For seven centuries, the samurai ruled Japan as the powerful warrior class. As a class of warriors and knights, they led society in feudal Japan. The loyalty to his lord was much more important than his allegiance to his friends, family and even the emperor. Their philosophy was one liberated him from fear, and for these reasons, the samurai came to be the dominate force throughout medieval Japan.
War played a central part in the history of Japanese samurai. As regional clans gathered manpower, resources and struck alliances with each other, they formed a hierarchy centered around a toryo, or chief. This chief was typically a relative of the emperor and a member of one of the two dominating clan families of the pre-samurai era. Though they were originally sent to regional areas for a fixed four year term as a magistrate, the toryo usually declined to return to the capital when their terms ended. Their sons inherited their positions instead and continued to lead the clans in suppressing rebellion throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian period. (Cook 24) One main reason why conflict between clans was so predominant was because they were typically started as a result of land ownership. Only a fifth of Japan’s land was suitable for agriculture. The struggle for control of land eventually gave rise to the samurai class.
The samurai eventually became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D. They were called by two names: samurai which means “knights” and bushi which means “warriors”. 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 gave complete loyalty to their daimyo (feudal landowner) and received land and position in return. Each daimyo used his samurai to protect his land and to expand his power and rights to more land.
The first samurai were 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 aristocrats. (Kure 10-12)
In the late 12th century, the two most powerful clans served the emperor of Japan: the Taira clan, and the Minamoto clan. These two families became bitter rivals, and in 1192, Minamoto Yoritomo led his clan to victory over the Taira. The emperor, the traditional head of the Japanese government, declared Minamoto Yoritomo shogun, the head of the military. However, Yoritomo used his new power to strip the emperor of all political power, make his position as shogun permanent, and set up a military dictatorship known as bakufu. So, the samurai went from being servants of the land-owning daimyos to being the rulers of Japan under the shogun. (Dean 21)
Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility, who were only technically under the court aristocracy. When the samurai began to adopt aristocratic pastimes like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats in turn began to adopt samurai customs. (Dean 22) In spite of various scheming and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the shogun and the samurai. The reign of the samurai lasted until the late 19th century.
The image of the samurai that is probably most well-known is that of a sword expert, brandishing his curved katana with deadly skill. However, for the first few centuries of their existence, samurai were better known as horse-riding archers. Firing a bow while riding a horse was a demanding task, and mastering it required years of relentless practice. Some archers practiced on targets tethered to a pole, which could be swung to make a moving target. For a time, living dogs were used as moving archery targets, until the shogun abolished the malicious practice. (Turnbull 45) The amount and form of a samurai’s training depended on the wealth of his family.
In lower-class families, sons were sometimes sent to village schools for basic education, but they received most of their samurai training from their fathers, older brother, or uncles. Training in martial arts was considered very important, and often began at age five. Sons of wealthy families were sent to special academies, where they were tutored in literature, the arts, and military skills. (Daidoji, Ratti, and Cleary 6-10) Swordsmanship was taught in a similarly relentless manner.
The most recognized weapon of the samurai throughout history was the katana. The oldest swords were straight and had their early design in Korea and China. A katana was never worn without its companion sword, the wakizashi; it was a shorter sword with a broader blade. Together the two swords are referred to as daisho, meaning “large and small.” The word dai (large) represents the katana and the word sho (small) represents the wakizashi. The smiths who created the katana for the samurai are widely regarded as the finest sword makers in history. (Daidoji, Ratti, and Cleary 42) The samurai’s desire for tougher, sharper swords in battle gave rise to the curved blade. One of the biggest problems in making a sword is keeping it sharp. A weapon made with a hard metal will keep its edge, but will be brittle and prone to breaking.
Japanese sword smiths solved this problem by making the core of the sword with a soft metal that wouldn’t break. This core was then covered with layers of harder metals that were repeatedly folded and hammered until there were literally millions of layers of metal laminated together. The edge was so sharp that a skilled swordsman could slice a human in half with one blow. Upon completion, the sword tester took the new blade and cut through the bodies of corpses or condemned criminals. They started by cutting through the small bones of the body and moved up to the large bones. Test results were often recorded on the nakago (the metal piece attaching the sword blade to the handle). The samurai often gave names to their swords and believed it was the soul of their warriorship. (Sato 28-33)
In addition to swords and bows, samurai used a variety of bladed-pole arms. One of the more common Japanese pole arms was the naginata, which consisted of a sharp blade two to four feet in length mounted on a wooden shaft that was four to five feet long. The extra reach afforded by these weapons allowed infantry to hold attackers at bay, or make a first strike before an attacker with a sword could reach them. They were also very effective against mounted opponents. (Kure 170) A big change occurred in the late 15th century because of the consistency of war and the introduction of guns into battle.
In the 16th century, European traders arrived in Japan for the first time. The Japanese paid large sums for their matchlock guns, quickly mastering the smithing techniques needed to mass produce the weapons. Although the gun is not traditionally associated with samurai, it was a major influence on Japanese warfare from that point on, allowing daimyos to raise large armies of relatively untrained men armed with cheap guns. Many samurai adopted the unreliable weapons, which were best used as a backup to the more trustworthy sword. (Turnbull 73) The sword played a very key role in the methods and philosophies of the samurai. Without the samurai “bushido”, they would be considered by modern terms to be heartless killers.
Bushido means “way of the warrior”. It was at the heart of the beliefs and conduct of the samurai. The philosophy of bushido is “freedom from fear.” It meant that the samurai transcended his fear of death. That gave him the peace and power to serve his daimyo faithfully, loyally and die honorably if necessary. Duty is a primary philosophy of the samurai. In order for the samurai to truly be able to serve his purpose, death must be ignored. An excerpt from _Code of the Samurai_ exemplifies this ideology:
_”One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind…the fact that he has to die. If he is always mindful of this, he will be able to live in accordance with the paths of loyalty and filial duty, will avoid myriads of evils and adversities, keep himself free of disease and calamity and moreover enjoy a long life. He will also be a fine personality with many admirable qualities. For existence is impermanent as the dew of evening, and the hoarfrost of morning, and particularly uncertain is the life of the warrior…”_
Religiously, Zen Buddhism spread among samurai in the 13th century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and killing, but among the general populace Pure Land Buddhism was predominant. (Kure 12)
Honor was so important to the samurai that they would frequently take their own lives in the face of failure, or if they had violated bushido. This honor-bound suicide became very ritualized, taking the form of seppuku. Also known by the more popular phrase hara-kiri, seppuku was a way for a samurai to restore honor to his lord and family, and to fulfill his obligation of loyalty even if he had failed as a samurai. (May 2)
Ritualized seppuku involved the samurai wearing the proper garments while he was presented with the ritual knife, wrapped in paper. The samurai would then take the knife and cut open his own stomach, from left to right, with a final upward cut at the end. However, seppuku was not a solitary act, and few samurai were left to die a slow and excruciating death from disembowelment. Another samurai would typically stand behind the one committing seppuku, and behead him with a sharp sword shortly after the seppuku cut was made to spare him from unnecessary suffering. (May 3)
The original motivations for this method of death may well have been purely practical. Cutting off one’s own head is impossible, and the spirit was felt to reside in the stomach, slitting the belly open was felt to be the most straightforward (if not quickest) way to die and free the spirit. (May 5) Although, seppuku may seem crude in modern day society, it was the only way to regain one’s honor, and looked upon as honorable even after the samurai’s decline towards the end of the 19th century.
The role of the samurai during peacetime gradually declined, but two key factors led to the demise of samurai: the urbanization of Japan, and the end of isolationism. As more Japanese citizens moved to the larger urban centers of Japan, there were fewer farmers producing the necessary rice to feed the growing population. The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the shoguns and most daimyos started to eat away at the economic system. Many Japanese, including lower class samurai, grew dissatisfied with the shogunate because of the deteriorating economic circumstances. (Dean 37)
In 1853, U.S. ships sailed into Edo Bay with Commodore Matthew Perry at the helm, intending to deliver a message from President Millard Fillmore to the emperor. Although the emperor was still considered a figurehead, the shogun truly ruled the country. President Fillmore’s message was clear. He wanted to open trade relations with Japan, he wanted shipwrecked U.S. sailors to be treated properly by Japanese soldiers and citizens, and he wanted to open Japanese seaports as a resupply stations for American ships. (Kure 167-9)
In Perry’s wake, a rift divided opposing views in Japan. Some wanted to reject the American offer, continue with isolationism, and maintain their ancient traditions. Others, however, realized that Japan could never defend their country when faced with the better technology of the western civilizations. They proposed opening the gates of Japan with the intention of learning everything they could from the Americans, terminating isolationism and becoming a stronger world power. Ultimately, the bakufu decided to open Japanese seaports for American resupply, and later decided to establish trade with America. (Avakian 41)
The emperor initially refused to approve to the treaty’s conditions, but because he was merely the face of Japanese government, the bakufu went ahead with the treaty anyway. Several factions of rebellious samurai wanted Japan to stay the same, and therefore supported the emperor and began a civil war against the bakufu. To much surprise, they overthrew the shogun, ending the Tokugawa period and restoring the emperor to his rightful power. Lower class samurai took positions of leadership within the administration, controlling the government from behind the new emperor, a young man by the name of Emperor Meiji. This event is known as the Meiji Restoration. (Avakian 43-48)
Throughout Japan at the time, the samurai numbered 1.9 million. The samurai in Japan were not merely the lords, but also their higher retainers, people who actually worked. With each samurai being paid fixed stipends, the upkeep presented an immense financial burden, which provoked the emperor and his oligarchy to act accordingly. Whatever their true intentions, the oligarchs started a slow and deliberate process to abolish the samurai class. First, in 1873, it was proclaimed that the samurai stipends were to be taxed on a rolling basis. Later, in 1874, the samurai were given the choice to convert their stipends into government bonds. Finally, in 1876, this option of conversion was made obligatory. (Avakian 49-54)
Finally, in 1876, the emperor banned samurai from wearing their swords, leading to the creation of a drafted standing army. The final bell had tolled for the samurai — they no longer existed. Not surprisingly, this led to a series of riots from disgruntled samurai. One of the major riots, the Satsuma rebellion, eventually turned into a civil war. This rebellion was, however, put down swiftly by the newly created imperial army The new army was trained in Western tactics and utilized more advanced weapons. Ironically, the core of the new army was the Tokyo Police force, which was formed largely of former samurai who had helped the emperor regain his empire. This sent a strong message to the nonconformist, rebellious samurai that their time was indeed up. (Kure 172-174)
The samurai continue to impress, and serve as a model for obedience, reverence, and loyalty on so many different scales. The incredibly rich heritage provided by this elite class of warrior leaders can be linked to the foundations of numerous facets of the life we lead today. Although the samurai cease to exist, their spirit of honor and discipline has found a home in modern times. From the kamikaze pilots of Japan in World War II, to martial artists and even modern businessman who look to bushido as a guide to living an honorable life, samurai continue to positively influence Japan today.
Avakian, Monique. The Meiji Restoration and the Rise of Modern Japan. Boston: Silver Burdett, 1991. 38-54.
Cook, Harry. Samurai: the Story of a Warrior Tradition. New York: Sterling, 1998. 22-35.
Yuzan Daidoji, Oscar Ratti, and Thomas Cleary. The Code of the Samurai. Boston: Tuttle, 1999. 10-44.
Dean, Arlan. Samurai: Warlords of Japan. New York: Scholastic Library, 2005. 19-37.
Kure, Mitsuo. Samurai: An Illustrated History. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2001. 10-179.
May, Nick. “Seppuku – a Practical Guide.” Gaijin Gleaner (1997): 1-5. 1 Dec. 2006 .
Sato, Kanzan. The Japanese Sword: A Comprehensive Guide. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1983. 28-80
Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warfare. New York: Sterling, 1996. 44-73.
Yamamoto, Tsunetomo, and William S. Wilson. Hagakure: the Book of the Samurai. Tokyo: Kodansha America, 1983. 17-65.