A section of the famous ukiyo - e "ten brave takeda warriors" -武田勇士揃 by Utagawa Sadahide.

The History of Samurai in Feudal Japan

Films and television gave audiences a glance at the life and ways of the ancient samurai.

Through their dedication and self-sacrifice, these noble men led the way of the samurai, mastered their weapons and minds and preserved their artform.

The samurai were around for almost a millennium in Feudal Japan.

They followed orders with the utmost loyalty towards their masters and each other. Additionally, they are remembered for their bravery and inspiration to the arts.

The Samurai

Japanese artwork depicting two samurai with their katana drawn and ready to strike one another.
image source: amazon.com

The samurai (侍) were members of a Japanese warrior caste (class). They existed for more than 700 years in Feudal Japan.

As a result of the warrior caste rising to power in the 12th century, the term ‘samurai’ applied to all warriors, including aristocratic warriors. Their class dominated the Japanese government.

They started as guards, protecting Japan from invasion. It was their mission to defend territories against rivals, fight enemies identified by the government and battle hostile tribes and bandits.

Lords of the government hired samurai to serve as private armies for their land. As for where they lived, they had a choice of the barracks, a castle or their private homes.

While there were other warrior classes, only samurai served in the Imperial Court (the government) where the emperor performed political affairs and tasks.

Bravery on the battlefield was paramount.

As traditions developed, the samurai would ride into battle shouting out their lineage and past deeds and even challenging any of the enemy to single combat.

During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), a standardized system of status developed:

  • Gokenin (御家人) (houseman) was the lowest rank and vassal (given used of land in return for military service) of a feudal lord.
  • Goshi (郷士) (rustic warrior) could farm their land but could not have two swords of full samurai rank.
  • Hatamoto (旗本) (guardian of the banner) was the highest rank. It was for those expected to die to protect their lord’s interest.

The History of Samurai in Feudal Japan

A map of feudal Japan in green on beige parchment
image source: boardgamegeek.com

Early Samurai – Heian Period (794 – 1186)

During the Heian Period (平安時代), the samurai were the armed support of wealthy landowners in Feudal Japan. Their wealth was measured in koku. One koku was the amount of rice it took to feed one man for a year.

Further into the 12th century, the real political power of Japan gradually shifted away from the emperor and his nobles. It went to the clans in the government’s largest states.

Thus began the Genpei War (1180 – 1185). The clans of the Taira and Minamoto fought one another for control of the state.

One of the most famous samurai, Minamoto Yoshitsune (源 義経), led the Minamoto Clan to victory.

Rise of the Samurai – The Kamakura Shogunate (1185 – 1333)

During the Kamakura Shogunate (1185 – 1333), Minamoto Yoritomo (源 頼朝), half brother to Yoshitsune, established the centre of the government in Kamakura.

The shogunate was a hereditary military dictatorship. The real political power shifted to the samurai.

Yoritomo’s authority depended on strength of the samurai, hence the emphasized status of the samurai.

No one could call themselves ‘samurai’ without the permission of Yoritomo.

Zen Buddhism, introduced by China, became a great appeal to the samurai.

The sword came to have greater significance.

Ashikaga Shogunate (1336 – 1573)

In the 13th century, defeating two Mongol invasions weakened the Kamakura Shogunate.

In 1336, the Kamakura Shogunate fell to rebellion, led by Ashigaka Takaiyi, during the Muromachi Period (室町時代).

With the Onin War (1467 – 1477), the shōgun (prime minister) proved to be ineffective in his duties.

Feudal Japan lacked the strong central authority it needed. The local lords and the samurai had to work to greater lengths to maintain law and order.

Despite the political unrest, there was considerable economic expansion in Japan.

Samurai culture was under the growing influence of Zen Buddhism.

The Ashikaga Shogunate was the golden age for Japanese art.

Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 – 1867)

For 250 years, there was peace and prosperity in Feudal Japan under Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) in the Edo Period.

The samurai took order through civil action rather than with military force.

Ieyasu implemented ‘ordinances for the Military Houses’. The samurai were to train equally in arms and ‘polite’ learning in accordance to the principles of Confucianism. This, as a result, eclipsed Buddhism as the dominant following of the samurai.

The samurai were forced to become bureaucrats or take up a trade.

By 1588, the right to carry swords was restricted only to samurai, resulting in further separation between the samurai and the farmer-peasant class.

Consequently, the samurai became known as the ‘two-sword man’. They wore both long and short swords as a mark of privilege.

Traditionally, the samurai made their living from a fixed stipend from landowners. When the stipend declined, the lower-level samurai were frustrated by the inability to improve the situation.

In other words, there was a decline in the material well-being of the samurai.

Meiji Restoration and the End of Feudal Japan

A combination of factors underminded the Tokugawa regime, such as the rise of the peasants due to famine and poverty. The final straw was the incursion of Western powers, who aimed to make Japan part of their international trade.

In 1858, a controversial decision was made. A treaty was signed with the US. This led to conservative forces, including the samurai, forming a resistance to the Shogunate. They wanted the restoration of power to the emperor.

Meanwhile, two powerful clans, Choshun and Satsuma, combined their efforts and brought an end to the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川時代). In 1868, named for Emperor Meiji, the Meiji Era was an ‘imperial restoration’, hence the Meiji Restoration (明治維新).

By 1871, with feudalism abolished, the wearing of swords was outlawed.

After almost a millennium, the samurai lost their special place in Japan. Their families remained but with no profession, no position, no privileges, no land, and no swords.

Just like feudal Japan, the samurai were no more.

Bushidō – ‘Way of the Warrior’

A combination of Japanese and English to depict the values of the Bushido
image source: amazon.com

The Bushidō (武士道) emerged during the Takugawa Shogunate, followed by the samurai and their precursors in Feudal Japan.

It served as a moral code for attitudes, behaviour and lifestyle. It emphasized honour, courage, skill in the martial arts and loyalty to a warrior’s master.

In a like manner, it emphasized military skills and fearlessness in the face of the enemy.

An elaborate list of virtues is provided, such as frugality, righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honour, loyalty, self-control and care for one’s family.

Specific restrictions varied over time and from place-to-place within Japan.

The Bushidō was more of an ethical system than a religious belief system, varying under Buddhism and Confucianism influence.

Through Buddhism, they believed they were excluded from rewards in the afterlife as they trained to fight and kill in this life.

Training of Samurai in Feudal Japan

A black and white drawing depicting the training of samurai in their early stages.
image source: thoughtco.com

Physical Conditioning

The samurai conditioned themselves and proved their physical toughness through battling with the elements.

For instance, they would stand nude in deep snow or sit beneath an extremely cold waterfall.

They would go without food, water or sleep to strengthen themselves against deprivation.

Heavy drinking was a favoured method in the past to build endurance and increase vigor.

Unarmed Combat

The samurai practiced many forms of martial arts for situations when armed.

Bujusu, an umbrella term, covers all traditional martial arts, such as Kenjutsu, Sojutsu and Jojutso.

These are a few of the martial arts for unarmed combat.

Karate is where physical aspects seek the development of defensive and counterattacking body movements.

Judo has the objective of throwing, pinning or mastering the opponent by applying pressure to the arm joints or neck until the opponent yields.

Akido focuses on harmonizing with your opponent to bring peaceful resolutions to situations involving conflict.

Weapons Work

In training, their weapons consisted of a sword, bow and spears.

During the Feudal period, the samurai were encouraged to train in schools opened by fames instructors across Japan.

Wooden weapons were when samurai sparred one another.

Swords were against dummies of wood and straw and weapon techniques practices against slaves and prisoners.

Chinese Studies in Feudal Japan

Chinese culture functioned as a collection of ‘cultural building blocks’, selectively introduced and modified into the Japanese tradition.

Keep in mind that this does not mean that Japanese culture is an extended version of Chinese culture.

Additionally, Japan’s use and interpretations of Chinese elements were not deviations from the original teachings.

Poetry

As a release for samurai expected to maintain a stern order over others, they extensively wrote Haiku. The samurai were to be students of culture and not just fierce warriors of Feudal Japan.

Meditation

Through Zen meditation, the samurai were able to improve their clarity in combat instead of letting fear or anger drive their actions.

It provided an ideal philosophical background for the samurai’s own code of behaviour. They remained one with their surroundings and opponents, making samurai legendary warriors.

The spiritual path of Zen was the most appealing.

Truth is at the deepest core of one’s inner being, not their intellect. Then, the truth would be within range of the samurai’s awareness and emotional capability.

Meditation offered what no amount of physical training or knowledge of military strategy could. It allowed the samurai to open martial training to their subconscious.

Appearance of Samurai

Three Japanese men in everyday Samurai wear, seated for the photograph, showing how they took their appearance to be neat to be examples of feudal Japan.
image source: britannica.com

Wardrobe

The clothing style of the samurai is especially important as an indication of status.

Eccentric colours and colourful patterns were indecent and conceited, but they did dress flamboyantly.

After the coming-of-age ceremony, their appearance became more subdued.

Everyday wear consisted of a kimono of one or two layers and a loincloth underneath. Generally, it was made of silk, but the quality depended on income and status.

The obi was a belt tied at the waist. The samurai placed the sword through the obi on the left.

When indoors, the sword was removed, and samurai remained armed with a form of weaponry.

When outdoors, a two-piece costume called a ‘kamishimo’ was worn over the kimono. The upper piece was a sleeveless jacket with exaggerated shoulders. The lower piece was the ‘hakama’, a pair of wide flowing pants.

During their travels, a long-sleeved coat was worn over the kimono.

While in the town for leisure, a samurai wore a basket-shaped hat that concealed his face. The purpose was to avoid being recognized if he disobeyed a rule.

Hair

The samurai took great care in styling their hair in a chonmage, their hair pulled back and up to a topknot.

For battle, they shaved the top of their heads and kept their hair straight at the sides.

When wearing a heavy helmet, it helps to reduce heat. Without a helmet, the side and back hair are pulled back to a topknot.

Feudal Japanese Samurai Armor

Three samurai are posed in their battle armour with stoic expressions, with their weapons in hand, prepared to fight for feudal Japan.
image source: worldhistory.org

The samurai armour consisted of plated pieces of leather, iron and skill to deflect swords and arrows.

A black laquear coated the iron plates. Silk tied the plates together to help with the armour’s flexibility.

A kuzazuri was an armoured skirt that shielded the thighs.

Arm coverings were a combination of protective chainmail with fine blue silk.

The kabuto is a helmet with a bristling moustache. Its design as to trick fear into the enemy.

One suit of armour consisted of 250 years (230 meters) of silk and over 3000 pieces of thick leather.

Weapons of the Samurai

A long sword and its sheath are below a short sword and its sheath, both sheaths having intricate Japanese design, with the handles of the weapon black and gold.
image source: ancient-origins.net

Katana (日本刀 )

The katana was the most prominent and vital weapon and, above all, one of the deadliest.

As a status symbol, those of the samurai class had the privilege of having such a weapon. It was an extension of the samurai’s soul. If one were not of the samurai class and carried a katana, they would meet an immediate death.

Polishing a katana was a longer process than forging one. It was highly essential and revealed the true quality of the black.

The steel’s grain and hamon (the blade’s tempered line) were more visible.

Wakizashi ( 脇差 )

The blade was shorter than the katana and served as its companion.

The wakizashi was to battle in small places where a katana could not.

Moreover, it was a backup weapon for beheading a defeated enemy.

Tantō

A tantō is a single-edged, curved blade.

This weapon was not primarily for war because the blade was too small to go against the spears and swords.

However, designed specifically for soft targets, it proved efficient at penetrating armour.

From 794 to 1185, it was only a standard weapon without any artistic qualities, a practical piece created out of need.

Between 1185 and 1333, the weapon was more artistic and of highly improved quality.

In 1336, the tantō started being used for fighting purposes.

The artistic appeal of the blade slowly declined, the need for it increased and, therefore, mass production increased.

The blade of the tanto became narrower to lessen the use of material and made it possible to produce more blades.

The Samurai and Feudal Japan Legacies

A Japanese shrine for one of the deceased samurai, with two people in front paying their respect to bring life to his legacy as a samurai in feudal Japan.
image source: wattention.com

After the fall of the samurai, people of Japan became nostalgic and continued to praise the heroic warriors.

Samurai literature flowered and romanticized their image.

The part the samurai played in an oppressive feudal system was forgotten.

Their legacy continues through their honour, prowess and devotion to the arts.

Many still practice martial arts in the same manner as the samurai, even going to the extent of following their original code.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Nine samurai are sitting around a large piece of rolled-out paper, discussing the Bushido, to conclude the content entry of the samurai in feudal Japan.
image source: thoughtco.com

From acts of bravery and courage to novels and films, the samurai remained influential as they did for hundreds of years.

Feudal Japan was the era where great heroes came forth.

The preservation of the past keeps the world in contact with those that came before, a way to remember its beginning.

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die.

– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. 

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