We sometimes hear words that describe different groups of people in Japan, words like geisha, ninja, shogun or maiko which may conjure up images or impressions of who those words describe. Add another word – samurai.
Who or what were the samurai in Japan? Samurai were a class of highly skilled warriors who trace their start back to the mid-600s AD.
The first record of samurai was about the time an effort to redistribute land, primarily farmland, and impose heavy new taxes to support the lavish lifestyle of what later became the Imperial Court. As a result, many with small farmers were forced to sell their land which resulted in fewer, but much larger farms.
The owners of these new large farms became quite wealthy, powerful and greedy, often wanting more land.
These powerful land owners who became known as daimyo hired men called samurai to protect the land they owned and, in some cases, help the daimyo take possession of more land.
The samurai were in effect a small fighting force of the daimyo and became known as samurai warriors.
With no strong central government through the Nara Period and through much of the Heian Period and later periods, the daimyo and powerful clans were often engaging in conflicts and rebellion throughout these periods.
During those times of conflict, the reputation of the samurai continued to grow. These conflicts continued until about 1600 AD when the Emperor was forced to proclaim the head of the Tokugawa Clan as Shogun, setting up a feudal form of government at which point the samurai were consider a part of the ruling class of Japan.
The samurai are best remembered as brave and gallant warriors, but there’s much more to samurai than their skills in battle. They lived by a code of conduct known as bushido, which translated means “way of the warrior.” The basic principles of bushido were honor, courage, martial arts skills and loyalty above all else.
These relate more to samurai behavior during battle where they faced death unafraid, but there’s much more to a samurai in everyday life where the bushido code called for compassion, benevolence, respect, courtesy, polite and righteous behavior and frugality.
Japanese literature portrays them as possessing reckless courage, but with extreme devotion to their family and to their warlord, however in times of peace many pursued intellectual and cultural activities.
Toward the end of the Tokugawa Era the country was enjoying peace and the Tokugawa Shoguns forced many of the samurai to live in cities and continue to serve their lords or to give up their swords and move to remote areas and take up farming, basically transforming the warriors into a class of cultured farmers.
When the last Tokugawa shogun was overthrown and the Emperor again ascended the throne in 1867, this ushered in the Meiji Era and brought to a close more than 1,100 years of actual samurai life in Japan.
However, over 11 centuries, many thousands of samurai are part of the history and these noble warriors are ancestors of thousands of families throughout Japan, including my wife Kayo’s family.
The tenants of the bushido code didn’t die with the last samurai warrior as the men in the U.S. military who served in the Pacific theater noted as they often observed the reckless courage and complete lack of fear of death of the Japanese they fought against.
Nor has the code died relative to the lives of the people of Japan today who are exceptionally polite and courteous to one another as well as to foreign visitors.
Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.