Everyone – even people who know almost nothing about samurai culture – knows that the samurai were fierce Japanese warriors who were very talented at fighting with the sword. Some people even know how proficient they were on horseback with longbows and arrows. What about hand-to-hand combat, though; did samurai warriors know any martial arts?
Samurai knew martial arts and were reasonably proficient at hand-to-hand combat. Specifically, they trained in the martial art style jiu jitsu, a discipline known for its holds, throws, grappling, strangle-holds, and other similar on-the-ground techniques.
This article will provide more information about the samurai’s use of jiu jitsu. It will also outline the types of weapons the samurai most frequently used and talk about the samurai’s most common enemies.
What Fighting Style Did Samurai Practice?
The fighting style the samurai used most often was jiu jitsu (also known as jujutsu or ju-jitsu), which traces its lineage to Indian Buddhist monks. Today, many modern martial arts, such as judo, aikido, and even MMA (mixed martial arts), pull inspiration from jiu jitsu.
Samurai fought primarily from horseback, and as such, they focused mainly on distance and ranged attacks. However, once a samurai was knocked off his mount and onto the ground, ranged attacks weren’t an option any longer. At that point, they’d be forced to fight up close and personal with their enemies.
Occasionally, they’d use their swords and daggers at this point, but sometimes, it came down to hand-to-hand combat, and they needed to be well-trained in a form of hand-to-hand that was effective. Jiu jitsu was the answer because it was versatile. It allowed them to fight empty-handed or with a small weapon, such as a dagger.
Why Jiu Jitsu Was Effective
Most samurai battles were fought against other samurai, and all the combatants were usually wearing some type of armor that blocked direct blows with a sword. Therefore, when it came down to one-on-one fighting, blades weren’t nearly as effective as grapple holds, strangle-holds, and other forms of subduing or killing that didn’t require penetrating a thick plate of armor.
Instead of focusing on trying to find an open spot in an opponent’s armor – or worse still, trying to hack through armor to get to the flesh – samurai would use the grappling and hold techniques they’d learned during their jiu jitsu training to take down their opponents.
Additionally, jiu jitsu didn’t require a warrior to expend as much energy as some other forms of martial arts because it used an attacker’s weight and momentum against them.
For example, instead of wasting energy to block an opponent’s attack and trying to land one of his own, a samurai would simply “roll with the punches,” catching their enemies’ arms as they slashed and leveraging their weight against them to drop them to the ground.
Once he had his opponent on the ground, the samurai could use the more lethal jiu jitsu moves to finish him off without needing to reach for his weapon.
What Weapons Did Samurai Have?
Samurai had plenty of different weapons to use at different stages in a battle, whether they were on horseback or standing alone on the ground.
Samurai’s ranged weapons included longbows, known as yumis, and arrows, shuriken, spears (or javelins) for throwing at the enemy, and even guns. Samurai also used swords, daggers, maces, glaives (or naginata), and more.
The most famous of the samurai’s spears was the yari, a straight-headed spear that looked almost like a sword; only it was much longer.  Their primary maces were called kanabō, and they used these frequently on the ground as they were good for bashing against and through their enemies’ armor.
The kanabō were heavy, two-handed weapons that measured nearly five feet (1.52 meters) long and could weigh up to four and a half pounds (2.04 kilograms).
Samurai also used a wide variety of Japanese swords, the most iconic of which was the katana. Surprisingly, though, samurai mostly avoided using katanas in their battles. The weapons were largely ceremonial, though they would use them in one-on-one duels. Other Japanese swords that the samurai used included the following:
- Uchigatana 
Again, it’s important to note that samurai didn’t use these types of blades nearly as often as people assumed they did.
Who Did Samurai Fight?
Samurai primarily fought other samurai from warring clans. Doing so was a way to contest the ruling class and try to seize power for themselves. However, they also fought against invading Mongols, rogue groups of ninjas, and anyone attempting to attack Japan. At one point, they even attacked Korea.
The samurai continued to war with one another until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. After that, the time of the samurai pretty much came to an end. However, there would still be one final samurai battle before the last samurai died.
Saigo Takamori, usually credited with being “the last samurai,” helped fight for an end to samurai culture in Japan during the Meiji Restoration. Though a samurai himself, he felt that the constant infighting in the country was ultimately destructive. Instead, he wanted Japan to unify and set its sights on expanding to other countries outside its borders.
Once Japan restored relative peace with the Meiji Restoration, Saigo urged the new government to realize his vision for Japan’s expansion and attack Korea. When the government declined, he recused himself from his government position and returned home.
Fearing an uprising from Saigo and the samurai who sailed home with him, the Japanese government sent over 300 thousand troops after him. Under Saigo’s leadership, the remaining samurai banded together and attacked, but it was futile. The 40,000 samurai had no chance against the 300,000 government troops.
One by one, the samurai warriors fell, including Saigo Takamori. His death is recognized as the end of samurai culture.
Although martial arts weren’t the samurai’s first line of defense, they knew and were quite adept at jiu jitsu. They’d use it in close combat.