The History of the Samurai

From the Taika Reforms to the Meiji Restoration

Samurai armies clash at the Battle of Kawanakajima. Print by Utagawa Yoshikazu, 1857
Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

Samurai were a class of highly skilled warriors that arose in Japan after the Taika reforms of A.D. 646, which included land redistribution and heavy new taxes meant to support an elaborate Chinese-style empire. The reforms forced many small farmers to sell their land and work as tenant farmers. Over time, a few large landholders amassed power and wealth, creating a feudal system similar to that of medieval Europe. To defend their riches, Japanese feudal lords hired the first samurai warriors, or "bushi."

Early Feudal Era

Some samurai were relatives of the landowners they protected, while others were simply hired swords. The samurai code emphasized loyalty to one's master—even over family loyalty. History shows that the most loyal samurai were usually family members or financial dependents of their lords.

During the 900s, the weak emperors of the Heian Era lost control of rural Japan and the country was torn apart by revolt. The emperor's power was soon restricted to the capital, and across the country, the warrior class moved in to fill the power vacuum. After years of fighting, the samurai established a military government known as the shogunate. By the early 1100s, the warriors had both military and political power over much of Japan.

The weak imperial line received a fatal blow to its power in 1156 when Emperor Toba died without a clear successor. His sons, Sutoku and Go-Shirakawa, fought for control in a civil war known as the Hogen Rebellion of 1156. In the end, both would-be emperors lost and the imperial office lost all its remaining power.

During the civil war, the Minamoto and Taira samurai clans rose to prominence. They fought one another during the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. After their victory, the Taira established the first samurai-led government and the defeated Minamoto were banished from the capital of Kyoto.

Kamakura and Early Muromachi (Ashikaga) Periods

The two clans fought once more in the Genpei War of 1180 to 1185, which ended in victory for the Minamoto. Following their victory, Minamoto no Yoritomo established the Kamakura Shogunate, retaining the emperor as a figurehead. The Minamoto clan ruled much of Japan until 1333.

In 1268, an external threat appeared. Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of Yuan China, demanded tribute from Japan, and when Kyoto refused to comply the Mongols invaded. Fortunately for Japan, a typhoon destroyed the Mongols' 600 ships, and a second invasion fleet in 1281 met the same fate.

Despite such incredible help from nature, the Mongol attacks cost the Kamakura dearly. Unable to offer land or riches to the samurai leaders who rallied to Japan's defense, the weakened shogun faced a challenge from Emperor Go-Daigo in 1318. After being exiled in 1331, the emperor returned and overthrew the shogunate in 1333.

The Kemmu Restoration of imperial power lasted only three years. In 1336, the Ashikaga shogunate under Ashikaga Takauji reasserted samurai rule, though this new shogunate was weaker than that of the Kamakura. Regional constables called "daimyo" developed considerable power and meddled with the shogunate's line of succession.

Later Muromachi Period and Restoration of Order

By 1460, the daimyos were ignoring orders from the shogun and backing different successors to the imperial throne. When the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, resigned in 1464, a dispute between backers of his younger brother and his son ignited even more intense fighting among the daimyo.

In 1467, this squabbling erupted into the decade-long Onin War, in which thousands died and Kyoto was burned to the ground. The war led directly to Japan's "Warring States Period," or Sengoku. Between 1467 and 1573, various daimyos led their clans in a fight for national dominance, and nearly all of the provinces were engulfed in the fighting.

The Warring States Period drew to a close in 1568 when the warlord Oda Nobunaga defeated three powerful daimyos, marched into Kyoto, and had his preferred leader, Yoshiaki, installed as shogun. Nobunaga spent the next 14 years subduing other rival daimyos and quelling rebellions by fractious Buddhist monks. His grand Azuchi Castle, constructed between 1576 and 1579, became of symbol of Japanese reunification.

In 1582, Nobunaga was assassinated by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Hideyoshi, another general, finished the unification and ruled as kampaku, or regent, invading Korea in 1592 and 1597.

The Tokugawa Shogunate of the Edo Period

Hideyoshi exiled the large Tokugawa clan from the area around Kyoto to the Kanto region in eastern Japan. By 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu had conquered the neighboring daimyo from his castle stronghold at Edo, which would one day become Tokyo.

Ieyasu's son, Hidetada, became shogun of the unified country in 1605, ushering in about 250 years of relative peace and stability for Japan. The strong Tokugawa shoguns domesticated the samurai, forcing them to either serve their lords in the cities or give up their swords and farm. This transformed the warriors into a class of cultured bureaucrats.

The Meiji Restoration and the End of the Samurai

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration signaled the beginning of the end for the samurai. The Meiji system of constitutional monarchy included such democratic reforms as term limits for public officials and popular balloting. With public support, the Meiji Emperor did away with the samurai, reduced the power of the daimyo, and changed the capital's name from Edo to Tokyo.

The new government created a conscripted army in 1873. Some of the officers were drawn from the ranks of former samurai, but more of the warriors found work as police officers. In 1877, angry ex-samurai revolted against the Meiji in the Satsuma Rebellion, but they later lost the Battle of Shiroyama, bringing the era of the samurai to an end.

Culture and Weapons of the Samurai

The culture of the samurai was grounded in the concept of bushido, or the way of the warrior, whose central tenets are honor and freedom from fear of death. A samurai was legally entitled to cut down any commoner who failed to honor him—or her—properly. The warrior was believed to be imbued with bushido spirit. He or she was expected to fight fearlessly and die honorably rather than surrender in defeat.

Out of this disregard for death came the Japanese tradition of seppuku, in which defeated warriors—and disgraced government officials—would commit suicide with honor by disemboweling themselves with a short sword.

Early samurai were archers, fighting on foot or horseback with extremely long bows (yumi), and used swords mainly for finishing off wounded enemies. After the Mongol invasions of 1272 and 1281, the samurai began to make greater use of swords, poles topped by curved blades called naginata, and spears.

Samurai warriors wore two swords, the katana, and the wakizashi, which were banned from use by non-samurai in the late 16th century.