21 Nov /13


Like many Japanese words, “samurai” followed an unusual route before entering the English language. The word is derived from saburau, “to serve”. The traditional samurai were warriors in the service of the daimyo, the territorial warlords of Japan. Ferocious in battle but monk-like in their dedication, they followed a set of rules (the bushido) for a life of loyal service.

The path towards English usage began with Engelbert Kaempfer, a well-travelled German botanist. His time overseas included two years in Japan, where he kept a detailed diary of all that he saw and did. Returning to Germany he published a Latin volume featuring his views on various medicines and descriptions of Japanese plants. When Kaempfer died his unpublished works were bought up by the Irish doctor and collector Hans Sloane, who gave his name to Sloane Square in London and whose huge library and natural history collection formed the basis of the British Museum.

Eleven years after his death Kaempfer’s unpublished writings were translated by Sloane’s librarian, Johann Scheuchzer, and published as History of Japan. This is by far Kaempfer’s best remembered work and it became the definitive European guide to Japan in the 18th century. The book introduced English speakers to a wealth of Japanese vocabulary. Words that have stood the test of time include acupuncture, ginkgo, kaki, Zen and samurai.

Samurai have sometimes been characterised as Japan’s answer to the American cowboy, so it is fitting that they inspired one of the most famous of all Hollywood westerns. The Magnificent Seven is an adaptation of the Japanese film Seven Samurai and presents an enduring image of the fearless warrior, wielding his katana sword in place of a gun.

In the mid-1970s the Samurai became an even more popular figure on American television when comic actor John Belushi, star of Saturday Night Live, portrayed a stern warrior undertaking a variety of different jobs. In “Samurai Delicatessen” he was seen chopping sandwiches with his katana. As “Samurai TV repair man” he attacked a broken TV set with his katana and the picture and sound were miraculously restored. And in “Samurai Night Fever” he took to the floor as an unlikely disco dancer. Engelbert Kaempfer’s opinion on these sketches would have made interesting reading.

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