The Ancient History of the Samurai


The Samurai are known to be the soldiers of early Japan. They made up the determined military order which became the highest ranking social class from 1603 to 1867. 

The Samurai made use of a variety of weapons from bows and arrows, to guns and spears, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword.

The respected Samurai was expected to be a stoic warrior who followed an unofficial code of conduct, later known as Bushido, which bear bravery, honour, and personal loyalty above everything else. Seppuku is a ritual suicide by disembowelment that was symbolised as a respected alternative to dishonour or defeat. 

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The samurai are traced back to the Heian Period campaigns (710 -1185) to subdue the native Emishi people in the North-East region of Japan. During this time, fighters were greatly hired by cash rich landowners that had become independent of the central government and built armies for their own protection.

The two most powerful cash rich clans, the Minamoto and Taira, challenged the central government and battled each other for supremacy over the entire country. Minamoto Yoritomo proved to be victorious and set up a new military government in 1192. The Minamoto government was lead by shogun or a supreme commander. The samurai continued to rule over Japan for most of the following 700 years.

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During the chaotic Muromachi period (in the 15th and 16th centuries), Japan was disected into a dozen of independent states constantly at battle with one another. Consequently, fighters were to become high in demand. It was also the era when ninja, warriors who specialised in unconventional tactics, were most effectivel. Many of the famous samurai movies by Kurosawa are set during the Muromachi period.

The country was finally reunited in the late 1500s, and a firm social caste system was founded during the Edo Period between 1603 - 1868, that placed the samurai at the number one spot, followed by the farmers, artisans and merchants respectively. During this time, the samurai were forced to live in castle towns where the samurai were the only ones allowed to own and carry swords. Masterless samurai were called ronin and caused little to no trouble during the 1600s.

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Relative peace was abundant during the 250 years of the Edo Period. As a result, the importance of martial skills decreased in popularity, and many samurai became government servants, teachers or artists. Japan's feudal era eventually came to an end in 1868, and the samurai class was eradicated a few years afterwards.


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A caste is a form of social stratification characterised by endogamy, the hereditary transmission of a style of life.