From Swordsman to Supervisor: 
How the Tokugawa Shogunate Changed the Role of the Samurai
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources


During the Heian Period, a military order of private soldiers emerged in rural Japan.  This order, composed of samurai (or bushi), provided a certain degree of stability that the imperial and regent institutions lacked.  The Kamakura and Ashikaga hegemonies relied on the warriors to keep order in the countryside and enforce the government’s will when necessary.  The fall of these shogunates took the samurai’s role with it, and the storied warriors were forced to adapt to a changing Japan by slowly becoming peacetime administrators.  This paper will examine how the Tokugawa Shogunate fundamentally changed the role of the samurai in Japanese society. 

Historical Background

In 1642 at a night station in the heart of Japan, a seemingly innocuous incident became cause for utmost concern amongst a group of samurai, members of the Japanese military class.  It so happened that one of them, Sanjuro, was traveling with several fellow warriors, and the group stopped to spend the evening at an inn.  Waiting in a hallway that another samurai had rented for the evening, Sanjuro first exchanged words and then blows with the man.  Sanjuro lost the fight and consequently his honor; he decided to commit seppuku -- a ritual suicide so powerful it could restore a warrior’s honor (Eiko 214-215). 

In the past, Sanjuro’s action would have been enough to end the incident.  Seppuku could clear a samurai’s name and was the Japanese solution to many problems involving the loss of one’s honor.  Instead, this episode became magnified under the oversight of local authorities.  For times were changing in Japan.  At this point in history, Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the samurai had transformed from warriors to government bureaucrats.  To better understand this transformation, one must first look at the samurai’s origins and earlier roles in Japanese society.

Research Report

Samurai emerged in Japan during the late Heian Period.  Exactly how the first samurai developed is still unknown, but there are many explanations why.  The conventional hypothesis suggests that the imperial and regent governments were too politically weak to control much of Japan outside of Nara, the capital at the time.  Thus, the samurai developed to protect their property, and in doing so provided some degree of stability and peace in the countryside.  Private landlords began maintaining arms and rallying around particularly powerful and wealthy members of their group (Friday 4).  This movement soon became a system with lord-vassal relationships (akin to European feudalism) and was, for all intents and purposes, the true power in the countryside.

Historian Karl F. Friday offers a different theory.  In his view, the development of the samurai was due to the imperial government’s action rather than its inaction or inability to regulate Japanese affairs.  From the eighth century on, it was increasingly the policy of the emperor to use the armed, landed classes in the countryside rather than drafted peasant armies.  It was to the court’s direct advantage, Friday argues, to rely on these professional warriors because they were better-armed, better-funded, and more effective (Friday 7).

Finally, there is an attempt to produce a synthesis using both of these explanations.  Eiko Ikegami, a Fulbright scholar who obtained her doctorate degree at Harvard University, contends that it is overly simplistic to assume either economic necessity or the current military situation alone produced the samurai.  According to Ikegami, both factors played a decisive role in the order’s creation.  She goes even further to say that one must also consider the unique social nature of the samurai.  By taking on the roles of soldiers and landlords, samurai became the authority figures that had been missing (Eiko 55-56).

However the samurai originated, they certainly became an integral part of Japanese society.  By the time the Kamakura Shogunate began its rule in 1185, the samurai system was well defined.  Though the power relationship between the regional lords and individual samurai remained largely unaffected, the new shogunate placed a lord, or daimyo, directly under the its control.  The daimyo then provided each samurai a plot of land from which they could collect taxes.  The samurai remained soldiers in times of war but otherwise were overseers and administrators of their individual parcels of land (Mikiso 21-22). 

In addition to having political power, the samurai were a distinct social class that practiced a strict code of living.  This code, known as bushido, drew on the tenets of both Zen Buddhism and Confucianism and called for samurai to abide by the principles of detachment, diligence, honor, and loyalty.  Besides learning the arts of horsemanship and archery, samurai had the right to bear a sword, and spent years learning to use it properly. This sword helped not only on the battlefield, but also on his own fields, as the samurai were able to administer justice to peasants who failed to pay them enough respect.  Being a samurai was not merely a source of livelihood or a way of making a living; it was a source of strength and a way of life (Eiko 54).

Among all samurai responsibilities, there was one that was almost sacrosanct: their duty to conduct themselves honorably.  Issues surrounding honor affected all Japanese, from the lowliest peasant to the most powerful shogun, but it was especially important for the samurai.  It had developed into a sense of identity for the warrior class, for several reasons.  Initially, the samurai were bound to honor their oaths to their lords.  They controlled a certain amount of property and were obliged to oversee it fairly.  Finally, the samurai were a military culture, and battlefield heroics were literally the stuff of legend in samurai circles.  To flee a fight or even perform in a way unbecoming of a samurai was not an option.  As the class evolved, this honor became its focal point (Eiko 29-30).

It was honor that created such a problem for Sanjuro in 1642.  According to his own code of living, seppuku should have been enough to end the issue.  Why then did that incident lead to bigger problems for local authorities?
The reason is that the samurai class had changed dramatically under the Tokugawa Shogunate.  No longer were they a true military order; that ended with the arrival of the foreign presence in 1543.  Historian John Dos Passos wrote the account of Mendes Pinto, a Portuguese merchant who told of the first Japanese encounter with guns:

One of his companions went hunting on the island one morning and came back with his two coolies loaded with game.  The Japanese had never seen a musket.  The local daimyo immediately sent for the Portuguese and asked to be shown how the machine worked.  The Portuguese promptly shot him two wild pigeons and a hawk.  It seemed enchantment but the Portuguese explained it was merely the effect of gunpowder.  The daimyo bought the musket for a thousand taels of silver and made the Portguese promise to teach him how to make gunpowder.  The daimyo had his armorer copy the musket.  When, at the end of four months, the Portuguese and their Chinese friends departed . . . there were six hundred muskets on the island 
(Dos Passos 335-336). 
For the local daimyo, this was an incredible stroke of luck.  For this was the Sengoku era, a time when the daimyo struggled against each other to see who would become the next shogun.  Military force was the top priority, and the local daimyo had stumbled upon technology that would boost his strength considerably.  For the samurai, it was the beginning of the end of life as they knew it.  They had trained for a lifetime to become masters of the sword.  Now a peasant could become a more effective fighter in a fraction of the time.

Having little to do on the actual field of battle, some samurai decided to study tactics and become officers.  The majority, however, became government officials, positions that were hereditary, preventing the development of civil service exams like those in China.  Samurai received a stipend and could not become actual landholders, but were still nominally the top of the social order.  Without land, and precluded from being merchants by their own code of living, few of these former warriors became wealthy or truly dominated the social scene.  Though they were acknowledged as the elite, the samurai simply could not obtain the wealth necessary to actually establish themselves in that position (Chie and Shinzaburo 213, 227). 

With the changes in lifestyle came debates about the old samurai values.  Did they still have the same sense of loyalty to the ruling Tokugawa?  How should a samurai carry himself now that he spent his time in front of a desk rather than on a battlefield?  Perhaps most important, was honor still a priority for these men who were now merely bureaucrats instead of warriors? 

Incidents like Sanjuro’s helped forward these debates and eventually settle some of them.  Though there were still episodes of seppuku and vengeance, the majority of samurai developed a new spirit that emphasized defensiveness and a desire to live safely (Eiko 260).  Instead of training with their swords or plotting to avenge a lord’s death, samurai were now able to enjoy the spoils of peace: the flowering of Japanese culture.  New and exciting forms of entertainment and art were appearing, and samurai helped them evolve.  Samurai also participated in tea ceremonies, listened to joruri, a “type of music usually played at puppet theaters, and played a Japanese game akin to chess" (Eiko 261).  The samurai even found themselves to be the subjects of plays in the new kabuki style of theater (Chie and Shinzaburo 207-208).

Historical Significance

This paper sought to examine the change in the role of the samurai from the Kamakura period to the Tokugawa.  Japanese society was experiencing growth and change in almost all areas, including the military, culture, and government during the Tokugawa period.  One common link between all of these areas was the samurai.  Though they constituted a very small percentage of the population, the samurai were involved in many aspects of society.  They played an integral and always evolving role in Japan, from their earliest origin in the Heian period to the economic successes that some former samurai families have found in the modern Japan. 

Chie Nakane and Shinzaburo, Oishi.  Tokugawa Japan: The Social And Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan.  Trans. Ed. Conrad Totman.  Tokyo, Japan: University of Tokyo Press, 1990.

Dos Passos, John.  The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969.

Eiko, Ikegami.  The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Friday, Karl F.  Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Mikiso, Hane.  Japan: A Short History.  Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2000.

Web Resources
   Provides brief history of the samurai, including a comparison of a samurai and a European knight.
   Brief treatment of man aspects of modern Asia with a guide to help you find experts on different Asian countries.
   The Japan Information Network has links to many sites with a virtual museum and map of historic areas.
   Exploration of Japanese "Feudalism."
   Outlines the history of the shogunates and shows several quotes from the samurai themselves.
   Contains information about weapons, armor, and castles that the samurai used.  Has information about the samurai's history.

Site Created by: John Francis Hoarty IV