Guide to samurai including samurai meaning, samurai history, samurai pictures and samurai swords.
Samurai is a common term for a warrior in pre-industrial Japan. A more appropriate term is bushi (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, 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 code that they followed, called bushido, still survives in present-day Japanese society, as do many other aspects of their way of life.
Etymology of samurai
The word samurai has its 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 (owman? 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.
Clan origins of the samurai 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 modelled 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 armour 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 position, and eventually seized control of the central government to establish the first samurai-dominated government and relegating 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. The Sengoku jidai ("warring-states period") was marked by the loosening of samurai culture. Those born into other social strata could sometimes make name for themselves as warriors and become de facto samurai. In this turbulent period, formal bushido ethics held diminished importance in the face of constant warfare. 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.
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, 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 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. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is a manual of instruction into the way of the samurai. It illuminates one of the core practices of that way, 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.
The decline of the samurai 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 favour of the rule of the emperor. Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai status in favour of more modern, western-style army, retaining only the katana for officers.
Japanese soldiers still maintained some semblance of bushido ethics even into World War Two.
Some samurai bloodlines like house of Honda have had influence in Japanese business and politics.