History of the Samurai: Outsiders to Legends


Paragons of virtue, exemplars of honour, beacons
of integrity and masters of warfare – the knights of the east. This is what we generally
picture when we think of the infamous Samurai. While it is an attractive view of these legendary
warriors, it is nevertheless quite a misleading one. In this video we shall do our best to
correct this, and cover the even more fascinating roles and perceptions of the samurai in Japanese
society from the earliest days all the way to the modern day. The geographical situation that spawned the
Samurai where they did is a unique one in the world. The Japanese home islands are an
archipelago just off the Korean peninsula and the Asian mainland, leading German advisor
Jakob Meckel in the Meiji restoration period to remark that Korea “was a dagger pointed
at the heart of Japan.”. Despite this divide, the superpower of the region, China, has influenced
Japan more than any other nation, and the relationship between the two has had a massive
impact on history. The position of Japanese ‘Emperor’ itself may have even been adopted
from China. The proto-Japanese state of the early-Heian
period thrust north with an army based mainly on the Chinese heavy infantry model of the
Tang dynasty. Eventually however, they came upon the Emishi, or ‘Hairy people’ of northeastern
Honshu. This distinct group had developed horse archery tactics similar to those of
the Huns and Mongols. The immobile early Japanese could not deal with these irregular guerilla
tactics, so eventually, their tactics were adopted by the Heian and the Emishi were gradually
assimilated. This resilient group had a profound impact
on the formation of the first Samurai, and it has been said that the very core of the
Japanese spirit is the ‘ghost of the Emishi’. As the Heian Japanese began to subjugate the
Emishi at the end of the eighth century, many families of this group created a network of
semi-autonomous feudal domains, who would become the first Samurai – literally translated
as ‘servant’ or ‘henchman’. They were given this name by warriors in the Heian capital
who sought to distinguish themselves from the ‘unsophisticated louts’ in the provinces.
This is one of the first misconceptions of the Samurai that must be corrected; they were
not just katana wielding swordsmen with fancy armour. It is likely that the very first proto-Samurai
were in fact these same rural Emishi horse archers which the emperors came to favour
in suppressing internal unrest. As the Heian period continued, the central
government in modern Kyoto became less and less interested in actually running the country.
This allowed the Samurai to become more independent and entrenched, and allowed them to gain more
power. Eventually a series of revolts occurred and members of the Samurai class took control
of the country, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate, the first shogunate in Japanese
history. A Shogun was technically a high-ranking samurai
ruling in the emperor’s name, but in reality they were the military dictator, while the
emperor was just a figurehead. Sometimes in Japanese history however, even the Shogun
was a puppet ruler, and the actual holders of influence were the powerful feudal landholders,
or the Daimyo. During the Kamakura era, the Japanese state
came under severe threat. The Yuan Empire under Kublai Khan launched two invasions of
Japan, and the Samurai were itching for a fight. In both circumstances the Samurai used
unconventional tactics to hinder their enemy. They drove boats full of burning pitch into
the Mongol ships and launched constant suicide attacks. Eventually, two hurricanes destroyed
the Mongol fleets and Japan was saved. The Samurai have often been seen as the Eastern
mirror image of the knights in medieval Europe, due to their code of conduct and seemingly
elite nature. But unlike knights, Samurai usually comprised a dominant number of troops
in feudal Japanese armies, compared to the relatively small number of knights in European
armies, which were often filled with enlisted men-at-arms or peasants. This was the case
in the Mongol invasions, as almost the entire Japanese army consisted of Samurai.
Nevertheless, these wars with the Mongols had weakened the Kamakura, and the first shogunate
fell not long after. After more political maneuvering and an attempted Imperial restoration,
the Ashikaga shogunate eventually came to power in 1338. Never as powerful as their
Kamakura predecessors, the Ashikaga slowly began to lose their hold on local Daimyos
and, when a Samurai feud for Kyoto began between the Hosokawa and Yamana in 1467, the Shogunate
effectively lost all control over the provinces. One of the most famous eras in Samurai history,
the Sengoku Jidai, was about to begin. By the end of the Onin War, Japan was essentially
split into hundreds of separate feudal domains ruled by their Daimyos, literally: ‘great
names’. Many of the common myths and legends about the samurai took root during this era,
and likely did happen, but only in certain places and at certain times. This was the
‘golden age’ of samurai warfare and one of the periods that later samurai would look
back on, romanticise and attempt to emulate. Honour was common, as was deceit. A contest
between two famous warlords is an example of the former: Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen
had a rivalry which, unlike many of the more cutthroat conflicts during this time, was
more like an annual competition between sophisticated gentlemen. They would meet at the same place
every year to battle one another and then go back home. On one occasion when another
clan disrupted the Takeda’s salt supplies, Kenshin sent his own as a replacement. He
stated courteously that he chose to fight his adversaries with swords, and not salt.
As the sixteenth century progressed, this kind of gentlemanly conduct became less and
less common. European traders in the south of Japan had introduced early firearms such
as the Arquebus. While the Japanese were not unfamiliar with gunpowder, this new technology
changed the battlefield dramatically. Another common misconception, popularised by films
such as The Last Samurai, is that Samurai did not adopt firearms because they were viewed
as dishonourable. Some Japanese were indeed shocked by the new weapons, viewing them as
impractical and ineffective, rather than dishonourable. However, most Daimyo who could buy them did
and experienced success because of it. The aforementioned Takeda Shingen bought 300 of
them before his yearly battle against Uesugi Kenshin in 1571.
Nor did Samurai restrain themselves from even the worst kinds of betrayal in situations
where it could benefit them, in contrast to their popular portrayal as paragons truthfulness
and honesty. As Oda Nobunaga was on his way to conquering Japan and possibly unifying
it, he was betrayed by a seemingly loyal general; Akechi Mitsuhide, who claimed the title of
shogun for himself. Many reasons have been speculated upon for this act, but many believe
Mitsuhide had a grievance against his treatment by Nobunaga, who was trapped and committed
suicide, while Mitsuhide was killed a few months later when Oda’s allies returned
to deal with the traitor. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle of
Sekigahara and unified Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The sudden cessation of warfare
in the country left the martial samurai class with little to occupy their time. They were
solidified as a hereditary class and gradually began to find work as clerks in their lord’s
storehouses, night watchmen, tax collectors, security guards, courtiers and administrators
– all the while still dressed for the battlefields of old, a symbolic mark of prestige.
They essentially began to occupy positions in what we would call the civil service of
the shogunate. In stark contrast to their formerly austere nature, some Samurai during
the peaceful Tokugawa era began having extravagant swords created which they could not possibly
hope to wield in combat, and started to wear their hair in outlandish bouffants.
While the warrior ethos of Bushido remained, the actual samurai began to lose their military
training and became a symbol of Japan’s past, rather than the protectors of its future.
To match their new civil roles, Bushido was gradually modified to include values such
as etiquette and politeness, which would serve them well in their bureaucratic occupations.
Their martial training generally continued throughout the era, but it was more of an
art form rather than preparation for real battle. Practical battle training and weaponry
were sidelined in favour of styles such as Kendo, the way of the sword. It is from this
development that the katana wielding samurai was popularised in contrast to the actual,
practical ways in which they fought earlier battles such as those at Sekigahara and against
the Mongols. In this period, agriculture became less of
a crucial aspect of the Japanese economy. Because of this, the stipend that the Samurai
were paid by the state began to stagnate and decrease. This caused animosity between Samurai
and the rising merchant class, who began to get rich from the changes in the social system.
This trend continued into the late Tokugawa period and only got worse, to the extent where
many of the poorer samurai were on the level of peasants in terms of wealth. This led to
unrest among the Samurai class and eventually masterless Samurai, known as Ronin, increasingly
became skilled bandits in order to make more money.
Eventually, under pressure from outside powers, the Tokugawa shogunate was replaced by the
Japanese Empire and the samurai were essentially sidelined. The fact that the samurai of old
now no longer existed only fueled further misconceptions and romanticism – and this
allowed the new Japanese nation state to warp and twist Bushido into a philosophy which
was used to signify a good citizen. The intensity that these new values created
in the new nation of Japan burned white hot until the Second World War, and the nuclear
attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the subsequent surrender, Bushido was reconsidered
and became more of a historical monument. Notably, however, the Japanese are still seen
as a dedicated people when it came to business and industry. Even in the modern day, the
legacy of the Samurai is clear and present in the Land of the Rising Sun. This has been our video on the history, perceptions
and reality of the Samurai throughout Japanese history. We are planning more videos like
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