Samurai, The Great Martial arts Warriors of Feudal Japan
To a European merchant in 18th century Japan, the samurai must have been a terrifying sight, and it wasn’t only outsiders who feared these menacing warriors. If you were an 18th century Japanese farmer on the wrong side of a landowner’s new property the samurai were the stuff of nightmares.
The samurai began as an elite militia hired by rich landowners who sought fortune outside of imperial walls. By the 12th century the samurai had risen to power enforcing the laws of Japan’s first dictatorship. Part of the samurai’s success lay in their strict code of honour and discipline known as “the way of the warrior”, or bushido, being passed on to each generation. For over 600 years, the samurai imposed the will of overlords until the abolition of Japan’s feudal system in 1868.
Today, the samurai’s fighting styles are known as jiu-jitsu and kendo, two of the most popular martial arts that are practiced in schools around the world.
What made these warriors such effective fighters and how did they rise to power?
Rise of the samurai
By the 12th century a famed nobleman named Minamoto Yoritomo had risen to power after his family defeated Japan’s other ruling clan. He exiled his half-brother and hired samurai warriors to defend his new government headquarters and enforce his rule through brute military force. Under Yorimoto the samurai became more than soldiers; they were given political power and therefor were considered the most elite members of society. Not just anyone could join the samurai, Yoritomo himself had to approve the appointment.
The way of the warrior
A new philosophy was making its way from China to Japan. Zen Buddhism was very popular among the samurai whose own way of life was very similar to a Zen monk’s principled austere lifestyle. The samurai found their code of behavior in the notion that salvation came from within.
The end of feudal rule
The samurai were in complete control of Japan for centuries, serving generations of overlords despite growing unrest and poverty. It was the arrival of the US Navy in 1853 and international trade agreements which marked the end of an unpopular feudal system. Two clans rose to power with the goal of toppling the centuries-old Shogunate regime and in 1868 they were successful in appointing a new emperor named Meiji. Three years later feudalism was abolished and the ways of the western tradesmen were adapted. The wearing of any swords became forbidden.
The skill of the samurai is legendary. Their famed curved katana sword will go down as one of history’s most effective hand-held weapons, and the honour code by which the samurari lived and died are respected to this day.