The Legacy of Samurai: Exploring Japan's Noble Warriors

by Nana Young

From warriors to rulers, the story of the samurai in Japan will leave you in awe. Here’s your chance to learn about the origins and evolution of these hereditary warriors. We’ll cover everything, from their code of conduct and license to kill to the reasons behind their eventual demise.

Introduction to Samurai in Japan: Guardians of Honor and Tradition

Samurai's katana (Japanese swords) Mastery: Ukiyo-e Inspired Artwork

The samurai were an elite caste of noble Japanese warriors. They were the embodiments of royal and military nobility in Japan. The samurai in Japan existed from the 12th century to the 19th century, and during that time, they worked under the employ of the daimyo (feudal lord), eventually ruling the country from 1185 to 1333. 

The samurai were considered the greatest warrior caste in Japanese history. The feudal lords tasked them with defending their territories and vanquishing their foes. Their discipline, intense training, and natural ferocity made them difficult to conquer on the battlefield. Hence, the majority of the bandits and hostile tribes that faced the samurai did not live to tell the tale.

Despite their exploits in combat, the samurai were also considered symbols of honor. They followed strict codes of conduct and were given kiri-sute gomen (the right to strike), which permitted them to kill anyone of a lower class who dared to dishonor them. They were also given the exclusive right to carry swords at a point in Japanese history.

Today, people use bushi as a synonym for samurai, but historically, the term referred to warriors or soldiers in general and not the noble samurai. The era of the samurai ended in the 1870s but their legacy and ethical codes live on in Japan. Before we dive into the origins of the samurai, let’s explore their evolution throughout history.

The History of Samurai: From Ancient Origins to Noble Tradition

Japanese Samurai at Itsukushima Shrine , Icon of Japan and self discipline.

The samurai first appeared in Japan in the Heian period (794–1185). Their first ever role was as horse archers and guards for the Japanese elite. During that period, regional conflicts became rampant in the country and the samurai left their guard duties to become warriors. 

More powerful samurai clans began to rise, and they soon established the feudal system. Many battles between these samurai clans and the aristocracy took place. In 1185, the Minamoto clan finally defeated their rival clan, the Taira. This marked the beginning of the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). Ruler Minamoto no Yoritomo set up the Kamakura shogunate at the time and entrusted the samurai with issues of national security.

The samurai thrived under the rule of the shogunate and soon established a samurai-dominated government in Japan. The caste became more powerful under this rule. They even developed new combat styles, warfare tactics, and weapons, including the famous samurai swords. The emperor remained a cultural and religious leader, but the samurai had all the political and economic power. Unfortunately, they began to lose their power after the Onin War of 1467.

The Sengoku period (1467–1603) was a time of unending war among feudal lords, and the samurai rose once again to prominence. This time, they did not rule. Rather, they served the daimyo and fought in all of their wars against other feudal lords. 

Origins of the Samurai: Unveiling the Warrior Class

Fully equipped samurai wore on the horse, part of the military force in some regions

The first use of the word “samurai” was unrelated to the military. In the early 8th century, Imperial bureaucrats in Japan were classified based on 12 ranks. The person with the 1st rank was the advisor to the emperor. Those from below rank 6 were called “samurai” and were public servants responsible for managing the day-to-day affairs of the region.

The samurai’s emergence as feudal lords and military commanders in early Japanese society came after the Taika reforms redistributed lands in the country. Some of the wealthy landowners hired samurai warriors to help them protect their lands and riches. Some of the samurai were related to these feudal lords, while others were basically mercenaries.

What followed was a period of civil unrest in the Heian Era. The emperor at the time lost control of rural Japan, allowing samurai warlords to seize control of most of the country. The imperial court was weakened further when the sons of the late Emperor Toba fought against each other for the throne. They both lost, throwing the seat of power wide open. This led to a series of battles between the two samurai clans, Minamoto and Taira.

The Samurai Code: Bushido and the Way of the Warrior

Man holding Japanese sword, follow way of the warrior

The principles of Bushido, the samurai's code of conduct, had a significant impact on their way of life, moral standards, and behavior. Bushido was developed at the peak of samurai rule, during the Kamakura period. It has undergone several changes since then. However, all versions endorse the following 8 core virtues:.

  1. Honor: The samurai must fear disgrace but not take offence at slight provocations. They must always be conscious of their dignity and self-worth.

  2. Loyalty: Being loyal to their master was the most important rule of the samurai during the feudal era.

  3. Mercy: They must show love, sympathy, and pity for others. 

  4. Justice: This is Bushido's strongest virtue. Every samurai must be able to discern the appropriate course of action when faced with a decision.

  5. Politeness: They must regard the feelings of others.

  6. Courage: The samurai must be brave enough to do what is right, even when faced with formidable adversity.

  7. Self-Control: The samurai must be a person of character who sticks to their moral code.

  8. Honesty: The samurai must live a frugal life and be true to themselves and to others.

Samurai Warfare: Tactics, Weapons, and Strategies

Samurai armors and samurai swords are displayed in the Samurai Museum in Kabukicho Shinjuku-ku

We have said a lot about the martial skills of the samurai, but now we examine the technical details of how they were so successful in their battles. Upon receipt of a war order, the samurai would march out of their gates, chanting. They were typically set up in formation, with the scouts at the front, the commanders in the middle, and the defensive pack train at the rear. The typical samurai was equipped with traditional samurai armor, a helmet, loincloths, gloves, a quiver filled with arrows, and other samurai weapons.

Much like today’s military, the samurai had a special force known as the ninjas. These ninjas were used to map out the battlefield in advance, spy on the enemy, infiltrate their lines, or spread misinformation. At night, the samurai troops would make small tents. While most of them rested, a few would stay awake to look out for infiltrators.

During the battle, they were famous for using mobile cavalry archers to let loose volleys of deadly arrows. Foot soldiers were often tasked with protecting these archers. The samurai also had spear divisions. The commander gave orders to his troops with the help of drums and flags. If victorious, the warriors happily hunted down the fleeing survivors of the enemy troops.

Samurai Culture: Art, Literature, and Zen Philosophy

Japanese general and officers old war costumes.

The samurai’s contributions to Japan’s history extended outside the battlefield. They had a tremendous impact on the country’s religious practices. As firm believers in Zen Buddhism, they helped spread the religion across Japan by adopting many of its practices, including tea ceremonies, meditation, and frugal living. They were also heavily involved in the erection of temples and shrines in the country, further solidifying their role in the adoption of Buddhist and Shinto religious practices.

As known patrons and participants of the Noh theatre and their performances, the samurai believed in minimalist art, a concept that can be attributed to most Japanese art forms today. Their lifestyle, epic battles, and martial art styles have often been portrayed in plays, paintings, sculptures, literature, and other works of art. 

The Rise of the Samurai Class: Influence and Power

Japanese samurai army fighting with enemy for unified Japan, large scene, battlefield

It’s safe to say that the emergence of the samurai as a political and social elite took place under the rule of the Kamakura shogunate, which lasted from the 12th century to the 14th century. As the ruling political class, they held unrivaled power and responsibilities in Japan.

However, this did not cause them to relent in their role as military elites. When the Mongols invaded Japan, the samurai were unrelenting in their defensive war efforts, even developing new combat styles in the many years of fighting that followed the invasion. At a time when wars were rampant, Japan needed warriors as their leaders, and the samurai stepped up to fill that role for the people.

Samurai Women: Warriors and Influential Figures

Asian samurai girl with long hair stands in profile holding one hand on a katana and the other outstretched in front of her, an eagle sits on it.

The female samurai may not have been as popular as their male counterparts but they were important members of the clan and had a significant impact on Japanese history. Known as onna-bugeisha, they were excellent fighters with extensive martial arts training. However, samurai women were rarely called into battle, unlike the men. But there were times when both samurai men and women fought battles alongside each other. Tomoe Gozen and Hangaku Gozen were two of the best samurai women to take up arms. They fought for the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan, respectively.

Just like the samurai men served the daimyo, the samurai women served their wives and concubines. In the 16th century, samurai women also defended their homes and children when their husbands were away.

Samurai Decline: The End of an Era

Elaborate traditional Japanese samurai armor

By the start of 1870, the samurai had 1.9 million members, or about 5% of the entire Japanese population. Emperor Meiji was set on a central government and a full reform of the socio-political structure of the country, which included the gradual abolishment of the samurai class and their feudal perception.

The Emperor transformed their expensive salaries into government bonds and integrated the younger warriors into a new, singular Japanese army that resembled that of Western countries. The former samurai were now known as Shizoku, a social class with no independent military authority. Younger samurai entered other industries, especially business, news media, and government service.

Samurai Legacy: Heritage and Cultural Impact

Judo Professor and his students, following ethical behavior Bushido

Even though the samurai are now obsolete, their legacy endures in Japanese culture. For one, their Bushido code is still used as a guide for Japanese companies. Also, the discipline required to learn the samurai’s martial arts is often cited in the country’s educational system. Countless literary works have been written with a sole focus on the samurai ideals and their Bushido code of conduct. Today, both Western and Japanese TV shows, movies, comics, and other media portray the samurai as honorable warriors and skilled fighters. There seems to be a Western fascination with the samurai and their unique lifestyle.

Samurai in Modern Japan: Myth vs. Reality

Armored samurai in the rain

Although the image of the samurai persists in modern Japan, some popular perceptions and stereotypes threaten to undermine the legacy of these great warriors. Perhaps the most common myth about Japanese samurai is that they were only men. This is false, as many samurai women existed in history and fought alongside the men. Another misconception is that all samurai were loyal to death. While loyalty to their lords is a big part of their code, there have been instances in history when samurai defected. In fact, a samurai who had defected was responsible for the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. Masterless samurai called Ronin also existed and only cared for their interests.

Samurai Sites in Japan: Exploring Historical Landmarks

Geisha parade at Edo Wonderland in Nikko Edomura Edo

If you want to experience samurai culture today, you can visit Japan and explore its many castles, temples, theme parks, and museums. Castles offer the most accurate depictions of the samurai lifestyle. A lot of them are modern reconstructions with guides and exhibitions providing key details about premodern Japan. Most of the samurai living in the towns surrounding Japanese castles had their own districts, some of which still exist to this day. Below is our list of the best samurai sites in Japan.

  1. Hagi Castle Town (Hagi)

  2. Sword Museum (Tokyo)

  3. Kakunodate Samurai District (Akita)

  4. Nikko Edomura theme park (Nikko)

  5. Ninja Kingdom Ise (Ise)

Honoring the Samurai: Celebrating Japan's Noble Warriors

Portrait of samurai holding Japanese sword.

The legacy of the samurai reminds us of Japanese history and the sacrifices made by people in the past. It also teaches the importance of honor and discipline and how those traits could shape the way future generations look back on your life. No doubt, the samurai have had an enduring impact on Japanese history, culture, and identity.

If you enjoyed learning about the samurai, there are many more historical clans and figures associated with the country. While you do more research by reading our blog, feel free to experience a taste of life in Japan. Bokksu offers you the chance to get a mystery box filled with some of the best snacks and sweets in Japan every month. All you need to do is get yourself a Bokksu Snack Box Subscription, and we’ll deliver your first box to your home.

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