Home ›› 13 Nov 2022 ›› Opinion
The samurai (also bushi) were a class of warriors that arose in the 10th century in Japan and which performed military service until the 19th century. Elite and highly-trained soldiers adept at using both the bow and sword, the samurai were an essential component of Japanese armies in the medieval period.
Samurai and samurai culture may have been excessively romanticised since the 18th century as the epitome of chivalry and honour but there are many examples of them displaying great courage and loyalty to their masters, in particular, even committing ritual suicide in the event of the defeat or death of their lord. Warfare in medieval Japan was, though, as bloody and as uncompromising as it was in any other region and money was often the prime motive for many samurai to participate in battle. From the 17th century, and no longer needed in a military capacity, samurai often became important moral teachers and advisors within the community.
The government system of conscription in Japan was ended in 792, and so in the following Heian Period (794-1185), private armies were formed in order to protect the landed interests (shoen) of nobles who spent most of their time away at the imperial court. This was the beginning of the samurai, a name meaning ‘attendant’ while the verb samurau means to serve and so the term was originally one of class rather than the military profession it later came to signify. There were other classes of warriors, too, but the samurai class was the only one with a connotation of serving the imperial court.
Samurai were employed by feudal lords (daimyo) for their material skills in order to defend the lord’s territories against rivals, to fight enemies identified by the government, and battle with hostile tribes and bandits. For this reason, samurai could live in barracks, in a castle or in their own private homes. As samurai eventually organised into groups led by warlords with political power they were able to take over from a weak imperial court in the 12th century under the rule of such warlords as Minamoto no Yoritomo. Thus, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333) a new military government system was founded which was dominated by warriors and led by a shogun (military dictator). and so it would remain right up until the 19th century.
Many samurai came from the Kanto plain and had gained valuable experience in the campaigns against the Emishi (Ainu) tribes in the north. In these battles, warriors began to develop a code of conduct which gave them the possibility to earn a reputation and increase their status amongst their peers and masters. Naturally, bravery on the battlefield was paramount, and a tradition developed of samurai riding into battle shouting out their lineage and past deeds and challenging any of the enemy to single combat. These vocal pronouncements would later be replaced by the use of banners in samurai culture. All samurai were supervised by their lords, but from 1180, the national Samurai-dokor (Board of Retainers) was formed to particularly monitor gokenin and dish out disciplinary measures for any misdemeanours if and when required. From 1591, samurai were no longer permitted to be both farmers and warriors and had to choose one living or the other, the idea being this would make them more dependent and so more loyal to their masters.