What is a Samurai?

The term samurai has changed meaning significantly throughout the ages, but originally it did not mean a Japanese knight or warrior.

During the Asuka (538-710) and Nara (710-794) Periods, the Yamato’s imperial family was in a union with the Korean Baekjen kingdom against the rival Silla kingdom, that was allied with the Chinese Tang dynasty. In the battle of Hakusukinoe (Hakusonkō no Tatakai), the forces of the Silla-Tang alliance defeated those of Baekje and Yamato, forcing Yamato to abandon his station on the Korean peninsula in 663. Even before the battle, fleeing nobility had arrived in Japan from the continent, taking knowledge of culture and religion with them. In 646, Emperor Tenji ordered the Taika reform whereby the Japanese nobility adopted a system of governance, bureaucracy, culture, religion, and philosophy modelled on the Tang dynasty. When the Taihō Decree was enacted in 702, Emperor Monmu fulfilled the Chinese-inspired draft (Gundan-sei) which saw every third or fourth man being conscripted into the national army while being expected to furnish themselves with arms and armour. In return for their service, they receive exemption from taxation and other tasks. The Taiho Decree divided most of the imperial clerks into twelve echelons, the first and highest of these being the Emperor’s own inner circle of advisors. Those in the sixth band and below were known by the moniker samurai, derived from the term saburau, meaning ‛those working closely with nobility on their behalf’. These samurai were civil servants, with the terms bushi (武士) refering to a soldier and buke (武家) to military families.

Emperor Kanmu wanted to annex northern Honshū to his sphere of power during the Heian Period (794-1185). This was home to the indigenous Emishi people who resisted the imperial family’s control. Kanmu named the first sei’i-taishōgun (征夷大将軍) or shogun to oversee the operation. At that time, the term did not mean ‛military dictator’, but rather leader of forces on an expedition against barbarians’. The emperor trusted in the martial skills of powerful local clans against the Emishi. Mounted bowmen were the main typical bushi warrior at the time. The emperor also deployed the clans in quashing rebellions.

After Emperor Kanmu had decentralised his army, his position of power became diminished. The formidable clans surrounding Kyoto assumed the offices of ministers and named their relatives as local civil servants. In their position as officials, they often levied heavy taxes in order to amass wealth for themselves and to pay off their loans, leading to many farmers losing their lands. Aristocrats rose to power through political contracts and marriages, even wielding power over the imperial family. At the time, some Japanese clans originated from unions of farmers who formed alliances against the larger clans and resisted the officials’ excessive taxation by bearing arms against them.

The samurai class began to gain the traits and features it is known for nowadays during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). When local clans became stronger and gained ever more power, the balance of power began shifting from the emperor to them. The leaders of the clans were usually distant relations of the imperial family and the Fujiwara, Miinamoto, or Taira clans. Originally, officials were sent to the provinces for four year periods, but they refused to return to Kyoto and their power as local leaders was passed down from father to son, with successive generations putting down local revolts. The Heiji revolt of 1160 pitted the Minamoto and Taira clans against each other. Taira no Kiyomori came out victorious and became the first warrior to rise to the status of imperial counsel. Later he seized power for himself, creating the first samurai-led central government and using the emperor as a figurehead for the state. Taira and Minamoto fought once again during the Genpei war of 1180-1185, which Minamoto won. Minamoto no Yoritomo took power and declared himself Sei’i-taishōgun in Kyoto in 1192. At the same time, he moved the seat of power to Kamakura to be nearer his own centre of power. He founded the Kamakura Bufuku, or the martial government of Kamakura. The Kamakura shogunate (1185-1333) and the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573) saw many clans vie for dominance, but even the Chinese Yuan dynasty, itself of Mongol origin, sought to conquer Japan twice. Thunderstorms hindered their attempt to conquer Japan’s northern Kyūshū island in 1274. 40,000 warriors and 900 ships took part in this attempt against only 10,000 samurai. The conquest failed, but at the command of Kublai Khan, the Mongols dispatched a new Yuan army in 1281, this one consisting of 140,000 soldiers and 5,000 ships. Against them were 40,000 samurai. Between assaults, the samurai had constructed defensible bases and the 12.5 mile / 20-kilometre long Genkō Bōrui (元寇防塁) wall across the Hataka strait. While the Mongols were still at sea, a typhoon struck northern Kyūshūn. The most part of the would-be conquerors died in the storm, and the survivors could not get past the saumrai’s defence, forcing them to retreat. Thunderstorms and typhoons had a marked effect on the Japaneses’ ability to defend their land. For this reason, the Japanese began to name the storms kami-no-kaze, Wind of the Gods, in the belief that Japan was under the aegis of the gods.

The Warring States period (Sengoku jidai, 1467-1615) was one of Japan’s bloodiest. It did, however, result in the lasting peace of the Edo Period (1603-1867). During the sengoku jidai, Japanese warfare changed dramatically: earlier, conflicts had been fought among relatively small armies using bows and naginata glaives. Samurai also had other weapons at their disposal such as the yari spears, o-tachi two-handed swords, nakamagi long-shafted polearms reminiscent of a sword, yojibo heavy mauls reinforced with iron cords, mompa wooden mauls/hammers, and ono battleaxes. Whereas previously, the focus had been on individual combat rather than organisation and formations, the samurai changed their tactics during the Mongol invasion and the armies gradually grew on size, with tactical battle formations becoming important. The role of the conscripted farmers (ashigaru) grew during the Warring States period. Certainly they had been used previously, but now conscripts trained in battle formations and armed with long spears, bows, and arquebuses were essential in warfare. It was also possible to be raised through the ranks from farmer to samurai status during the sengoku jidai period as a reward for one’s deeds. In fact, Toyotomi Hideyoshi who had fought in Oda Nobunaga’s army was originally an ashigaru, but was promoted to samurai in recognition for his achievements, eventually becoming Nobunaga’s general and counsellor. Nobunaga managed to unite and govern most of Japan. When his other general Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed him, Toyotomi Hideyoshi avenged his master’s death and then rose to power himself.

Up until this point, it was widespread in Japan for commoners such as farmers to have access to weapons and the permission to bear them freely. Upon his assentation of power, Toyotomi Hideyoshi reformed laws to ensure the safety of his position by declaring a ‛sword-hunt’ wherein weapons were confiscated from everybody but samurai. Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son should have inherited his father’s throne after his death, but a third general of Nobunaga – Tokugawa Ieyasu – opposed this. Those loyal to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son Hideyori faced Tokugawa Ieyasu’s forces in the battle of Sekigahara, where Tokugawa emerged as victor. Tokugawa founded the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan in the Edo Period (1603-1867), and he enacted a law permitting only samurai to bear daisho or long and short swords on their belt as a symbol of samurai status. Other social classes had leave to own only short swords or tanto knives. It is worth noting that significant limitations on accessibility of weapons came only during peacetimes.

As the role and cultural status of samurai changed many times through history, so too did there ethical principles shift, not merely from period to period but also from place to place and individual to individual. In times of war, there was no single warrior ideology per se, but rather different traditions and fighting styles (ryu-ha) had their own ethical principles.

It is often thought that Bushido was the uniting chivalric code of the samurai, but the modern conception of Bushido originates from a book of that name penned by Inazō Nitobe in 1899. Tashiro Tsuramoto’s Hakagure has also played a role in creating our modern idea of Bushido. This was based on conversations with reclusive samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo who had worked as a scribe. The conversations date from 1709 to 1716. During the Edo and Meiji Periods, romanticisation of samurai culture was popular in literature and theatre, and this had had a great influence on our modern pop culture perception of the erstwhile Japanese warrior class which rose to rule the nation. The truth in much more complex and interesting.