For non-Japanese, I would be confident to say that we generally know samurai from the Hollywood film: The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and as an otaku, many would know samurai from the anime Samurai X.
But what is a samurai..I mean, really? So here I would like to share some information that I had read from Hiraoki Sato's book: Legends of the Samurai.
The word samurai is derived from the verb saburau "to wait on, serve." At the beginning, being a samurai means being a personal attendant; and the status only changed during the mid twelfth century. Only around this time the samurai was accepted into the inner circle of the government, awarding them the title of a warrior, rather than a mercenary.
Now, when we speak of samurai, the general people would say that the sword is synonymous with the samurai. This is incorrect. Until the fourteenth and the fifteenth century, the samurai had used the bow and arrow as their main weapon. Only after that the samurai had begin to master swordsmanship, where the samurai carries both the long and short swords.
A samurai always lead his life full of dignity and an unwavering devotion to his master. A samurai was thought to always avenge his master; and when his master dies, he must follow his master to death by disembowelment. This is an act of courage. Also, when the enemy is upon them, a samurai must disembowel themselves to avoid the disgrace of surrendering to the enemy.
Apart from that, poetry and samurai is inseparable. In fact, the custom to write a poem in preparation before death has been developed. So being a samurai who is always ready to die, having poetry skills is essential. Important to be mentioned here too is that during fights, samurai would exchange short verses of poem called renga.
Nevertheless, there are many opinions on the essence of what a samurai is, his etiquette and conduct; and was often written out by the samurai themselves. Among the views written are:
1) Soun-ji Dono Nijuichi Kajo (Lord Soun's Twenty-one Articles)
This article is about house laws or house manners and other etiquette that a
samurai should have. For an example, a samurai should rise early in the
morning. If not, a samurai will fail in his duties, both official and private.
2) Miyamoto Musashi: Gorin no Sho (Book of Five Elements)
Miyamoto Musashi writes about the art of fighting. This book contains five
volumes: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Air.
3) Arai Hakaseki: My Father
Arai Hakaseki writes about his father, Masanari, a samurai whose youth was spent
not far from the years of the warring states.
4) Yamamoto Tsunemoto: Hagakure (Hidden in Leaves)
Written by Tsuratomo, this book is about Yamamoto Tsunetomo's observation when
he had served Mitsushige, the second lord of the Hizen fief. Also contain are
I also would like to share a story of a well known samurai: Fujiwara No Yasumasa. On one faithful night, Fujiwara was playing a flute along a boulevard. Dressed in abundant clothes, he soon had regained attention from a thief named Hakamadare. Hakamadare needed clothing and thought that he could take Fujiwara clothes. So Hakamadare tried to approach him numerous times but failed. Hakamadare couldn't fathom the reason why he is so afraid of Fujiwara.
What the story is trying to convey is that a samurai can not only fight with sword or arrow, but with a strong presence of mind too.