In the history of most societies, there are groups or classes of people that are forever romanticized in the annals of time. Western pop culture has fixated on aspects of European and American history to create genres like westerns and the middle ages, tales that take place in the dust of America’s old west or the rule of kings and queens in Europe’s middle-ages. Cowboys and knights are two kinds of people whose lifestyles have been fodder for countless stories of adventure and thrills, largely because the people who lived those kinds of lives often encountered dangerous and thrilling situations with great regularity.
Like knights, samurai were the military nobility class of medieval Japan. For hundreds of years, the samurai occupied one of the most sacred roles in Japanese society. The samurai was sworn to a member of nobility, and his life’s purpose was to serve his master both with his blade and with his wisdom. samurai followed a particular moral and philosophical code named Bushido, in the same way that Knights strived to embody the concepts of chivalry. Following Bushido was a way for the samurai to internalize the values of frugality, martial arts mastery, service and loyalty, and death before dishonor. Some samurai, thanks to circumstances of inheritance or chance, were able to become warlords in their own right, with their own sworn samurai retainers.
Once the word about samurais left Japan, people all over the world took an interest in the history of the samurai. They were inherently fascinating; humans who strove to be the embodiment of a culture’s ideal image of what a warrior should be. By all accounts, samurai took that responsibility very seriously – certainly more so than the European knights of old. When a samurai had failed himself or his master, it was customary to engage in ‘seppuku’, which is the name for a samurai’s ritual suicide. Some of the men on this list had fates that ended that way while others lived out their lives in service, but the one thing they all have in common is that they embodied the ideals of bushido to the fullest. These are the 10 greatest samurai who ever lived.
#10 Hojo Ujitsuna (1487 – 1541)
Hojo Ujitsuna was the son of Hojo Soun, the founder of the Hojo clan that controlled large swaths of the Kanto region – Japan’s most populous island – during the Sengoku period (1467 – 1603) of Japan. The Sengoku period was characterized by constant warfare between the major military families, and Hojo Ujitsuna entered a world of constant warfare when he was born in 1487. Ujitsuna sparked a longstanding rivalry with the Uesugi clan when he took control of Edo castle in 1524, one of the main seats of power in medieval Japan. He expanded the influence of his family throughout the Kanto region, and by the time of his death in 1541 the Hojo clan was one of the dominant families in Japan.
#9 Hattori Hanzo (1542 – 1596)
The name may be familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino, as he based the master swordsman in Kill Bill on the real life Hattori Hanzo. Not much is known about Hanzo’s early life, but historians believe he was born in 1542. Beginning at age 16 his life was spent surviving, and indeed thriving, in multiple battles. Hanzo was a loyal retainer to Tokugawa Ieyasu, saving the life of the man who would go on to found the Shogunate that would rule Japan from Edo for over 250 years, from 1603 to 1868. His status as a powerful and loyal samurai is legendary in Japan, and his name can be found gracing an entrance of the Imperial Palace.
#8 Uesugi Kenshin (1530 – 1578)
Uesugi Kenshin was a powerful warlord and leader of the Nagao clan during the period of warring clans. He was noted as an exceptional general with sharp military prowess that he used to win many campaigns on the battlefield. His rivalry with Takeda Shingen, another warlord, is one of the most famous stories of the Sengoku period. The two waged war over 14 years, personally engaging in one-on-one battle several times. Kenshin died in 1578 from unknown causes that some historians now believe resembled stomach cancer.
#7 Shimazu Yoshihisa (1533 – 1611)
Shimazu Yoshihisa was another warlord who lived throughout the bloody Sengoku period. Born in 1533, as a young man he established himself as a competent general and, along with his brothers, conquered much of the Kyushu region. His success on the battlefield earned him the eternal loyalty of his samurai retainers (sworn swords), who fought fiercely for him on the battlefield. Yoshihisa would be the first to unify the entire Kyushu region before being smashed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his invading army of 200,000 men.
#6 Mori Motonari (1497 – 1571)
Mori Motonari rose from relative obscurity to take control over several of the largest clans in Japan and become one of the most powerful and feared warlords of the Sengoku period. He appeared on the scene suddenly and began immediately winning notable victories over well-respected armies, eventually controlling 10 of the 11 Chugoku provinces. Many of Motonari’s most legendary victories occurred against significantly larger forces, making his exploits all the more impressive.
#5 Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645)
Miyamoto Musashi is a samurai whose words and opinions still reverberate through modern Japan. Musashi was a ronin – a samurai with no master – who lived during the Sengoku period. He’s remembered today mainly as the author of The Book of Five Rings, a text on the strategy and philosophical implications of samurai combat. He pioneered a combat style in kenjutsu (sword technique) named niten’ichi (“two heavens as one”), which involved wielding a sword in each hand and using the two simultaneously and seamlessly. According to legend he travelled medieval Japan and won hundreds of duels, and his ideas and thoughts on strategy, tactics, philosophy and politics are still studied today.
#4 Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 – 1598)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Japan, as he’s one of the 3 men whose actions helped unify Japan and put an end to the long and bloody era of Sengoku. Hideyoshi succeeded his former liege lord, Oda Nobunaga, and began to implement social and cultural changes that would shape Japan over the next 250 years. He banned sword ownership for all individuals who were not samurai, and began a nationwide hunt to consolidate all swords and weapons to the samurai class. Although it consolidated military power to the samurai class, it was also the biggest step towards peace that had been made during the entire Sengoku period.
#3 Takeda Shingen (1521 – 1573)
Takeda Shingen was perhaps the most feared general to emerge from the Sengoku era. He was born as the heir apparent to the Takeda clan, but seized power in a bloodless coup from his father when it became apparent that he intended to name his other son heir. Shingen formed alliances with many of the other powerful samurai families, and began advancing outside of his native Kai province. Shingen was one of very few men to decisively defeat Oda Nobunaga and his troops, who was rapidly conquering large areas of Japan. He died in 1573 from an illness, but at the time of his death was well on his way to consolidating power in Japan. Many historians believe that if he had stayed healthy, Oda Nobunaga never would have risen to power.
#2 Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582)
Oda Nobunaga was the driving force behind the unification of Japan. He was the first warlord to begin consolidating vast amounts of territory under his name, and led his clan and samurai retainers to becoming the dominant force in late Sengoku Japan. By 1559 he had successfully consolidated power and crushed opposition in his native province of Owari, and decided to expand outward. For 20 years Nobunaga slowly rose to power as the most feared warlord in the country. Only a select few, including Takeda Shingen, ever had any success against his unique military tactics and strategy that made him so effective. Fortunately for Nobunaga, Shingen died and left the country for the taking. In 1582, at the height of his power, Nobunaga died in a coup d’état launched by his own general, Akechi Mitsuhide. Upon realizing that defeat was inevitable, Nobunaga retreated inside the Honno-Ji temple in Kyoto and committed seppuku, the ritualistic suicide ceremony of the samurai.
#1 Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Ieyasu may not have been the most effective samurai general, but at the end of Sengoku he was the man left standing and holding all the chips. Ieyasu had allied himself and the Tokugawa clan with Oda Nobunaga, but with the latter’s death a giant power vacuum was created. Although Toyotomi Hideyoshi would replace his master Oda Nobunaga, he only had absolute rule over the country for a relatively brief period. From 1584 to 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s forces struggled against Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s armies for control of Japan. In 1598, Hideyoshi died of sickness, leaving his 5-year-old son as heir apparent. In 1600, at the battle of Sekigahara, the Tokugawan forces struck the deathblow to the remnants of the Oda/Toyotomi alliance. He became the first Tokugawan Shogun, the family regime that would rule Japan until the Meiji restoration of 1868. The Tokugawa clan’s control of Japan shaped the destiny of the country in multiple ways, notably the policy of Sakoku that forcibly isolated Japan from the rest of the world for nearly 250 years.