Origin of Samurai
Before the Heian period, the army in Japan was modelled
after the Chinese army and under the direct command of the emperor. Except
for slaves, every able-bodied man had the duty of enlisting for the army.
These men had to supply themselves, and many gave up returning and settled
down on their way home. This was treated as a part of taxation and it could
be substituted with other forms of tax such as bolts of cloth. These men
were called Sakimori (防人, lit. "defenders"), but they are not related to
Samurai Armour - Iron helmet and armour with gilt bronze decoration, Kofun
era, 5th century. Tokyo National Museum. Photo by
In the early Heian, the late 8th and early 9th centuries,
Emperor Kammu sought to consolidate and expand his rule in northern Honshu.
The armies he sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi lacked motivation and
discipline and were unable to prevail. He then introduced the title of
Seiitaishogun (征夷大将軍) or shogun and began to rely on the powerful regional
clans to conquer the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery, these
clan warriors became the emperor's preferred tool for putting down
rebellions. Even though they may have been educated, the Imperial court
officials considered 7th to 9th century warriors to be crude and barbaric.
During the Heian period, the emperor's army was disbanded and the emperor's
power gradually declined. While the emperor was still the ruler, powerful
clans around Kyoto assumed positions of ministers and their relatives bought
their positions of magistrates to collect taxes. To repay their debts and
amass wealth, they often imposed heavy taxes and many farmers were forced to
leave their lands. Regional clans grew powerful by offering lower taxes to
their subjects as well as freedom from conscription. These clans armed
themselves to repel other clans and magistrates from collecting taxes. They
would eventually form themselves into armed parties and became samurai.
The samurai came from guards of the imperial palace and from private guards
that the clans employed. They also acted as a police force in and around
Kyoto. These forerunners of what we now know as samurai had ruler-sponsored
equipment and were required to hone their martial skills. They were saburai,
servants, yet their advantage of being the sole armed party increasingly
became apparent. By promising protection and gaining political clout through
political marriages they amassed power, eventually surpassing the ruling
Some clans originally were farmers that had been driven to arms to protect
themselves from the imperially appointed magistrates sent to govern their
lands and collect taxes. These clans formed alliances to protect themselves
against more powerful clans. By the mid-Heian, they had adopted
Japanese-style armor and weapons and laid the foundation of bushido, their
famous ethical code.
After the 11th century, Samurai were expected to be cultured and literate.
Samurai lived up to the ancient saying "Bun Bu Ryo Do" (lit. literary arts,
military arts, both ways) or "The pen and the sword in accord". An early
term for warrior "Uruwashii" was a combination of the
kanji for literary
study ("bun") and military arts ("bu") and is mentioned in the Heike
Monogatari (late 12th century). The Heike Monogatari makes references to the
educated poet-swordsman ideal in mention of Taira no Tadanori's death:
"Friends and foes alike wet their sleeves with tears and said, "What a pity!
Tadanori was a great general, pre-eminent in the arts of both sword and
According to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai: "The
warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as models for the educated warriors
of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be
beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper
echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the
Japanese man of arms. With the Heike Monogatari, the image of the Japanese
warrior in literature came to its full maturity." Wilson then translates the
writings of several warriors who mention the Heike Monogatari as an example
for their men to follow.
Kamakura Bakufu and the Rise of Samurai
Originally these warriors were merely mercenaries in the
employ of the emperor and noble clans (kuge). But slowly they gathered
enough power to usurp the aristocracy and establish the first
As regional clans gathered manpower and resources and struck alliances with
each other, they formed a hierarchy centered around a toryo, or chief. This
chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor and a lesser member of
one of three noble families (the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or the Taira). Though
originally sent to provincial areas for a fixed four year term as a
magistrate, the toryo declined to return to the capital when their terms
ended. Their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans
in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later
Because of their rising military and economic power, the clans ultimately
became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the
Hogen Rebellion in the late Heian only consolidated their power and finally
pit the rival Minamoto and the Taira against each other in the Heiji
Rebellion of 1160. Emerging victorious, Taira no Kiyomori became an imperial
advisor, the first warrior to attain such a position, and eventually seized
control of the central government to establish the first samurai-dominated
government and relegate the emperor to a mere figurehead. However, Taira
clan was still very much aristocratic than later Minamoto. Instead of
expanding or strengthening its military might, Taira clan had its women
marry emperors and attempted to control through the emperor.
The Taira and the Minamoto once again clashed in 1180 beginning the Gempei
War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the
superiority of the samurai over aristocrats. In 1190 he visited Kyoto and in
1192 became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate. Instead of
basing its rule in Kyoto, he set up the Shogunate in Kamakura, near his base
of power. "Bakufu" means tent government, taken from the encampments the
soldiers would live in, in accordance with the Bakufu's status as a military
Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility (buke) who were
only nominally under court aristocracy. When samurai began to adopt
aristocratic customs like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court
aristocrats also began to adopt samurai skills. In spite of various
machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, the real power
was in the hands of the shogun and samurai.
Ashikaga Shogunate and the Feudal Period
Various samurai clans struggled for power over Kamakura
and Ashikaga Shogunates.
Zen Buddhism spread among samurai in the 13th century and it helped to shape
their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and
killing. Among the general populace, however, Pure Land Buddhism was
The Samurai Suenaga facing Mongols, during the Mongol invasions of Japan.
Moko Shurai Ekotoba (蒙古襲来絵詞), circa 1293.In the 13th century, Yuan, a
Chinese state of the Mongol Empire, invaded Japan twice. Samurai not used to
fighting in groups barely survived the first brief battle. However, they
were prepared for the second invasion by building a defensive stone wall on
the Mongols' landing shore, and adopting a night attack tactic. Overall, the
Samurai way of warfare was incapable of inflicting significant damage upon
the Mongol army, which favored tactics of large encirclement, blitzkrieg,
and employed advanced weaponry (the Samurai were shocked by the Chinese
grenades). In the end, it was the second typhoon that destroyed the Mongol
armada, and prevented the Yuan Dynasty from annexation of Japan. Japanese
deemed the typhoon "the divine wind" or "kamikaze" in Japanese.
Samurai and defensive wall at Hakata. Moko Shurai Ekotoba, (蒙古襲来絵詞)
c.1293.Two major military elements were acquired from Mongol invasions: 1)
the importance of infantry and 2) the weakness of Japanese longbows and of
the conventional Samurai cavalry against the invaders. As the result of
this, Samurai gradually replaced the way of bow with the way of "blades". At
the beginning of 14th century, swords and spears became the mainstream among
Japanese samurai warlords. An innovation on Japanese sword was produced by a
blacksmith called Masamune in the 14th century; the two-layer structure of
soft and hard iron was adopted and the style spread rapidly with its amazing
cutting power and endurance in continuous use. Since then, Japanese swords
had been recognized as one of the most potent hand weapons during the
pre-industrial era of East Asia. It was one of the top exported items, a few
even making their way as far as India.
The issues of inheritance caused family infighting, because primogeniture
became common, while division of succession was designated by law before the
14th century. To avoid infighting, continuous invasion against neighboring
samurai's territories was rather favored and bickering among samurai was a
constant problem for the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates.
The Sengoku jidai ("warring-states period") was marked by the loosening of
samurai culture, in a sense. Those born into other social strata could
sometimes make names for themselves as warriors and thus become de facto
samurai. In this turbulent period, bushido ethics became important factors
to control and maintain public orders.
Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly in 15th and 16th
century. Use of large numbers of infantry troops called Ashigaru
("light-foot", due to their light armour), which was formed by the humble
warriors or populace, with Nagayari (長槍) or long lance was introduced and
combined with cavalry in maneuvers. The numbers of people mobilized in
warfare were generally in the thousands to the over hundred-thousands.
Nanban (Western)-style samurai cuirass, 16th century.Harquebus or a
matchlock gun was introduced by Lusitanians/Portuguese on a Chinese pirate
ship in 1543. Japanese succeeded nationalization of it within a decade.
Groups of mercenaries with harquebus and mass produced rifles played a
Reproduction arquebuses are fired at the annual festival to commemorate the
1575 Battle of Nagashino.By the end of feudal periods, several hundred
thousand rifles existed in Japan and massive armies over 100,000 clashed in
the battles. The largest and most powerful army in Europe, the Spanish
armies, had only several thousand rifles and could only assemble an army of
30,000. Ninja also played critical roles while engaged in intelligence
activity. In 1592 and again in 1598, Japan invaded Korea with an army of
160,000 samurai in the Seven-Year War, taking great advantage of its mastery
The social mobility of human resources was flexible, as the ancient regime
collapsed and emerging samurai needed to maintain large military and
administrative organizations in their areas of influence. Most of the
samurai families that survived to the 19th century originated in this era.
They declared themselves to be the blood of one of the four ancient noble
clans, Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara and Tachibana. In most cases, however, it
is hard to prove who their ancestors were.
Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa
Oda Nobunaga was the well-known lord of the Nagoya area
(once called Owari Province) and an exceptional example of samurai of the
Sengoku Period. He came within few years of, and laid down the path for his
successors to achieve, the reunification of Japan under a new Bakufu (Shogunate).
He made innovations on organizations and war tactics, heavily used
harquebus, developed commerce and industry and treasured innovations; the
consecutive victories enabled him to realize the termination of the Ashikaga
Bakufu and disarmament of the military powers of the Buddhist monks, which
had inflamed futile struggles among the populace for centuries. Attacking
from a "sanctuary" of Buddhist temples, they were constant headaches to any
warlords and even the emperor who tried to control their actions. He died in
1582 when one of his Generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, fell down upon him with his
The Samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga in Rome in 1615, Coll. Borghese,
Rome.Importantly, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (see below) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who
made Tokugawa Shogunate, were Nobunaga's loyal followers. Hideyoshi was
brought up from a nameless peasant to one of top generals under Nobunaga and
Ieyasu had shared childhood with Nobunaga. Hideyoshi defeated Mitsuhide
within a month and was regarded as the rightful successor of Nobunaga by
avenging the treachery of Mitsuhide.
These two were gifted with Nobunaga's previous achievements to build the
unified Japan. So there was a saying: "The reunification is a rice cake; Oda
made it. Hashiba shaped it. At last, only Ieyasu tastes it." (Hashiba is the
family name that Toyotomi Hideyoshi used while he was a follower of
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister in 1586, himself the son of
a poor peasant family, created a law that the samurai caste became codified
as permanent and heritable, and that non-samurai were forbidden to carry
weapons ending the social mobility of Japan up until that point and the
dissolution of the Edo Shogunate by the Meiji revolutionaries.
It is important to note that distinction between samurai and non-samurai was
so obscure that during the 16th century, most male adults in any social
class (even small farmers) belonged to at least one military organization of
their own and served in wars before and during Hideyoshi's rule. It can be
said that an "all against all" situation continued for a century.
The authorized samurai families after the 17th century were the winners that
chose to follow Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. Large battles occurred
during the times of change between regimes, and a number of defeated samurai
were destroyed, went ronin or were absorbed into the general populace.
Samurai walking followed by a servant, by Hanabusa Itcho
(1652 - 1724)During the Tokugawa era, samurai increasingly became courtiers,
bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. With no warfare after
the early 17th century, over time, samurai during the Tokugawa era (also
called the Edo period) gradually lost their military function. By the end of
the Tokugawa era, samurai were aristocratic bureaucrats for the daimyo, with
their daisho, the paired long and short swords of the samurai (cf. 'katana'
and wakizashi) becoming more of a symbolic emblem of power rather than a
weapon used in daily life. They still had the legal right to cut down any
commoner who did not show proper respect; in what extent this right was
used, however, is unknown. When the central government forced daimyos to cut
the size of their armies, unemployed ronin actually became a social problem.
Theoretical obligations between a samurai and his lord (usually a daimyo)
increased from the Genpei era to the Edo era. They were strongly emphasized
by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius (ca 550 B.C.)which were required
reading for the educated samurai class. During the Edo period, after the
general end of hostilities, the code of Bushido was formalized. It is
important to note that bushido was an ideal, but it is surprising how
uniform the code remained over time from the 13th century to the 19th
century. The ideals of Bushido transcended social class, time and geographic
location of the warrior class.
Bushido was formalized by many samurai in this time of peace in much the
same fashion as chivalry was formalized after knights as a warrior class
became obsolete in Europe. The conduct of samurai became a favorable model
of a citizen in Edo with the emphasis on formalities. With time on their
hands, samurai spent more time on the pursuit of other interests becoming
scholars. Bushido still survives in present-day Japanese society, as do many
other aspects of their way of life.
Samurai decline during the Meiji Restoration
By this time, the Way of Death and Desparateness had been
eclipsed by a rude awakening in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry's massive
steamships from the US Navy first imposed broader commerce, American Style,
on the once-dominant national polity. Prior to that, only a few harbor towns
under strict control from the Shogunate were able to participate in Western
trade, and even then, it was based largely on the idea of playing the
Franciscans and Dominicans off one another (in exchange for the crucial
arquebus technology, which in turn was a major contributor to the downfall
of the classical samurai).
Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period, circa 1867.
Photograph by Felice BeatoThe last hurrah of original samurai was in 1867
when samurai from Choshu and Satsuma provinces defeated the shogunate forces
in favor of the rule of the emperor. The two provinces were the lands of the
daimyo that submitted to Ieyasu after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600).
Other sources claim that the last samurai were in 1877, during the Satsuma
Rebellion in the Battle of Shiroyama.
The main players of the revolt came from lower class samurai in every
province. Their ultimate political goal was the same: to maintain the
independence of Japan against Western powers. But the two daimyo clashed
first and these bloody conflicts lasted for years. At last, they realized
that a large serious civil war must be avoided because that was just what
the foreign powers waited for. So the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu
returned the governing to the emperor to avoid the war. Some resisted,
believing this was a coup d'�tat by Choshu and Satsuma and that the
government was in their hands. Groups of Tohoku samurai organized an armed
resistance but they were eventually defeated.
Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai's right to be the only armed force in
favor of a more modern, western-style conscripted army. Samurai became
Shizoku (士族) who retained some of their salaries, but the right to wear a
katana in public was eventually abolished along with the right to cut down
commoners who paid them disrespect. The samurai finally came to an end after
hundreds of years of enjoyment of their status, their powers, and their
ability to shape the government of Japan. However, the rule of the state by
the military class was not yet over.
Post Meiji Restoration
In defining how a modern Japanese should be, members of
the Meiji government decided to follow the footsteps of United Kingdom and
Germany. It would be based on the concept of "noblesse oblige" and samurai
would not be a political force much like that of Prussia.
With the Meiji reforms in the late 19th century, the samurai class was
abolished, and a western-style national army was established. The Imperial
Japanese Armies were conscripted, but many samurai volunteered to be
soldiers and many advanced to be trained as an officer. In fact much of the
Imperial Army officer class was of samurai origin. These volunteers were
highly motivated, disciplined and well trained. As such the Imperial Army
defeated a rebellion of samurai in the Satsuma Rebellion.
The Japanese Empire fought and won the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the
Russo-Japanese War (1904) and it could be reasoned that these volunteers and
officers were behind these victories. Most soldiers of both Chinese and
Russian armies could neither read nor write and after their officers were
killed, these armies quickly disintegrated.
Many early exchange students were samurai, not because they were samurai,
but many were literate and well-educated scholars. Some of these exchange
students started private schools for higher educations. Some samurai took
pens instead of guns and became reporters and writers to set up newspaper
companies. Other samurai entered governmental services as they were literate
and well educated.
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