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Definition: Samurai from Philip's Encyclopedia

Member of the élite warrior class of feudal Japan. Beginning as military retainers in the 10th century, the samurai later emerged as an aristocratic ruling class. They conformed to a strict code of conduct, known as bushido ('the way of the warrior'). Under the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th to 19th centuries, they divided into hereditary subclasses and increasingly became bureaucrats and scholars.


Summary Article: Samurai from Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

The samurai was the professional warrior class that ruled Japan for almost 700 years, from the end of the 12th until the middle of the 19th century.

The term samurai originates from the old verb saburau, meaning to serve as an armed attendant to a person of nobility. In the Heian era (ca. 792-1192), it was first used to refer only to the warriors guarding the emperor and court nobles, but later the term started to be used to refer to all professional warriors.

Until recently, the common theory on the origins of the samurai stated that they emerged from a new class of feudal lords who armed themselves for the purposes of self-defense as local administrations became loose. Presently, the prevailing view among historians is that samurai first appeared as a conglomerate of special military nobility, hunters, and other classes of people whose main profession was killing. From the end of the Heian era, these men transformed into local feudal lords and thus came to combine the features of landlords.

By the beginning of the 12th century, poor internal security forced the Japanese imperial court to hire these professionals, who also had their own retainers, and delegate them police and military responsibilities. This reliance on professional warriors resulted in the rise of the samurai as key players on the national scene. By the middle of the 12th century, numerous members of the samurai clans Taira and Minamoto occupied governmental posts and received revenues from manors. More and more, they acted as principal military figures employed by civilian authorities.

During the 1150s, samurai played crucial roles in violent factional clashes at court, and in the outcome the ambitious samurai Taira-no Kiyomori emerged and grasped political power, establishing the first warrior rule in Japanese history. Members of the Taira clan came to occupy all major posts in the government. However, Kiyomori's bold ambitions and harsh punishment of those who resisted produced a counter-reaction. The Taira were overthrown in a series of civil strives, and their majority was exterminated in 1185 by the rival Minamoto clan led by Minamoto-no Yoritomo.

Minamoto-no Yoritomo established the first shogunate, a form of warrior regime in which absolute power formally belonged to an individual samurai granted by the emperor the title of Seii Taishogun, or the Great General Subduing Barbarians. From this era (Kamakura shogunate, 1192-1333), the possession of an official rank became the basic legislative condition of the samurai class.

Samurai espoused their own ethos, code of honor, and customs, which separated them from the other classes of Japanese society. The relationship between members of the samurai class was based on a peculiar master-subordinate bond in which subordinates were expected to exercise absolute loyalty to their masters, and the latter in return offered pay and protection. However, the character of this relationship depended on the historical period. In the beginning, when the class was still forming, samurai often changed masters at their discretion, and it was only with time that this relationship became relatively rigid. It is also necessary to bear in mind that the samurai class was a society that placed utmost value on power and force. If the master's position became weak, not only could the master-subordinate relationship be broken, but the subordinate could overthrow his master.

By the 11th and 12th centuries c.e., the status of the military classes (samurai) rose in importance in Japan.

Recent studies show that before the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), which was characterized by about 260 years of tranquility and peace, the basic elements of the samurai culture were the warrior etiquette, the state of constant alertness to a surprise attack or other kinds of danger, practical knowledge applicable to virtually all aspects of a warrior's life during peace and war, the cult of the blade, and training in military arts. These elements were inseparably linked with each other and at the same time interwoven in the everyday process of preparation for death. One of the famous expressions of the cult of death was the custom of seppuku, or belly cutting.

During the Tokugawa era, these elements and customs were largely lost. The majority of samurai turned into bureaucrats educated according to Neo-Confucian ideology, and compared to the ages of incessant war and unrest, this period was characterized by a sharp decline in the standards of military practicability of their fighting skills. The decline in the utility of military arts was accompanied by conceptual speculations on the principles of these arts, along with an emphasis on their practice for the sake of character perfection and the development of empty psychological theories of combat. This was the beginning of a broad sociocultural phenomenon in samurai society: cultivation of the warrior's spiritual side through impractical military means, without much awareness of the ineffectiveness of the latter in actual combat. This dissonance between means and goals persisted through the Tokugawa era and survived well into modern Japanese society.

Since about the end of the 19th century, in the process of building of a new nation-state by the Meiji government, the image of the samurai has been actively exploited by the Japanese establishment and businesses to promote conservative sociocultural agendas both inside and outside the country. This included the reinvention of the samurai ethos, bushido, and its nationwide dissemination. At the time when Japan won successive wars of expansion over China and Russia, the Japanese government urged the entire nation to identify with traditional native “warrior” values, even though the vast majority of Japan's population never belonged to the samurai class.

See Also:

Japanese Emperors and Shoguns , Nationalism , Shogunate Government

Further Readings
  • Anshin, Anatoliy. The Intangible Warrior Culture of Japan: Bodily Practices, Mental Attitudes, and Values of the Two-Sworded Men From the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries. Ph.D. dissertation, University of New South Wales at Australian Defense Force Academy, 2009.
  • Friday, Karl. Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Hurst, Cameron. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.
  • Anshin, Anatoliy
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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