Who Were The Samurai?

By | October 1, 2019

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Source: (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

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? 

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Samurai on horseback. Source: (Wikipedia)


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.