The samurai were the warrior class of feudal Japan. They were feared and respected for their gracefulness in life and their brutality in war. They were bound by a strict code of honor - called bushidō. The samurai fought for feudal lords, or daimyo, the most powerful rulers and lords of the country, subordinate only to the shogun. The daimyo, or warlords, would hire samurai to guard their land, paying them in land or food.
The daimyo era lasted from the 10th century, all the way to the mid 19th century in Japan, when Japan adopted the prefecture system in the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Many of these warlords and samurai became feared and respected throughout the land - some even outside of Japan.
In the years following feudal Japan, the legendary daimyo and samurai became the subjects of a romanticized culture that praised their brutality, reputation, and stature. The truth, of course, is often much grimmer - some of these people were little more than justified warlords and murderers. Nonetheless, many famous daimyo and samurai have become hugely popular in modern literature and culture. These are twelve of the most famous Japanese warlords and samurai who are remembered as legends.
12 Taira no Kiyomori (1118 - 1181)
Taira no Kiyomori was a military leader and warrior who established the first samurai-dominated administrative government in the history of Japan. Before Kiyomori, samurai were mainly seen as hired swordsmen for aristocrats. Kiyomori assumed control of the Taira clan after the death of his father in 1153, and he ambitiously entered a political realm in which he'd previously only held a minor post.
In 1156, Kiyomori and Minamoto no Yoshitomo (head of the Minamoto clan) suppressed a rebellion and became the two top warrior clans in Kyoto. Their alliance turned them into bitter rivals, and in 1159 Kiyomori emerged victorious over Yoshitomo and had Yoshitomo killed. Thus, Kiyomori became head of the most powerful warrior clan in Kyoto.
He rose through the government ranks, and in 1171 Kiyomori had his daughter marry the Emperor Takakura. They had a child, Prince Tokihito in 1178. Kiyomori later used this leverage to force Emperor Takakura to give his throne to Prince Tokihito and Kiyomori’s allies and relatives. Kiyomori died of fever in 1181.
11 Ii Naomasa (1561 - 1602)
Ii Naomasa was a famed general and daimyo under the Sengoku-period Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was considered one of the Four Heavenly Kings of the Tokugawa, or Ieyasu’s most loyal and reputable generals. Naomasa’s father was killed after being falsely convicted of treason when Naomasa was a young child. Tokugawa Ieyasu subsequently discovered Naomasa while hunting.
Ii Naomasa rose through the Tokugawa clan ranks, and he garnered mass attention after commanding 3,000 soldiers to victory in the Battle of Nagakute (1584). He fought so valiantly that he elicited praise from the opposing general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After helping Tokugawa insure victory during the siege of Odawara (1590), he was given Minowa Castle and 120,000 koku (unit of measurement), the largest amount of land owned by any of the Tokugawa retainers.
Naomasa’s finest hour came at the Battle of Skekigahara, where he was shot and wounded by a stray bullet. He never fully recovered from the wound, but he continued to fight and escaped with his life. His unit became known as the “Red Devils,” for their blood-red armor they sported in battle, for psychological impact.
10 Date Masamune (1567 - 1636)
Date Masamune was a ruthless and violent daimyo through the early Edo period. He was an outstanding tactician and a legendary warrior, all made more iconic by his missing eye. He was often called the “One-Eyed Dragon.”
As the eldest son of the Date clan, he was supposed to succeed his father’s position. But upon losing his eye after a bout of smallpox, Masamune’s mother deemed him unfit to rule, and the second son in the family took control, causing estrangement in the Date family.
After a few early defeats as a general, Masamune gained footing as a leader and campaigned to conquer all of his clan’s neighbors. When a neighboring clan asked Terumune, his father, to rein his son’s wild campaigns back, Terumune said he could not. Terumune was subsequently kidnapped, and he ordered his son to wipe out all of his kidnappers, even if it meant killing him in the process. Masamune obliged, killing everyone - including his father.
Masamune served Toyotomi Hideyoshi for a time, and then switched alliances to support Tokugawa Ieyasu after Hideyoshi’s death. He was loyal to both. Though he was unpredictable, Masamune was a patron of culture and religion, and he even extended a hand to the Pope in Rome.
9 Honda Tadakatsu (1548 - 1610)
Honda Tadakatsu was a general, and later a daimyo, of the late Sengoku through early Edo periods. He served Tokugawa Ieyasu, and was one of Ieyasu’s Four Heavenly Kings alongside Ii Naomasa, Sakakibara Yasumasa, and Sakai Tadatsugu. Of the four, Honda Tadakatsu had the most feared reputation.
Tadakatsu was a warrior at heart, and as the Tokugawa shogunate evolved from a military to a civilian political institution, he became increasingly estranged from Ieyasu. Honda Todakatsu’s reputation attracted notice from some of the most influential figures in Japan at the time.
Oda Nobunaga, who notoriously did not praise his followers, called Tadakatsu a “samurai among samurai.” Toyotomi Hideyoshi called him the “best samurai in the east.” He is often referred to as “The Warrior who surpassed Death itself,” for never suffering a significant wound despite being a veteran of over 100 battles by the end of his life.
He was often characterized as the polar opposite of Ieyasu’s other great general, Ii Naomasa. Both were fierce warriors, and Tadakatsu’s ability to elude injury often contrasted the common depiction that Naomasa endured many battle wounds but always fought through them.
8 Hattori Hanzō (1542 - 1596)
Hattori Hanzō was a famous samurai and ninja of the Sengoku era, and one of the most oft-depicted figures of that era. He is credited with saving the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu and then helping him to become the ruler of united Japan. He earned the nickname Oni no Hanzō (Devil Hanzō) for his fearless tactics he displayed.
Hattori fought his first battle at the age of 16 (a night-attack on Udo Castle), and made a successful hostage rescue of Tokugawa’s daughters in Kaminogō Castle in 1562. In 1579, he planned a brilliant defense of the ninja homeland in the Iga province against Oda Nobunaga’s son. The Iga province was eventually eliminated by Nobunaga himself in 1581.
In 1582 he made his most valuable contribution, when he helped future Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu escape to safety in the Mikawa province, with the help of local ninja clans.
He was a master spear fighter, and historical sources said he lived the last years of his life as a monk under the name “Sainen.” Tales often attribute to him supernatural abilities, such as disappearing and appearing elsewhere, precognition, and psychokinesis.
7 Benkei (1155 - 1189)
Musashibō Benkei, popularly known as Benkei, was a warrior-monk who served Minamoto no Yoshitsune. He is a popular subject of Japanese folklore. Stories about his birth vary considerably-- some say he was the son of a raped mother, others call him the offspring of a temple god, and many give him the attributes of a demon child.
Benkei is said to have defeated 200 men in each battle he was involved in. By age 17, he was 6 ft. 7 in. tall, and was called a giant. He trained in the use of the naginata (a long, axe-spear combination weapon), and left the Buddhist monastery around this time to join a secret mountain ascetic sect.
Benkei is said to have posted himself at Gojō Bridge in Kyoto, where he disarmed every passing swordsman and collected 999 swords. On his 1000th duel, he was defeated by Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and became his retainer, fighting with him against the Taira clan.
During an ambush some years later, Yoshitsune went to commit ritual suicide (seppuku), while Benkei fought on a bridge at the front of a main gate to protect his master. It is said that the ambushing soldiers were afraid to cross the bridge to fight the lone, gigantic man. Benkei killed in excess of 300 soldiers, and long after the battle should have been over, the soldiers noticed Benkei’s arrow-riddled, wound-covered body standing still. The giant fell to the ground, having died standing, which is known as the “Standing Death of Benkei.”
6 Uesugi Kenshin (1530 - 1578)
Uesugi Kenshin was a daimyo in the Sengoku period of Japan. He was one of the most powerful lords of the era, chiefly remembered for his prowess on the battlefield. He is famed for his honorable conduct, military expertise, and long-standing rival with Takeda Shingen.
Kenshin believed in the Buddhist god of war - Bishamonten - and, as such, his followers believed him to be the Avatar of Bishamonten, or the God of War. He was sometimes referred to as “The Dragon of Echigo,” for his fearsome martial arts displayed on the battlefield.
Kenshin became a young 14-year-old ruler of the Echigo province after wresting power away from his uninspired older brother. He agreed to take the field against powerful warlord Takeda Shingen, because Takeda’s conquests were close to the Echigo borders. Over the years, the two lords would commit themselves to five legendary engagements.
In 1561, Kenshin and Shingen fought their biggest battle, the fourth battle of Kawanakajima. There is a tale during this battle, where Kenshin rode up to Takeda Shingen and slashed at him with his sword. Shingen fended off the blows with his iron war-fan, and Kenshin had to retreat. Shingen made a counter-attack, and many men drowned in a nearby river. The results of the battle are uncertain, as both lords lost over 3,000 men.
Although rivals for more than 14 years, Uesagi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen exchanged gifts a number of times. When Shingen died in 1573, Kenshin was said to have wept aloud at the loss of such a worthy adversary.
Also of note, Uesagi Kenshin famously defeated the most powerful warlord of the era, Oda Nobunaga, twice. It is said that if he had not died suddenly after a lifetime of heavy drinking (or stomach cancer, or assassination, depending on who you ask), he might have usurped Nobunaga’s throne.
5 Takeda Shingen (1521 - 1573)
Takeda Shingen, of Kai Province, was a pre-eminent daimyo in the late stage of the Sengoku period. He is known for his exceptional military prestige. He was often referred to as “The Tiger of Kai,” for his martial prowess on the field, and as an offset to his primal rival, Uesugi Kenshin, or “The Dragon of Echigo.”
Shingen took control of the Takeda clan at the age of 21. He allied with the Imagawa clan for their help in a bloodless coup against his father. The young warlord made quick advances to gain control of the area around him. He fought in five legendary battles against Uesagi Kenshin, and then the Takeda clan suffered internal setbacks.
Shingen was the only daimyo with the necessary power and tactical skill to stop Oda Nobunaga’s rush to rule Japan. He defeated Nobunaga’s ally, Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1572, and captured Futamata. Then he defeated a small combined army of Nobunaga and Ieyasu. While preparing for battle again, Shingen suddenly died in his camp. Some say a sniper wounded him, while some accounts say he died of pneumonia or that he succumbed to an old war wound.
4 Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 - 1616)
Tokugawa Ieyasu was the first shogun and founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. His family virtually ruled Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ieyasu seized power in 1600, became shogun in 1603, abdicated from office in 1605, but remained in power until his death in 1616. He is one of the most famous warlords and shoguns in Japanese history.
Ieyasu rose to power fighting under the Imagawa clan against the brilliant leader Oda Nobunaga. When the Imagawa leader, Yoshimoto, was killed in a surprise attack by Nobunaga, Ieyasu made a secret alliance with the Oda clan. Together, Nobunaga’s army captured Kyoto in 1568. At the same time, Ieyasu made an alliance with Takeda Shingen and was expanding his own territory.
Eventually, after sheltering a former enemy, the Ieyasu-Shingen alliance collapsed. Takeda Shingen defeated Ieyasu in a number of battles, but Ieyasu asked for help from Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga brought his large army, and the Oda-Tokugawa force of 38,000 won a great victory at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, against Takeda Shingen’s son, Takeda Katsuyori.
Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually outlived the great men of the era: Oda Nobunaga set the seeds for the shogunate, Toyotomi Hideyoshi gained control, Shingen and Kenshin, both viable contenders, were dead. The Tokugawa shogunate, because of Ieyasu’s shrewd brilliance, would rule Japan for the next 250 years.
3 Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 - 1598)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a great daimyo, general, samurai, and politician of the Sengoku period. He is regarded as Japan’s second “great unifier” after succeeding his former liege-lord, Oda Nobunaga. He brought an end to the Warring States period. After his death, his young son was displaced by Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Hideyoshi created a number of cultural legacies, such as a restriction that only members of the samurai class could bear arms. He financed the construction and rebuilding of many temples that still stand in Kyoto today. He played an important role in the history of Christianity in Japan, when he ordered the execution by crucifixion of 26 Christians.
He joined the Oda clan around 1557 as a lowly servant. He rose to become Nobunaga’s sandal-bearer, and was present at the Battle of Okehazama in 1560, where Nobunaga defeated Imagawa Yoshimoto and became the most powerful warlord of the Sengoku period. He carried out numerous castle repairs and fort constructions.
Hideyoshi, despite his peasant origins, became one of Nobunaga’s premier generals. After Nobunaga’s assassination in 1582 at the hands of his general Akechi Mitsuhide, Hideyoshi sought vengeance, allied himself with a neighboring clan, and defeated Akechi.
Hideyoshi, like Nobunaga, never achieved the title of shogun. He made himself the regent and built a lavish palace for himself. He banished Christian missionaries in 1587, and started a sword-hunt to confiscate arms, effectively stopping peasant revolts and ensuring greater stability.
When his health began to falter, he adopted Oda Nobunaga’s dream of a Japanese conquest of China, and launched the conquest of the Ming Dynasty by way of Korea. The invasion of Korea ended in failure, and Hideyoshi died on September 18, 1598. Hideyoshi’s class reforms changed the social class system in Japan for the next 300 years.
2 Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582)
Oda Nobunaga was a powerful samurai daimyo warlord who initiated the unification of Japan near the end of the Warring States period. He lived a life of continuous military conquest, and captured a third of Japan before his death in a 1582 coup. He is remembered as one of the most brutal and brash figures of the Warring States period. He is also recognized as one of Japan’s greatest rulers.
His loyal supporter Toyotomi Hideyoshi became his successor, and was the first to unify all of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu later consolidated his rule under a shogunate, which ruled Japan until the 1868 Meiji Restoration. There was a saying, that, “Nobunaga pounds the national rice cake, Hideyoshi kneads it, and in the end Ieyasu sits down and eats it.”
Nobunaga changed the way war was fought in Japan. He implemented the use of long pikes, castle fortifications, and especially firearm-use (including a devastating rotating arquebus firearm volley), which led to huge victories for the warlord. Once he captured the two important musket factories in Sakai City and the Omi province, Nobunaga had superior firepower over his enemies.
He also instituted a specialized warrior class system based on ability, not on name, rank, or family. Retainers were also given land on the basis of rice output, not land size. This organizational system was later used and extensively developed by Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was a keen businessman, modernizing economy from an agricultural base to a manufacture-castle-town base.
Nobunaga was a supporter of the arts. He built great gardens and castles, popularized the Japanese tea ceremony to talk politics and business, and started the beginnings of modern kabuki. He became a patron of the Jesuit missionaries in Japan, supported the establishment of the first Christian church in Kyoto in 1576, though he remained an adamant atheist.
1 Miyamoto Musashi (1584 - 1685)
Although not as politically inclined, or a famed general or warlord as many of the others on this list, there is perhaps no greater swordsman in the history of Japan than the legendary Miyamoto Musashi (at least to Westerners). Although he was technically a roaming ronin (a samurai without a master), Musashi became renowned through stories of his excellent swordsmanship in numerous duels.
Musashi was the founder of the Niten-ryū style of swordsmanship, known for its use of two-sword techniques - using a katana and wakizashi at the same time. He was also the author of The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy that is still studied today.
According to his own claims, Musashi fought his first duel at the age of 13, where he beat a man named Arika Kihei to death with a quarterstaff. He grew up dueling adepts from famous sword-schools, but never lost.
In one duel against the famed Yoshioka school, Musashi reportedly broke a habit of showing up late, arrived hours early, killed the 12-year-old headmaster, and then escaped while being attacked by dozens of his victim’s supporters. To escape, he drew his second sword, and this dual-wielding style was the beginning of his niten’ichi (“two heavens as one”) sword style.
Musashi is said to have roamed the land and fought in over 60 duels, and was never defeated. This is a conservative estimate, most likely not taking into account the deaths by his hand in major battles he participated in. In his later years, he dueled less and wrote more, retiring to a cave to write the Book of the Five Rings. He died in the cave in 1645, having foreseen his death, and died in a posture where he sat with one knee vertically raised and held his wakizashi in his left hand, and a cane in his right.