Causes for Samurai's Power Decline in Ancient Japan?

The Samurai are widely recognised by many historians as some of the greatest, if not the greatest, warriors ever to live due, not only to their technical ability, but because of the strict code they follow known as 'Bushido' which roughly translates as 'way of the warrior. ' For these reasons the question could be asked why such a formidable power faded from power in the country of their origin, Japan. During this essay I would like to address such reasons as colonial battles for power and the strict code of Bushido to explain the decrease of power of the Samurai.

Samurai itself can be translated into English to mean 'slave' and this is because the Samurai started as slaves to the powerful landowners that controlled Japan during the time the influence of the Samurai began to rise known as the Heian Period (794 - 1185. ) The landowners would hire the Samurai to protect them from other landowners looking to increase their land.

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In 1185 the country was in a state of anarchy as the two most influential families in Japan fought for Supremacy until 1192 when the Miramoto family took control beginning the Kamakura period where the highest military officer or 'Shogun' with the Samurai beneath him.

This marks the time at which the Samurai took its highest point in supremacy of Japan, they stood in the highest position of the social hierarchy and had many privileges. They were the military class and dressed in typical Japanese military dress with a variety of weapons such as the 'Katana' (pictured left.

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) The Samurai maintained this position as the highest social class, the next class being the farmers they once served, until the start of the Tokugawa period in 1603. From this point on the position of the Samurai began to decline and the country again became divided. See map page 3 for an idea of the way the country became divided and the battle that brought about the Tokugawa period known as 'Sekigahara. ')

This time a number of Shoguns owned small parts of the country each, below these Shoguns were the 'Daimyo'. The Daimyo which translates as landowner owned small portions of land that where handed down to them by The Shogun. The Daimyo in turn controlled the Samurai who performed menial tasks and protected the land. At this time it seemed that the situation that brought the Samurai to power (colonial battles) was beginning to push them back down the ladder of class.

The Tokugawa period should also be particularly noted as it marks the time when Samurai began to follow the code of 'Bushido' or in English 'way of the warrior. ' The Edu period followed the Tokugawa period and it is primarily known as a period of peace because the ending of the Tokugawa period was marked by the enforcement of peace throughout the land. This peace can be seen as a particularly major reason why the position of the Samurai declined. The peace meant that the Samurai were effectively jobless.

The Damiyos and Shoguns had no reason to hire the Samurai anymore as their long sought after battle credentials became effectively useless as peace reigned. Peace lasted in Japan meaning the Samurai did not last as a major class and by the Meiji Restoration in 1868 the Samurai class had practically disappeared. The colonial battles had started their downfall simply because the Daimyos were brought in above them to own the land and then the peace was the final push that meant that the Samurais reign as supremacists for over a millennium of Japanese history had ended.

Another reason why the colonial battles caused problems for the Samurai is because they constantly caused friction between a large number of Samurai. The samurai were constantly fighting meaning their numbers would be depleted and that they could never settle starting big families and prosper in the land of Japan. Even when there were not colonial battles going on there was still friction between Samurai due to the large number of small areas of Japan (see map page 3) that were owned by different Shoguns.

There were often assassinations and one such example of this was the assassination of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori in 1441. This meant that they were a small class among many, the next class being the farmers who were becoming increasingly more important and influential in Japan due to the fact that rice was the staple diet and was demanded by millions. The only chance the Samurai had to increase and prosper was the Edu period when peace reigned but by this time the Samurai class had become unimportant and as mentioned before the Samurai class began to disappear quickly.

Being a Samurai was now no longer about battle but the beliefs of 'Bushido. ' The next reason can be confusing unless you truly unless you truly understand the way in which a Samurai lived and thought and so now I will attempt to put the code of 'Bushido' so the reasons for its input into the decline of the Samurai can be understood. The code of Bushido has often been narrowed down to one book known as 'Hagakure', which roughly translates as 'book of the Samurai.

Inside the book on its very first page the way of the samurai is summed up into one sentence, which reads "Every day one should consider himself as dead, this is the substance of the way of the Samurai. "i A Japanese Samurai and writer Uesegi Kenshin best summed up the belief they take into battle when he wrote during the Tokugawa period. "Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory and you will come home with no wounds at all. Engage in battle fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive and you will surely meet death.

When you leave the house determined never to see it again and you will come home safely, when you have any thought of returning then you will not return. 'ii To me this quote means that focus is of absolute importance before battle and a mind that is not focused will fail and this is a thought that is prominent throughout the culture of the Samurai. One belief of the Samurai known as 'Seppuku' or ritual suicide and It is also known as 'Harkiri. ' 'Seppuku' was traditionally performed at the loss of a battle or at the loss of a master.

Samurai without a master became known as 'Ronin' or master less Samurai and it was at this time that Seppuku was committed. Seppuku was performed to preserve dignity after the humiliation of the loss of a battle or the masteriii. The 'Kozuka' or knife (pictured below) iv used for Seppuku always measured about 11. 5 inches across and the cut was always from left to right across the stomach and this cut was known as 'Jumonji. ' The revival of dignity was increased depending on the time of death. The time it took after 'Jumonji' had taken place was the factor that decided it.

The longer it took to die the happier the Samurai would be when he actually died and the more dignified he would feel upon leaving this world. Yet another example of the dedication to the code by Samurai is the tale of the 47 Ronin. The 47 Ronin is the true story of 60 Samurai who vowed to kill the man, who killed their master in a way not acceptable in the code of Bushido. They believed doing this would uphold their masters' dignity. After the death of their master the men split in order to deceive their masters' killer of their plans to kill him with the leader of the group of 60 posing as a drunken gamblerv.

When the time came the leader picked 46 of the other 59 Ronin to go with him to avenge their master. The other thirteen were left because they were still young Samurai. On December 14th 1701 the Ronin attacked the castle of their masters killer fighting against 61 other Samurai guarding. By the time the battle finished all 61 enemy Samurai were dead and the 47 Ronin were all still alivevi. They then found their masters killer and offered him the chance to commit 'Seppuku' which he refused so they beheaded him and set his head upon their masters grave thus declaring their masters honour redeemed.

They then continued by sending a letter to the local Shogun, who instead of wanting to punish the Samurai was deeply impressed by their act of bravery and the honour they showed to their master. The shogun was left in a predicament, should he honour the Samurai or punish them by Japanese law? Or if he overlooked the act would he weaken the honour of the Ronin and betray the Samurai code? The Ronin decide to commit Seppuku simultaneously dignifying themselves and they were buried alongside their master Sengaku-Ji temple.

This is just one example of the Samurai ideal. In the quest to adhere by Bushido many Samurai did not engage in battle and attempted to better themselves with self-education. They all believed in the main thoughts of Bushido, which are above all else loyalty to the master and ethical behaviour. However another motto of Bushido is that one can never be complete, there is always something new to learn or something new to try so many Samurai took the opportunity of peace during the Edu period to educate themselves in the struggle to be the Ultimate Samurai.

Due to this their position as a military power began to slip because they were no longer following a military lifestyle. Colonial battles had become few and far between so Samurai were left with nothing to do except for this. Many Samurai became interested in Zen Buddhism as this too consists of creating a sound body and mind, as does Bushido. One example of a ceremony picked up from Zen Buddhism in China was the Tea ceremony. The tea ceremony normally took place in a 'tea-room', the 'chachitsu'.

The guests entered through the 'nijiriguchi', with samurai leaving their swords outside and the last to enter closing the door behind him. The tearoom was arranged so that those entering would first spy a scroll hanging in the 'tokonoma' - or alcove. This scroll was normally of calligraphy, with its subject often that of a simple observation such as 'Honrai mu Ichibutsu' ('Originally there is nothing'). As this scroll is carefully chosen by the host to reflect a mood or the season, the guests customarily spend a moment appreciating it before seating themselves around a small hearth in the centre of the room.

At this point the host enters, and the principal guest thanks him or her for their invitation and politely inquires about the scroll or some other object in the room should one be present. However, and throughout the time spent in the tearoom, conversations and articulations are brief, and it was considered impolite to speak of things not related to the ceremony. The principle guest then serves a light meal ('kaiseki') that was intended to be pleasing to the eye as well as the taste.

At this time, a modest serving of sake is also offered in shallow bowls, followed by a piece of fruit or some other light dessert. The guests then exit the tearoom while the host prepares it for the drinking of tea, replacing the scroll with a single flower in a vase. When the guests return, the host heats water in an iron kettle, then rinses and wipes the tea bowl and utensils. He places powdered green tea in a bowl with a bamboo dipper, then whips the tea with a whisk (also bamboo) until the surface is slightly frothy, then serves it to his guests.

Two kinds of tea will be served: 'koicha', which is the more formal of the two and possessed of a thicker consistency and bitter taste, and 'usucha' - thinner and more 'informal'. 'Koicha' is served first, and all the guests drink a small quantity from the same bowl. Later in the ceremony, 'usucha' is served in individual bowls. The tea bowls themselves can vary in design according to the host and the season. 'Winter' tea bowls are deeper, to help contain heat, while 'summer' bowls are shallower and broader to release the heat and give the impression of coolnessvii.

Throughout the ceremony, the hosts and guests both aspire towards a sense of tranquillity. The priest Takuan wrote of preparing for a tea ceremony and said, "and let this all be carried out in accordance with the idea that in this room we can enjoy the streams and rocks as we do the rivers and mountains in Nature, and appreciate the various moods and sentiments suggested by the snow, the moon, and the trees and flowers, as they go through the transformation of seasons, appearing and disappearing, blooming and withering.

As visitors are greeted here with due reverence, we listen quietly to the boiling water in the kettle, which sounds like a breeze passing through the pine needles, and become oblivious of all worldly woes and worries. viii" The picture (bottom of last page) shows a typical Japanese house with a 'Zen' Garden typical of the quote by Priest Takuan mixing the tea ceremony on the indoor with the nature on the outdoors.

Another wrote "Though you may cleave to these rules and sometimes break them, and though you don't take them seriously, don't quite forget them. "ix Few activities in general are quite as thoroughly refined and thoughtful and yet evolved through such troubled times. Complicated and yet utterly simple, at once straightforward and deep, the tea ceremony in many ways could be a metaphor for the samurai ideal and everything that 'Bushido' and the Samurai population stood for and, in small numbers, still believe todayx.

The decline of the Samurai was heightened by Japan itself. During the Edo period, already mentioned as a substantial period of peace in Japan, there was huge reform. Most of the changes that happened affected the Samurai in a way that meant their presence as a leading class in Japan was due to change for the worse. For instance the traditional Shogun ruling the local provinces stopped as they made way for the first ever prime minister of Japan who was born in 1838 and was named Yamagata Aritomo.

This meant that the Shoguns were no longer employing the Samurai. The fact that a government was being established in Tokyo (previously named Edo, changed in the Meiji Restoration of 1868) also meant that the country became a unified country and the provinces of old Japan were abolished meaning that the local Daimyo's also no longer needed protection. The sense of dislocation was quite real. The samurai lost their traditional privileges - as the sole members of the military and, in general, the top social class of Japan.

Once colonial battles finished they were required to work to make a living, just like the merchants which they so despised previously. They were being encouraged to go into industry and business, which they had prior left to the merchants to manage, and which they had precious little experience in. The old Japan of the Shogun and the Daimyo's was rapidly changing in substance - in the form of the administration of the country, its economy, its society, its military forces and its place in the world.

One trivial law yet highly offensive to the Samurai made the wearing of swords illegal in 1876xi. For many samurai, this was simply too much and they withdrew inward and into debt gradually declining in number until their numbers were so small they were no longer recognised as a class. The Samurai faced many problems over a substantial period of roughly a thousand years such as unemployment due to a lasting peace and rapid reform in Japan.

They also followed a code known as 'Bushido' which, due to the commitment of the Samurai led them away from their place on the battlefield and into a period of self-education of the body as well as the mind with many looking towards the Chinese influence of Zen Buddhism. When the Edo period began and peace reigned through Japan the Samurai were left jobless, as their primary task in general was protection of the Shoguns and the Daimyos.

When this period ended and reform began in the form of the Meiji Restoration 1868 and the Samurai were pushed down even further than they were without any job, this led to retreat and the Samurai class which had already practically disappeared faded into the background. The fact that the Samurai believed in self-education was always going to effect the position of the Samurai in Social hierarchy as it took them away from their principle beliefs of battle in order to learn about other things. However the effect would not of been that great for the Samurai if this was the only reason.

However the fact that peace left the Samurai jobless and reform ridiculed their past position meant that the combination of all these problems was definite blow to the Samurai. One that pushed them down so low that their class virtually disappeared. It has been argued that the period of peace (Edu period) was an advantage to the Samurai as it gave them the opportunity to truly educate themselves as they wished to doxii, However I stick to the opinion that the peace and self-education were the downfall of the Samurai. The reform in Japan knocked the Samurai when they were in a bad position and they disappeared.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Causes for Samurai's Power Decline in Ancient Japan?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Causes for Samurai's Power Decline in Ancient Japan? essay
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