Samurai (SAM-er-eye) were Japanese warriors who were revered for their skills as warriors, but also for their distinct influence on Japanese fashion. Samurai first appeared in Japan as early as the eighth century c.e., but they truly rose to power in the eleventh century as elite warriors in service to their feudal lords, or daimyos. Other samurai served as guards of the imperial palace. The samurai were accorded special status after about 1600. They alone had the privilege of wearing two swords, they married only among their own class, and they passed their privileges on to their children. The word samurai literally means "to be on one's guard."
The samurai, or warrior class, replaced the court nobles who had once surrounded the ruler. These nobles had always worn ceremonial clothing and lived a very formal existence within large castles. The rulers understood that the samurai were strong and wise and capable of forming their own armies and taking control of the country. To keep the power of the samurai in check, the rulers encouraged the samurai to live by elaborate rules about dress and behavior. Samurai lived by a code of honor known as Bushido, the way of the sword. Loyalty, truthfulness, sincerity, and readiness to die for honor were its main attributes. The samurai also became very dedicated to ceremony and to acquiring and displaying meaningful colors, fabrics, and styles.
Samurai were dressed for speed and travel. Their basic uniform had wide hakama trousers, open halfway down the leg and ending above the ankle. The under-kimono of the samurai could be slipped off for a sword battle, while remaining secured at the waist by the hakama's hard waistband and ties. The overvest had impressive winged shoulders and was sleeveless, so that the samurai looked both grand and dangerous and was able to swing his arms around with his two swords.
Historically, samurai and geishas have been the two greatest influences on Japanese fashion and taste. Both had the status, visibility, and intelligence to cultivate distinctive colors, fabrics, and styles, changing them regularly to keep the public enthralled, much like today's rock stars or actors and actresses.
Among the fashions that were developed by samurai in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the hakama, or trouser, and kataginu, a ceremonial ensemble with winged shoulders, are the most distinctive. In recent times, samurai fashions have been well represented in Japanese theater, such as No plays and Kabuki, and in film, particularly the historical films of director Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998). (A No, or Noh, play is a classic Japanese dance-drama having a heroic theme, a chorus, and highly stylized action, costuming, and scenery.) The samurai film, in fact, has had a wide influence throughout the world. Akira Kurosawa's legendary movie, The Seven Samurai (1954), was the inspiration for the light saber battles in the film Star Wars (1977) and its sequels. Samurai suits of armor, made of ceramic plates sewn together, were the inspiration for the military flak jacket developed by the United States Army during World War II (1939–45). Samurai wore distinctive top-knot hairstyles and wore bold crests on their robes.
The samurai disappeared as a distinct class in the nineteenth century. In modern Japan some towns celebrate the history of the samurai by holding annual pageants or parades where participants dress in reproductions of historical samurai styles. The traditional practices of archery, swordsmanship, and martial arts all have their basis in samurai culture. Today, many practitioners of these disciplines are greatly respectful and knowledgeable about their samurai forefathers.
sam·u·rai / ˈsaməˌrī/ • n. (pl. same) hist. a member of a powerful military caste in feudal Japan, esp. a member of the class of military retainers of the daimyos.