Children and adults alike are fascinated with the Samurai warrior class of medieval
Japan. We’ve all seen, heard or read about a glorified version of the Samurai in
countless films, TV shows, novels and comic books. We were told that the samurai
were amazing warriors who were an entire league of their own and were vastly different
from the medieval knights of the Western world. They’re often depicted as expert
fighters equipped with lethal skills in sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat, and they
are also known for their faithful obedience to their strict code of conduct every day of
their lives.

But how close to the truth are these fictional takes on the life of a samurai? Let’s find out.

What is a Samurai?

Photograph of Japanese samurai in armour (Source: Felice Beato/Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the best place to begin in understanding the life of a samurai is to define what a samurai is. The Samurai (侍) were members of the military class in the caste system of feudal Japan. They rose to prominence when the country ushered in a militaristic dictatorial rule with the establishment of the Shogunate sometime in the 12th century. They maintained a powerful presence across the country for the next seven hundred years until their influence eventually declined with the fall of the feudal system and the restoration of imperial rule in the 19th century. In feudal Japan, the samurai were more commonly referred to as “bushi” (武士) or “buke” (武家), and they usually served a particular clan and under a lord or a leader. Trained in military tactics and war strategy, they were an elite class of noble officers that made up only less than ten percent of medieval Japan’s population.

Philosophy of the Samurai

One of the things that make the samurai unique is their unbending adherence to their
philosophy known as the samurai code of “bushido,” which in English translates to the
“Way of the Warrior.” This moral code requires a samurai to embody unwavering honor,
selflessness and bravery in times of war and even in peace.

According to the principles of bushido, a samurai must also swear to serve his master
until his dying breath. It is also not enough to be fearless and loyal; a samurai must also
possess superior knowledge and skills in combat and conduct themselves in society as
highly cultured and educated individuals. This meant that it was not enough for a
samurai to know how to end a life, he was also expected to elevate himself by pursuing
interests in art, poetry, music, calligraphy and even tea ceremony.

The samurai were expected to behave honorably at all times, and having honor was
such an important part of their lives that they often seek it even in death. Hence, as part
of “bushido,” a warrior would sometimes commit a form of ritual suicide referred to as
“seppuku.” More often than not, the main reason that a samurai would commit suicide is
to avoid capture and defeat in the battlefield. Rather than live a disgraceful life in the
hands of their enemies, they chose to commit “hara-kiri” – a painful form of suicide in
which an individual personally slices his own abdomen before a subordinate beheads
him.

Source: Shutterstock

Outside of battle, seppuku is a more formal ceremony attended by various spectators.
In some instances, the samurai members of clan would commit seppuku out of intense grief over the death of their leader. This was regarded as the ultimate display of respect and loyalty a samurai can do in the name of their master. However, there are also occasions when seppuku was used as a form of punishment and as an outright display of intent to separate from the lord they serve.

Not everyone supported ritual suicide in feudal Japan, and it was at some point even banned in certain parts of the country. Nevertheless, the practice continued, and even
today, people often cite Japan’s enduring tradition of seeking an honorable death as
one of the main reasons why the country has among the highest suicide rates in the
world.

History of the Samurai

In our effort to learn more about the samurai as well as their way of life in the past, let
us also take a glimpse at their simple beginnings, their gradual rise to power, as well as
their eventual abolishment.

During the Heian Period – which took place between the 8th and 12th century – the rise
of the great Fujiwara clan brought about the fall of other wealthy clan leaders and
landowners who were stripped of their power and influence in the imperial court. These
landowners, along with the armed warriors who supported and served them, were
forced to leave the capital and try their luck elsewhere. Eventually, fortunes favored
these clans, gaining strong footholds in the territories they occupied, which
consequently rendered the central government of Japan less relevant to the citizens. The political power, as well as the influence of the emperor and royal family, waned in the
middle of the 12th century. On the other hand, the great clans that owned and governed
vast estates across Japan gradually seized power and gained control over the people
who lived within their respective territories. Eventually, two of the most powerful clans at
the time – the Taira and the Minamoto – would fight over primary control of the country’s
central government. Their clash required the samurai class to play a larger role in the
battle for supremacy, and consequently, the Emperor himself was relegated to a
powerless position and was regarded as nothing more than a figurehead of the nation.

Following the conclusion of the Genpei War before the end of the 12th century, the
Minamoto clan seized control of the imperial government and with their triumph, their
leader, Minamoto no Yoritomo, decided to build a new center of power outside Kyoto
and within his territory in Kamakura. He then formed a new government which came to
be known in the annals of Japanese history as the Kamakura Shogunate. While the
emperor was still regarded as the father of the nation, the shogun was the actual ruler
who administered the affairs of the country. This military government established by
Yoritomo displayed a clear shift in who held actual political power in Japan, with the
samurai class gaining supremacy over the aristocracy.

During this time, the shogun also took it upon himself to determine whether someone is
worthy of being labeled as a samurai or not. Earning the prestigious title equated to a
life of privilege and an elevated status in society, which in turn allowed for the further
cultivation of the samurai culture.

Numerous members of the samurai class became fascinated with Zen Buddhism in the
13th century and much of its teachings were incorporated in the philosophy of the
samurai and their code of behavior. Originally, the samurai warriors were more focused
in archery and mounted combat, but it was also during this time that the sword or the
“katana” became a significant part of a samurai’s life as it was believed then that a
warrior’s soul and honor resides in the blade he wields.

Armoured samurai with sword and dagger (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Mongol invasions, insurmountable financial troubles led to the eventual downfall of the Kamakura government. Around the 14th century, the Ashikaga
Shogunate took over in controlling the country. However, for the next two hundred years, Japan found itself in a constant state of unrest as various territorial clans fought against each other for power and authority. The shogunate failed to reestablish peace between warring clans and it became the responsibility of the local lords and their league of samurai to protect the citizens and maintain order in their respective regions.
The long period of constant conflict in Japan ceased in 1615 when Tokugawa Ieyasu successfully unified all Japanese territories and subsequently established the Tokugawa Shogunate. During this period, the citizens of Japan enjoyed more than two centuries of peace and prosperity, which led some members of the samurai class to pursue civil duties instead of serving as part of a military force.

Poverty and famine, however, led to the public’s dissatisfaction and unrest, shaking the
strength of the once-powerful Tokugawa Shogunate in the middle of the 19th century.
Western influence also grew in Japan and the government was compelled to sign a
treaty with various foreign nations including the United States, Britain, and Russia. This
controversial move to open the country’s doors did not sit well with the conservative
members of Japanese society, which included many members of the samurai class.
By 1868, the Tokugawa Shogunate fell with the help of the samurai class and imperial
rule was reestablished under Emperor Meiji. This resulted to the abolishment of
feudalism and the subsequent nationwide ban in carrying swords – a policy which the samurai were not exempted from. Ironically, though the samurai helped usher in the
Meiji Restoration, they were the ones who suffered significant losses in wealth and
influence as the government relied less and less on their services. When the
government ceased providing stipends to members of the samurai class, the disgruntled
members of the samurai class rebelled in the 1870s. However, their uprising was
eventually quelled by the newly-formed national army.

Though they no longer served as a military force, some of the samurai that sided with
the imperial government rose through the ranks as government officials and civil
leaders, quietly becoming an influential force in modern Japan without the necessity of
wielding weapons. By the early 20th century, Japan became a global superpower and
the samurai’s Bushido principles became a primary moral code faithfully followed by the
soldiers serving the country. The Japanese soldiers displayed their devotion to the
ancient moral code during the Second World War by bringing samurai swords into
battle. They also preferred death over defeat and dishonor and would willfully commit
suicide to preserve their honor and dignity as warriors.

Conclusion

A few centuries have passed since the samurai class dominated Japanese society, and
it can be said that their presence in our modern and peaceful world is no longer
necessary as it was once before. Nevertheless, Japan remains proud of its samurai
culture and its ideals and values are instilled in the hearts and minds of its citizens.
Their legacy lives on as their influence remains deeply entrenched in the culture and
state of mind of the Japanese people.

SOURCES:

  1. http://www.history.com/topics/samurai-and-bushido
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samurai
  3. http://dept.ku.edu/~ceas/lessons2/docs/JAPAN%20The%20Life%20of%20the%20Samurai.pdf
  4. http://www.colorado.edu/cas/tea/curriculum/imaging-japanesehistory/medieval/pdfs/handout-M2.pdf
  5. https://www.insidejapantours.com/japanese-culture/samurai/
  6. http://jpninfo.com/19874
  7. http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2127.html

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