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Origin of the Samurai

During the Heian period, saburai 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.

However, 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 by a third of the able-bodied adult male population, however, 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. He sent his armies to conquer the rebelling Emishi (ancestors of Ainu) which proved unsuccessful due to their lack of motivation and discipline to fight. He 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 arm and protect themselves from the tyranny of the imperially appointed magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes. Trained in mounted combat and archery, they came to be exclusively used by the emperor to put down rebellions, while the armies were eventually fully disbanded. By the mid-Heian, they had adopted Japanese style armor and weapons and laid the foundation of bushido.

For most of the later feudal period, the era of the rule of the samurai, term yumitori remained as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even when swordsmanship had become more important. Kyujutsu, Japanese archery, is still an important part of the war god Hachiman.

Rise of the Samurai

Originally these warriors were little else than hired soldiers in the employ of the emperor and noble clans. But slowly they gathered enough power to eventually usurp the power of the emperor and establish the first samurai dominated government.

As the regional clans allied with each other and gathered manpower and resources, they formed a hierarchy centered around a toryo, or chief. This chief was a distant relative of the emperor and lesser member of one of three noble families, the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or the Taira. Though originally sent to provincial areas for a 4 year term as a magistrate, after completion of their term, knowing that they would only be able to take only sideline roles in the government, they decided to stay and not to return to Kyoto. 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 military and economic power, the clans eventually became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvememt 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 position, and eventually seized control of the central government establishing the first samurai dominated government and relegating the emperor to a mere figurehead.