History of the Samurai
more than 800 years, the samurai helped to lay the foundations of Japan's
culture. Their reverence for honor, duty, and service remains ingrained in
Japanese society even today. Together with their renowned martial capabilities,
these characteristics made the samurai what historian Stephen Turnbull calls
"the knights of old Japan." In this interactive time line,
familiarize yourself with the samurai and their challenges, and learn how the
warrior class evolved.—Rima Chaddha
term "samurai" comes from the Japanese word saburau, meaning "to serve," and was first
used in A.D. 702 to describe mid-to-low-ranking court administrators and,
later, armed imperial guards. Their title was mostly metaphorical, referring to
their loyalty to the emperor. By the 10th century, when provincial governors
began offering heavy rewards for military service, the samurai as we know them
came into being. The term eventually gained strong aristocratic overtones and
brought great prestige to the samurai's lineage—so much so that
warriors would recite their ancestry on the battlefield.
Left: A samurai in traditional armor, 1860s
the 11th century, powerful military clans had begun vying for power. Two
particularly strong family groups, the Taira and the Minamoto, stood out from
the rest and went on to influence Japanese politics for centuries to come. Each
took part in the Hogen Rebellion of 1156, a civil war fought over the disputed
imperial line of succession following the death of the emperor Toba. The conflict
resulted in the Taira rising to power to form the first samurai-led government
in the history of Japan.
Left: Taira no Shigemori, eldest son of the Taira patriarch during the Hogen
1180, the Minamoto clan resumed hostilities with the Taira in what became the
first armed conflict of the Gempei War (so-named for the Chinese reading of
both clans' names). The war spelled defeat for the Taira and changed the
role of shogun—previously
a commissioned military leader hired to dispose of enemies of the
throne—to permanent military dictator. The war also had lasting
implications for the samurai and fostered many of the codes of excellence by
which these warriors led their lives, including selfless heroism, high personal
standards of conduct, and martial prowess. Even the samurai's understanding
of art and poetry can be traced to stories of the Gempei War.
Left: The Gempei War spawned many myths. Here, a samurai battles a great beast.
of the gods
infighting increased through the following century, so did the need to defend
Japan from foreign invaders. Among them were Genghis Khan's Mongol
successors, who attacked Japan in 1274 and again in 1281. The Japanese were
severely outnumbered each time, but a major storm during the first invasion
destroyed, by some accounts, 200 Mongol ships, while a typhoon thwarted the
second siege. Together, these storms are known as kamikaze ("wind of the gods"),
a term that
would take on a more sinister definition during World War II when Japanese pilots
carried out suicide attacks. The belief in a protective divine shield—as
well as in Zen Buddhism, which allowed soldiers to overcome their fear of
dying—became essential to the samurai way of life. The warriors believed
they were largely safeguarded from death but needed to prepare for the
possibility in order to perform their best in battle.
Left: An artist's representation of the kamikaze
of the Warrior
continued within Japan, which soon had not one but two rival governments:
Emperor Go-Daigo's court to the south versus a new northern court
established by the ruling shogunate.
From these so-called Nanbokucho Wars, or the "Wars Between the
Courts," emerged Kusunoki Masashige, a samurai who would be venerated for
centuries as an exemplar of warrior conduct through his unstinting loyalty to
his lord, Emperor Go-Daigo. Masashige was a brilliant strategist, but in 1336,
Go-Daigo refused to accept the warrior's counsel, and the samurai knowingly
undertook what would become a suicide mission. When death at the hands of the
opposition became imminent, Masashige and 600 of his troops committed seppuku
(ritual suicide) on the
battleground. Being killed by the enemy was dishonorable, but seppuku, a key aspect of the samurai code of honor known
as bushido, allowed warriors
an honorable end.
Left: Masashige's statue outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
Warring States period (c. 15th to early 17th centuries) was a time of
widespread conflict, both physical and social, among the dominant clans of
Japan. Only the strong would survive, and strength lay in assembling large
armies and the most advanced weapons. Foot soldiers learned to use traditional
samurai weapons such as the bow, while the samurai became adept with the famed katana sword. Although crude Chinese handguns reached
Japan by the early 16th century, the later introduction of the European arquebus and its armor-piercing bullets caused a
revolution in warfare. The Japanese soon began producing their own firearms.
Left: A painting depicting one of the period's many brutal battles
Hideyoshi was the next samurai to change the course of Japanese (and warrior)
history. Through a series of successful political and military campaigns, he
asserted control over all of Japan by 1591. His power was greater than that of
any previous shogun, but it
wouldn't last: Hideyoshi stretched himself thin with attempted conquests
of China and Korea. Two years after Hideyoshi's death in 1598, a
provincial leader, Tokugawa Ieyasu, defeated Hideyoshi's armies and took
control of the recentralized military government. Ieyasu's family line
ruled Japan through the mid-19th century.
Left: Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose from peasant stock to lead Japan.
the first few decades of the 17th century, Japan had finally achieved an era of
relative peace. The samurai had no armies to fight, but they remained the
ruling class of Japan. Many went on to become administrative bureaucrats. Bushido, the code by which samurai once guided their
lives, became formalized, much like knightly chivalry in Europe when the
medieval warrior class became obsolete. A samurai could legally still cut down
any commoner who showed him insufficient respect, but his martial days were
largely over. What remained was the samurai ideal of unwavering devotion to
one's lord, which survives today in the great value that the Japanese
place on loyalty.
Left: Samurai fought in the 1868-69 Boshin War, which
marked the end of the shogunate.
of the samurai
samurai maintained their elite status into the mid-1800s, when Western
influences began to take hold. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry and his
American fleet sailed into Japanese waters and began to push for trade
concessions, helping to compel the government by the following year to open its ports
to foreigners. Awed by the West's military prowess, the Japanese went on
to modernize their forces and did away with many of the samurai's special
rights. Thus, the sword-slashing warrior of yore abandoned his neatly kept
ponytail for a shaven head and a modern, government-issue uniform. Still, the
samurai's ethos of honor and patriotism lives on in the Japanese spirit.
Left: World War II Japanese soldiers in Western-style uniforms
We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.