In the annals of history, few figures evoke the same sense of mystique and honor as the samurai. These stalwart warriors, members of a formidable military caste in feudal Japan, began as humble provincial fighters before ascending to power during the 12th century with the inception of Japan’s first military dictatorship, known as the shogunate. The samurai, who served the great lords known as daimyos, played a pivotal role in upholding the shogun’s authority and bestowing power upon him over the mikado or emperor. This allegiance and valor would ultimately shape Japanese government and society until the watershed moment of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which marked the end of the feudal system.
Early Samurai: Origins and Evolution
During the Heian Period (794-1185), the samurai served as the armed supporters of affluent landowners. Many of these warriors had once been part of the imperial court but sought their fortunes independently after being marginalized by the powerful Fujiwara clan. The term “samurai” itself roughly translates to “those who serve,” highlighting their unwavering dedication to their masters. Another term, “bushi,” represents warriors in general but lacks the nuanced connotations of servitude to a master.
As we transition into the mid-12th century, we witness the gradual shift of political power in Japan. It migrates away from the emperor and the nobility in Kyoto to the clan leaders who oversee vast estates in the countryside. The Gempei War (1180-1185) played a pivotal role in this shift. This conflict pitted two influential clans, the dominant Taira and the Minamoto, against each other in a fierce struggle for control of Japan. The war culminated in a historic victory led by one of Japan’s most renowned samurai heroes, Minamoto Yoshitsune, near the village of Dan-no-ura.
The Ascent of the Samurai and the Kamakura Period
Minamoto Yoritomo, the triumphant leader and half-brother of Yoshitsune, established the seat of government in Kamakura. This marked the inception of the Kamakura Shogunate, a hereditary military dictatorship that transferred the crux of political power in Japan to the samurai. Yoritomo was steadfast in his efforts to establish and delineate the privileged status of the samurai; one could not claim the title without his formal permission.
Zen Buddhism made its entry into Japan from China during this period and held a profound allure for many samurai. Its austere and unpretentious rituals, coupled with the belief in inner salvation, harmonized seamlessly with the samurai’s own code of conduct. Additionally, the artistry of the sword reached new heights during the Kamakura period. A man’s honor was said to reside in his sword, and the crafting of these blades became an art form unto itself, complete with meticulously hammered blades, gold and silver inlay, and sharkskin handgrips.
Japan in Turmoil: the Ashikaga Shogunate
The strain of repelling two Mongol invasions at the close of the 13th century began to weaken the Kamakura Shogunate, ultimately leading to its fall during a rebellion led by Ashikaga Takauji. The Ashikaga Shogunate, headquartered in Kyoto, emerged around 1336. For the ensuing two centuries, Japan found itself ensnared in ceaseless conflicts among territorial clans. The Onin War of 1467-77, a particularly divisive event, rendered the Ashikaga shoguns ineffective. Consequently, feudal Japan experienced a dearth of a strong central authority, with local lords and their samurai stepping in to maintain law and order.
Despite the turbulence in politics, the Muromachi period, named after the district of Kyoto, bore witness to substantial economic growth in Japan. This era also heralded a golden age for Japanese art. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, the samurai culture embraced artistic pursuits such as the tea ceremony, rock gardens, flower arranging, theater, and painting, all of which flourished during this period.
Samurai under the Tokugawa Shogunate
The Sengoku-Jidai, or the Period of the Country at War, culminated in 1615 with the unification of Japan under Tokugawa Ieyasu. This ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity spanning 250 years. During this time, the samurai assumed the mantle of governance through civil means rather than the sword. Ieyasu introduced the “ordinances for the Military Houses,” which mandated that samurai receive balanced training in both martial and “polite” learning, following the tenets of Confucianism.
This period witnessed the ascendance of Confucianism as the dominant ideology among samurai, eclipsing Buddhism. Bushido, as a code of conduct, solidified its position as a guiding philosophy for Japanese society. Although influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought, the core principles of bushido, including a focus on military prowess and fearlessness in the face of adversity, remained constant. It also emphasized values such as frugality, kindness, honesty, and familial duty, particularly toward elders.
The Meiji Restoration & the End of Feudalism
The mid-19th century marked the destabilization of the Tokugawa regime due to a confluence of factors, including peasant uprisings spurred by famine and poverty. The incursion of Western powers into Japan, notably Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy’s arrival in 1853, seeking to open Japan’s doors to international trade, proved to be the catalyst for change. In 1858, Japan inked commercial treaties with several Western nations, including the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and Holland. This decision, controversial at the time, fueled resistance to the shogunate among conservative factions in Japan, including many samurai who advocated for the restoration of imperial authority.
The formidable Choshu and Satsuma clans united their efforts to dismantle the Tokugawa Shogunate and announced an “imperial restoration” in honor of Emperor Meiji in early 1868. Feudalism officially met its demise in 1871, accompanied by the prohibition of sword-wielding for all except members of the national armed forces. Samurai stipends were converted into government bonds, often resulting in significant financial losses for these erstwhile warriors. The nascent Japanese national army quelled multiple samurai uprisings during the 1870s. Some disgruntled samurai joined clandestine ultra-nationalist societies, such as the infamous Black Dragon Society, whose mission was to foment unrest in China, providing a pretext for the Japanese army to intervene and restore order.
Ironically, it was members of the samurai class themselves who orchestrated the Meiji Restoration. Influential figures like Inoue Kaoru, Ito Hirobumi, and Yamagata Aritomo had all studied under the renowned samurai Yoshida Shouin. Tragically, Yoshida Shouin met his end after a failed assassination attempt on a Tokugawa official in 1859. These former samurai played pivotal roles in steering Japan toward its modern incarnation, emerging as leaders across various facets of Japanese society.
Bushido in Modern Japan: A Living Ethos
Following the Meiji Restoration, Shintoism took center stage as the state religion of Japan, distinguishing itself from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity as a wholly Japanese belief system. Simultaneously, bushido assumed the mantle of the prevailing moral code, permeating various aspects of Japanese life. By 1912, Japan had not only fortified its military prowess but also forged alliances, including one with Britain in 1902 and a triumphant victory over the Russians in Manchuria two years later. By the conclusion of World War I, Japan had risen to become one of the “Big Five” powers, standing alongside Britain, the United States, France, and Italy during the Versailles peace conference.
Nevertheless, the liberal and cosmopolitan ambiance of the 1920s gradually ceded ground to a resurgence of Japan’s martial traditions in the 1930s. This resurgence set the stage for imperial aggression and Japan’s involvement in World War II. During the war, Japanese soldiers brandished antique samurai swords and carried out “banzai” charges in alignment with the bushido tenet that death should precede dishonor or defeat. At the war’s conclusion, Japan harnessed its deep-seated sense of honor, discipline, and devotion not to the daimyos or shoguns of yore but to the emperor and the nation. This ethos propelled Japan to reemerge as a formidable global economic and industrial powerhouse in the latter half of the 20th century.