Part of the Horse exhibition.

A painting of a mounted samurai in elaborate dress on a horse decorated with red tassels.
Mounted Samurai.
The Granger Collection, New York

For roughly a thousand years, from about the 800s to the late 1800s, warfare in Japan was dominated by an elite class of warriors known as the samurai. Horses were their special weapons: only samurai were allowed to ride horses in battle.

Like European knights, the samurai served a lord (daimyo). In 1600, after a long period of conflict among rival daimyo, the victorious Tokugawa Shogun discouraged armed warfare but maintained the samurai's traditional status. The sword and the horse remained symbols of their power.

Knights Versus Samurai

European knights and Japanese samurai have some interesting similarities. Both groups rode horses and wore armor. Both came from a wealthy upper class. And both were trained to follow strict codes of moral behavior. In Europe, these ideals were called chivalry; the samurai code was called Bushido, "the way of the warrior." The rules of chivalry and Bushido both emphasize honor, self-control, loyalty, bravery, and military training.

Death Before Dishonor

The samurai warriors who ruled Japan until the late 1800s followed a strict code of behavior. Proper behavior was so important that a samurai would kill himself rather than accept dishonor. Most samurai carried a special sword called a wakizashi for this purpose.

No Guns For Shoguns

In the late 1500s, the Japanese had more guns than any nation in Europe. Using guns, an army of peasants could be very powerful, threatening the social order. So in the 1600s, the samurai leaders, or shoguns, banned guns. With their traditional power secured, the samurai ruled in peace for 250 years.

Did You Know?

Samurai were divided into two classes, and only upper-class samurai were allowed to ride horses.