Bushi vs Samurai

Every once in a while someone asks us what a “bushi” is.

Aside from that obvious answer, it’s a Japanese word. We had a somewhat interesting Twitter thread yesterday on the topic. Feel free to click on one of the conversation boxes to navigate the whole thing.

The short answer is that “bushi” means warrior. Sometimes it’s interchangeable with “samurai.”

The longer answer is that…it depends who you ask.

I decided to do a little scouring of the J Internet, to see what the natives say. Here’s one Japan-informational blog that addresses the question:

日本人にも答えづらい「侍」と「武士」の違い – (Even Difficult for Japanese to Answer: The Difference between “Samurai” and “Bushi”)

I’m not going to attempt a line-for-line translation of this article, as it would take a lot of time and my translation would no doubt be rather crude. But let me summarize. My notes are parenthesized in red.

1. Mrs. M (presumably the author of this blog) says that there are many questions foreigners want to ask Japanese people, one of which is the difference between “samurai” and “bushi.”

The answer, she asserts, is that most Japanese people don’t know and so there are very few people who can clearly answer this.

But Mrs. M’s explanation is this:

From the Edo period (~1603-1868) onward, the basic distinction was that samurai were sword-toting martial arts masters. Bushi were samurai who served a lord.


In historical dramas, she notes, townsfolk call anyone with a sword “samura-san,” not knowing if they’re a ronin or the retainer to some lord.

From the Heian period (~794-1185) on, however the distinction changed with the times. The original root for the word “samurai” was “saburau,” (meaning “to serve”). “Samurai” referred to those employed to protect holdings like nobles’ estates or temples. 

“Samurai” occupied a lower social rank in the earlier periods.

In high school textbooks, the Heian period marks the emergence of the term “samurai.”

And so it’s not incorrect to say that samurai are the same as bushi. The distinction between the two differs (or even disappears) depending upon the time period in question.

In the context of the Edo period, however (if I understand this correctly), samurai were retainers to lords, but were not considered to be “employed.” Bushi, on the other hand, also worked for lords but were basically hired soldiers. The famous Shinsengumi (imperial secret police force) was comprised of “bushi,” not “samurai.”

By the end of the Edo period, anyone disciplined and determined enough to obtain a sword and learn how to use it could become a samurai.

Ultimately the best answer, by Edo standards, is that bushi were warriors for hire who served a lord. Samurai were experts of the martial arts who served (but were not hired by) a lord. If you’re talking about other time periods, the answer is much less clear.

This is a simple explanation from one Japanese blogger. I admittedly have no idea about her level of expertise, so take this as you will. Still, interesting topic.




8 thoughts on “Bushi vs Samurai

  1. To be clear, I wasn’t trying to claim any authority. I was just trying to explain what my personal sense of the difference was.

    So I could be schwacked if wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I just didn’t want to sound like an arrogant ass who thinks he knows about everything.

        …I mean, I am one, and do, but I don’t want to *sound* like one.

        Liked by 1 person

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