A Very Brief History of the Samurai
The establishment of feudal domains in medieval
Japan led to a system of small quasi-states, each with its own system of
laws and government. As local lords vied for control over the countryside,
a unique warrior class arose. The samurai, long a focus of
reverence in Japan and fascination in the West, developed from their beginnings
as a simple product of necessity to their stautus as a distinct military
elite, holding greater power than even the imperial court. But the
were more than just warriors. Their dedication to learning and the
arts spawned many of Japan's great cultural achievements, and the code
by which they lived still inspires Japanese today. This report will
focus on the historical evolution of the samurai to include their
influence on the developement of Japan. It will also briefly cover
their cultural influence, to include their role in shaping modern Japan.
The origin of the word samurai dates back to the eighth century. By this time the emperor’s court had consolidated its control within the capital, but was unable to achieve the same authority over the countryside. The need to establish stability led to the founding of a number of military families who were each given land and the authority to govern it. A great many of these families would be headed by the illegitimate sons of emperors who, being generally idle and unproductive in the capital, were given titles as an excuse to send them away and thus remove them as a burden to the court (Sinclair, 11). Eventually, some 260 domains were established along feudal lines. That is, local peasants lived on and worked the land in exchange for protection by the local lord.
The imperial court constituted a very weak
central government, concerned as it was primarily with the affairs of Kyoto.
Each feudal lord was therefor free to manage his property as he saw fit,
and as such they imposed their own laws and taxes upon the peasant populations
of their domains. With each of these domains constituting something
of a small country, it is not surprising that conflict would occasionally
arise between neighboring lords. In times of war, lords often required
village leaders to supply them with foot soldiers, called saburai
(those who serve) (Sinclair, 11). Gradually, a distinct warrior elite,
dominated primarily by the middle class, began to arise, eventually coming
to dominate the affairs of the domains and superseding Japan’s other three
classes in prominence.
Japan’s urban aristocracy finally lost control of the government at the end of the twelfth century, when two powerful military clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, battled for supremacy (Time, 9). It was in this era, the Gempei Wars, that the classic conception of the samurai was forged: highly skilled, professional warriors reminiscent of the knights of feudal Europe with their fine armor and weapons as well as their devotion to their lord. After the annihilation of the Taira, Yoritomo of the Minamoto established himself as the first shogun, setting up a military regime, the Bakufu, in the city of Kamakura. The emperor, far away in the luxurious city of Kyoto, would be reduced in status to a figurehead until the nineteenth century.
The shogunate further encouraged the rise to prominence of the samurai as a separate class, most obviously distinguished by their right (and obligation) to bear arms. Each samurai belonged either to a feudal domain or the Bakufu. Those of the two-sworded class who belonged to neither were called ronin (literally, “wave men”) or lordless samurai (Omino, xvii). The most powerful samurai took over feudal domains and claimed the title of daimyo, swearing their allegiance to the shogun as lower ranking samurai swore allegiance to them. Under the Bakufu, Japan would experience a time of nominal peace, and would not see a major war until the invasion of the Mongols a century after the establishment of the shogunate.
The short age of stability after the founding of the Bakufu, ended with the Mongol invasion. Unable to provide enough land to reward the samurai for their service, the reigns of power were taken by Go-Daigo in the 1330s. However, Go-Daigo would be forced to flee Kyoto after his defeat at the hands of Ashikaga Takauji. While Go-Daigo set up court in the south, Takauji placed a second emperor on the throne in Kyoto (Time, 10). The southern emperor finally agreed to step down in 1392 after decades of bloody civil war.
Further unrest would ensue for the next hundred years in a period known as the Sengoku Jidai, the “age of the country at war.” Daimyo fought daimyo over disputed successions and squabbles over land, leading to a series of small wars in which the lofty moral code of the samurai, which included unquestioning loyalty and obedience, was observed more in the breach than in the practice (Sinclair, 14). However, this time of violence would prove extremely beneficial to the Japanese economy.
Merchants thrived as the daimyo’s need for weapons, armor, and basic necessities rose, and guilds and other organizations formed to safely transport goods (Time, 10). As trade flourished, so too did art, and many of the great literary and cultural achievements of Japan would come about during this era. Buddhism, particularly Zen, one of the primary influences on the samurai class, also became more widespread and would have a dramatic effect on Japanese culture. It was also during this era that Christianity would find its way to Japan by way of Portuguese traders, who would introduce another Western innovation to the Japanese.
Hideyoshi completed the unification of Japan and is remembered for his patronage of culture and of the arts, but he is guilty of his share of blunders. The most far reaching of these was his ill-conceived invasion of Korea in 1592, attempted in part as a way of directing the energies of the many ronin who had become a public nuisance after the end of the Sengoku Jidai. The first invasion attempt met with encouraging success early on despite being fraught with command problems, but was halted by the intervention of the Chinese and the skill of the Korean navy. A second attempt, launched in 1597, was even less successful than the first, but the samurai were spared a long war by Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 (Turnbull, The Book of the Samurai, 102).
Tokugawa Ieyasu was the last of the three, ending opposition to his rule in 1600 at the Battle of Sekigahara. The side that a daimyo found himself on at this pivotal battle would dictate to a large extent his family’s social status for the next 250 years (Sinclair, 17). Tokugawa moved the shogunate to Edo, modern Tokyo, and his family would hold the post until 1867, leading to a period of relative peace.
It was at this time that the samurai were more formally established as a ruling class. The mark of the samurai became the wearing of the daisho, or paired long and short swords, the dai-to and sho-to. It was also in this period that the samurai code of bushido was formalized, principally in Hagakure, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure begins with the words “The Way of the Samurai is found in death,” a sentence which exemplifies the constant readiness of samurai to sacrifice their lives for their master. It is for this reason that the cherry blossom was adopted as a symbol of the samurai, a reminder of both the vibrance and brevity of their lives. Education was also emphasized by bushido, and it should also be noted that Tsunetomo was an adherent of the Wang Yang Ming school of Confucian philosophy, which taught that knowledge should always be accompanied by action, action that was swift and immediate (Turnbull, Samurai Warlords, 143).
With the support of the samurai and strict enforcement of government policies, particularly the exclusion of foreigners, the Tokugawa shogunate ushered in a new era of peace that would last for two centuries. It was in this period that many samurai, dedicated as they were to their new role as administrators and devoid of opportunities to practice, simply forgot how to fight. The diary of Asahi Bunzaemon, which records twenty-six years of samurai life during this period, includes many accounts of such samurai. There were instances of forgetful samurai who left their swords at a theater or tea house only to realize their blunder after returning home. There is even the pathetic account of a samurai whose short sword was stolen right out of its sheath as he watched a popular dance performance in town (Omino, xx).
The death blow would come to the samurai with
the forced opening of Japan’s ports by Commodore Perry in 1853. This
sign of weakness by the Tokugawa shogun lent support to steadily growing
movements in favor of a return of power to the emperor. The Meiji
Restoration, beginning with the overthrow of the last shogun in 1887, would
meet sporadic opposition by tradition-minded samurai, but bullets would
overcome swords once again and the samurai disappeared as a class before
the turn of the century. This marked the end of centuries of military
rule and the rise of modern Japan.
The samurai disappeared as a class in the nineteenth century but not as an influence. The spirit of bushido was to inspire Japan in its headlong drive to modernization (Sinclair, 15). It would also, much to the regret of subsequent generations, lead to the reemergence of the military elite that culminated in Japan’s ill-fated attempt at dominating the Pacific during the Second World War. Subsequently, the samurai have been treated in Japanese culture as they should be: a part of history to be studied and revered for its nobler elements, but not repeated. The influence of the samurai continues today through the art forms and culture that arose during the period. Literary works such as Musashi’s Book of Five Rings are still read today in many languages, and the martial arts of feudal Japan have spread around the world. Even the unique Japanese sword is still produced today by a few swordsmiths using the traditional methods, not as a weapon of war, but as a work of art and symbol of the spirit of the samurai and of Japan. The samurai are far more than a product of a distant and violent past, they are a distinct and unique part of the history of Japan.
Omino, Kiyoharu. Introduction. Samurai Sketches. By Romulus Hillsborough. San Francisco: Ridgeback Press, 2001.
Sinclair, Clive. Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2001.
Time-Life Books. What Life Was Like Among Samurai and Shoguns.Richmond, Virginia: Time Life Inc., 1999.
Turnbull, Steven. The Book of the Samurai: The Warrior Class of Japan. London: Bison Books Limited, 1982.
Turnbull, Steven. Samurai Warlords: The Book of the Daimyo.
London: Blandford Press, 1989.
http://www.samurai-archives.com/ A very extensive page dedicated to samurai history.
http://www.nihonto.com/ Everything you ever wanted to know aboout Japanese swords.
http://kyushu.com/gleaner/editorspick/seppuku.shtml A practical guide to seppuku, just in case my essay is that boring.
http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/bushido/bindex.html A brief study of bushido.
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