Used to denote bushi or aristocratic warriors, the Japanese samurai were warriors during pre-modern or feudal Japan. Later on, the term samurai was applied to all the warrior classes of the country. Samurai rose to power in the 12th century and ruled the government and society until the Meiji Restoration. We’ll explain this and more as we unravel the history of the samurai in this article.
Getting to Know the Samurai
As told, bushi or samurai were feudal Japan period warriors who became the country's highest-ranking social caste during the Edo Period before the Meiji Restoration. The samurai were experts in horseback riding, archery, and swordsmanship. They used weapons, such as spears, guns, bows and arrows, and swords, which were also their primary symbol.
Undoubtedly, these warriors were skilled swordsmen. Depending on the combat situation and military strategy, the samurai used a particular sword, each with its specific curvature, blade length, and design.
The samurai sword was a highly efficient slashing weapon and served as every warrior's wealth and social status symbol.
It's also considered the "soul of the warrior" opposite of the assassins and ninjas of feudal Japan who treated "ninjatō," a short sword with a straight blade, a square guard, and a length less than 60 centimeters, only as a tool or weapon.
Samurai sword craftsmanship was a work of art with superior value, and one of the most regarded samurai swords is the Katana, the most popular long samurai sword.
The Katana, a single-edged sword with a curved blade, has a shallower curvature than the Tachi, another samurai sword. Samurai warriors wore one through the obi belt with its edge facing upward for quick drawing when slashing.
The katanas served as a symbol of samurai ranks aside from being used as a weapon. Those not in the samurai class were prohibited from wearing a katana, which eventually replaced the Tachi during the Shinto and Shinshinto eras.
Other samurai swords include the Koshigatana, the Kodachi, the Odachi (Nodachi), the Nagamaki, the Uchigatana, the Wakizashi, the Daisho, and the Tanto.
The samurai were servants of local warlords called the daimyo, from the Japanese words "dai" (big or great) and "myo" (name), translating to big/great name. However, in feudal Japan, "myo" can be translated as "title to land." Thus, daimyo translates to "owner of big or great land."
Daimyos were shogun vassals and large landowners, who hired samurai warriors to guard them and protect their families and lands. When the situation called for it, the samurai fought for their daimyo and protected their lands.
As daimyo servants, the samurai backed up the shogun's authority, giving them power over the emperor or Mikado.
The samurai lived based on “The Way of the Warrior,” the ethic code of bushido. It’s the code of ethics promoting the significance of martial arts, honor, and loyalty and refers to the primary philosophy stating that they must not fear death and that they must die for valor.
The life of the samurai is ruled by seven principles – honor (meiyo), loyalty (chūgi), righteousness (gi), honesty (sei), respect (rei), consistency (makoto), and courage (yū). Being righteous, the samurai believe that justice is their most important virtue; hence, they don't attack anyone, even an enemy, without a valid reason.
Based on the warrior’s way, they don’t also consider life as life if it’s lived without honor. So if they commit a mistake, they should keep the honor of their name by committing suicide.
A true story and example of this was “The Akō Incident,” also known as Akō jiken or Akō vendetta (January 31, 1703) wherein 47 samurai were charged with Seppuku for avenging their master’s death. It’s a historical event that since then became one of the most legendary vendetta incidents in Japan.
The samurai accept that they will die in warfare and that death may come soon, resembling a sakura’s life, glorious but short-lived.
Being Confucian, “The Warrior’s Way” emphasizes loyalty to a master and the practice of ethical behavior. Most samurai were also influenced by Zen Buddhism principles and teachings.
Samurai Periods (1185-1868)
Alt-text: A samurai warrior in full battle gear. Image by Wellcome Library on History Hit.
1185-1333 (Kamakura Government)
The warrior administrators replaced the court government when the Heian government did not pay much attention to the provinces, managing large rice lands around modern Tôkyô in the eastern portion of Japan.
The Minamoto family formed the new government (Kamakura Shogunate), a military dictatorship, in 1185. Later in 1192, Minamoto Yoritomo gained the “shogun” title for having military control of the nation.
Although Yoritomo’s government followed the Heian government laws, the samurai that ran it maintained peace and order throughout the country.
The government depended on the strength of the samurai. No one could be called a samurai without Yoritomo’s approval. Later, the samurai rose to power, taking control of the lands owned by aristocrats and further weakening the Heian government. Eventually, the feudal warriors ruled and developed Japan’s law.
Later on, China introduced Zen Buddhism to Japan, believing that all humans are already enlightened, but they have to discover it for themselves. This school of Buddhism emphasizes meditation to awaken one's wisdom, compassion, and nature. Thus, meditation is practiced to attain enlightenment.
Many samurai were drawn to the teachings and principles of Zen Buddhism, giving a philosophical background for their code of behavior.
During the Kamakura rule, the samurai sword also became significant and was believed to be where the soul of a warrior resides. Every component or part of a sword, including its gold and silver inlays, was regarded as a work of art.
1336-1573 (Ashikaga Government)
The Kamakura Shogunate weakened at the 13th-century end because of the strain they faced defeating Mongol invaders.
Later, Ashikaga Takauji led a rebellion, causing the fall of the Kamakura government. Around 1336, the Ashikaga Shogunate, also called the Muromachi Shogunate (Muromachi bakufu), was established.
The new government, considered stronger than Kamakura, was based in Kyoto and was led by the Ashikaga clan. It’s the second one of the shogunates that had direct control over much of the country. Still, it’s the weaker shogunate than the next shogunate, the Tokugawa.
Japan was in chaos for the next two centuries because of clashes between territorial clans. Thus, the strong rule of the Ashikaga was soon put to a stop, particularly after the 1467-1477 Onin War when the country lacked central authority and the shoguns were almost powerless. Following this, the local landlords together with their warriors or samurai pledged to maintain peace and order.
But given the political unrest, the Ashikaga Shogunate still expanded and was regarded as Japanese Art's golden age, with Zen Buddhism influencing the culture of the samurai. During this period, painting and theater also flourished.
The Shogunate wasn’t able to gain control over as many provinces as the preceding shogunate did. Provincial landlords still ruled in the surrounding countryside of Kyoto, but they often engaged in wars over territorial claims.
These barons established bureaucratic governments, trying to put each province under military rule. During this time, the shogun representing the central government was weak, and the local governments were more developed.
1600-1868 (Tokugawa Government)
Alt-text: Two samurai warriors. Image by Ryotaro Horiuchi on National Geographic.
In 1615, the Period of the Country at War (The Sengoku-Jidai) ended. Thanks to the country's unification under Tokugawa Ieyasu it paved the way for its peace and prosperity.
The samurai started ruling the country through civil means rather than military forces. They were also ordered to train in arms and learn based on Confucianism after the Ieyasu issued ordinances for the military houses.
Even if bushido’s principles vary under Confucian and Buddhist influences, the warrior spirit of the warrior's way remains, such as fearlessness of death and military skills emphasis. It also focused on principles, such as kindness, frugality, and care for the elder and family members.
The samurai became bureaucrats during this peaceful period. Some of them also took up trade, while preserving themselves as fighting men or warriors.
Sword carrying and wearing were only samurai restricted in 1588, further separating them from the farmer class. During this time, they also wore two-swords (two-swords men), wearing short and long swords representing privilege in society.
However, during the Tokugawa government, most of the samurai’s material well-being declined. Before, they used to receive fixed stipends from landlords or landowners, but they declined, frustrating many lower-ranking samurai.
The End of Japan’s Feudalism: Meiji Period (1868–1912)
Because of peasant unrest, the Tokugawa regime’s stability declined in the middle of the 19th century, coupled with the incursion of Western forces into the country.
Aiming to get the country to open its boundaries to international trade, Western powers led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry caused the further collapse of Tokugawa.
Japan and the United States signed a commercial treaty in 1858, and then later on also with other countries, including Russia, France, Britain, and Holland. However, not everyone appreciated the opening of Japan's borders to international trade, commerce, and investments. Hence, resistance emerged to the shogunate, including the samurai who started appealing and calling for emperor power's restoration.
On a mission to topple Tokugawa and restore imperial rule (named for Emperor Meiji), Choshu and Satsuma combined efforts in 1868.
The Meiji Restoration was a political revolution that took place in 1868, leading to the collapse of the military government. The revolution ended the Edo or Tokugawa period that ruled from 1603 to 1867. The 1868 revolution also brought Japan back under the emperor Meiji or Mutsuhito’s rule.
In 1871, feudalism in Japan finally ended. Following, only members of the national armed forces were allowed to wear swords. Samurai stipends were also converted into government bonds. During the 1870s, samurai rebellions were quashed by the national army.
Alt-text: A samurai ready to strike with a katana. Image by J. Paul Getty Museum on Encyclopedia Brittanica.
While the samurai don't anymore hold official status in modern Japan, their descendants remain to be esteemed in the country. These warriors’ rich history and principles inspire many people, and so their legacy lives on.
Browse our store for samurai armor that might inspire you, too.