Samurai

The Way of a Warrior

Long ago, the word “samurai” referred to noble warriors called “bushi.” These warriors were part of a strong military group that gained influence in the 12th century, during Japan’s path to a military dictatorship (shogunate). The samurai had a firm grip on Japanese politics, economy, and society until the 19th century.

We can find evidence of the earliest samurai in the Heian Period (794-1185). At first, they were supporters hired by wealthy landowners as armed guards for protection. As these landowners distanced themselves from the imperial court, they became more independent and embarked on their quests for wealth.

A samurai in his armor in the 1860s. Hand-colored photograph by Felice Beato.

A samurai in his armor in the 1860s. Hand-colored photograph by Felice Beato.

In the mid-12th century, the influence in Japan’s political landscape gradually shifted from the emperor to the aristocrats and powerful landowning clans. Through alliances and strategic marriages, such clans gained political power and eventually surpassed the traditional aristocracy.

Two prominent clans, Minamoto and Taira, challenged the existing government and engaged in a fierce conflict (Genpei War). Minamoto Yoshitsune, a military commander from the Minamoto clan, led his forces to victory against the Taira clan.

Scene of the Genpei War by Motonobu Denkinobu

Scene of the Genpei War by Motonobu Denkinobu

In 1192, a new military government was established, led by the shogun, who held the position of supreme military commander under the central government of Kamakura, the de facto capital of Japan. This marked the rise of the Kamakura Shogunate, granting real political power to the samurai. The samurai would go on to rule over Japan for the majority of the next 700 years.

The Minamoto clan established the privileged status of the samurai. It was during this time that the sword (katana) became a symbol of great importance. A man’s honor was tied to his sword and the artistry behind its creation.

Following this period, Japan entered a turbulent era marked by political turmoil. With a lack of strong central authority, local lords and their samurai took on increased responsibility in maintaining law and order. The samurai of the Kamakura period cultivated a disciplined culture, taking great pride in their military skills and exhibiting stoicism.

Honor may not win power, but it wins respect. And respect earns power.

Ishida Mitsunari

During the Muromachi period (1338-1573), Zen Buddhism greatly influenced samurai culture, leading to the development of enduring Japanese arts like the tea ceremony and flower arranging. The samurai started practicing meditation, taught by Zen Buddhism, to improve their martial arts skills.

The training of samurai began in childhood. Boys engaged in both academic and physical education. Alongside their studies, they delved into spiritual disciplines and Kenjutsu (swordsmanship). Girls also received training, learning martial arts.

Men and women engaged in battle, 16th-century illustration

The samurai’s code of conduct, bushido, or “the way of the warrior,” finds its strong roots in Confucianism. Bushido emphasizes values such as loyalty, morality, discipline, ethical behavior, and placing honor above one’s own life. In the face of defeat, ritual suicide, known as “seppuku”—performed by stabbing oneself in the abdomen with a short sword, resulting in a slow and agonizing death—was considered an honorable alternative.

I know nothing about surpassing others. I only know how to outdo myself.

Bushido

Frugality, kindness, honesty, and caring for family members, particularly elders, were also important aspects of bushido. However, the term “bushido” itself did not come into use until the 16th century. And it was in the late 17th century when scholar Yamago Soko officially compiled the code. During this time, the samurai no longer functioned as active military clans but served as advisors and guides. Previously, the samurai class adhered to the unwritten code of conduct.

The privileged position of the samurai class came to an end during the Meiji reform with the official abolition of feudalism in 1871. Former samurai, dissatisfied with these changes, attempted rebellions multiple times during the 1870s. However, these uprisings were swiftly quelled by the newly established national army.

Words of wisdom

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt

“The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.” —Audrey Hepburn

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” —Lao Tzu

“The ultimate aim of martial arts is not having to use them.” —Miyamoto Musashi

Bibliography

How did you like the episode?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.