Friday, September 23, 2011

The Samurai: A Short History

Japan has a history that dates back thousands of years. Scientists believe the Japanese people descended from many groups that migrated to the islands from other parts of Asia, including China and Korea. As early as 4500 B.C., the Japanese islands were inhabited by fishermen, hunters and farmers. The early culture was known as "Jomon," which meant "cord pattern."


That's because the people made pottery decorated with rope-like designs. Scientists believe a caucasian race called the "Ainu" were the first inhabitants of what is now Japan. The Ainu still exist today, mostly in the northernmost islands of Japan called "Hokkaido." The next major Japanese cultural changed occured about 200 B.C. The people were known as "Yayoi." The Yayoi were mostly farmers. Scientists believe the present-day Japanese closely resemble the Yayoi in appearance and language.

The Samurai rose out of the continuing battles for land among three main clans: the Minamoto, the Fujiwara and the Taira. The Samurai eventually became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D. They were called by two names: Samurai (knights-retainers) and Bushi (warriors). Some of them were related to the ruling class. Others were hired men.  They later made up the ruling military class that eventually became the highest ranking social caste of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword.

Samurai were supposed to lead their lives according to the ethic code of bushido ("the way of the warrior"). Strongly Confucian in nature, bushido stressed concepts such as loyalty to one's master, self discipline and respectful, ethical behavior. Many samurai were also drawn to the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism.


The samurai trace their origins to the Heian Period campaigns to subdue the native Emishi people in the Tohoku Region. Around the same time, warriors were increasingly hired by wealthy landowners that had grown independent of the central government and built armies for their own protection.

 The two most powerful of these landowning clans, the Minamoto and Taira, eventually challenged the central government and battled each other for supremacy over the entire country. Minamoto Yoritomo emerged victorious and set up a new military government in 1192, led by the shogun or supreme military commander. The samurai would rule over Japan for most of the next 700 years.

During the chaotic era of warring states in the 15th and 16th centuries, Japan splintered into dozens of independent states constantly at war with one another. Consequently, warriors were in high demand. Many of the famous samurai movies by Kurosawa are set during this era.

The country was eventually reunited in the late 1500s, and a rigid social caste system was established during the Edo Period that placed the samurai at the top, followed by the farmers, artisans and merchants respectively. During this time, the samurai were forced to live in castle towns, were the only ones allowed to own and carry swords and were paid in rice by their daimyo or feudal lords. Masterless samurai were called ronin and caused minor troubles during the 1600s.

Relative peace prevailed during the roughly 250 years of the Edo Period. As a result, the importance of martial skills declined, and many samurai became bureaucrats, teachers or artists. Japan's feudal era eventually came to an end in 1868, and the samurai class was abolished a few years afterwards.

Samurai Timeline

  • 660 B.C. --- Legend says Jimmu Tenno became Japan's first emperor and set up the ruling Yamato State. Weapons and armour develop.
  • 400's A.D. --- Horses introduced into Japanese fighting.
  • 500's A.D. --- Buddhism arrived in Japan; becomes a powerful philosophy for rulers and warriors.
  • 500's A.D. --- Soga clan dominated the Yamato court.
  • 645 A.D. --- Taika Reforms began.
  • 702 A.D. --- Taiho law codes established the Great Council of State.
  • 710 A.D. --- Nara rule began with first permanent capital.
  • 781 A.D. --- Emperor Kammu came to power and moved capital to Kyoto a few years later.
  • 794 A.D. --- Heian period began.
  • 858 A.D. --- Fujiwara family gained control of imperial court.
  • 935 A.D. --- Taira Masakado revolted and proclaimed himself "The New Emperor." Other Samurai leaders exerted their influence across the land and changed the history of Japan.
  • 1180-85 A.D. --- Minamoto Yoritomo takes up arms against the Taira clan in The Gempei War.
  • 1192 A.D. --- Yoritomo became first permanent shogun of Japan and set up his Samurai government in Kamakura.
  • Late 1200's A.D. --- Mongols invade Japan. The Samurai defeat the Mongols after many years of fierce fighting. The Samurai developed a style of formation combat and depended more on the sword as a primary weapon in battle.
  • 1318 A.D. --- Go-Daigo became the 96th Emperor of Japan. He attempted to overthrow the Hojo regents, but gave rise instead to a new dynasty of Shoguns, the Ashikaga family, who set up their government in the capital city of Kyoto. 

  • 1400'a A.D. --- Master swordsmen established schools to teach their style of ken-jutsu.
  • 1467-77 A.D. --- The Onin War saw the decline of the Shogun's power and began the Sengoku Jidai ("The Age of the Country at War") which lasted 150 years.
  • 1542 A.D. --- Portuguese guns were introduced into Japan.
  • 1560 A.D. --- Oda Nobunaga began the process of unifying Japan. Toyotomi Hideyoshi continued the quest after Nobunaga's death.
  • 1592 A.D. --- Hideyoshi invaded Korea on his way to invading China, but died in 1598 before succeeding.
  • 1603 A.D. --- The Tokugawa family began ruling Japan. The regime lasted more than 200 years.
  • 1605 A.D. --- Miyamoto Musashi, Japan's most famous Samurai, began his musha-shugyo (warrior pilgrimage). Musashi fought and won more than 60 sword fights before the age of 30. He founded the Individual School of Two Skies and taught for many years. At the age of 60, Musashi wrote Gorin No Sho ("The Book of Five Spheres"), the most famous writing about the Japanese Sword Arts. He also wrote "The 35 Articles on the Art of Swordsmanship."
  • 1615 A.D. --- Tokugawa Ieyasu drew up the "Buke Sho Hatto" (Rules for Martial Families) before his death. It gave Samurai 13 guides to living as a warrior during peace time.
  • 1630 A.D. --- Japan cut its ties with the outside world.
  • 1854 A.D. --- Commodore Matthew Perry opened trade between the United States and Japan.
  • 1867 A.D. --- Emperor Mutsuhito regained his traditional powers and took the name Meiji. It was the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. Meiji (Mutsuhito) set up his new capital city in Edo (Tokyo).
  • 1868 A.D. --- Emperor Meiji introduced the "Five Articles Oath" which began the dismantling of the Samurai class.
  • 1873 A.D. --- Emperor Meiji established an army based on conscription; an army open to anyone.
  • 1876 A.D. --- Emperor Meiji declared a new law that ended the wearing of swords. The Samurai had lost their profession and their right to wear swords. Their position as a special class ended after almost 1,000 years.
Samurai Glossary
A sword-drawing art that includes cutting rolled straw targets
Staff fighting
Martial or Fighting Arts
The Way of the Warrior
Straight sword used in Japan's early history
Feudal landowner
Samurai's two swords (one long - katana, one short - wakizashi)
Edo Period
1600 - 1867 when Tokugawa government ruled Japan
Samurai's duty
War fan
Divided skirt-pants Samurai wore
Heian Period
782 - 1184 when Japan's capital was located in Kyoto
Art of Drawing the Sword
Kamakura Period
1185 - 1332 when the capital of Japan was in Kamakura. Known as the "golden age" of the Japanese sword.
Long sword
Sword - refers specifically to an ancient, two-edge sword made before the ninth century
Art of the Sword
Swords made before the Edo Period
Bow and arror fighting
Kyuba no michi
The Way of the Horse and Bow
Japanese archery
Name of a sword
Momoyana Period
1573 - 1599 when Samurai began wearing daisho. Also beginning of the Shinto (new sword) period.
Family crest worn on montsuki
Kimono top Japanese wore at formal occasions
Sword maker
Muromachi Period
1392 - 1572 when constant civil wars greatly increased the production of swords.
Warrior pilgrimage
Long pole with curved blade on one end
Way of the Naginata
Nambokucho Period
1333 - 1391 when two emperors were vying for power in Japan
Long sword 
Master-less Samurai
Particular school or style of martial arts
Member of the warrior class
Ritual suicide
Shin Shinto
"New New Sword" - any sword made after Meiji Restoration (1870)
"New Sword" - any sword made between 1596 and 1870
Barbarian subduing General (war lord)
Spear fighting
Warrior monks
Long, deeply curved sword that mounted Samurai used in ancient Japan
"Inside sword" - a term for the longer of two swords Samurai wore
Short sword
Samurai's sensing danger

1 comment:

  1. uummm,.... what do you mean by scientists believe in the first paragragh?


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