The samurai (also bushi) were a class of warriors which arose in the 10th century CE in medieval Japan and which lasted until the 17th century CE. The type has been romanticised since the 18th century CE as the epitome of chivalry and honour. Whilst there are many examples of samurai displaying great loyalty to their masters, the reality is that warfare in medieval Japan was as bloody and as uncompromising as it was in any other region. It is true that, from the 17th century CE, and no longer needed in a military capacity, samurai often became important moral teachers and advisors within the community.
Development & Status
The government system of conscription was ended in 792 CE, and so in the following Heian Period in Japan (794-1185 CE), private armies were formed in order to protect the landed interests (shoen) of nobles who spent most of their time away at the imperial court. This was the beginning of the samurai, a name which literally translates as 'attendant' while the verb samurau means to serve. There were other classes of warriors but samurai was the only one with a connotation of serving the imperial court. Samurai were employed by feudal lords (daimyo) to defend their territories against rivals, to fight enemies identified by the imperial court, and battle with hostile tribes and bandits. As samurai eventually organised into groups with political power they were able to take over from a weak imperial court in the 12th century CE. Thus, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE) a new government system was founded which was dominated by warriors and it would remain so right up until the 19th century CE.
Many samurai came from the Kanto plain and had gained valuable experience in the campaigns against the Emishi tribes in the north. In these battles, warriors began to develop a code which gave them the possibility to earn a reputation and increase their status amongst their peers and masters. Naturally, bravery on the battlefield was paramount and a tradition developed of samurai riding into battle shouting out their lineage and past deeds, and challenging any of the enemy to single combat. However, it was not until the Edo period (1603-1868 CE) that a fully standardised system of status and rankings developed for samurai. There were three principal ranks:
- gokenin (housemen), the lowest and vassals of a feudal lord.
- goshi (rustic warrior), they could farm their independent land but could not have the two swords of the full samurai rank.
- hatamoto (bannermen), the highest rank.
Samurai made up just 6% of the total population, and their elevated status gave them certain privileges, notably the right to kill anyone on the spot who had offended them and who was below their social rank without any legal repercussions. This sometimes led to unfortunate incidents where samurai tested their swords against innocent passer-by, a test known as tsujigiri, or 'cutting down at the crossroads.' Many samurai had their own dedicated assistants or baishin who also worked any land their master owned.
Samurai warriors rode on horseback and primarily fought using bow and arrows, even though they also had a curved long sword. They had a second, shorter sword, and a decree by the ruler Hideyoshi in 1588 CE stated that only full samurai could wear two swords and this became an important status symbol. Their preferred method of attack was surprise, often in a night attack. They wore a silk cloak known as a horo, which was fastened around the neck and at the waist. They also wore light and flexible leather armour; the heavier armour for which samurai are famous today was only worn from the 17th century CE onwards. Samurai came to belong to specific military houses or buke. There were no women samurai, although there did exist a small group of female warriors known as onna bugeisha ('martially-skilled women').
The bushido or shido, meaning the 'way of the warrior,' is the famous warrior code of the samurai but it was only compiled in the late 17th century CE, by which time the samurai were no longer active militarily but functioned more as moral guides and advisors. It is, therefore, difficult to ascertain the level of chivalry samurai actually practised throughout their history. It would seem likely that, just as any warrior in any other culture, pragmatism would have ruled the day when fighting actually took place. Promises and truces were frequently violated, villages were burned and the defeated slaughtered as honour came from victory and nowhere else. Samurai were, above all, motivated by financial gain and advancing their social position. It is also true that despite the chivalrous reputation of warriors superimposed in later times on Japanese medieval history, especially in terms of austerity, loyalty and self-discipline, it was not at all uncommon for mass defections to occur during battles, including generals. At the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 CE no fewer than five generals and their armies switched sides mid-battle.
Those in the top echelons of the samurai were expected to fight to the death, even if this meant killing oneself to avoid capture. The honourable method was seppuku or self-disembowelment as the stomach was considered to contain the spirit, not the heart. The warrior first donned a white robe, symbol of purity, and then cut his abdomen with a knife stroke from left to right. Not being a particularly fast or efficient method of suicide, an assistant was usually on hand with a special sword, known as a kaishakunin, to decapitate the samurai. The followers and retainers of a samurai were similarly expected to commit suicide on the loss of their master in a code known as junshi or 'death by following.'
Samurai as Heroes: Yoshitsune
Many heroes in Japanese mythology are samurai warriors and none is more famous than the legendary Yoshitsune (1159-1189 CE). Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune, born Ushiwakamaru, was the younger brother of the shogun and a successful general in the Gempei War (1180-1185 CE). His legendary status springs from his standing as the epitome of the loyal, honourable, and unflappable warrior. He was taught fencing as a youth, rid the countryside of several robbers, and compelled the warrior-monk Benkei to become his faithful servant. Winning many battles, notably leading a cavalry charge at Ichinotani and leaping a boat bridge at Danno-Ura, he eventually aroused his brother's jealousy. Yoshitsune, consequently, fled to northern Japan, only passing the border controls when Benkei beat him in pretence that Yoshitsune was a hapless servant. There was to be no happy end for the hero, though, for the shogun eventually found and blockaded Yoshitsune in a castle which was then burnt to the ground. In some versions of the myth, Yoshitsune escaped to become the Mongol prince Temujin, later to be known as Genghis Khan. The story of Yoshitsune became a staple theme of Noh and Kabuki theatre.
Perhaps the most famous real-life samurai, episode of mass-seppuku, and example par excellence of maintaining honour through death is the story of the 47 Ronin (Shijushichishi) which occurred in 1703 CE. The lord of Ako, Asano Naganor was at the castle of the shogun in Edo one day when he was insulted by the shogun's (not so diplomatic) chief of protocol, Kira Yoshinaka. Naganor foolishly drew his sword, an act which carried a capital offence within the walls of the castle, and so he was compelled to commit seppuku. However, his 47 samurai followers, known now as ronin ('wanderers' or 'masterless samurai') swore revenge on Yoshinaka. Biding their time for two years, they finally got their man and put his decapitated head on the grave of their fallen master. The ronin were punished for their crime after much public debate and given the option of execution or seppuku. 46 (the missing figure is unaccountable), aged between 15 and 77, decided to accept seppuku and so guarantee their legendary status as the greatest followers to the letter of the samurai code. The ronin were buried, beside their master, at the Sengakuji Temple.
Decline & Subsequent Mythologising
The importance of samurai and local armies was greatly reduced following the stabilising policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868 CE) which brought relative peace across Japan. This continued the process begun half a century earlier by Hideyoshi who had disarmed the rural populace and forbidden samurai from working land. Many samurai, faced with becoming either peaceful farmers or retainers to local lords when there was no warfare to speak of, consequently, took a third path and became teachers, administrators (especially in finance), and moral guides. Samurai still enjoyed an elevated social status, being members of the top shi rank, which placed them above merchants, artisans, and farmers within the shi-no-ko-sho ranking system.
The 18th century CE saw a romanticisation of the samurai which is still perpetuated today in the media. For example, the famous opening line of the Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a book on swordsmanship written in 1716 CE during peacetime, boldly states that 'Bushido is a way of dying.' In 1872 CE conscription was reintroduced and in 1876 CE the samurai were formally disestablished, although descendants of former samurai continued to be distinguished with the title of shizoku up to the Second World War.
This article was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.