The word Samurai, often applied to any ancient Japanese warrior originally denoted a particular class of fighting warrior, an aristocratic class with a substantial family pedigree stretching back many generations.
Akin to the European knights they were Japan’s noble elite both in terms of financial and geographical power. Initially one did not become a samurai just as one did not become a knight, you were born to the privilege or adopted.
Samurai status implied service, which was rendered originally to the emperor. Later, when powerful landowners began hiring private warriors for the protection of their properties allegiances shifted away from local government. Samurai clan lords began allying themselves to other noblemen building bigger clans, which effectively created individual armies. This state of affairs was utilised by central government who hired these armies in return for reward. It didn’t take long for the samurai to appreciate the military power that they ultimately possessed.
During the Heian period (794-1185) two powerful military clans the Minamoto and Taira, seized control of Japan and fought wars for supremacy against each other.
In 1160 the Taira were victorious and, attempting to wipe out the Minamoto clan, began a series of executions. Enough of the Minamoto leadership survived however and, although they suffered several more defeats by the Taira, they were eventually victorious in 1185 under the leadership of, Minamoto Yoritomo.
Yoritomo established a new military government in Kamakura in 1192. As shogun, the highest military officer, he became the ruler of Japan with the emperor becoming merely an impotent figurehead.
But even the Minamoto shogunate was not destined to last and was supplanted by the Hojo family who presided over several decades of comparative peace until the Mogul invasions of Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281.
An attempt at imperial restoration rested power from the Hojo in 1333 but instead of realigning political power with the emperor and central government a second shogunate came into being with a rival faction, the Ashikaga, who supported a second emperor.
The Ashikaga were eventual victors and in 1333 and the old imperial court at Kyoto became the capital of the Ashikaga dynasty.
In 1441, the sixth Ashikaga shogun, Yoshinori, was murdered and his eight year old son died two years later. His brother, Yoshimasa, succeeded him reigning as shogun for 30 years during which time shogunal authority dwindled and passed into the hands of other samurai families, nostalgic for the old world order of total imperial rule from Kyoto.
In 1467 the old samurai families gathered in Kyoto to fight a war, the Onin war, which dragged on for ten years. Fighting spread to the provinces where old established families fought each other to extinction. In their wake, peasant farmers, blacksmiths, salt merchants, gathered about them like minded individuals intent on self-preservation and built stockades from which to defend their rice fields and their homes.
This gave them the opportunity to make a name for themselves, adopting the title of daimyo ‘ big name’. They were the new breed of samurai, no illustrious pedigrees, no family poems listing the battle exploits of fallen ancestral warriors; Japan was splitting into a number of petty kingdoms held by individual warlords who controlled their own private armies. This was the Sengoku Period ‘ the age of the country at war’ and it marked the second most important period of samurai history.
During this period samurai warfare developed to its peak. Although samurai traditions laid great focus on individual samurai prowess, the fighting needs of the 15th century weren’t quite so noble or poetic. Endless supplies of fighting men were needed and a peasant handy with a sword, was a valuable asset; even if he had no fighting ancestry to boast of.
Many Daimyo dreamed of uniting Japan under their own sword, the first to try was Oda Nobunaga, a brilliant and astute samurai general who began trading with the west acquiring Portuguese arquabuses.
In terms of accuracy and firing rate, the arquabus an early musket, came a poor second to the bow but it could be mastered in a short space of time, ideal for the mercenary peasants eager to join the private armies of the Daiymo but lacking any fighting skills. Nobunaga showed how these guns could be best employed at Nagashino in 1575 when his controlled volley of arquabuses fired into his enemies cavalry immediately destroying the charge.
But Nobungaga’s attempt at unification never succeeded; just as he was on the verge of success, he was assassinated by two of his generals at the age of forty-eight.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi one of Nobunaga’s most loyal followers avenged his death and took control following his predecessors example of building huge strategic castles which he used as bases to conquer Shikoku Island in 1585 and Kyushi in 1587.
The Hojo submitted to him in 1590 followed by the northern clans effectively making him the Napoleon of Japan.
The samurai armies were now virtually professional soldiers consisting of high ranking mounted samurai spearmen, who also supplied personal retainers who fought on foot with spears alongside the the ashigaru, unarmoured or lightly armoured foot soldiers. Within the ranks there were special corps of highly trained ashigaru who wielded bows or arquabuses all under the command of a corps of officers. He introduced a rigid social caste system which was later completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors. Hideyoshi forced all samurai to decide between a life on the farm and a warrior life in castle towns. Furthermore, he forbade anyone but the samurai to arm themselves with a sword.
Hideyoshi died in 1598 after his disastrous invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597 and once again Japan was split into rival camps culminating with the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 a result of which Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun a title his descendants were to retain for two and a half centuries. Tokugawa Ieyasu also drew up the “Buke Sho Hatto” (Rules for Martial Families) It gave Samurai 13 guides to living as a warrior during peace time and forms part of the collected philosophies known as Bushido – the way of the warrior.
In 1638 the only real challenge to the Tokugawa shogunate was a mainly Christian rebellion in Shimabara in Kyushu. Following this rebellion, fearful of outside influence, particularly from the Portuguese and Spanish the shogunate severed relations with Catholic Europe. During this period of relative peace, with no enemies to fight the samurai’s influence and power began to weaken in comparison to the ever growing merchant class. As a result, martial skills declined, and many samurai became bureaucrats, teachers or artists.
In the first half of the nineteenth century European and American ships appeared in Japanese waters. Demands for trade were made and although the Tokugawa shoguns were keen to develop trade with the west clans such as the Shimazu of distant Satsuma were against any such agreements with all foreigners. Civil war once more broke out. The Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and the emperor was restored to a position of influence and power.
He along with his government realised that for Japan to progress they needed to establish trade links with foreigners, Japan needed to embrace modern concepts and ideals which meant casting aside the old. In 1868 the existence of the samurai class was abolished; Japan’s feudal era had came to an end. There was one last rebellion, the Satsuma rebellion led by Saigo Takamori in 1877.
It was a forlorn but none-the-less noble attempt at holding back the passage of time. The national army of conscripts quashed the rebellion and Saigo committed suicide, making him to all intents and purposes the last samurai.