Samurai is a common term for a warrior in pre-industrial Japan. A more appropriate term is bushi, literally "war-man", that came into use during the Edo period. However, samurai now usually refers to warrior nobility, not, for example, ashigaru or foot soldiers. The samurai who has no attachment to a clan or daimyo to call his own was called a ronin, "wave-man".
Etymology of Samurai
The word samurai has its origins in the pre-Heian period Japan when it was pronounced saburai, meaning servant or attendant. It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai became substituted with samurai. However, by then, the meaning had already long before changed.
Origin of the Samurai
During the Heian period, saburai came to refer especially to the guards of the imperial palace and to those who carried swords. These forerunners of what we now know as samurai had ruler-sponsored equipment and were required to hone their martial skills in all times.
However, the actual armies of the emperor on the other hand, were nothing but groups of conscripts assigned to provincial areas of Japan in case of war or rebellion. They were modeled after continental Chinese armies and were composed by a third of the able-bodied adult male population, however, in contrast to the imperial guards, each soldier had to supply his own weapons and support himself.
In the early Heian, the late 8th and early 9th centuries, the emperor Kammu sought to consolidate and expand his empire in northern Honshu. He sent his armies to conquer the rebelling Emishi (ancestors of Ainu) which proved unsuccessful due to their lack of motivation and discipline to fight. He introduced the title of shogun and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi.
These clans originally were farmers that had been driven to arm and protect themselves from the tyranny of the imperially appointed magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes. Trained in mounted combat and archery, they came to be exclusively used by the emperor to put down rebellions, while the armies were eventually fully disbanded. By the mid-Heian, they had adopted Japanese style armor and weapons and laid the foundation of bushido.
For most of the later feudal period, the era of the rule of the samurai, term yumitori (“bowman”) remained as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even when swordsmanship had become more important. Kyujutsu, Japanese archery, is still an important part of the war god Hachiman.
Rise of the Samurai
Originally these warriors were little else than hired soldiers in the employ of the emperor and noble clans. But slowly they gathered enough power to eventually usurp the power of the emperor and establish the first samurai dominated government.
As the regional clans allied with each other and gathered manpower and resources, they formed a hierarchy centered around a toryo, or chief. This chief was a distant relative of the emperor and lesser member of one of three noble families, the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or the Taira. Though originally sent to provincial areas for a 4 year term as a magistrate, after completion of their term, knowing that they would only be able to take only sideline roles in the government, they decided to stay and not to return to Kyoto. Their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian.
Because of their military and economic power, the clans eventually became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvememt in the Hogen Rebellion in the late Heian only consolidated their power and finally pit the rival Minamoto and the Taira against each other in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. Emerging victorious, Taira no Kiyomori became an imperial advisor, the first warrior to attain such position, and eventually seized control of the central government establishing the first samurai dominated government and relegating the emperor to a mere figurehead.
Feudal Period Japan
The Taira and the Minamoto once again clashed in 1180 beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo once again established the superiority of the samurai and in 1190 visited Kyoto and in 1192 became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate.
Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility (buke) who were only nominally under court aristocracy (kuge). When samurai begun to adopt aristocratic customs like calligraphy, poetry and music, some kuge also begun to adopt samurai skills. Despite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, the real power was in the hands of the shogun and warriors.
Various samurai clans struggled for power over Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates. During the 14th century seppuku, the ritual suicide, became more common.
Sengoku jidai ("warring-states period") was marked by the fact that caste was still somewhat flexible. Those born into other social strata could sometimes make name for themselves as warriors and become de facto samurai. Formal bushido did not count for much when 150 warlords fought for dominance.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister in 1586, himself the son of a poor peasant family, created a law that the samurai caste became codified as permanent and heritable, and that non-samurai were forbidden to carry weapons.
During the Tokugawa era, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators rather than warriors and the daisho, the paired swords of samurai (katana and wakizashi) became more of a symbolic emblem of power rather than a weapon used in daily life. They still had the legal right to cut down any commoner who did not show proper respect; in what extent this right was used, is unknown. When the central government forced daimyos to cut the size of their armies, unemployed ronin actually became a social problem.
Scholars codified the bushido in its eventual form in the Tokugawa era. Also, the most famous book of kenjutsu, Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings, is from this period (1643).
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