Secrets of the Samurai Sword

History of the Samurai

For 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

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Those who serve
8th–10th centuries

The 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

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Rival clans
Mid-12th century

By 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 Rebellion

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The Gempei War
Late 12th century

In 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.

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Wind of the gods
13th century

As 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

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Way of the Warrior
14th century

Fighting 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

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The Warring States
15th century

The 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

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Continuing strife
16th century

Toyotomi 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.

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Knights of Japan
17th century

By 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.

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End of the samurai
19th–20th centuries

The 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


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© | Created August 2007