What Were the Ronin?

Feudal Japanese Warriors Serving No Daimyo

The captain of the 47 Ronin
Detail, the captain of the 47 Ronin. Culture Club / Getty Images

A ronin was a samurai warrior in feudal Japan without a master or lord — known as a daimyo.  A samurai could become a ronin in several different ways: his master might die or fall from power or the samurai might lose his master's favor or patronage and be cast off.

The word "ronin" literally means "wave man," so the connotation is that he is a drifter or a wanderer. The term is quite pejorative as its English equivalent might be "vagrant." Originally, during the Nara and Heian eras, the word was applied to serfs who fled from their masters' land and took to the road — they would often turn to crime to support themselves, becoming robbers and highwaymen.

Over time, the word was transferred up the social hierarchy to rogue samurai. These samurais were seen as outlaws and vagabonds, men who had been expelled from their clans or had renounced their lords.

The Path to Becoming a Ronin

During the Sengoku period from 1467 to approximately 1600, a samurai could easily find a new master if his lord was killed in battle. In that chaotic time, every daimyo needed experienced soldiers and ronin did not remain masterless for long. However, once Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who reigned from 1585 to 1598, began to pacify the country and the Tokugawa shoguns brought unity and peace to Japan, there was no longer any need for extra warriors. Those who chose the life of a ronin would usually live in poverty and disgrace.

What was the alternative to becoming a ronin? After all, it was not the samurai's fault if his master suddenly died, was deposed from his position as daimyo or was killed in battle.

In the first two cases, ordinarily, the samurai would go on to serve the new daimyo, usually a close relative of his original lord.  

However, if that was not possible, or if he felt too strong a personal loyalty to his late lord to transfer his allegiance, the samurai was expected to commit ritual suicide or seppuku.

Likewise, if his lord was defeated or killed in battle, the samurai was supposed to kill himself, according to the samurai code of bushido. This was how a samurai preserved his honor. It also served the society's need to avoid revenge killings and vendettas, and to remove "freelance" warriors from circulation.

Honor of the Masterless

Those masterless samurais who chose to buck the tradition and continue living fell into disrepute. They still wore the two swords of a samurai, unless they had to sell them when they fell upon hard times. As members of the samurai class, in the strict feudal hierarchy, they could not legally take up a new career as a farmer, artisan, or merchant — and most would have disdained such work.  

The more honorable ronin might serve as a bodyguard or a mercenary for wealthy traders or merchants. Many others turned to a life of crime, working for or even operating gangs that ran brothels and illegal gambling shops. Some even shook down local business owners in classic protection rackets. This sort of behavior helped to solidify the ronins' image as dangerous and rootless criminals.

One major exception to the terrible reputation of the ronin is the true story of the 47 Ronin who chose to remain alive as ronin in order to avenge their master's unjust death.

Once their task was accomplished, they committed suicide as required by the code of bushido. Their actions, although technically illegal, have been held up as the epitome of loyalty and service to one's lord.

Today, people in Japan use the word "ronin" semi-jokingly to describe a high school graduate who has not yet enrolled at a university or an office worker who does not have a job at the moment.