The Samurai are one of the most recognised warrior classes in history. Few names conjure such distinct images in the mind. The armour, the sword and bow, the stoic honour and sense of duty, they paint the picture of the pop culture icons and the perfect warriors. But what did these perfect warriors eat? And what can we take away from their diets and apply to our own?
The Samurai (also called ‘bushi’ or ‘warrior’ in Japanese) first rose to power in Japan in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), though their precursors can be found as far back as 702 AD with the foundations of the first national military in Japan. They followed a code known as the bushido (way of the warrior), which emphasised loyalty to your leader (daimyo), courage, honour and respect, similar to the western equivalent of the age, the chivalric code. Prominent for almost 700 years, rising to become the highest social class for the last 260 of those year, Samurai are as inseparable from Medieval Japan as Knights are from Europe.
Unsurprisingly, these warriors were some of the most respected people of their age, but contrary to what you might think, this did not translate into a particularly hedonistic diet. Food for the Samurai was simply a matter of fuelling their bodies, not something to be enjoyed.
An obvious main staple was rice. Rice in Japanese society has long been a valuable commodity. This stems largely from how difficult farming is in Japan, a mountainous country with little agricultural land. Rice fields often had to be cut into the sides of hills, rivers damned and diverted to be used as irrigation. A certain amount of superstition arose around the planting of rice, which was largely performed by village women, whose fertility was thought to encourage the growth of the rice fields. Even still, famines were common as a result of spoilt harvests. These were often exacerbated by tax collection, which was collected in rice, and could range from anywhere between 40% and 60% of the harvest. A Samurai’s wealth was also measured in terms of rice. Called Koku, one koku of rice was how much rice it took to feed one man for a year, about 180 kg.
Like many peasants, Samurai ate husked rice (brown rice), though this was different from what we today know as brown rice. The rice we eat has been selectively bread to have the taste and texture we know today. The rice of the Samurai’s time was far less pleasant, with a grainy texture and reportedly foul taste. White rice was considered far too valuable and luxurious eaten only by elites and emperors of the day.
Rice was prepared in numerous ways including boiling, cooking to a paste, fermenting into sake, being mixed with vegetables or cooked into rice cakes, which were often sweetened with honey and topped with fruit and sold at the roadside wrapped in large leaves.
Everything else the Samurai ate depended on the season. They had an incredibly varied diet of greens including cucumbers (which were often pickled), potatoes of many varieties, radishes and fruits, which included sour plums, apricots and oranges. They also ate various nuts, tofu and beans. All this combined to create what we today would recognise as a balanced and healthy diet, but the keen eyed among you will have noticed the absence of one particular food stuff — meat.
Taking a step back again to Japanese culture, in the 6th century AD, Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Over the centuries, numerous branches of Buddhism would rise in Japan, but Shinto Buddhism was one of the major religious forces in Medieval Japan. Shintoism is a difficult concept to western audiences, there is no central text or founder. It is the original religion of Japan, focusing on a worshipping of nature, and continues to this day.
Both of these religions culminated to give us what we call Shinto Buddhism, and both of these root religions consider the eating of meat to be unclean. The first law was introduced in 675AD, with subsequent imperial decrees in the 8th century making it a criminal offence to consume the meat of any mammal. The laws may restrict the consumption of mammals, but they say nothing of seafood.
And so, the Samurai, and indeed all of Japan at the time, became what we today would call pescatarians. They ate clams, trout, carp and tuna, among the sea’s vegetarian offerings like seaweed. These early religious restrictions are where Japan’s mastery of seafood comes from today — they have been masters of the bounty of the seas for at least 1400 years. As an aside, the people of Medieval Japan were not aware that whales were mammals and thus consumed them, planting seeds for Japan’s troubled relationship with whales to this day.
With all that being said, your common Samurai was unlikely to consume much meat throughout his daily life. Meat was considered a luxury item and was often only eaten by higher ranking Samurai and commanders. It’s important to remember that Samurai was a hereditary title and in the waning days of the Edo Period, 5% of the Japanese population was part of the Samurai class. It encompassed an almost 700-year period and the fates and fortunes, as well as the rank and standing of the Samurai changed dramatically during this time. Some Samurai were rich, high ranking and respected, while many were destitute and poor, a far cry from their noble forbearers.
Lastly, Samurai of all ranks consumed sake, said to be their second favourite drink after tea. This drink, made from fermented rice, was very potent, and a form of the drink has been cultivated in Japan for around 2000 years. Samurai would drink it before battle, often having three cups, a lucky number in Japanese society. The drink was said to give courage and calm the nerves, a common practice of the time that persists even to this day in some militaries.
The Samurai came to an end with the Meiji Restoration and the opening up of Japan to the rest of the world in 1868. With them died feudal Japan and one of the last great warrior cultures, though by the time of the restoration, many Samurai were artists, bureaucrats and officials, far removed from their warrior ancestors.
Like many peasants of their time, they ate a simple diet of fish and rice, with seasonal vegetable, though the rigid structures of Japanese society made even these few food stuffs highly speculative. Their focus on simple, clean eating and utilisation, but not exploitation, of their farmland should be a lesson to us today. The Samurai may be gone, but their warrior spirit lives on in the culture of Japan and they deserve their mighty reputation.
Bonus Fact 1: You will have noticed no mention of sushi in this article. Sushi or Narezushi as it was once known was invented in China in around the 2nd century AD and is not mentioned in Japanese texts in anything but passing in the 6th and 7th century. Slowly sushi would evolve into what we know as sushi today, but it wasn’t until 1830s and 1840s that recognisable modern sushi was being eaten in Japan.
Bonus fact 2: Katanas, the swords most heavily associated with the Samurai, were not introduced until the 1300s, evolving from tachi and chokutō-style blades. They were not, however as ubiquitous as media would have you believe. Ironically, arguably the most famous sword in Japanese history Kusanagi (Grass-cutter) was a chokutō, a single edged, straight blade.