|Revered, respected and continually shrouded in mystery and lore, samurai are among Japan’s most enduring, fascinating and enigmatic historical figures. Centuries after their glorified reign, these rarified warriors remain the subject of intensive academic research and cultural studies throughout the world. They are also represented in numerous forms of art and entertainment, including movies and television, comics, websites, books, textiles, figurines and more. Mrs. Lin’s March newsletter highlights the rich traditions, lasting legacies and modern-day popularity associated with Japan’s noble samurai.
In most historic and cultural contexts, the word samurai is applied to an elite class of specialized military figures who served in Japan during the end of the 8th century until the latter part of the 19th century. The distinguished term is derived from the ancient Japanese word saburau (later becoming saburai) that describes serving or closely attending to nobility.
One of the hallmarks of the samurai was their devout adherence to a strict code of moral and ethical conduct known, since the late 1800s, as bushido, or The Way of the Warrior. This stringent code provided samurai, or bushi, with guidelines and a supporting philosophy that valued such virtues as self-sacrifice, honor, allegiance, obedience, duty and respect for elders and authority—or filial piety.
In accordance with their bushido code, samurai were chiefly responsible for serving wealthy farmers and landowners known as feudal lords, or daimyo. During Japan’s feudal period, armies of samurai warriors were frequently ordered to defend a daimyo, his land, or property from attacks by foreign invaders or warring feudal lords. The fiercely loyal and honor-bound samurai were prepared to protect their daimyo at any cost, including death.
Traditionally, samurai were outfitted with finely crafted gear and battle-ready ensembles. They wore full suits of protective armor consisting of cloth and bamboo combined with durable materials like iron and bronze. In contrast to the heavy armor of medieval Europe, samurai suits were relatively lightweight; this provided the warriors with greater ease of movement during rigorous activities like hand-to-hand and weapon-based combat. As an important finishing touch, they also wore intricately designed helmets with unique horn like accents called kabuto.
In addition to their exceptionally made armor, samurai received specialized combat training and advanced weaponry. They were celebrated experts in the art of fighting with long backswords called katana and shorter accompanying blades named wakizashi—known collectively as daisho. These remarkable warriors also learned to use wooden and wrought iron clubs, and were well-versed in kyujitsu—the art of using a Japanese longbow (yumi). Samurai would often use these elegantly shaped bows while horseback riding; the practice of mounted archery (yabusame) remains a celebrated traditional art in modern-day Japan.
Many historical and cultural experts believe samurai emerged around 794 AD, during Japan’s classical Heian Period. Operating initially as clans of farmers and other workers who fought in defense of their land and property, these early samurai were frequently found in the perimeters of the country’s imperial territories. During the late 8th to early 9th centuries these rugged fighters were organized into skilled warrior armies by the country’s Emperor Kammu. Although the early samurai lacked political power, they were regarded for their ability to successfully suppress dissent among indigenous groups resistant to imperial rule.
Eventually, the samurai class grew in rank and standing in Japan’s feudal society. By the 12th century, samurai warriors achieved notable political and military influence. Their new power status culminated in the Genpei War (1180-1185) that erupted following the abdication of the imperial throne. During the conflict the Minamoto samurai clan defeated the rival Taira clan, resulting in the foundation of the Kamakura shogunate. Founded by Minamoto no Yorimoto, this samurai-backed dictatorship ruled Japan from 1185-1333, during which time the city of Kamakura replaced Kyoto as the country’s capitol.
While the Kamakura shogunate was followed by a brief return to imperial leadership, shogunate rule prevailed as the dominate force in Japanese politics for nearly 700 years. The Ashikaga shogunate, founded by Ashikaga Takauji, lasted from 1336 to 1573. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power and established the Tokugawa shogunate in the new capitol city Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in 1603. As Japan’s final period of shogun-led rule, the Tokugawa shogunate lasted until 1867—when national leadership was abdicated to Emperor Meiji.
Nearly 150 years have passed since the last of Japan’s powerful samurai defended their ruling shogun empire. Yet, the appeal of these remarkable and noble warriors continues to expand worldwide in numerous artistic, academic, entertainment and cultural circles. From the international best-selling novel Shogun and the multi-national epic film The Last Samurai, to animated series, comic books, video games and music, samurai remain inspiring subjects for artists, entrepreneurs and fans alike.
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