Top 10 Greatest Japanese Samurai of All Time
The history of Samurai in Japanese culture is one of prominence, strength, resilience, power, courage, and dominance. As such, the legacy of Samurai still prevails in modern Japan, continuing to influence Japanese culture to this day.
In short, the Samurai were a class of warriors in premodern Japan who fought and defended as a military and held a status of nobility and high rank.
The Samurai Age lasted from 1185 to 1868. Japan was first ruled by samurai nobility, or samurai warriors, in the year 1185.
As a whole there were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Samurai throughout Japan, few became famed for their efforts or downfalls. In fact, it’s been estimated by many prominent historians that 5-8% of the entire Japanese population at various times were comprised of Samurai warriors.
Below are considered 10 of the most prominent Japanese Samurai of their times:
- Oda Nobunaga
- Toyotomi Hideyoshi
- Miyamoto Musashi
- Tokugawa Ieyasu
- Kusunoki Masashige
- Takeda Shingen
- Minamoto no Yoshitsune
- Sanada Yukimura
- Date Masamune
Beginning with Oda Nobunaga, one of three great unifiers of Japan, the following contains the details of some of the most famous and decorated Japanese Samurai of their time.
In total Oda Nobunaga was one of three great unifiers of Japan, the most powerful warlord of his time, and known to many as the premier military general, Oda Nobunaga is most famously known for ending the period of time in the country in which war was prevalent throughout premodern Japan.
Before bringing peace to the nation, however, Oda had the innate responsibility to take over several clans, districts, castles, and provinces in order to claim victory. At the age of 16, after his beloved father passed, Oda took control over his first Owari province at the end of 1559.
Over the next several years, Oda rose to power, winning battle after battle, growing larger and larger as his victories compiled. After the ultimate succession of claiming control over mainland Japan, Oda was betrayed and murdered in 1582, during which time another uniting Samurai took charge.
That Samurai? Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
The second of three great unifiers of Japan, Toyotomi is largely known for being Oda Nobunaga’s second-coming, laying the groundwork for the unification of a nation once Oda was killed, ultimately ending the warring period and beginning the rebuild of what Japan has become today.
After the conquering of a nation, Toyotomi went on to pursue an even greater mission; conquering Ming China. Unfortunately, Hideyoshi died in 1598 during his second campaign through Korea.
Outside of Toyotomi’s relentless pursuit for unification, he was contrastingly known for his ruthless acts of violence in battle. Nevertheless, his ultimate victory was achieving what he was first motivated to accomplish; forbidding arms, social construction, and class division.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was famous for several injunctions, yet none were more famous than the other. Instead, he was known and is still known to this day, for how he defined a period in time and how that period of time influenced modern culture today.
Clearly considered the most well-known, famous, yet feared Samurai in history, Miyamoto is arguably most known for his swordsmanship and dedication to the craft of being an artisan. In Japanese culture, this dedication was known as kensai, or in translation, sword saint.
After his retirement as a soldier, Miyamoto became dedicated himself to several other arts outside of swordsmanship; the art of storytelling and painting. He wrote a well-respected book called ‘The Book of Five Rings”, among others, which was largely martial art and philosophy literature. In addition, prior to his passing, he created several renowned and sought-after paintings.
Miyamoto, though a famed Samurai, was much more than just a warrior. He was an artist, a leader, and a teacher, among other titles. Miyamoto died in 1645.
The third of the three great unifiers of Japan is Tokugawa Ieyasu. Being born into violence and conflict, Tokugawa was bred for battle at a young age. At just 25 years old, Ieyasu became a clan leader and quickly compiled victory after victory with each campaign that he embarked on.
Over the course of his next 25 years of life, Tokugawa became victorious, claiming land in the east of Japan and began the development of what is now known as a bustling and thriving modern Tokyo.
After becoming Japan’s military governor, the dawn of the era known as Tokugawa Shogunate began. After losing his life in 1616, Tokugawa’s legacy lives on to this day, carrying a large influence on Japanese culture and modern societal structures.
When one thinks of the epitome of an idyllic Samurai, one tends to think of Kusunoki Masashige. While not much of his early life was documented, he was known to be a peasant of sorts, unruly towards the government; a rebel against the societal hierarchy of sorts.
The entirety of his warrior life was purposed at trying to take down the government; the empire. With an unconventional approach and unrelenting desire for victory, Kusunoki was able to attract a small army who too rebelled against the government.
Each battle led to the next, ultimately bringing forth the ultimate battle against the Ashikaga’s force of 200,000 soldiers versus Masashige’s mere 900. Though motivated in his spirits, the inevitable occurred, with his army rapidly exterminated. With no hope of victory and nowhere to escape, Kusunoki took his own life.
Though his commitment to rebellion was considered honorable and sought-after by many, hence his claim to fame, Kusunoki was ultimately defeated and ultimately resulted in his own demise in 1336.
As many famous Samurai are, Takeda happens to be most well-known for his epic battles against another powerful warlord, Uesugi Kenshin. Because of these historic battles, Takeda rose above many military leaders and solidified himself as one of the most powerful, relentless warriors in his region in Japan.
Largely responsible for the defeat of Tokugawa and the defense against one of the greatest of all time in that of Oda Nobunaga, Takeda is renowned for this reason. Unfortunately, Takeda died shortly after his most prominent claim to fame.
Nevertheless, Takeda Shingen is still revered and respected today in Japanese culture for his ingenuity, skill, and unrelenting warrior-like mentality, making him one of the top Samurai of his time.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune
Growing up with the monks in the mid-1100s, Minamoto learned early who he wanted to be. A monk? No. Instead, he wanted to live with the clan lords and learn the art of war. After growing up through the ranks, Yoshitsune reasserted himself and his clan in a powerful fashion.
Unfortunately, this power was short-lived, for his brother aimed to take him down, and successful he was. The final unfortunate result of Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s life was a suicide committed out of force.
Yoshitsune is a tragic hero in Japanese history and culture, though a hero nonetheless.
Although he isn’t considered the greatest warrior of all time, Sanada was most definitely the greatest warrior of his own time and praised, he was. Born in 1567, Sanada quickly gained his claim to fame during his battle against the Tokugawa regime and defense of the Ueda castle.
As the battle persisted, Yukimura continued his resilient pursuit of defeat against Tokugawa and was successful in his campaign. Unfortunately, the campaign resumed months later with a greater force of 120,000 in contrast to Yukimura’s 60,000.
This second and final campaign was Yukimura’s last, going out in a brave but brutal fashion due to sheer exhaustion and inevitable defeat.
His demise was not in vain, however, for his resilient and tactical approach is still famed and valued today.
Contrary to the majority of Samurai during his time, Yasuke happened to be of African descent; a slave of premodern times. His skin color was so unique and contrary at the time that his arrival to Japan brought about eyes of curiosity.
The great Oda Nobunaga, after appearing a front of a crowd, was so impressed by Yasuke for his stature and strength that he quickly rose to power as a Samurai as Oda’s own personal assistant of sorts.
Yasuke became his own hero once his superior, Oda, fell to his demise in battle, forcing Yasuke to take his place in defense. Unfortunately, the battle became too much for Yasuke as he soon surrendered.
The legend of Yasuke still evokes curiosity. Nevertheless, though not native to Japan, Yasuke holds a high status and is thought by many to be Japanese as an honorary title.
Known as the one-eyed dragon of Oshu, Date Masamune was the founder of the city of Sendai and the leader of the Date clan. Influential in many respects, Masamune was a Samurai honored by many, and one who was a force for change both in the political and cultural realm of premodern Japan.
The stories of top Japanese Samurai still permeates through modern Japanese culture even today, and for good reason. Not only has it brought Japan to where it is today, but it also represents the resiliency, courage, and strength of Japan as a nation and a people.