The Samurai, the warrior class of ancient Japan, dominated that country’s political and social structure for centuries. The Samurai came into existence in the early thirteenth century with the establishment of a feudal society in Japan. As in medieval Europe, the large landowners dominated the economy in an agricultural society and therefore had sufficient monetary resources to pay for the best in military supplies. Thus, as in Europe, the ability to own armor, horses, and superior weaponry brought one an exalted social status to be carefully maintained. Thus, the Samurai were dedicated to perfecting their martial skills and living by a strict code of honor that supported the feudal system. At the height of the Samurai’s pre-eminence, loyalty to one’s overlord and the ability to defend his property and status, even to the detriment of one’s own property and status, became the pinnacle of honor.
The original soldiers of Japan were called bushi (“warrior”), from the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese character signifying a man of letters and/or arms. The rise of these warriors to the status of a special class began with an interclan struggle in the late 1100s. The Genji and Heike clans were maneuvering for influence in the imperial court, and the Heike managed to obtain the upper hand. In the fighting that ensued, the Genji clan was almost completely destroyed, but two sons managed to escape northward from the area of the capital city, Kyoto. When the elder son, Yoritomo, reached his majority, he rallied his remaining supporters and allied with the clans of northern Honshu that looked down on the imperial clans, which they considered weak and effete. Yoritomo’s return renewed the fighting, and in the second struggle it was the Heike that were defeated.
In 1192 Yoritomo was named shogun (roughly “barbarian-defeating generalissimo”), the supreme military position as personal protector of the emperor. How- ever, as the emperor had more figurative than literal power, the position of shogun came to wield real authority in Japan. What national unity Japan had ever attained, though, came through the population’s belief in the emperor as the descendent of the gods that created the world. Therefore, the shogun could not seize the throne without alienating the people. The emperor could not rule, however, without the military power of the shogun to protect him and enforce the government’s will. Thus, the shogun became the power behind the throne in a mutually dependent relationship.
Yoritomo and his descendants enjoyed a relatively brief ascendancy, but by the middle 1300s factional struggles broke out. For a time there were two rival emperors, each with his warrior supporters. In the latter half of the 1400s, the Ashikaga clan went through an internal power struggle before it took control of the country, though that control was often merely nominal during the century that they ruled. As the emperor and the central government exercised less control over time, the local landed gentry, or daimyo, came to prominence and wielded power in the country- side. By alliances and conquests, these feudal lords enhanced their economic, political, and military positions, until by the late 1500s, there was serious fighting among these leaders, and the emperor had no shogun to protect him or display his authority. It was in the 1500s that the Samurai came to be a true warrior class of professional, full-time soldiers, sworn to their daimyo overlords.
The Samurai tended to dominate the command positions as heavy cavalry, while the mass of soldiers became pikemen. All soldiers, no matter their status or function, carried a sword. For the Samurai warrior, the sword became a symbol of his position, and the Samurai were the only soldiers allowed by law to carry two swords. Anyone not of the Samurai class who carried two swords was liable to be executed. The two swords were the katana, or long sword (averaging about a three-foot blade), and the wakizashi, or short sword (with the blade normally 16–20 inches long). The finest swords became the property of the richest warriors, and being a swordsmith was the most highly respected craft. Both swords were slightly curved with one sharpened edge and a point; they were mainly slashing weapons, although they could be used for stabbing. The short sword in particular was a close-quarters stabbing weapon and also used in seppuku, the Samurai’s ritual suicide. The blades were both strong and flexible, being crafted by hammering the steel thin, folding it over, and rehammering it, sometimes thousands of times. The sword and its expert use attained spiritual importance in the Samurai’s life. The other main weapon in Japanese armies of the time was the naginata, a long-handled halberd used by the infantrymen. It consisted of a wide, curved blade sharpened on one edge and mounted on a long pole. By 1600 this had been largely replaced by the yari, more of a spear. Occasionally, unusual weapons were developed, such as folding fans with razor- sharp edges.
The Samurai wore elaborate suits of armor, made of strips of metal laced with leather. The finished product was lacquered and decorated to such an extent that it not only was weatherproof and resistant to cutting weapons, but it became almost as much a work of art as was a fine sword. Armor proved unable to stop musket balls, however, and became mainly ceremonial after 1600.
Japanese armies also had bowmen, although most archery was practiced from horseback and therefore in the province of the Samurai. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) became the first of the daimyo to effectively adopt firearms. European harquebuses had been introduced to Japan in the 1540s by shipwrecked Portuguese, and Japanese artisans began to copy the design. Nobunaga fielded 3,000 musketeers in a battle in 1575 with such positive effect that the other daimyo rushed to acquire as many of the weapons as possible. The technology advanced little in the following generations, however, owing to Japan’s self-imposed exile from the rest of the world.
Nobunaga, starting with a relatively small landholding in central Japan, schemed and fought his way to become the strongest of the lords. In this time, the daimyo built huge castle/fortresses, equal to or better than anything built in Europe at the time. Nobunaga defeated many of the military religious sects on his way to dominance, but not surprisingly created a number of enemies, which allied and at- tacked his palace in 1582, burning it to the ground with him inside. Nobunaga was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), one of his commanders, who almost succeeded in accomplishing Nobunaga’s dream of unifying Japan under his rule. At his death in 1598 one of his vassals, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took control of half of Hideyoshi’s forces and won the battle of Sekigahara. He was named shogun in 1603—the first to hold that position in years—and finished consolidating his power in 1615 with the capture of Osaka castle, where the last remnants of the defeated Hideyoshi faction held out.
The Tokugawa shogunate lasted until the middle 1800s, when it was dismantled during the Meiji Restoration. This movement returned real power to the emperor and abandoned the traditional feudal state that had kept Japan isolated and technologically backward for more than two and a half centuries. During the Tokugawa period, however, the Samurai both experienced their golden age and sowed the seeds of their own downfall. The Samurai came to hold the ruling administrative positions as well as exercising military functions. The Samurai warrior, who had over time blended the hardiness of the country warrior with the polish of the court, was the pinnacle of culture, learning, and power. The problem was that Tokugawa had succeeded too well, establishing a peace that lasted 250 years. Without the almost constant warfare that had preceded the Tokugawa era, the Samurai warrior had fewer and fewer chances to exercise his profession of arms. He became more of a bureaucrat, and therefore he could not be rewarded in combat or expand his holdings through warfare. The Samurai class in- creased in numbers, but not through “natural selection” in combat, and their larger numbers in a more and more bloated bureaucracy brought about their economic slide. The merchant class grew increasingly wealthy, while the Samurai upper class became impoverished. The tax burden required to operate the government fell on the peasants, who turned to shop keeping rather than follow an unprofitable agricultural life. By the time the American Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1854 and “opened” Japan to the outside world, the artisans and merchants were the only ones in a position to deal with the new reality, and the Samurai’s status in society quickly dropped.
In spite of this setback, the martial attitude engendered by centuries of military rule never completely left the Japanese national psyche. The military became modernized with European weaponry, but the dedication to a martial spirit and professionalism remained strong in the new warrior class. In the 1920s and 1930s, the military came back into power and dominated the government, laying the ground- work for national expansionism to obtain the raw materials necessary to maintain and enlarge their military and industrial base. The cult of the Samurai, bushido (the “Way of the Warrior”), enjoyed a resurgence in the Japanese military. It showed itself in the brutal actions of the Japanese in their dealings with defeated enemies in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, and in their dedication to death before dishonor in serving their emperor. The world saw first-hand the twentieth-century version of the Samurai in the extremely difficult fighting against Japanese soldiers during World War II and in the Japanese use of suicide tactics late in the war in an attempt to save their country from invasion and defeat. Japanese texts on Samurai philosophy and lifestyle, such as Hagakure and The Five Rings, still influence the views of the modern Japanese in their business practices.
References: King, Winston, Zen and the Way of the Sword (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Turnbull, Stephen, Samurai Warriors (New York: Sterling Publishing, 1991); Turnbull, Stephen, The Samurai: A Military History (New York: Macmillan, 1977).