The originally Chinese term samurai means “a person who serves in close attendance to nobility.” Its original pronunciation was saburau, which later became saburai. Warriors known as bushi or samurai dominated the Japanese landscape from roughly the sixth century to the end of the 19th century.

Samurai literally means “to serve,” which they did with a loyalty, bravery, and honor that have made the samurai one of the best-known icons of Japanese history. Samurai rule ended in 1868 with the arrival of Commodore William Perry and American gunships.

The Meiji Restoration of the same year abolished the samurai class and opened Japan to the rest of the world. The samurai are symbols of Japan’s feudal past before the rapid modernization that began immediately after Japan’s doors were forced open.

The rise of the warrior class in Japan was not a result of dramatic revolution, but rather a gradual evolution. Around the turn of the eighth century the imperial house and its supporters secured their position at the apex of Japan’s sociopolitical hierarchy with the introduction of several governing institutions modeled largely on those of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in China but adapted to meet Japanese requirements.

The system had many flaws and by the mid-700s, the court began to reevaluate its military needs and to restructure its armed forces. A new utilizable system was established around the late 10th century placing the warriors as guards at the imperial court in Kyoto and as members of private militias employed by provincial lords known as daimyo. Attempts by the imperial court to create a conscript army out of peasants and small landowners had failed.

In response nobles in the capital and wealthy landowners created their own military forces composed of young members of the gentry who were skilled in the martial arts. The first samurai were thus mercenaries, privately trained and equipped. The result of these developments was the emergence of a group of professional soldiers known as bushi.

Samurai army in battle
Samurai army in battle

The word bushi first appears in an early history of Japan called Shoku Nihongi, which is written in the eighth century. Some of bushi were originally farmers who had been armed to protect themselves from the imperially appointed magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes.

Bushi class-consciousness—a sense of the warrior class as a separate entity—did not materialize until the 13th century when the Kamakura Shogunate (ruled by a military generalissimo) took power. The new institution created a new category of shogunal retainer who held special privileges and responsibilities and narrowed the scope of social classes from which the bushi class was composed.

Its founder, Minamoto Yoritomo, consciously helped foster this new warrior ethos by holding hunts and archery competitions that helped to solidify the warrior identity. With promising protection and gaining political power through political marriages, they surpassed the ruling aristocrats.

Gradually the warrior code, or bushido, evolved as the ethical guidelines for the samurai class. The samurai mentality or ethos put honor as the most important trait of the samurai. Seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment, became the dominant alternative to dishonor or capture.

Splitting open the belly with the short sword was so painful that the ritual was eventually modified to allow a second person to cut off the head of the person committing seppuku once he had started the cut to the abdomen. This became the general practice instead of allowing the person to die slowly.

Bushido was strongly influenced by the philosophies of Gautama Buddha, Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucius. For samurai Zen was a means to reach calmness, Buddhism a way to reincarnation and rebirth, Shinto a way to connect his soul to the surrounding nature, and Confucianism a way to reach order and organization.

Minamoto Yoritomo
Minamoto Yoritomo

A samurai was not just a warrior; he should be able to read, write, and even know some mathematics and have interests in Japanese arts as dance, poetry, Go, and the tea ceremony.

Easily identified by their two swords— the longsword or katana and the short sword the wakazashi—the samurai could be seen wearing kimono over flowing, skirtlike trousers, known as hakama, and a short loose jacket. The samurai’s hair was shaved on top with the sides pulled into a neat topknot. The samurai could often be seen on horseback, poised for battle.

Battle for the samurai was also a ritualistic affair. In early medieval days combatants faced off in a structured, well-mannered style. Early samurai idealized single combat, preferably fought on horseback with bow and arrow.

A warrior in search of a worthy opponent would gallop to the front lines and call out his ancestry and a list of his accomplishments. Once introductions were complete archers fired their arrows and samurai with swords and lances charged their adversaries.

The personal and individual combat on the battlefield gradually disappeared as samurai armies grew in size and footsoldiers began to out number those on horseback. However combat remained a ritualistic event and the source of honor and pride for the warrior class, who were willing, and at times almost eager, to give their lives for their liege lord.

Even today the samurai is a prevalent image associated with Japan and the subject of movies and television dramas, in Japan and abroad. Bushido has been given credit for the loyal and hard-working Japanese businessmen who have made the Japanese economy one of the largest in the world. The samurai may be extinct, but the warrior spirit lives on.