Samurai in Japanese History

The samurai remains a symbol of Japanese history both for the nation itself and foreigners. The story of brave aristocratic warriors, bound by the strict Code of the Samurai, ignites the fancy of people all over the world. The role of the samurai was one of utmost importance in the history of Japan, as the group that represented the ruling class and even controlled the emperor’s actions. Although during the industrial period samurai was ousted from their privileged position in public life, their legacy survives in modern Japan and abroad.

The origins of the samurai class date back to the 12th century when the samurai gained power thanks to the conflict between two feudal clans, the Taira and the Minamoto (“Japanese Samurai”).

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Previously ordinary mercenaries, the samurai rose to power with the victory of Minamata and establishment of Kamakura Shogunate, or Kamakura Bakufu, a new system in which the samurai held in fact more power than aristocrats. Over the course of time, a feudal system emerged that linked various classes of the samurai through bondages of loyalty. The hierarchy was headed by the shogun or the military ruler; the daimyo (analogous to dukes in Europe) constituted the next rank; and other samurai were bound to their daimyos as masters, acting as their military retainers (“Japanese Samurai”). Samurai culture encouraged unquestionable obedience to the master, as well as courage in battle, and a samurai had to be ready to die in battle without hesitation. To ensure strict subordination, the group developed a code of ethics that stated: “A man is a good retainer to the extent that he earnestly places importance in his master” (Hagakure). From the need to instill determination in battle also stems the idea of seppuku, or ritual death in battle, that is preferable to the samurai to a life of disgrace. Hagakure in the Book of the Samurai notes that “when it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death.” This cult of death still exists in modern-day Japan with its highest on the globe suicide rate (“Japanese Samurai”).

In the 13th century, the samurai proved their military mastery by fending off the invasion of the Mongol troops. At first offering weak resistance to the invaders, samurai learned essential things from Mongols, including the value of infantry and night attacks. Exposure to Mongols’ tactics made the Japanese warriors realize a need for improvement in their swords and other weapons (Wikipedia).

The invention of the traditional two-layer sword by Masamune in the 14th century and the introduction of infantry called “ashigaru” in the 15th-16th centuries considerably strengthened the samurai army.

Over the centuries, the samurai acquired more and more aristocratic features and privileges.

Affiliation with the class became hereditary, and the samurai at one point even had the right to kill an ordinary person on the spot if he or she had offended him. The distinct separation of the samurai into a fixed class where entrance was barred to outsiders occurred in 1586 when grand minister Toyotomi Hideyoshi “created a law that the samurai caste became codified as permanent and heritable, and that non-samurai were forbidden to carry weapons, thereby ending the social mobility of Japan up until that point” (Wikipedia). The samurai was finally designated as the ruling class. Although they were also regarded as protectors of the people, they used their dominant position to oppress the lower levels.

The samurai, including Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, had a decisive role in the creation of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ended wars and made the samurai redundant to a great extent. In the Tokugawa period, as military conflicts subsided and Japan embarked on a path of peaceful development, warriors were much less needed than able bureaucrats. These roles, too, were occupied by the samurai who switched from military to civilian positions. In this period the obligations of the samurai to his master did not disappear but even increased, and the Bushido code that reflected those commitments was formalized.

The Meiji Restoration, paving the way for the subsequent industrial and economic development of Japan, brought negative developments to the Samurai: “in the first decade following the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the samurai as a group lost their traditional rights and privileges, such as stipends, wearing of two swords, and exclusive military and bureaucratic positions” (Gordon 2000). The abolishment of samurai caste rights in 1871 caused severe social problems as many samurais were left financially broke and disoriented. Although some of the tycoons that ruled in the Meiji era had samurai background, other samurai were not ready to give up their privileged position in society. This disappointment was vented in the large-scale samurai uprising in 1877 that gathered an army of about 40,000 individuals but was defeated by the Imperial national army.

Even today, in Japan those who trace their origin to the samurai class enjoy respect among others because of their birth. The samurai culture continues to excite people. Artists continue to produce movies and books devoted to this part of the Japanese history. A recent example was the 2003 Last Samurai movie featuring Tom Cruz. Japanese films and TV productions often follow the genre of jidaigeki that includes characters of a wandering samurai and his assistant, “kenjutsu,” fighting against evil in different forms. Akiro Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai, portrays a group of samurai hired by rural residents to protect them from robbers. The samurai culture remains a symbol of nobility, selflessness, courage, and dedication to one’s cause. The way the samurai lived, their artifacts including swords and other weapons, Bushido, and samurai battle costumes continue to inspire artists and the general public and make the samurai legacy an vital part of modern culture.

Thus, the samurai holds an essential role in Japan’s past and present. Once the dominant class, they helped create the Shogunate and ruled Japan’s feudal society. Possessing superior military skills, they defended the land from invaders and fought in internal conflicts. As more peaceful times set in, the samurai class lost new aristocracy replaced its significance, but their legacy survives to this day in popular culture.
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