The samurai were members of a powerful military caste in feudal Japan.
They began as provincial warriors before rising to power in the 12th century with the beginning of the country’s first military dictatorship, known as the shogunate.
In Japanese, they are usually referred to as bushi, meaning ‘warrior’, or buke, meaning ‘military family’.
The term “samurai” was originally used to denote the aristocratic warriors (bushi), but it came to apply to all the members of the warrior class that rose to power in the 12th century and dominated the Japanese government until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Samurai were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo (the great feudal landholders). They had high prestige and special privileges such as wearing two swords.
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 rigorous training of a samurai warrior began in childhood. Samurai school was a unique combination of physical training, Chinese studies, poetry and spiritual discipline.
Samurai warriors took great care styling their hair, which they pulled back into a topknot called a “chomage.” For battle, samurai warriors shaved the tops of their heads, which reduced the heat under their heavy helmets, and wore their hair straight on the sides. When not wearing helmets, they pulled the side and back hair into a topknot.
A samurai’s clothing style was very important and indicative of status. Outlandish, colorful patterns were considered immodest and conceited. Though samurai children dressed flamboyantly, they became more subdued in appearance after their coming-of-age ceremony.
The samurai’s everyday wear was a kimono, usually consisting of an outer and inner layer. Normally made of silk, the quality of the kimono depended on the samurai’s income and status. Beneath the kimono, the warrior wore a loincloth.
Outside the home, the samurai wore a two-piece costume called a “kamishimo” over the kimono. The upper piece was a sleeveless jacket with exaggerated shoulders. On the lower part of their body, samurai wore wide flowing trousers called “hakama.” When traveling, they would wear a long-sleeved coat over the kimono.
Katana is one of the world’s most popular and widely recognized swords. These swords used by samurai. The katana was such a crucial part of a samurai’s life that when a young warrior was on the verge of entering this world, the sword he would use as a protector was brought into the delivery room as if to greet the young one. And, when a weathered, old veteran warrior was on his deathbed, ready to cross over into the White Jade Pavilion of the afterlife, his katana was placed at his side, as if to protect him one last time.
There was a tradition of wearing, taking care and taking the katana out of its scabbard. Samurai kept their katana on a special stand for swords, called katana-kake. The blade had to have its point up, just as when wearing the sword – the handle (called the tang) had to be turned to the let. This made katana available for handling any time it was needed.
The samurai trace their origins to the Heian Period campaigns (794 to 1185) 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.
During the Muromachi period (1338–1573) under the growing influence of Zen Buddhism, the samurai culture produced many such uniquely Japanese arts as the tea ceremony and flower arranging that continue today.
During the Edo period (1615–1868), the cult of the warrior, bushido, became formalized and an idealized code of behavior, focusing on fidelity to one’s lord and honor, developed. The samurai of this period inherited the traditional aesthetics and practices of their predecessors and, therefore, continued the seemingly paradoxical relationship between the cultivation of bu and bun—the arts of war and of culture—that characterized Japan’s great warriors.
When the Emperor regained power in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, he began to issue laws to reduce the power and status of the samurai class. Samurai were no longer permitted to carry swords in public and a national army was established which conscripted men from across society.
As aristocrats for centuries, samurai developed their own cultures that influenced Japanese culture as a whole. The culture associated with the samurai such as the tea ceremony, monochrome ink painting, rock
gardens and poetry was adopted by warrior patrons throughout the centuries 1200–1600. These practices were adapted from the Chinese arts. Zen monks introduced them to Japan and they were allowed to flourish due to the interest of powerful warrior elites.