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History of the Japanese Samurai

The Samurai: Warrior and Ruler of Ancient Japan

Few countries have a warrior tradition as long and exciting as Japan. It is a tradition found in the Samurai, the loyal and self-sacrificing knight of ancient Japan. The Samurai is a valiant warrior who can both appreciate the beauty of nature in that of a rose blossom but will also kill or die for his master in an instant. This well-rounded warrior was the ruling class of Japan for almost seven hundred years. He fought for control of his country and to keep Japan free from outside influences. (Turnbull 1)

This aristocratic warrior class arose during the 12th century wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans and was consolidated in the Tokugawa period. Samurai were privileged to wear two swords, and at one time had the right to cut down any commoner who offended them. They cultivated the martial virtues, indifference to pain or death, and unfailing loyalty to their overlords. Samurai were the dominant group in Japan. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the samurai were removed from direct control of the villages, moved into the domain castle towns, and given government stipends. They were encouraged to take up bureaucratic posts.

The Hagakure, has been dubbed the book of the samurai. It was written after a century of peace around 1716. It came to be the guide of samurai ethics until the end of the feudal period. Its short passages reflect and outline the qualities that make a samurai. Yamamoto Tsunetomo expresses in the hagakure the framework and mindset of being a samurai. “Although it stands to reason that a samurai should be mindful of the Way of the samurai, it would seem that we are all negligent. Consequently, if someone were to ask, ‘what is the true meaning of the Way of the Samurai?’ the person who should be able to answer promptly is rare. This is because it has not been established in one’s mind beforehand. From this, one’s unmindfulness of the Way can be known. Negligence is an extreme thing.” (Wilson, 17)

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. There is no shame to this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling. (Wilson, 17)

The samurai had extreme religious ideals. One samurai in particular, Tsunetomo, he began to despair of ever gaining a position as a retainer, and her began to visit a man who was to have no small influence on his life. This was the Zen Buddhist priest Tannen (? – 1680), a man of unbending integrity and will, who had resigned his post as head priest at the major Nabeshima temple as a protest against the death sentence of another priest, and when recalled, refused to return. Zen Buddhism and the samurai had been closely related since the thirteenth century in Japan, when the Hojo regents had discovered that its vitality and rejection of life as an object of special craving had much to offer the warrior. Tannen had his own ideas concerning the relationship of Zen and the warriors. “He declares that religious matters are for old men, and if young samurai learn about Buddhism it will only bring them disaster, for they will begin to look at the world from two sets of values rather than one.” (Wilson, 13)

The warriors of early Japan bore only a passing resemblance to the later samurai. Weaponry and armor were of a distinctly Chinese flavor, and the earliest warriors carried shields, a device evidently out of vogue even before the Heian period. Some of our knowledge of the weapons and protection the early Japanese warrior carried comes from artifacts excavated from the tombs constructed in the 4th and 5th centuries to house departed royalty. Another, just as valuable resource are the haniwa, which were clay statues evidently used as grave markers. A good number of these haniwa depict warriors, and these provide us some insight into the nature of ‘home-grown’ Japanese armor of the time. The horse was imported to Japan sometime in the 4th or 5th century, and quickly became a valuable commodity. Also brought over from the continent were Keiko, or suits of lamellar scaled armor. This type, which is traditionally associated with horsemen, provided the foundation from which the classic patterns of samurai armor construction would build.

Just as important is the samurai’s weaponry is the code of ethics by which they lived by which is known as the code of Bushido. This term refers to the moral code principals that developed among the samurai class of Japan, on a basis of national tradition influenced by Zen and Confucianism. The first use of the term apparently occurred during the civil war period of the 16th century; its precise content varied historically as samurai standards evolved. Its one unchanging ideal was martial spirit, including athletic and military skills as well as fearless facing of the enemy in battle. Frugal living, kindness and honesty were also highly regarded. Like Confucianism, Bushido required filial piety; but, originating in the feudal system, it also held that supreme honor was to serve one’s lord unto death. If these obligations conflicted, the samurai was bound by loyalty to his lord despite the suffering he might cause to his parents.

The final rationalization of Bushido thought occurred during the Tokugawa period, when Yamaga Soko equated the samurai with the Confucian “superior man” and taught that his essential function was to exemplify virtue to the lower classes. Without disregarding the basic Confucian virtue, benevolence, Soko emphasized the second virtue, righteousness, which he interpreted as “obligation” or “duty”. This strict code of honor, affecting matters of life and death, demanded conscious choice and so fostered individual initiative while yet reasserting the obligations of loyalty and filial piety. Obedience to authority was stressed, but duty came first even if it entailed violation of statue law. In such an instance, the true samurai would prove his sincerity and expiate his crime against the government by subsequently taking his own life.

By mid-19th century, Bushido standards had become the general ideal, and the legal abolition of the samurai class in 1871 made Bushido even more the property of the entire nation. In the public education system, with the emperor replacing the feudal lord as the object of loyalty and sacrifice, Bushido became the foundation of ethical training. As such, it contributed both to the arise of Japanese nationalism and to the strengthening of wartime civilian morale up to 1945.

The term “Samurai” means those who serve. These mystical knights served many functions in Japanese society. During time of war, they were the masters of the battlefield. In peace they were the administrators and the aristocrats. As statesmen, soldiers, and businessmen, former samurai took the lead in building modern Japan.

The Japanese warrior, known as the samurai, has played a significant role in Japan’s history and culture throughout the centuries. Their ancestors can be traced back to as far as can be remembered. Some stories have become mysterious legends handed down over the centuries. In this report you will learn who the samurai were, their origins as we know them, how they lived and fought and their evolution to today. It will be clear why the samurai stand out as one of the most famous group of warriors of all times.

Looking back in time, the first Japanese battles recorded are in the first few centuries AD. At this time Japanese warriors went across the sea to Korea to help one kingdom battling two rival kingdoms. Four hundred men set out and fought on foot carrying their bows, spears and swords. They were quickly beaten by warriors attacking on horseback. They probably had never seen an attack like that before, with horses being ridden. Even though there were horses in Japan they had not been used for riding or fighting, but to help in carrying and pulling goods. In the next century, however, there is evidence that horses were being ridden and used in warfare by warriors who would later be called samurai (History Channel).

The term samurai was first used in the 10th century and means “those who serve”. In the beginning it stood for men who guarded the capital for the Emperor, some where used as tax collectors. Later the word grew to include any military man who served a powerful landlord, almost like a police force for that time. They would go around the countryside on horseback collecting taxes from the peasants, often this was in the form of rice. This money helped the Emperor pay for his lavish life style. The word, samurai, quickly spread and was respected (and maybe feared a little) for the men it represented.

The noblemen depended on the strength of the samurai. Since their power and wealth was directly related to how much land they owned, the noblemen kept small armies of samurai to protect their property from thieves and invaders. Eventually many noble families joined together to form clans that became more powerful than the emperor, who was the traditional head of the Japanese government (How Samurai Work 11). In the 12th century the two most powerful clans were the Minomoto and the Taira. The two came to battle in 1160 with the Taira winning. Twenty years later in 1180 those Minomotos who had escaped death (they were children during the first attack) led a new attack that turned into a war that lasted five years and was called the Gempei War. The Minamotos won, and the emperor made Minamoto Yoritomo shogun, the head of the military. Yoritomo however wanted more and took all power away from the emperor and made himself dictator. At this time the samurai gained power, through land given to them by the new shogun. Their rise in status was beginning.

The battles that were fought during The Gempei War were very important in the history of the samurai. They set a new and honorable standard for all samurai to live by. These standards would last throughout the existence of the samurai warrior. The Gempei War provided a role model for Japanese samurai’s courageous and noble behavior (Turnbull 14). Almost all the important characteristics attributed the samurai culture came out of the Gempei war; “Archery, hand-to-hand fighting, undying loyalty to one’s lord and the tremendous tradition of ritual suicide all have key passages and proof texts in the tales of the Gempi War”(Turnbull 15).

The samurai had an unwritten code of honor called the bushido. Bushido means “way of the warrior” (History of the Samurai 3). This provided them with a code to help show them how to live and conduct themselves at home and in battle. One of the most important duties of the samurai was their loyalty to their lord. The samurai would defend their lord until the death. Revenge was also central in the samurai’s life and if someone had killed their master or attacked their master’s honor revenge must be gotten. The same vengeance was given if they themselves or their family were disrespected or defeated.

Not just anyone could become a samurai warrior. You had to be the child of a samurai, being born into this class was a privilege. The samurai were not all rich, in fact their wealth was judged on the amount of Koku (which is the amount of rice that the fields produced). Other things like the size of the samurai’s house were based upon the wealth and rank of the samurai.

There were also strict traditions to be followed for a young samurai. When a samurai was born, he would be given a small sword charm to wear on his belt. When the boy is five he gets his first haircut and begins to learn martial arts. At age seven he receives his first wide trousers called hakama. When the young samurai is fifteen he goes through a ceremony called gembuku where the boy becomes a man. He then receives his adult name, his adult haircut, and his first real sword and armor. Most boys would be taught combat skills by their father and eventually as he got older he would be taught by a local sensei. Those boys from wealthier families were expected to be educated men and may be sent to an academy where they would study literature and the arts along with martial arts.

The training of the samurai for battle was intensive. There was more than just physical training involved. Strong mental concentration and focus were necessary to channel their energies before battle. The samurai warrior would spend endless hours practicing a set of complex battle movements called kata. “This practice started slowly at first increasing speed, until they became effortless and perfect. The movements were based on strategies of attack, defense, and counterattack” (Gaskin & Hawkins 73). However, the only way these young samurais would ever gain experience is to take part in actual battle. So the sons of the samurai would follow their fathers into battle to test their newly learned fighting techniques.

The samurai were also known for having a psychic awareness of the world around them in addition to their great skill. This is something practiced from an early age as well. An example of this keen awareness is seen in the story of three brothers told by their father. The father decided to test the ability of his three sons. He placed a vase on top a door so that it would fall when someone entered. The youngest son entered the room and he cut the vase in half with his sword before it hit the ground. The father’s response was, “This son has a long way to go.” Then he called for his middle son, this son caught the vase right above his head. This time his father’s response was that, “he is strong and improving but still has much to learn.” Finally, the oldest was called into the room, when he reaches for the door he immediately feels the weight of the vase. He slides the door open a crack and catches the vase and walks in. His father replies, “This son is doing well.” (Gaskin & Hawkins 75). Their goal for perfections and their training and dedication were endless.

The samurai is famous for his sword and it is one his most prized possessions. There are two main swords, one called the katana and the other the wakizashi. The wakizashi is worn on his belt at all times and a shorter blade of the two that was used in battle. The katana is the longer curved sword that was the samurai’s main weapon. The sword is given to a samurai at birth and placed next to that samurai when he dies. The samurai would take the sword everywhere he went, even to bed. It was treated with great respect and most would have been passed down from generation to generation. The process for making each sword from iron and steel is long and tedious requiring many steps and much patience. When finished a decorative handle would be added. The sword makers were respected and treated with almost reverence for the job they performed. “Like an artist the master sword maker would often sign his work (Gaskins & Hawkins 10). This sword would be the difference between life and death for many samurai.

The 1500s began as time known as the Period of Warring States. This term was borrowed from the Chinese even though Japan was battling between families and clans, and not states. The leader of the clan called himself an ashigaru. which means great names. Only the strongest clan could survive these battles and the daimyo would do anything to win. The powerful daimyos had large armies made up of foot soldiers called ashigaru. During this time there was also a big change in how the samurai fought. In addition to using the traditional bows they were introduced to guns for the first time. First the guns came from European traders and were made in China, but it didn’t take long for the Japanese to start manufacturing their own weapons. (Turnbull 19).

The samurai’s armor was one of the most elaborate and unique creations of their time. Today they are seen as works of art. Their armor was made from lamellar armor which took small metal plates and fastened them together and covered with a lacquer to make them waterproof. The outside of the armor was very colorful and sewn and covered with silk and leather designs. There were two types of armor, one called yori, which was heavier and used for riding on horseback. The other was called do-maru this was lighter and more practical for the foot soldiers. Both allowed for the samurai to have flexibility to move able to use their weapons and move in battle. This armor covered the entire body from samurai’s helmet to his chest protector and panels protecting his hips, arms and legs. One interesting fact is the about the kote. It is an armored sleeve only worn on the left arm so that the right arm would be free for the samurai to shoot his bow. Even when the bow was no longer used for battles this type of armor was seen as honoring a sense of tradition (How Samurai Work 5).

The samurai’s helmet was also very important. It provided heavy duty protection to the head and neck. They also wore an “iron face mask, which might represent demons, ghosts, or barbarians” (Gaskin & Hawkins 71) to help intimidate the enemy. An older warrior might want to use the face of a younger warrior so no one would know his age. The heavy duty neck covering helped in battles, and also helped prevent beheadings. Another example of samurai pride and courage is the ritual of burning incense in his helmet before battle. This was done so if he was defeated and beheaded he would leave behind a pleasant scent.

Another example of their legendary bravery was in 1281 when Genghis Khan (leader of the Mongols out of Asia) attempted to invade Japan. But, because of the brave samurai and a well timed storm called a kamikaze, they were destroyed along with their ships. The word kamikaze means “winds of the gods”, but after that day it took on another meaning to include, destroying an enemy. Even in 1945 the term kamikaze pilot was used for the Japanese pilots that attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. This victory against the Mongols was another added to the list of samurai’s brave and notable victories (Gaskin & Hawkins 28).

To the samurai, their pride went hand in hand with their honor and heritage. One example of this is when one samurai would challenge another to battle. It was tradition at this time for each samurai to speak publicly the names of all his ancestors, along with their accomplishments in battle ( some stories became embellished over time). This showed the deep pride and respect they held for his ancestors. (Turnbull 47). By the 14th century a samurai’s lineage had gotten quite long and just reciting your ancestors was difficult. The family pedigree was so important it was written down to be kept safe at all cost. An example of this devotion is when a samurai’s house caught fire and one samurai volunteered to go in and get the family tree that was written on a banner. “After the fire they found the samurai laying dead on his stomach, when they turned him over they found he had cut his stomach open and put the family tree inside to protect it from the flames” (Turnbull 53). This is another example of their devotion to their family and to duty.

The ancestors of the samurai were very much involved in the present life of the samurai. Every year during the Bon Festival they would be welcomed back through religious ceremonies. These ceremonies showed a deep appreciation felt toward their ancestors. They felt great gratitude for who they were, this included their name and their status. There were even rituals held before battles to bring the ancestors to help (Turnbull 48).

The death of the samurai was treated with the same respect and honor as was his life. Seppuku is the word used for suicide by cutting open the stomach (also known as hari kiri). Seppuku was performed with a dagger. To the samurai warrior seppuku was something to be honored and respected. It could also bring back honor to him and his family if he had been beaten in battle or disgraced. This took incredible bravely and was extremely painful. Often a friend of the samurai’s would to end his pain by cutting off his head. (History Channel). This could also be something planned out ahead of time or done quickly during battle.

Nitta Yoshisada is one of the most famous stories of a samurai’s death in 1336. Going into battle one day he was worried, the battle was difficult and he had to lead his men through rice fields. Yoshida went charging in, despite a heavy attack of soldiers and arrows. His horse was hit and fell down pinning him underneath. He had no time or way to reach his stomach to perform seppuku so they say he cut off his own head. This is just one of many extreme acts of seppuku over the many years of the samurai.

As clans all over Japan dispersed there became a large amount of samurai without a master these samurai were called ronin. These ronin were different from most samurai because they were not loyal to any lord. Many of them became personal body guards for farm owners, and some became senseis, and others took the time to master the technique of the sword.

As time has passed the so did the importance of the samurai warrior. There were no more battles to be fought and peace was among the country. This with Japan becoming a more industrialized nation. After years of isolationism and their declining economy Japan was finally forced to open trade with western countries including the United States. This caused a split in Japan between the conventional samurai ideals and those who wanted to bring in the new ways of the west. In 1876 the emperor decided that there would be no wearing swords unless you were part of the imperial armed forces. This was another symbol of the samurai‘s power no longer needed. Over time the samurai could no longer support themselves and returned to farming or working in cites. The role of the samurai warrior was finished.

The Japanese samurais have been extremely influential figures throughout Japan’s history. Their influence has been seen is all aspects of Japanese life from the education of young boys in body and mind, to governing of the Emperors, to the study of the martial arts. Their code of honor and loyalty are traditions that all Japanese respect and try to live up to even today. The self sacrifice of ones own life for a common cause was even seen in World War II when Japanese pilots deliberately crashed their planes into United States ships anchored at Pearl Harbor. This was a devastating attack and can show the horror caused by revenge and their belief in sacrifice and honor. They were even called kamikaze pilots after the famous samurai battle of long ago. The influence of the samurai continues to be seen in Japan today in a positive way with the stories and legends of heroic samurai and the bushido as their guide.

Works Cited

Gaskin, Carol. and Hawkins, Vince. The Ways of the Samurai. New York: Byron Preiss Visual

Publications, 2003

“History of the Samurai.”

“How Samurai Work.”

The History Channel: The Samurai. Videocassette. A&E Television Networks, 2003. 100 min.

Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai, The World of the Warrior. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003

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