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Samurai History

Updated on January 25, 2013

The Samurai were warriors of feudal Japan. The word samurai is derived from the verb sa-murau, which means "to serve", and was used in the early Middle Ages in Japan to denote the soldiers on guard duty at the emperor's palace. Subsequently, it was taken to include all members of the warrior class who owed loyalty and service to a feudal superior. The number of samurai was excluded from the official census figures issued in the 18th century, but it has been estimated that they comprised about 6% of the population.

The samurai formed the leading class in Japanese society. From the beginning of the 17th century it was followed in order of precedence by those of the farmer, the artisan, and the trader. There were many gradations of rank within the warrior class, from the simple soldier to the well-to-do vassal living on his estate and ready to serve his overlord at call. The samurai code of behavior is known as Bushido.

Traditional Samurai Armor
Traditional Samurai Armor | Source

History of the Samurai

Before the rigid division of classes was introduced about 1615, the well-to-do samurai constituted a rural gentry of considerable strength, since many of them owned much land and controlled a numerous peasantry. They took part in the endemic warfare that lasted throughout the Middle Ages until after the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate early in the 17th century. As new methods of warfare developed, particularly after the introduction of firearms in 1542, the mounted samurai, with sword, spear, I and bow, had to give way on many occasions to men armed with muskets and to a lower class of I foot soldier, the ashigaru, so that their military importance tended to diminish. They did, however, constitute the solid, dependable warrior group. When under the Tokugawa regime after 1615 the country was divided into some 270 fiefs governed by chieftains (daimyos), a great number of samurai took service with their former commanders and lived on land granted to them.

The long era of peace after 1615 raised difficult problems for the samurai. Some of them held important official posts in the fiefs or in the central government offices, but many had to find work in the towns, and others sank in the social scale. But in general they preserved the ethos of their class, some reaching the highest pinnacle in political life, others devoting themselves to literature and the arts or to political philosophy. It was principally men of samurai birth who organized the revolution of 1868, by which the feudal hierarchy was overthrown and a constitutional monarchy developed.

Social legislation in 1871 led to the absorption of the samurai into the mass of the people, and soon after their stipends were commuted on unfavorable terms. Thus, many samurai fell into misery, but as a class they rose to the occasion, and before long they were dominant in both central and provincial government.

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