war tales. Honolulu, HA: University of Hawaii Press, 1994

S. R. Turnbull, The Samurai : a military history. London : Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1977

H. Paul Varley. The Onin War: history of its origins and background with a selective translation of the Chronicle of Onin. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1967