Who Were The Samurai?
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The samurai of premodern Japan is one of history’s most famous warrior castes. Their strict adherence to a martial code, their renowned fighting skills, and their willingness to die rather than be dishonored has made them icons. Historical parallels may be the Spartans of Greece or the knights of Europe’s High Middle Ages, but they aren’t quite the same.
With their fame, the samurai became subject to historic caricature as swaggering, arrogant, sword-wielding head-collectors, too. But the true samurai were more complex.
So who were the samurai of Japan?
The samurai as such first appear on the historic scene in the 10th century A.D. as imperial guards in Kyoto as well as privately paid mercenaries for other nobility. These warriors then formed clans that slowly ate at the power of the Imperial court so that by the 12th century, the Japanese emperor had become essentially powerless. From 1180 to 1185, the two most powerful of these clans, the Minamoto and the Taira fought for power in the Gempei Wars (sometimes Genpei). The Minamoto won and established a capital in Kamakura. Yoritomo, the head of the Clan became the first Shogun or military dictator. This was the first of several samurai-Shogunates that dominated Japan until the 19th century.
Samurai's conduct in these early years was chivalrous. According to historic accounts, opponents would square off against each other and name themselves, their lineages, and deeds before the armies would rush in at each other. This form of combat lessened as armies grew in size.
The Golden Age of the Samurai
In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his enemies to establish the Tokugawa Shogunate. This ushered in a general era of peace for over two centuries in which the government isolated Japan from the rest of the world, allowing only a few foreign traders on an artificial island in Nagasaki. During this period, the samurai acted as enforcers of the law, but because of the peace, they lost their raison d’etre. Since it was a risk to the shogun to dispossess large numbers of samurai -- there were two million of them or 6% of the population -- they became in effect, state wards.
In return for loyalty to the shogun and a pledge to defend the shogunate in rare times of trouble, samurai were given a pension of rice and told to keep up their skills and remain adherents to the warrior’s code. They also doubled as bureaucrats.
The Tokugawa Shogunate imposed a rigid class system on Japan with peasants on the bottom, followed by merchants, artisans, and samurai at the top.
In theory, all samurai were supported by their local lord, or daimyo and the daimyo, in turn, gave their fealty to the shogun who was “appointed” by the figurehead emperor. All samurai were not equal and some kinds held more status than others. For example, the ashigaru foot soldiers were considered to be of the lowest rank in the samurai hierarchy. Some were outside the system. If a samurai was on the losing side of a major war, he might find himself without a lord. If that were to happen, he was considered ronin, which roughly means “mean of the waves.” These types were immortalized in the film, The Seven Samurai. Some ronin took to a wandering life and traveled the country on what was called musha shugyo, “warrior pilgrimages” to challenge other samurai to fight. The most famous of these is Miyamoto Musashi. His skill was such that he said to be able to cut a grain of rice on an enemy’s forehead without cutting the opponent.
It should be noted that both men and women were samurai.
The Samurai developed their own code of conduct called Bushido, which means “the way of the warrior.” Developed from the 12th century onward, it stressed appropriate conduct on the part of an ideal samurai. He was truthful, spartan, and above all loyal to his lord. Very critical to the samurai ideal was the practice of Zen Buddhism, whose frugal spiritual beliefs concerning the ephemeral nature of the universe fit very well into the samurai lifestyle.
Failure in any of these areas meant dishonor, and dishonor was typically redeemed through the ritual suicide called seppuku or hara-kiri. The ritual suicide was different for men and women of the samurai class. Men would use a dagger called a tanto to rip open their abdomen. Women, however, would cut their carotid artery.
In the early days, samurai were mainly archers, but this evolved so that by the 14th century (even though the bow was still heavily practiced) the sword began to predominate. Indeed, the sword was considered to be the “soul of the samurai.” These were finely crafted instruments of which there are few equals. By the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, samurai carried two swords, the Tachi or the long curved killing blade that is more often called a katana and a shorter sword called a wakizashi. The pair of swords together was called a daisho.
Weapons were renowned for their craftsmanship and the makers of such weapons were legendary. Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (c.1264–1343) is usually regarded as Japan's greatest swordsmith. Some of his swords are still extant, especially at the Kyoto National Museum. One of his swords, the Honjo sword (lost in World War II) was said to go to a point one atom thick.
Armor developed over time into a scale system of metal or leather called lamellar armor and then this developed into the classical style of armor called the yoroi. The yoroi was still a series of bound scales mixed with iron or leather. A suit entirely of iron was considered to be too heavy. It, with the ornate helmet, provided great protection but was rigid and restricted movement.
The End of the Age of the Samurai
The end of the age of the Samurai came with the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In 1853, a squadron of American naval ships headed by Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan. By this time, the technological advances of the West were so apparent that it fomented the Meiji Revolution by which the Shogunate was overthrown and the Imperial government restored to power. The new government instituted a program of modernization which included merging the samurai with other warrior classes.
Still, the impact of the samurai culture is substantial from imparting militaristic values which helped lead to World War II to the aesthetics and grace of traditional Japanese culture. Hopefully, this brief article will allow you to understand at least the tip of the sword of this important Japanese historic class.