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

Through their dedication and self-sacrifice, noblemen led the way of the ancient samurai while mastering their weapons and minds and preserving their art form.

The samurai were around for almost a millennium in Feudal Japan. They followed orders and showed the utmost loyalty to their masters and each other.

Samurai are also remembered for their bravery and inspiration for 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 that existed for over 700 years in Feudal Japan.

The warrior caste rose to power in the 12th century, resulting in the term ‘samurai’ applying to all warriors, including aristocratic warriors. This class dominated the Japanese government.

When they started guarding Japan against invasion, their mission was to defend the territories against rivals, fight enemies identified by the government, and battle against tribes and bandits.

Bravery on the battlefield was paramount.

As part of their growing traditions, the samurai rode into battle shouting out their lineage and past deeds and even challenged any member of the enemy to single combat.

Government lords hired samurai to serve as private armies for their land.

The samurai had their choices of where to live, such as the barracks, a castle, or their private homes.

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

During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), there was a standardized system to differentiate statuses:

  • Gokenin (御家人) (houseman) was the lowest rank and received the lowest vassal (given use of land in return for military service) of a feudal lord.
  • Goshi (郷士) (rustic warrior) could farm their land but couldn’t have two swords of full samurai rank.
  • Hatamoto (旗本) (guardian of the banner) was the highest rank of a samurai. The status 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

The Early Samurai

During the Heian Period (794 – 1186), the samurai were the armed support of wealthy landowners in Feudal Japan. Their wealth was measured in koku, the amount of rice it took to feed one man for a year.

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

This started the Genpei War (1180 – 1185), where the clans of the Taira and Minamoto fought for control of the state.

One of the most famous samurai, Minamoto Yoshitsune, led the Minamoto Clan to victory.

Rise of the Samurai

During the Kamakura Shogunate (1185 – 1333), Minamoto Yorimoto, Yoshitsune’s half-brother, established the center of the government in Kamakura.

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

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

Additionally, no one could call themselves ‘samurai’ without Yorimoto’s permission.

The introduction of Zen Buddhism by the Chinese became a great appeal to the samurai, but 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 a rebellion led by Ashigaka Takaiyi during the Muromachi Period, leading to the Ashigaka Shogunate.

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.

Under the growing influence of Zen Buddhism, samurai culture grew and the rise of the Ashigaka Shogunate brought the golden age of Japanese art.

Tokugawa Shogunate

For 250 years, there was peace and prosperity in Feudal Japan under the Tokugawa Ieyasu during the Edo Period. The samurai took order through civil action rather than military force.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 – 1867), Ieyasu implemented ‘ordinances of the Military Houses’. The samurai trained equally in the arms and ‘polite’ learning, according to the principles of Confucianism.

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.

The samurai traditionally made their living on 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.

The Meiji Restoration and End of Feudal Japan

A combination of factors undermined the Tokugawa regime, such as the rise of peasants due to famine and poverty.

The final straw was an incursion by Western powers, who aimed to make Japan part of their international trade.

By 1858, a controversial decision was made to sign a treaty with the US.

It led to conservative forces, including the samurai, forming a resistance against the Shogunate. They wanted power restored to the emperor.

Meanwhile, two powerful clans, Chosun and Satsuma, combined their efforts and brought an end to the Tokugawa Shogunate.

In 1868, the Meiji Era, named after Emperor Meiji, was an ‘imperial restoration’, therefore creating the Meiji Restoration.

By 1871, feudalism was abolished, and wearing swords was outlawed.

After almost a millennium, the samurai lost their special place in Japan. Their families remained, but they held no profession, position, privileges, land, or 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 emerged during the Tokugawa Shogunate, followed by the samurai and their precursors in Feudal Japan.

It served as a moral code for attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyle and emphasized honor, courage, skills in martial arts, and loyalty to a warrior’s master.

In a similar 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, honor, loyalty, self-control, and care for one’s family.

There were specific restrictions that varied over time and in different areas in Japan.

The Bushidō was more of an ethical system than a religious belief system and varied under Buddhist and Confucianism influence.

Through Buddhism, they believed they were excluded from rewards in the afterlife as they trained to fight and kill in their current 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 by battling with the elements.

For example, they stood nude in deep snow or sat beneath an extremely cold waterfall.

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

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

Unarmed Combat

Samurai practiced many forms of martial arts for situations when armed.

Bu Jutsu is an umbrella term that covers all traditional martial arts, such as Kenjutsu, Sojutsu, and Jojutsu.

Unarmed combat involved, for example, karate, judo, and aikido.

Karate is where the physical aspect seeks to develop defensive and counterattacking body movements.

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

Aikido focuses on harmonizing with opponents to bring peaceful resolutions to situations involving conflict.

Weapons Work

Training often involved the use of weapons, which consisted of a sword, bow, and spears.

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

Wooden weapons were used for sparring.

Swords were used against dummies made of wood and straw and weapon techniques were practiced against slaves and prisoners.

Chinese Studies in Feudal Japan

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

This doesn’t mean that Japanese culture is an extension of Chinese culture, in addition to Japan’s use and interpretations of Chinese elements that weren’t deviations from the original teachings.


A way for samurai, expected to maintain a stern order over others, to relax was by extensively writing Haiku. They were students of culture and not just fierce warriors of Feudal Japan.


Through Zen meditation, for the samurai’s own code of behavior. They remained one with their surroundings and opponents, which made them legendary warriors.

This brought forth the spiritual path of the ideal philosophical background for the samurai’s own code of behavior. The spiritual way of Zen was the most appealing.

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

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

A Samurai’s Appearance

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


The samurai clothing style was especially important because it was an indication of status.

Eccentric colors and colorful patterns were indecent and conceited, but they did dress somewhat 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. It was generally made of silk, but the quality depended on income and status.

The obi was a belt tied at the waist, where the samurai placed their sword on the left.

When indoors, the sword was removed, but the samurai remained armed with some form of weaponry.

Outdoors, they wore a two-piece costume called a kamishimo that was worn over the kimono. The upper piece was a sleeveless jacket with exaggerated shoulders. The lower piece was the hakama, a pair of wife-flowing pants.

During their travels, they were a long-sleeve coat over the kimono.

When in town for their own leisure, the samurai wore basket-shaped hats to conceal their faces. This was to prevent them from being recognized if they disobeyed a rule.


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

For battle, they shaped the top of their heads and kept their hair straight at the sides. This helped reduce the heat when they wore heavy helmets.

When they didn’t wear a helmet, the side and back hair were 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 armor consisted of plated pieces of leather, iron, and silk to deflect swords and arrows.

A black laquear coated the iron plates and silk tied them together to help with the armor’s flexibility.

kuzazari was an armored skirt that shielded the thighs.

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

The kabuto was a helmet with a bristling mustache that was designed o trick fear into the enemy.

One suit of armor consisted of 250 yards (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 most prominent, vital, and, above all, deadliest weapon was the katana.

As a status symbol, those from the samurai class had the privilege of wielding a katana. It was an extension of the samurai’s soul.

If someone wasn’t from the samurai class, but they 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 actual quality of the blade. The steel’s grain and Hamon (blade’s tempered line) would become 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.


A tantō is a single-edged, curved blade.

It wasn’t primarily used for war because its small blade couldn’t fight against spears and swords, but it was designed specifically for soft targets and proved efficient at penetrating armor.

From 794 to 1185, it was only a standard weapon without any artistic qualities, something practical 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 and the need for it increased and, therefore, mass production increased.

The blade of the tantō 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, the Japanese became nostalgic and continued to praise the samurai as heroic warriors, but the part they played in the oppressive feudal system was forgotten.

Samurai literature flowered and romanticized their image and their legacy continued through honor, 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 their acts of bravery and courage to novels and films, the samurai remain as influential as they did hundreds of years ago.

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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