The following will assume you’ve seen some of or are currently watching Drifters, and there will be minor spoilers you’ve been warned. Which of the two main characters of Drifters do you think is the real samurai, Yoichi or Toyohisa? Undoubtedly the majority of people across the globe would say Toyohisa, after all he’s the one living by the bushido code and fighting with a katana, Yoichi is a girly-looking archer with a more ruthless approach to warfare. But the answer is undoubtedly Yoichi.
The first part of understanding why the answer is Yoichi, is understanding that samurai as it’s commonly used is a misnomer. Hollywood, and most anime, have perpetuated the misconception that samurai were the warrior class of Japan, they aren’t though. What most films and anime call samurai are actually called bushi, hence where the term bushido (warrior’s way) comes from. Samurai are specific subset of the bushi, kind of like how squares are rectangles where all sides are equal in length, samurai are bushi who served as a sort imperial guard. This can be seen in their linguistic roots, as samurai is derived from sabaru, meaning to serve, whereas bushi comes from bu, which is probably best defined as war or martial. This is important because samurai would’ve commonly wielded swords, spears or polearms, which is part of why katanas are the iconic samurai weapon in today’s depictions, bushi on the other hand spent most of their history as archers. The only anime I know of off hand that gets this distinction right is Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, because in that show all of the riflemen were called bushi whereas Kurusu was called a samurai and he primarily fought with a sword, he also was clearly an elite guardsmen of the main princess.
The next thing to clear up is bushido. Bushido was widely popularized in Japan after it was created and it’s been popularized around the globe ever since but it’s a horribly inaccurate representation of Japan’s military history and culture. Bushido didn’t become a thing until 100 years after the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States Period, which took place in the 1500’s. Which means Toyohisa should have no concept of bushido whatsoever, let alone actually practice it, because it hadn’t been invented by the time he “died” and was transported to the fantasy world. An especially important thing to note it that Japan had been at peace for those 100 years between the Sengoku Jidai and the creation of bushido, and it would remain a land at peace for quite some time. When bushido was created, most bushi served as government officials who could carry swords, not as career warriors proving their worth on the battlefield. Bushido was what caused the katana become treated with near reverence, suddenly the bushi world had all kinds of sword-centric rules of engagement, codes of honor, and dueling norms. Bushido also introduced the idea of kataki or honorable vengeance, where a lord’s bushi retainers were morally obligated to take vengeance on their lord’s killer even at the cost of their own lives.
Prior to the introduction of bushido, bushi warfare was dominated by a doctrine called kyuba no michi, the path of the horse and bow. This can be traced back to the creation of the bushi around the year 1000 AD. At the time much of Japan was ruled by the Heian empire, which was starting to collapse as it could no longer afford to maintain its large armies and banditry was on the rise. To combat their problems, Heian rulers hired mercenaries from the Emishi, a northern Japanese people who are ethnically closer to Mongols or Russians than the indigenous Japanese. The Emishi, perhaps by way of their Mongol/Russian roots were a warlike people who fought primarily as horse-archers. The Emishi were far more effective than Heian troops and when enough of them were rewarded with land, the Emishi gained enough influence to create a place for themselves, and any Heian warriors who chose to copy their style of warfare, in the Heian social hierarchy, the bushi class. As you might imagine from a class born of mercenaries, bushi tactics did not even slightly resemble the kinds of behavior described in bushido. To the bushi, winning mattered more than anything. Night attacks, the taking of hostages and the slaughter of noncombatants were far more commonplace than a stereotypical honorable samurai duel. In fact bushi duels, when they occurred, were almost always mounted archery contests not sword fights.
The split between bushido and kyuba no michi and early bushi tactics can be partially attributed to military romanticism on the part of bushido’s creator, but mostly to the fact that the former was created in peacetime while the latter was born out of war. Avoiding danger is crucial to warfare, the root of most military innovations comes from a desire to find ways to kill the enemy while minimizing the risk to one’s self and one’s troops. And for most of human history the bow was the result of that desire, archers were an essential part of every army across the globe because they could kill from a distance. Horse-archers were especially tough to deal with, as they had the ability to kill from a distance while also having the mobility of cavalry, and it should come as no surprise that the most successful barbarian invasions of the East and West were spurred by steppe tribes like the Huns and Mongols, because that’s where horse-archers were most widely used. The victory-first tactics of the early bushi also reflect the desire to avoid harm while harming the enemy. In light of all this it should be fairly obvious that Yoichi, the archer who favors more ruthless tactics, is the real poster boy of what we call samurai, by which we usually mean bushi. This really comes as no surprise if you consider that he’s from the Genpei War or Gempei War, the two names are interchangeable and it occurred in the 1100’s, because that war cemented the dominance of the bushi and resulted in the first bakufu, or military government of Japan, which caused Japan to have a sort of dual monarchy system for most of Japan’s medieval history where high society and culture was dominated by the Emperor and the military and policy was controlled by the bakufu, or as most people know it, the Shogunate.
At this point I’ve answered the titular question but I still want to talk about some common, i.e. mainly informed by Hollywood and Orientalism, myths about the bushi. The myth that probably bothers me most is how the katana is idolized as a super sword that can cut through anything and is the best sword ever made. This bothers me because the katana is total dogshit when it comes to “cutting through anything.” The katana cuts exceptionally well against unarmored and lightly armored foes, but most cultures in Asia and Europe have been using armor capable of doing more damage to a katana’s edge than the katana would do to the armor since before the katana was ever even used. The reason the katana was the main sword of Japan was because it was good at defeating Japanese armor, which in terms of durability was garbage compared to heavy armor all across Europe and Asia. This mostly stems from Japan’s lack of good iron, most of Japan’s iron is what European smiths called pig iron, and they didn’t use it because it was too high in carbon and swords made from it would shatter. In fact, early in Japan’s history bronze imported from China was more valuable than iron because local smiths hadn’t figured out how to forge pig iron effectively. The answer to that question is folding, which is where the myth of blades being folded a thousand times over comes from. By folding the metal, smiths could iron out the excess carbon and make durable swords, however they didn’t fold them a thousand times because that would flush out all the carbon and the blades would shatter on the first hit. I seem to recall a blacksmith saying that katanas are generally folded eight times, but I’m not an expert so I can’t say for sure how many times they were folded beyond definitely not a thousand.
The other reason katanas, but mostly bows, did so well in Japan is that in addition light armor, I want to say here that Japanese armor isn’t badly made because it is well designed but Japan just didn’t have the materials needed to make it really heavy, Japanese warfare seems to have totally disregarded the shield (I looked into this some more and it seems shields were used early on but fell out of use before the bushi class became a thing). If you pay close attention to the fight in Drifters episode one, before Toyohisa is sucked into the fantasy world, all the spearmen who impale him are using two handed pikes called yari, which at this point in Japanese history were about 15 feet long, and have no shields. I’m not sure exactly why shields seem to have been nonexistent in Japan, but the fact that most Japanese weapons required two hands to wield or are commonly used with two hands speaks to the shield’s absence in Japanese warfare. The lack of a shield also helps explain why bows were more prominent than swords for most of the bushi’s history. Spears have a huge reach advantage against swords, especially if we’re talking about the 15 foot yari, and one of the main counters to the reach advantage is the shield. If a swordsman has a shield, it increases his chances of getting in close without taking damage, and in close is where a swordsman has the advantage over a spearman. The lack of shield makes getting in a close a risky business, as seen by how Toyohisa was impaled by like fifteen guys when he charged the spearmen, and since risk is bad, the bow becomes a great option, especially since the enemy have no shields to block arrows with.
Basically what I’m trying to say is unless you’ve actually spent a fair amount actually looking into Japan’s military history, forget everything you think you know about samurai. Popular knowledge of the samurai is grossly inaccurate and for whatever reason, Japan itself rarely seems to try to correct any misconceptions about the bushi in any kind of easily accessible public way, and most anime don’t either. Also it would be great if the world stopped sucking the katana’s dick and looked at other swords more often, personally I find weapons like the falx and romphaia to be far more fascinating and effective, especially since the katana played a such a minor role in the bushi’s history. Like I get it, we all have our favorite swords and it’s fine to like katanas, just remember that the awesome samurai you’re picturing in your head usually fought with a bow, or maybe a polearm since those were way more popular than swords before bushido because they had a reach advantage, instead because he were less likely to die that way. And Yoichi, who just had a drunken manservice scene in the latest episode of Drifters, is definitely more of a real samurai (i.e. bushi) than Toyohisa. Thanks for reading, I’ll see you in the next one.