Overview of the Japanese Samurai
The Japanese Samurai, members of the country’s most powerful and prominent military caste, were originally provincial warriors. This was before they rose to power during the 12th century. It was also the beginning of the country’s first military dictatorship, the Shogunate.
As servants under the Daimyo, these warriors backed up the Shogun’s authority, giving him power over the emperor or the Mikado. The Samurai dominated the government and society. This was until the Meiji Restoration period in the year 1868. It was the time that led to the dissolution of the feudal system.
Despite removing a number of classic privileges, a large number of Samurai warriors still joined the elite ranks of politics and industry in Japan’s contemporary period. More importantly, the traditional code of honor, morality, and discipline – Bushido or The Way of the Warrior – was revived. It is the basic code of conduct for most of the Japanese society.
Bushido, the code being used by Japan’s warrior classes starting from the 8th century throughout the modern period. The term Bushido comes from the Japanese word Bushi meaning, warrior, while “do” means “path” or “way.” Combining the words is literally translated to Way of the Warrior.
The principles of Bushido emphasize a number of things. This includes courage, honor, frugality, skill in the martial arts, as well as loyalty to their family and their master above all else.
Daisho – The Samurai’s Main Weapons
As protectors of their lord and family, the Samurai needed to wield efficient weapons. These would make them effective warriors while the weapons would also serve as a symbol showing that they were a real samurai.
The Wakizashi and the Katana make up a set called the Daisho. These weapons are used by the Japanese Samurai during the medieval and early modern periods. The Katana is primarily a two-handed weapon with a longer blade, while the Wakizashi was a smaller, single-handed sword.
The term literally means big little. It was a Japanese term for a pair of Nihonto. Only the samurai class of feudal Japan were allowed to carry the Daisho, and anyone who broke the rules would be punished.
The Daisho Concept
The idea of the Daisho originated with combining a short sword with any other sword that was longer. In the past, the Tachi was paired with a Tanto, then later, the Uchigatana with a much shorter Uchigatana. With the appearance of the Katana, the Wakizashi was eventually selected to complete it as a pair. The Samurai warriors chose it over the Tanto.
In his book, Kanzan Sato notes that there was no real need for the Wakizashi; however, he also suggests that the Wakizashi blade may have become more renowned than the Tanto. This was because the Wakizashi was more suited for indoor fighting.
The Daisho may have become popular by the end of the Muromachi period since a few early examples date back to the late 16th century. Although popular, samurai class were the only ones allowed to use these weapons. This became a symbol of the warrior’s rank.
In 1629, an edict came out defining the Samurai duties which require Samurai to wear Daisho when on official duty.
The Samurai Culture
The Samurai were aristocrats for centuries. This allowed them to develop their own cultures, which also influenced the country as a whole. The culture that was associated with the samurai included the traditional tea ceremony, rock gardens, monochrome ink art, as well as poetry. These practices came from the Chinese arts.
Musou Soseki was a Zen monk. He was also an advisor to both the Emperor Go Daigo and General Ashikaga Takauji. He served as a political and cultural diplomat between the country and China.
Heian Period – Origins of the Samurai
The Samurai traced their origins back to the Heian period. There were campaigns to subdue the native Emishi located in the Tohoku region. Around the same time, wealthy people hire different warriors. They were those who have grown independent of the government and built armies for their own protection.
The two most powerful clans were the Minamoto and Taira. They challenged the government and battled for supremacy over Japan. Minamoto Yoritomo emerged victorious so he set up a new military government in the year 1192.
Era of Warring States
During the chaotic period of The Warring States, specifically in the 15th and 16th centuries, as a result, Japan split into dozens of independent states. These were constantly at war with each other. Consequently, Samurai warrior was in high demand. It was also the time when Ninja warriors were most active.
Japan was eventually reconvened during the late 1500s. It was when a rigid caste system started in the Edo period, causing Samurai warrior to be known as one of the highest social class. Groups of farmers, artisans and merchants follow the Samurai.
During this time, the government forces these warriors to live in castle towns wherein they are wielding swords. Masterless samurai is namely Ronin and causing minor troubles during 1600.
Peace somehow prevailed during this period. With that, martial arts skills somewhat declined and a large number of samurai turned into bureaucrats, artists, or even teachers. The feudal era of Japan ends in the year 1868, and the samurai class is wiped out a few years after.
Onna Bugeisha – The Female Samurai
Onna Bugeisha were female Samurai belonging to the Japanese nobility. These women are very skillful enough in engaging in battles together with samurai men. They are the members of the Bushi during Japan’s feudal period. Also, they are skillful in using weapons such as the spear to protect their homes, family, and honor.
Significant Onna Bugeisha of history were Tomoe Gozen, Hojo Masako, and Nakano Takeko – famous women who were great examples of the classic Onna Bugeisha.
The most common weapon of choice was the Naginata. It was a versatile and highly conventional polearm that featured a curved blade. The weapon is favored for its length and extended reach, compensating for the body size and strength of a woman.
Though many women in history do battle, most of them are still disregarded as a formal samurai. They can’t carry the Daisho, and can’t form a master and servant relationship with their lords. Of course, there are a few exceptions.
Important Battles of the Samurai
There were a couple of very important battles during the feudal period of Japan. One of them was the Battle of Sekigahara. It was among the greatest battles that the samurai had engaged in. The war determined the fate of the country for the next 250 years.
The battle commenced on October 21st of the year 1600 in Sekigahara. Generally, it was a battle of the East over the West. It also divided the country into two factions.
The leader of the Eastern forces was the Daimyo, Tokugawa Ieyasu from Mikawa province, Aichi Prefecture. The commander of the Western forces was Ishida Mitsunari, the loyalist and administrator to Japan’s previous ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Another important battle was the Battle of Tenno Ji in 1615. This was the last field war between the samurai. It took place outside Osaka and had the fortress under siege for a couple of months.
Tokugawa attempted to finish off his enemies but trickery was able to give him the advantage in battle. He took part in the fights, as a result, he had a spear thrust injury. Yet despite this, Tokugawa and his troops remained victorious.
End of the Samurai
After the war, Tokugawa ruled over a peaceful country which lasted for over two centuries. The peace caused the Samurai’s role to greatly decline. However, two factors led to the complete destruction of this class: the country’s urbanization as well as the end of isolationism.
Since more of the people moved to the cities, the number of farmers who produced rice to feed the population decreased. With that, the grandiose lifestyle enjoyed by the upper class began to wear out. A lot of Japanese such as the lower-class Samurai became dissatisfied with the Shogunate. This was due to the worsening situation of the country’s economy.
Samurai Warriors – The Aftermath
The government took away the Daimyo’s power. And since no one was able to pay the Samurai, the government decides to pay the warriors with bonds based on their ranks. This affected the Samurai differently but still had the same result – each of them either utilized the bond for investing or realized that they could not support themselves. This urged some to return to the land as farmers or moved to the cities to work.
In the year 1876, the emperor completely banned the Samurai from wielding swords. This led to the establishment of a drafted standing army. It was the final call for the samurai which put an end to their existence.
However, there were still some rebellious Samurai who resisted the rules but eventually adopted their new roles in society. This allowed the country to move and progress into the new Industrial Age.