A Brief History of the Samurai

Samurai (also known as bushi) were members of Japan’s military class. The name is also used for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. This is also the etymology of the Japanese word subaru. Some believe subaru was originally samurai and changed over the years. By the end of the twelfth century, subaru became synonymous with the word bushi, or warrior, the root of the word Bushido. The samurai used and were experts in many weapons of their time but their most famous weapon, and the symbol of who they were, was the katana (more commonly known as the samurai sword. The belief structure and culture were based on the idea of Bushido, which means ‘the way of the warrior’ and advocated unquestioning loyalty to the master at all costs and obedience in all deeds, valuing honor above life.

Bushido was so important to the samurai that they would die or commit suicide with a strict formal method called Seppuku by cutting their own stomach with a sword before being captured or dying a dishonorable death. Here is a brief history of time periods of the samurai from AD 538 to today:

1. Asuka period (Asuka jidai “period of flying bird”), AD 538 – 710

2. Nara period (Nara-jidai) AD 710 – 794

3. Heian period (Heian-jidai or “time of peace and tranquility” ) AD 794 – 1185

4. Kamakura period ( Kamakura-jidai) AD 1185 – 1333

5. Muromachi period (Muromachi-jidai) AD 1333 – 1573

6. Azuchi-Momoyama period (Azuchi momoyama jidai) 1573 – 1603

7. Edo period (Edo-jidai), also the Tokugawa period (Tokugawa-jidai) 1603 – 1868

8. Samurai culture today

Asuka period (Asuka jidai “period of flying bird”), AD 538 – 710

In 538, Buddhism was introduced to Japan by Baekje, with whom they had an agreement for military support, and it was promoted by the ruling class. Prince Shotoku, was disputedly-reported to be a regent and a politician, devoted his efforts to the spread of Buddhism and Chinese culture in Japan. Shotoku brought relative peace to Japan through the proclamation of theJushichijo kenpo in 604, often referred to in Japan as the Seventeen-article constitution, a Confucian style document that focused on the kinds of morals and virtues that were to be expected of government officials and the emperor’s subjects. This thinking became a great influence in the philosophy of Samurai. After Japan’s defeat with Tang China and Silla, Japan went through widespread reforms. One of these reforms was called theTaika Reforms (Taika no Kaishin) in 646 after defeat of the Soga clan, which united Japan. This edict legitimized and required Chinese cultural practices and administrative techniques throughout the Japanese government and aristocracy. In 702,Taiho Code, and the later Yoro Code, required the population to regularly report for a census, which was later used for national conscription. With the data from this census, Emperor Mommu introduced the law whereby a quarter to a third of males were drafted into the national military, which was modeled after the Chinese system and called gundan-sei by later historians.

Nara period (Nara-jidai) AD 710 – 794

Japanese society in the Nara period was decidedly agrarian. Shinto was the predominate religion, which was based around the worship of natural and ancestral spirits (kami). One of the effects of the Taiho Code was to stop the practice of moving the capital when the ruler died, which was done because prior to the decree that city would have been considered polluted. The capital was moved to Heijo-kyo, or Nara in 710. Economic activity flourished during the Nara period due to increased road and a more efficient tax-collection structure. Outside of the capital city, however, commercial activity remained low and land reform systems declined. By the mid-eighth century, shoen (landed estates), one of the most important economic institutions in medieval Japan, became more important as land-holders desired to improve their abilities and efficiencies with land-holding. Local administration became stronger and less reliant on the larger government while the old land distribution system developed byPrince ShMtoku and the rise in taxes caused some land owners to lose their property and become furosha (‘wave people’ – as in tossed around by the waves, or homeless) and “public lands” increasingly reverted to becoming shoen, or government-owned land. As the size of property grew, the need for security grew as well and wealthy land-owners started needing better protection for their land and a way to collect taxes.

Heian period (Heian-jidai or “time of peace and tranquility” ) AD 794 – 1185

Confucianism and other Chinese influences were at their height during the Heian period. This period is also considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially poetry and literature. The role of samurai grew during this period as wealthy and powerful landowners hired them to protect their property. Two military clans,Minamoto and Taira , became so powerful that they seized control over the country and fought viciously against each other. In 1185, Samurai fought at the naval battle ofDan-no-Ura. Due to this battle and their rising military and economic power, Samurai held more sway in the politics of the court. In 1156, the Japanese fought a civil war, called the HMgen Rebellion (over Japanese imperial succession. This set the stage for the samurai to gain real power in the government. In 1160, the Heiji Rebellion brought the Minamoto and Taira clan battle on full-force, resulting in the defeat of the Minamoto clan by Taira no Kiyomori , who then became the first warrior to become a imperial advisor. He eventually took control of the central government and instituted Samurai control, relegating the emperor to a symbolic position.

Kamakura period (Kamakura-jidai) AD 1185 – 1333

The Taira and Minamoto clans fought again in 1180, beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the ruler of the Minamoto clan, then established the superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy. He became the Seii Taishogun, and established the Kamakura Shogunate (or Kamakura Bakufu) in 1185, although it wasn’t officially recognized formally until 1192. He had military rule over all other Shogun and instead of ruling from Kyoto, he set up command in Kamakura, near his power base. Over time, the samurai clans became warrior nobility or buke, meaning upper, privileged class. The aristocratic culture began to influence samurai with pastimes such as calligraphy, poetry and music while at the same time, the aristocracy adopted certain samurai customs. In 1274, the Yuan Dynasty of the Mongol Empire invaded Japan near northern Kykshk. 10,000 Samurai gathered to meet this force of over 40,000. In 1281, the Mongol army gathered 140,000 men and 4,400 ships to attack Japan, who had collected 40,000 of their own men. While they were on their ships, preparing to attack, a typhoon hit the island, greatly weakening the Mongol army and aiding their defeat by the Japanese by the defenses at the Hakata Bay barrier. These winds became known as Kamikaze (divine wind’). These great meteorological events helped to solidify the common belief that their lands and people were sacred and protected. During this period, a blacksmith called Masamune (c- Masamune also known as Goro Nyudo Masamune (Priest Goro Masamune)), developed method of constructing samurai swords using layers of both soft and hard steel to make them both flexible and able to hold a very sharp edge without being brittle. This development brought katana to the forefront of weapons development. This development was so legendary that an award for swordsmiths exists called the Masamune prize which is awarded at the Japanese Sword Making Competition. Samurai armor was also advancing during this period.

Muromachi period (Muromachi-jidai) AD 1333 – 1573

Zen Buddhism became very strong throughout the samurai culture during this period and helped to shape their conduct and traditions, especially regarding death and killing.

During the Warring States period (sengoku jidai AD 1467-1573), Japan was under constant upheaval due to warring factions. This placed a great worth on Samurai skills and training with samurai swords was perfected. They brought firearms and the arquebus in to their culture when the Portuguese introduced it to Japan in 1543 but the samurai sword remained the primary weapon of the samurai.

Azuchi-Momoyama period (Azuchi momoyama jidai) 1573 – 1603

In 1582, general Akechi murdered Nobunaga and captured his Azuchi castle. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a general who fought for Nobunaga, fought back and defeated Akechi, and took over control. Toyotomi Hideyoshi reunited japan and introduced a strict social caste systems. When he died in 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu took over and increased the power of this system. They forced all the samurai to decide between being a farmer or working as a warrior in a castle town or jMkamachi. He also forbade all but Samurai to wear a sword. He used the samurai to invade China in 1592 and 1598 as well as Korea. These battles were known as Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea, the Seven Year War (in reference to its span) and the Imjin War. The samurai almost succeeded in winning.

Edo period (Edo-jidai), also the Tokugawa period (Tokugawa-jidai) 1603 – 1868

The Warring States period (sengoku jidai) was a time of conspiracy and social strife, resulting in nearly constant military conflict. This period lasted from the middle of the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century. During this time, the name of Samurai became less defined as those born out of the typical social structure became known as warriors and thereby known as Samurai. Bushido was used as an important mechanism by where public order was controlled. During the Edo period, Samurai held the top rank in the social caste structure.

In 1615, a few years after Hideyoshi’s death, Tokugawa troops attacked and destroyed Osaka Castle , eliminating Tokugawa’s final potential rival: Toyotimi. Peace subsequently prevailed for approximately 250 years. Due to this peace, the importance of martial arts lessened and its teachings and skills suffered. Most of the samurai class became artisans or beurocrats. Their samurai swords became a symbolic emblem rather than a real necessity, although they still retained the right to kill any commoner who did not show proper respect to them or their title.

The central government forced daimyo (‘great name’) to reduce the size of their armies, resulting in an increase in the number of masterless samurai (ronin (‘drifting person’), causing societal problems. It was during this period that the first non-Japanese became a samurai – William Adams. Adams was the inspiration for the lead character, John Blackthorne in the novel Shogun. He was given two samurai swords to represent his samurai authority. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry brought Western trade and culture to Japan, ending their isolationism. In 1854, the samurai army and Japanese navy were modernized and military commanders were sent to the West to learn military tactics, techniques and procedures. The final hurrah of the original samurai was in 1867, when Samurai from Choshu and Satsuma provinces defeated the Shogunate forces on behalf of the emporer during the Boshin War (Boshin Senso, “War of the Year of the Dragon”) in 1868. This led to the opening of Japanese society to the West in what is called the Meiji Restoration (Meiji ishin). The members of the Meiji government decided to follow European military structure, basing the country on the concept of “noblesse oblige.” This ended the samurai class. The last conflict in which samurai were of any consequence was during the Satsuma Rebellion (Seinan SensM (Southwestern War)) in 1877 in the Battle of Shiroyama (Shiroyama no tatakai)

Samurai Culture Today

We still see many influences on our culture from the Samurai, especially in movies. Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai is probably the most well-known in Western popular culture and is one of my favorites. It shows the end of the samurai culture in the late nineteenth century. Many, many other movies have been made about samurai culture [http://samuraiswordmaster.com/category/japanese-art-culture-history/samurai-movies/] as well, most of them in Japanese but many are now being dubbed or subtitled in English. Star Wars was greatly influenced by samurai culture and bushido. Even the Magnificent Seven was based on a samurai story: the Seven Samurai. Many, many books also deal with the ideals that samurai once stood for.

Samurai culture has influenced many cultures over the years since it ended and will continue to do so as long as people like you are interested in reading about it and retelling its stories. Many people still today collect samurai swords, samurai armor, including the kabuto as well as other samurai accessories.