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In Japanese, the word Samurai refers to a both a member of the warrior class, and the entire class as a whole. 

Japanese Samurai warriors first came to be in the 12th century, during the bitter battles between two very powerful Japanese clans:  Taira and Minamato.  At that time, the military system of rule that was in power was the shogunate, also known as shogun.  Shogun’s convention stated that the next up in the hierarchy were the daimyo, who were local rulers, like dukes and seigneurs in Europe. The duties of the samurai were to act as military retainers for these daimyo.  This was true except for the ronin.  Ronin are samurai without a master.  Ronin occurred for the first time in the famous story of Chushingura, when the lord of the 47 ronin was forced to commit suicide. 

Samurai were famous for their unique ethic code of behavior, called the bushido.  Bushido literally means “the way of the warrior,” and its heart referred to the absolute loyalty the samurai had for their lord, the daimyo. 

The battles between hostile clans were very fierce, and were usually based on a disagreement over land.  Good land was very valuable in Japan, as only 20% of the rugged and mountainous terrain was conducive to agriculture.

As a samurai, a man was allowed certain very specific and special privileges.  These privileges included wearing two swords - a long sword and a short sword.  This was considered a privilege, as commoners were not allowed to wear weapons.  It even came to the point when a samurai’s privileges allowed him to behead a commoner if he felt offended by them. 

Within the social status as samurai, there were different ranks that held different privileges.  By the 12th century, a system was established with 3 primary ranks of Samurai.  These ranks were: 

  • Kenin - housemen, whose duties were the same as administrators or vassals.

  •  Foot Soldiers

  •  Mounted Samurai - the highest rank of samurai, who were allowed to fight while on horseback. 

By the end of the 15th century, the shogunate lost power and the most influential feudal lords devastated Japan in a string of civil wars that continued for almost 100 years. 

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the man to finally unify Japan, and with this unification, he introduced many societal reforms, which drastically impacted the life of the samurai.  Primarily, the samurai were to live permanently in castles.  Until that point, they had been farmers of their own land during times of peace - now they were expected to be professionals.  Of course, this system required financing, so he introduced a taxation system for rice, which every samurai warrior had to pay, depending on his samurai rank. 

At the height of the samurai period, it is estimated that 8% of the overall population of Japan belonged to the samurai class.  When they were finally abolished, the samurai did not know how to survive; many became businessmen, though frequently it meant that the samurai's wives had to sell their services at brothels in order to support the family.

Though samurai do not have status in an official sense in Japan today, the descendants of the samurai still receive high esteem from other members of the Japanese population.


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