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Samurai (侍 or sometimes 士) is a common term for a warrior in pre-industrial Japan. A more appropriate term is bushi (武士) (lit. "war-man") which came into use during the Edo period. However, the term samurai now usually refers to warrior nobility, not, for example, ashigaru or foot soldiers. The samurai with no attachment to a clan or daimyo was called a ronin (lit. "wave-man").

Samurai were expected to be cultured and literate, and over time, samurai during the Tokugawa era gradually lost their military function. By the end of the Tokugawa era, samurai were essentially civilian bureaucrats for the daimyo, with their swords serving only ceremonial purposes. With the Meiji reforms in the late 19th century, the samurai were abolished as a distinct class in favor of a western-style national army. The strict samurai code called bushido still survives, however, in present-day Japanese society, as do many other aspects of their way of life.


The word samurai has origins in the pre-Heian period Japan when it was pronounced saburai, meaning servant or attendant. It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai became substituted with samurai. However, by then, the meaning had already long before changed.

During the era of the rule of the samurai, the earlier term yumitori (“bowman”) was also used as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even when swordsmanship had become more important. Japanese archery (kyujutsu), is still strongly associated with the war god Hachiman.


The samurai used several weapons, though usually they carried: a katana, a single edged sword. a wakizashi, a smaller version of the katana.

Other weapons typically used by samurai were yumi, yari, naginata, jo, bo. However, specific samurai sometimes favored others.

=Clan origins in the 8th and 9th centuries=

During the Heian period, samurai came to refer especially to the guards of the imperial palace and to those who carried swords. These forerunners of what we now know as samurai had ruler-sponsored equipment and were required to hone their martial skills in all times.

The actual armies of the emperor, on the other hand, were nothing but groups of conscripts assigned to provincial areas of Japan in case of war or rebellion. They were modeled after continental Chinese armies and were composed of a third of the able-bodied adult male population. In contrast to the imperial guards, each soldier had to supply his own weapons and support himself.

In the early Heian, the late 8th and early 9th centuries, the emperor Kammu sought to consolidate and expand his empire in northern Honshu. The original armies sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi (the ancestors of the present-day Ainu) lacked motivation and discipline and were unable to prevail. He then introduced the title of shogun and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi.

These 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. Skilled in mounted combat and archery, these clan warriors became the emperor's preferred tool for putting down rebellions (the armies were eventually disbanded). By the mid-Heian, they had adopted Japanese-style armor and weapons and laid the foundation of bushido, their famous ethical code.

=Samurai clans usurp imperial power=

Originally these warriors were merely mercenaries in the employ of the emperor and noble clans. But slowly they gathered enough power to usurp the emperor and establish the first samurai-dominated government.

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 Heian.

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.

=Evolution of samurai culture during feudal-era Japan=

The Taira and the Minamoto once again clashed in 1180 beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo once again established the superiority of the samurai and in 1190 visited Kyoto and in 1192 became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate.

Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility (buke) who were only nominally under court aristocracy (kuge). When samurai begun 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 warriors.

Various samurai clans struggled for power over Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates. During the 14th century the practice of 'seppuku', or ritual suicide, became more common.

Zen Buddhism spread among samurai in the 13 century and it helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and killing. Zen Buddhism in Japan took Sakyamuni as the principal image and taught to be a living buddha with enlightenment by Zen meditation training. While major schools of Buddhism among populace took Amitabha Tathagata, a buddha is said to be capable of taking believers to paradise after death.

In the 13 century, Yuan, a Chinese state of the Mongolian Empire, invaded Japan two times, and the weakness of Japanese sword and fighting tactics at the time was foucused on as a lesson. An innovation on Japanese sword was accomplished by a blacksmith called Masamune in the 14th century; the two-layer structure of soft and hard iron was adopted and the style spreaded rapidly with its amazing cutting power and endurance in continuous use. Since then, Japanese swords had been recognized as one of the invincible carry weapons during the pre-industrial era of East Asia. (Even China imported them.)

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, formal bushido ethics held diminished importance in the face of constant warfare.

However, Japanse war tactics and technologies were greatly sophisticated and evolved in the 15th and 16th centuries. Use of large infantry troop called Ashigaru , which was formed by the humble warriors or populace, with fauchard 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.

The issues of inheritance firstly 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 samurais' territories was rather favored.

The social mobility of human resources was flexible, as the ancient regime began to collapse and emerging samurais needed to maintain large military and administrative organizations in their areas of infulence. 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. They were the blood of the inferiors that had overthrowed their superiors.

Harquebus was introduced by Lusitanians/Portugese on a Chinese pirate ship in 1543. Japanese succeeded nationalization of it within a decade. Groups of mercenaries with harquebus played a critical role likewise the specialized agents called Ninzya r ninja that engaged intelligence activity.

Oda Nobunaga was the well-known lord of the Nagoya area (once called Ohwari) and a good representative example of samurai of the Sengoku Period. He did almost all of the things to prepare the reunification of Japan.

He made innovations on organizations and war tactics, heavily used harquebus, developed commerce and industry and loved things Western ; the consecutive victories enabled him to realise the termination of the Ashikaga Shogunate and disarmament of the military powers of the Buddhists, which had inflamed futile struggles among the populace for centuries. Even the emperor was to give him the authority. He died in 1582 by the assault of one of his follower Akechi Mitsuhide. Importantly, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (see below) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who made Tokugawa Shogunate, were Nobunaga's loyal followers. Hideyoshi defeated Mitsuhide within months and was regarded as the rightful successor of Nobunaga. The two were gifted with Nobunaga's achievements.

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 Nobunaga.)

The life style and the war tactics shown in the movie The Last Samurai are those of out-country samurais of the Sengoku jidai, precisely of the era before 1543; not those in the 19th century.

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.

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 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 or absorbed into the general populace.

During the Tokugawa era, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. The daisho, the paired long and short swords of the samurai (cf. 'katana' and wakizashi) became 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.

Scholars codified the final form of the bushido during the Tokugawa era. Also, the most famous book of kenjutsu, or sword fighting, dates from this period (Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, 1643). Still, the incident of 47 Ronin (a murder of an official followed by the suicide of the samurai who killed him) caused some debate about the righteousness of their actions. by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is a manual of instruction into the way of the samurai. It illuminates one of the samurai's core practices, known as shudo, or the way of the young. Shudo involved a young samurai choosing an older warrior as lover and mentor, a relationship so intense it often conflicted with a samurai's devotion to his daimyo.

Table of contents
1 Samurai decline during the Meiji restoration
2 Further Reading
3 External Links
4 See Also

Samurai decline during the Meiji restoration

The 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 daimyos that submitted to Ieyasu after the war of Sekigahara (1600).

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 Tokugawa shogunate itself surrendered voluntarily and damages of the nation were minimized.

Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai status in favor of a more modern, western-style army, retaining only the katana for officers.

The Japanese empire won the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russian-Japanese War (1904). The sons of samurai in the government and the military contributed to the victories. All of the male citizens were trained to be tough soldiers publicly. The standard of samurai influenced much in the programs. The time for everyone to become a samurai came again as in the 16th century.

However, the military training lacked the spiritual/religious programs that had taught samurais even enemies have dignity of the human being and that was one of the causes of the atrocities by the Japanese forces.  

Japanese soldiers still maintained some semblance of bushido ethics even into World War Two. Unfortunately, this included horrifying practices such as rape, looting, and the taking of sex slaves. These practices served to alienate many mainland Asians, especially in China and South-East Asia, from the Japanese. Japan's claims of "liberation" for countries such as Malaya, Indochina, and Philippines stood in stark contrast to the murderous behaviour of the Imperial Japanese Army. Initial support for Japan during the period of 1941-1942 turned into disgust, and eventually many natives in South-East Asia joined China in assisting the Allied war effort, rather than welcoming their self-proclaimed "liberators".

On the Pacific Islands, not a small number of the Marines said that he wished to have fought against Germans rather than Japanese. Most Japanese soldiers never expected to come out of the battles alive and did a Banzai charge without question after ammunition ran out. Becoming a war prisoner was regarded as the greatest shame of a soldier.

Unfortunately this fanaticism, notwithstanding the side effects of a superiority complex, was a factor in the downfall of the IJA. Where Germany's Wehrmacht, arguably World War 2's most efficient soldiers on a ratio basis, could understand orders such as "retreat" and "fight another day", many fanatical Japanese could not understand these orders and often led suicidal charges, resulting in huge casualties.

Plus the grand strategy for the WW2 was awesomely unrealistic. The headquarters fought the war with the brains and the eyes caught too much by the successful experiences in the prior two wars and lost; not only because of the shortage of the natural resources required.

Some samurai bloodlines like the house of Honda have had influence in Japanese business and politics.

But the way of the samurai was completely forgotten now among the ordinary people. Some of the standards and wisdom of the samurai should be remembered. Because the way of the samurai was one of a few basis that had told Japanese what the justice, fairness and strength is and enabled them to achieve the historical miracles. However, the negative aspects of the samurai should also be remembered, so that history will not repeat itself again.

Further Reading

External Links

See Also