Read in Japanese – The History of the Word “Samurai” (Part 1)

read in Japanese

Image by Samuele Schirò from Pixabay

We all know the word 'samurai'. 

In Japanese, it is written using this kanji: “侍” (from the radical of 亻 'man' + 寺 'temple')

Recently, I asked myself: “What did the word 'samurai' originally mean?”.

The WEBLIO dictionary translates “侍” as just “samurai”, or “warrior”. 

This was not enough for me, so I decided to look it up on Wikipedia. The resulting text is what you are going to read.

To help you read and understand the text, I'm going to use the same method I used in other similar posts (see here): guided reading.

For each sentence that makes up the original text, I will first provide you with an English translation and a vocabulary list

Read the content of each sentence in English and then have a look at the vocabulary list.

By doing so, your brain calms down, and reading itself turns into a sort of discovery or validation of how those same ideas are expressed in Japanese.

Once you are done with that, dive into the original Japanese text.

To further assist you, I’ll provide you with its transcription in rōmaji and a word-by-word translation.

(Note: I am using this text only as a model text to practice reading Japanese and understand how the language works. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information it contains)

Since it's a bit long, I’ve decided to divide this text into two posts (Part 1 and Part 2).

Let’s get started with Part 1:

How the Word 'Samurai' Came About

"Samurai" is a relatively recent pronunciation that arose in the sixteenth century; before that, it was pronounced "saburai" from the Kamakura period to the Muromachi period and "saburahi" in the Heian period.

  • サムライ (samurai) - samurai 
  • 〇〇世紀になって (xx seiki ni natte) - by the XX century
  • 登場する (tōjō suru) - to appear
  • 比較的に (hikakuteki ni) - relatively
  • 新しい (atarashii) - new
  • 語形 (gokei) - word form
  • である (dearu) - to be
  • 鎌倉時代 (kamakura jidai) - Kamakura period
  • 室町時代 (muromachi jidai) - Muromachi period
  • ~から~にかけては (- kara - ni kakete wa) - from xx through yy
  • 平安時代 (heian jidai) - Heian period
  • それぞれ (sorezore) - respectively
  • ~と発音される (- to hatsuon sareru) - to be pronounced as


‘samurai' wa jūroku-seiki ni natte tōjō shita hikaku-teki atarashii gokei deari, Kamakura jidai kara Muromachi jidai ni kakete wa ‘saburai', Heian jidai ni wa ‘saburahi' to sorezore hatsuon sarete ita. 

‘samurai’ | as-for | 16th century | into | turned/became | (that) appeared | relatively | new | word-form | is-and | Kamakura period | from | Muromachi period | until/through | ‘samurai’ | Heian period | in | as-for | respectively | was pronounced 

The word "saburahi" is the nominalized form of the verb "saburahu”. The following is a brief history of the word "saburahu". The oldest form of this word to have been found is "samorahu", which made its appearance in the Nara period (710-794).

  • 動詞 (dōshi) - verb
  • 連用形 (ren'yōkei) - conjunctive form
  • 名詞化する (meishi-ka suru) - to nominalize
  • 以下 (ika) - here below
  • 語史 (goshi) - word history
  • ~について (- ni tsuite) - about
  • 述べる (noberu) - to discuss
  • まず (mazu) - first of all
  • 奈良時代 (Nara jidai) - Nara period
  • 遡り得る (sakanoborieru) to be able to trace back
  • 最も (mottomo) - the most
  • 古い (furi) - old
  • 考えられる (kangaerareru) - to be considered


‘saburahi' wa dōshi ‘saburahu' no ren'yōkei ga meishi-ka shita mono dearu. Ika, ’saburahu' no goshi ni tsuite nobereba, mazu Nara jidai ni wa ‘samorahu' to iu gokei de tōjō shite ori, kore ga sakanoborieru mottomo furui gokei dearu to kangaerareru.

‘saburahi’ | as-for | verb | ‘saburahu’ | of | conjunctive form | (subj.) | nominalized | thing | is || below | ‘saburahu’ | of | word-history | about | if to discuss | first-of-all | Nara period | in | as-for | ‘samorafu’ | (quot.) | word-form | as | had appeared-and | this | (subj.) | (that) can be traced back | the most | old | word-form | is | (quot.) | can be thought

The word "samorahu" is presumed to be a combination of the verb "morahu" (meaning to surveil someone of a high status) and the prefix "sa", which was added to fix the rhythm of the word, whereas the verb "morahu" is thought to have come from the verb "moru" (meaning lookout, guard) and the auxiliary verb "hu" (also called a verbal suffix), which was added to include the nuance of "existence" or "continuance".

  • 候 (kō) - kanji meaning “to surveil sb of a high status”
  • 語調 (gochō) - word tone
  • 整える (totonoeru) - to fix, to adjust
  • 接頭辞 (settōji) - prefix
  • 接続する (setsuzoku suru) - to connect
  • 窺 (ki) - kanji meaning “lookout; to watch”
  • 守 (shu) - kanji meaning “guard; to protect”
  • 存在 (sonzai) - existence
  • 継続 (sonzoku) - continuance
  • 意 (i) - meaning, idea
  • 助動詞 (jodōshi) - auxiliary verb
  • 動詞性 (dōshi-sei) - verbal
  • 接尾辞 (setsuoji) - suffix
  • 生まれる (umareru) - to be born
  • 語 (go) - word
  • 推定される (suitei sareru) - to be presumed


‘samorahu' wa dōshi ‘morahu (kō)' ni gochō o totonoeru settōji ‘sa' ga setsuzoku shita mono de, ‘morahu' wa dōshi ‘moru (ki - shu) ' ni sonzai keizoku no i no jodōshi (dōshisei setsuoji to mo iu) ‘hu' ga setsuzoku shite umareta go dearu to suitei sarete iru. 

‘samorahu’ | as-for | verb | ‘morahu’ | to/at | word-tone | (obj.) | (that) adjusts | prefix | ‘sa’ | (subj.) | to be connected | thing | is-and | ‘morahu’ | as-for | verb | ‘moru’ | to/at | existence | continuance | of | meaning | of | auxiliary verb | (verbal suffix | (quot.) | also | called) | ‘hu’ | (subj.) | was connected-and | was born | word | is | (quot.) | is presumed

What “Samurai” Originally Meant

Read in Japanese

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay 

As can be seen from its word structure, the word "samorahu" originally conveyed the meaning of carefully watching an opponent's actions; in fact, it was already used in the Nara period to communicate the idea of standing next to a nobleman, observing him and waiting for him to give orders.

  • 構成 (kōsei) - structure
  • 窺える (ukagaeru) - can be seen
  • ~ように (- yō ni) - as
  • 原義 (gengi) - original meaning
  • 相手 (aite) - opponent; the other person
  • 様子 (yōsu) - appearance
  • じっと (jitto) firmly
  • 窺う (ukagau) - to observe
  • 意味 (imi) - meaning
  • 既に (sude ni) - already
  • 貴人 (kijin) - nobleman
  • 傍ら (katawara) - side (same meaning as 側)
  • 控える (hikaeru) - to wait, to hold back
  • ~つつ (-tsutsu) - while + verb-ing
  • 命令 (meirei) - order
  • 下る (kudaru) - to go down, to descend
  • 待つ (matsu) - to wait
  • 使用される (shiyō sareru) - to be used


sono go-kōsei kara mo ukagaeru yō ni, ‘samorahu' no gengi wa aite no yōsu o jitto ukagau to iu imi deatta ga, Nara jidai ni wa sude ni kijin no katawara ni hikaete yōsu o ukagaitsutsu sono meirei ga kudaru no o matsu to iu imi demo shiyō sarete ita. 

that=its | word-structure | from | also | can be seen | as | ‘samorahu’ | of | original meaning | as-for | the other person | 's | appearance | (obj.) | closely | to watch | (quot.) | meaning | was | but | nara period | in | as-for | already | nobleman | of | side | at | to hold back/stay aside | (the) appearance | (obj.) | while observing | that=his | orders | (subj.) | to descend | the fact of | (obj.) | to wait | (quot.) | meaning | with | also | was used

It is thought that the word “samorahu” underwent a vowel shift and became “samurahu” for some time in the Heian period, and then again underwent a consonant shift, giving rise to the word “saburahu”.

  • 母音 (boin) - vowel
  • 交替 (kōtai) - alternation, shift
  • ~を起こす (-o okosu) - to start; to raise, to set up
  • いったん (ittan) - for the time being
  • ~となる (- to naru) - to become
  • さらに (sara ni) - furthermore
  • 子音 (shiin) - consonant
  • ~た結果 (-ta kekka) - as a result of verb-ing
  • 誕生する (tanjō suru) to be born


kono ‘samorafu' ga Heian jidai ni boin kōtai o okoshite ittan ‘samurafu' to nari, sara ni shiin kōtai o okoshita kekka, ‘saburafu' to iu gokei ga tanjō shita to kangaerarete iru.

this | ‘samorafu’ | (subj.) | Heian period | in | vowel | shift | (obj.) | raised/started-and | for some time | ‘samurafu’ | became-and | furthermore | consonant | shift |  (obj.) | raised/started | (as) result (of) | ‘saburafu’ | (quot.) | word-form | (subj.) | was born | (quot.) | is thought

The Japanese Meaning of the Chinese Character “侍”

Read in Japanese

The word “saburahu”, as can be seen from the fact that it is also used as the “kun” reading (i.e. native Japanese reading) for the kanji “侍”, was used in the Heian period to refer exclusively to "serving at the side of a nobleman".

  • 訓 (kun) - ‘kun’ reading; Japanese reading of a kanji
  • ~として (- to shite) - as
  • ~ことから (- ko kara) - from the fact that
  • わかる (wakaru) - to understand
  • もっぱら (moppara) - exclusively
  • 側 (soba) - side
  • お仕えする (o-tsukae suru) - to serve, to attend


‘saburahu' wa ‘samurai' no kun to shite mo shiyō sarete iru koto kara mo wakaru yō ni, Heian jidai ni wa moppara kijin no soba ni o-tsukae suru to iu imi de shiyō sarete ita.

‘saburahu’ | as-for | ‘samurai’ | of | kun (reading) | as | also | is used | thing/fact | from | understand | as | Heian period | in | as-for | exclusively | nobleman | of | side | at | (hon)-service | to do | (quot.) | meaning | with | was used

The Chinese character "侍" originally meant "to be on hand to work for and serve an aristocrat", and only in Japan is the word used to refer to “ginō kannin” (culturally and academically accomplished palace officials) with military skills who belonged to the bushi (warriors) class.

  • 漢字 (kanji) - Chinese characters
  • 元来 (ganrai) - originally
  • 貴族 (kizoku) - aristocrat
  • 仕事をする (shigoto o suru) - to work
  • 武士 (bushi) - warrior, bushi
  • ~に類する (-ni yui suru) - to resemble
  • 武芸 (bugei) - martial arts
  • 家芸 (iegei) - family specialty
  • ~とする (-to suru) - having as
  • 技能 (ginō) - skilled
  • 官人 (kan’nin) - officials
  • 意味する (imi suru) - to mean
  • 日本 (nihoin) - Japan
  • だけ (dake) - only

「侍」という漢字には、元来 「貴族のそばで仕えて仕事をする」という意味があるが、武士に類する武芸を家芸とする技能官人を意味するのは日本だけである。

‘samurai' to iu kanji ni wa, ganrai ‘kizoku no soba de tsukaete shigoto o suru' to iu imi ga aru ga, bushi ni rui suru bugei o iegei to suru ginō kan'nin o imi suru no wa Nihon dake dearu.

‘samurai' | (quot.) | kanji | in | as-for | originally | ‘aristocrat | of | side | at | to serve-and | to work | (quot.) | meaning | (subj.) | exists | but | warriors | to | being similar | martial arts | (obj.) | family art | having as | skilled | officials | (obj.) | to mean | thing/fact | as-for | Japan | only | is

We are done with Part 1.

If you want to try reading the original text (now that you are aware of its content and vocabulary), here's the full news text again:







「侍」という漢字には、元来 「貴族のそばで仕えて仕事をする」という意味があるが、武士に類する武芸を家芸とする技能官人を意味するのは日本だけである。


There you go!

See you again in Part 2.

In the meantime, if you found this kind of reading helpful, feel free to leave me a comment below or share this post!

Sources & Images: Wikipedia, Weblio, Pixabay.

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  1. This design is spectacular!
    You most certainly
    know how to keep a reader amused. Between your
    wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost?HaHa!) Fantastic job.

    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you
    presented it. Too cool!

    1. Thank you so much, Angela! You were the first and only one so far to show appreciation for the work I do. I try to do my best to make this language and the culture it conveys more accessible. And yes…I highly recommend you start your own blog! If you follow your heart, you will surely succeed…. Don't let your mind (fears, doubts, etc.) stop you from taking action. Kore kara mo yoroshiku ne! Cheers!

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