Being a Samurai in the Medieval Period

Being a Samurai

Samurai means “one who serves”. It refers to the members of a Japanese warrior class. They were noblemen assigned to protect the Imperial Court. With a Shogun or a Daimyo employing them, they followed a strict moral code. This code defined their behavior and clothing. However, education set them apart from most medieval knights. They could read and write. Moreover, they excelled in literature, poetry, and arts.

Comprising only six percent of the population, they were certainly elite. In fact, they dominated politics, economics, and social policies. Furthermore, they excelled in archery, swordsmanship, and horseback riding. This martial prowess paved the way to their rise to power.

Samurai endured 700 years. Particularly, this spanned from 1185 to 1867. Throughout their existence, people expected them to be warriors. Yet, they had to be lovers of art. Two concepts sum up this dichotomy. Bu refers to the warrior’s way of life. Meanwhile, Bun covers his intellectual, artistic, and spiritual well-being. These were significant in Japanese culture and morality.


Ancestors of the Samurai lived in the 10th century. They served as guards of the imperial court of Kyoto. They were members of a private military force. Local Daimyo led this army. An initiative to assemble a national army emerged.

However, it failed. Eventually, maintaining centralized control became a challenge. This was because the Daimyo had most of the power. Needless to say, they had everything to pay the largest militias.

Over time, these early Samurai organized themselves into clans. Right in time, Minamoto clan defeated Taira clan. Hence, it gave them the opportunity to seize power. As such, Minamoto no Yoritomo established the first Shogunate in 1185. Therefore, the Samurai officially began.

The Minamoto regime, however, failed. It did not maintain political stability and peace. Several other governments went by. Eventually, in 1467, the national government broke down. It put Japan into chaos. This, therefore, started the Sengoku Jidai. It is also known as the Warring States Period.

During this period, Samurai employed themselves in the government as military officers. They remained faithful to their masters and other superiors. More importantly, they strived living up to the Bushido Code. True enough, they turned out to be the central figures of history.

After the war, however, their role as warriors declined. They gradually abandoned martial training. Spiritual development, teaching, and the arts became their focus. Finally, in 1867, the government abolished warrior classes. Nevertheless, this inspired them to continue their legacy. In fact, they evolved but into swordless Samurai.


Bushido is the code of noble lifestyle every Samurai must uphold. It translates as the “Way of the Warrior”.

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Rectitude is Bushido’s strongest virtue. It is the power to decide with reasonable judgment. Regardless of the circumstances, one acts according to what is right and fair. It entails the willingness to die or strike when necessary. Metaphorically, it is the bone that maintains stature. Without it, the human body cannot stand. Likewise, talent and learning alone cannot make up a wholesome Samurai.


Basically, bravery is the strength to withstand fear. Also, it is the fearlessness to face danger. When employed for justice, however, it becomes courage. Certainly, courage is the power to do what is right. This is regardless of the situation. Knowing what is right but not doing it means lack of courage. Confucius once said this.


Benevolence is the greatest attribute of the human soul. It denotes love, generosity, affection, sympathy, and mercy. For Confucius, it is the most important requirement of a leader. A ruler with the power to command and kill must be compassionate.


Courtesy and good manners are rooted in benevolence. They are distinctive Japanese traits foreign tourists easily notice. Meanwhile, politeness is much more. It is an expression of respect for others’ feelings. Certainly, it is more than the fear of offending someone.


Bushido encourages simplicity and thrift. Luxury is definitely the greatest threat to manhood. A true Samurai disdains money. Further, he believes that riches hinder wisdom. Hence, he resents money and wealth. Talking about money certainly shows poor taste. Otherwise, ignorance of it shows good breeding.


A Samurai must be equipped for war. More importantly, he needs to have a sense of honor. Honor is the recognition of one’s own dignity and worth. Definitely, a Samurai is born to uphold his professional duties. In addition, he should maintain his privileges.


Loyalty was the most distinctive moral standard of the feudal era. Certainly, it denotes faithfulness to a master or any superior. A true Samurai remains loyal to whom he is indebted to.


Bushido emphasizes living with an absolute moral standard. This moral standard is one that transcends logic. What is right is right. On the other hand, what is wrong is wrong. A Samurai should know the difference between. Self-control is the formula. In fact, this virtue leads to character building. Prudence, intelligence, and dialectics are secondary facilities. People esteem intellectual prowess, but they value a man of character.


Social Status

Samurai got paid as soldiers. They received a yearly stipend of rice. Farmers gave them 60 percent of their rice crop. Also, artisans sold them their crafts. These they resold for extra income. Hence, they did not have to work. In other words, they just had to fight.

Samurai ranked themselves above farmers, craftsmen, and traders. These people regarded them with respect at all times. A Samurai could kill them if they disobeyed.


Before going into battle, Samurai would check their grooming. After taking a bath, they wore Kimono. This they partnered with a loose jacket and skirt-like trousers. They shaved their head with the hair on the sides and back. This was to make it comfortably cool inside the helmet. Finally, they would put on perfume.

Spiritual Development

Zen Buddhism was also an important practice. They would set aside their activities for a moment and let higher forces control them. They did this for soul purification and inner enlightenment to achieve salvation. However, they obtained this through 15 to 20 years of meditation.


Samurai trained not only in swordsmanship. They also studied poetry, literature, painting, and calligraphy. Moreover, they supported painters, poets, and playwrights. Eventually, some of them became creators themselves.

Also, the tea ceremony was an important tradition. It was a formal or an informal gathering to form political alliances. First, guests would come to the master’s house. Then, they would partake of the meal and tea he prepared. Alongside, they would perform courtesy gestures and purification rituals.

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