Samurai: The Rise of the Warrior Class in Medieval Japan


Edo-period screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara. It began on 21 October 1600 with a total of 160,000 men facing each other. / The City of Gifu Museum of History, Wikimedia Commons

The era of the samurai lasted for 700 years, until the emperor was restored to power in 1868.


Introduction

During the Heian period, Japan experienced a golden age. That period was followed by civil war. In this chapter, you will learn about the rise of a powerful warrior class in Japan—the samurai .

Minamoto Yoritomo came to power in Japan in 1185. In 1192, he took the title of shogun, or commander-in-chief. Yoritomo did not take the place of the emperor. Instead, he set up a military government with its own capital in the city of Kamakura. While the imperial court remained in Heian-kyo, emperors played an increasingly less important role in the government of Japan.

The start of the Kamakura government marked the beginning of a new era in Japanese history. Eventually, professional warriors—the samurai—became Japan’s ruling class. The era of the samurai lasted for 700 years, until the emperor was restored to power in 1868.

Over time, an elaborate culture and code of conduct grew up around the samurai. A samurai was expected to be honest, brave, and intensely loyal to his lord. In fact, the word samurai means “those who serve.” The samurai code was very strict. Samurai sometimes killed themselves with their own swords rather than “lose face,” or personal honor.

The samurai were more than fearless fighters. They were educated in art, writing, and literature. Many were devout Buddhists. Their religious faith helped them prepare for their duties and face death bravely.

Comparing Medieval Japan and Europe

Ancient drawing depicting a samurai battling forces of the Mongol Empire / Wikimedia Commons

The Japan of the samurai period was both like and unlike Europe during the Middle Ages. In both societies, ties of loyalty and obligation bound lords and vassals. Both had rulers who rose to power as military chiefs. But in Europe, a military leader like William the Conqueror ruled as king. In Japan, the shogun ruled in the name of the emperor.

The daimyos of Japan were like the landholding lords of medieval Europe. Both types of lords built castles and held estates that were worked by peasants.

Both the samurai of Japan and the knights of Europe were warriors who wore armor, rode horses, and owned land. Just as European knights had a code of chivalry, the samurai had the code of Bushido. The samurai code, however, was much more strict, since it demanded that a samurai kill himself to maintain his honor.

The Rise of the Samurai

Overview

The military government established by Minamoto Yoritomo was led by a shogun, or commander-in-chief. Although emperors continued to rule in name, the real power shifted to the shoguns.

Samurai Under the Shoguns

Portrait of Yoritomo, copy of the 1179 original hanging scroll, attributed to Fujiwara Takanobu. Color on silk. In 1995 Michio Yonekura argued that this portrait is not of Yoritomo but of Ashikaga Tadayoshi. / Wikimedia Commons

Shoguns, such as Yoritomo and his successors, rewarded warriors, or samurai, with appointments to office and land grants. In return, the samurai pledged to serve and protect the shogun.

The rise of the samurai brought a new emphasis on military values in Japanese culture. All samurai trained in the arts of war, especially archery. During this period, women, as well as men, could be samurai. Girls and boys alike were trained to harden their feelings and to use weapons. One samurai wrote,

Of what use is it to allow the mind to concentrate on the
moon and flowers, compose poems, and learn how to play
musical instruments? . . . Members of my household, including
women, must learn to ride wild horses, and shoot powerful
bows and arrows.

Shifting Loyalties

Shiba Yoshimasa of Shiba clan, one of the Shugo-daimyo / Musuketeer, Wikimedia Commons

By the 14th century, Japan’s warrior society resembled the lord-vassal system of medieval Europe. The shogun now ruled with the help of warrior-lords called daimyos (DIE-mee-os). In turn, the daimyos were supported by large numbers of samurai. The daimyos expected to be rewarded for their obedience and loyalty with land, money, or administrative office. The samurai expected the same from the daimyos they served.

Over time, the position of the shogun weakened as daimyos became increasingly powerful. Daimyos began to view their lands as independent kingdoms. Samurai now allied themselves with their daimyo lords.

In the late 15th century, Japan fell into chaos. Daimyos warred with one another for land and power. Samurai fought fierce battles on behalf of their lords.

After a century of bloody warfare, a series of skilled generals defeated rival daimyos and reestablished a strong military government. In 1603, the last of these leaders, Tokugawa Ieyasu (TAW-koo-GAHwah EE-yeh-YAH-soo), became shogun. Tokugawa established a new capital in Edo, present-day Tokyo.

For the next 250 years, Japan was at peace. Samurai served under shoguns and administered the government. It was during this time that the samurai ideal came to full flower. Let’s look now at the samurai way of life.

Mental Training

Overview

A samurai’s education in the art of war included mental training. Samurai had to learn self-control so that they could overcome emotions that might interfere with fighting, especially the fear of death. They also learned to be always alert and prepared to fight.

Training in Self-Control

Kamei Koremi, a samurai and daimyō in the bakumatsu period / Wikimedia Commons

To learn how to endure pain and suffering, young samurai went for days without eating, marched barefoot in snow on long journeys, and held stiff postures for hours without complaining. To overcome the fear of death, they were told to think of themselves as already dead.

Training in Preparedness

A samurai could never relax. An attack could come when least expected, even while a samurai was playing music or dancing. For this reason, samurai had to develop a “sixth sense” about danger. This came from long and grueling training.

The experience of one young samurai illustrates this kind of training. The young man’s fencing master used to whack him with a wooden sword throughout the day whenever he least expected it. These painful blows eventually taught the young student to always stay alert.

Teachers also told stories about being prepared. One story was about a samurai who was peacefully writing when a swordsman tried to attack him. Using his sixth sense, the samurai felt the attack coming. He flicked ink into his attacker’s eyes and escaped. In another story, a samurai woman who was suddenly attacked thrust a piece of rolled-up paper into her attacker’s eyes and gave a war shout. Her attacker ran away.

Military Training and Fighting

The way the first samurai warriors trained and fought was called “The Way of the Horse and the Bow.” Later, the art of swordsmanship became more important than archery.

Military Training

Samurai Takezaki Suenaga of the Hōjō clan (right) defeating the Mongolian invasion army (left) at the Battle of Torikai-Gata, 1274 / Wikimedia Commons

Learning the skills of a samurai required extensive training. Young samurai were apprenticed to archery masters who taught them mental and physical techniques. Samurai practiced until they could shoot accurately without thinking. They also learned to breathe properly and to shoot at their enemies while riding on the back of a galloping horse.

The art of fencing, or swordsmanship, was just as demanding. A samurai had to learn how to force an enemy to make the first move, how to stay out of range of an enemy sword, and how to fight in tight spaces or against more than one opponent. He practiced continually until he could fence well without thinking about it.

Sometimes in battle a samurai might lose or break his sword. Samurai learned to continue the fight by using other objects as weapons, such as metal fans or wooden staffs. They also learned how to fight without weapons by using martial arts. This type of fighting often involves using an opponent’s strength against him.

Battle

General Akashi Gidayu preparing to perform Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582. He had just written his death poem. / Tokyo Metro Library, Wikimedia Commons

According to early texts, the samurai had a unique style of battle. First, messengers from opposing sides met to decide the time and place of combat. Then the two armies faced each other a few hundred yards apart. Samurai on both sides shouted out their names, ancestors, heroic deeds, and reason for fighting. Only then did the armies charge, with mounted samurai firing arrows as they urged their horses forward.

As the two armies clashed, samurai fought each other in hand-to-hand combat. Enemies fought a series of one-on-one duels. Each samurai found an opponent who matched him in rank. He would try to knock his opponent off his horse, wrestle him to the ground, and kill him.

Samurai Armor and Weapons

A samurai was first and foremost a warrior. Let’s look at what a samurai wore in battle and the weapons he used.

Armor

1890s photo showing a variety of armor and weapons typically used by samurai / Wikimedia Commons

A samurai went into battle dressed in heavy armor. Under the armor, he wore a colorful robe called a kimono and baggy trousers. Shin guards made of leather or cloth protected his legs.

Samurai armor was unique. It was made of rows of small metal plates coated with lacquer and laced together with colorful silk cords. This type of armor was strong, yet flexible enough for the samurai to move freely.

Boxlike panels of armor covered the samurai’s chest and back. Metal sleeves covered his arms. Broad shoulder guards and panels that hung over his hips provided additional protection. Some samurai wore thigh guards as well.

After dressing in his body armor, the samurai put on a ferocious-looking iron mask that was meant to frighten his opponents as well as to protect his face. Last came his helmet. Before putting on the helmet, he burned incense in it. In that way, his head would smell sweet if it were cut off in battle.

Weapons

A Katana blade signed by the blacksmith Masamune, with an inscription (城和泉守所持) in gold inlay, Kamakura period, 1300s. Masamune would be recognised as one of Japan’s most influential swordsmiths, his swords having been considered to have brought to perfection the art of “nie” (錵, martensitic crystals embedded in pearlite matrix, thought to resemble stars in the night sky). / Tokyo National Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Samurai fought with bows and arrows, spears, and swords. A samurai’s wooden bow could be up to eight feet long. Such long bows required great strength to use. In battle, samurai on horseback rode toward each other, pulling arrows from the quivers on their backs and firing them at the enemy.

In hand-to-hand combat, some foot soldiers used spears to knock riders off their horses and to kill an enemy on foot with a powerful thrust.

The samurai’s most prized weapon, however, was his sword. Japanese sword makers were excellent craftsmen. Samurai swords were the finest in the world. They were flexible enough not to break, but hard enough to be razor sharp. Samurai carried two types of swords. To fight, they used a long sword with a curved blade.

Wearing a sword was the privilege and right of the samurai. Swords were passed down through generations of warrior families and given as prizes to loyal warriors. Even after peace was established in the 17th century, samurai proudly wore their swords as a sign of their rank.

The Code of Bushido and Samurai Values

Overview

The samurai code developed over several centuries. By the 17th century, it took final form in Bushido, “The Way of the Warrior.”

The code of Bushido, like the code of chivalry in medieval Europe, governed a samurai’s life. It called on samurai to be honest, fair, and fearless in the face of death. Samurai were expected to value loyalty and personal honor even more than their lives.

Loyalty and Personal Honor

Bushido written in Gyo-Kaisho style calligraphy / Wikimedia Commons

A samurai’s supreme duty was to be so loyal to his lord that he would gladly die for him. If his lord was murdered, a samurai might avenge his death. A samurai poem says,

Though a time come
when mountains crack
and seas go dry,
never to my lord
will I be found double-hearted!

Samurai were also expected to guard their personal honor. The least insult on the street could lead to a duel. One samurai, for example, accidentally knocked his umbrella against another samurai’s umbrella. This quickly turned into a quarrel and then a sword fight, resulting in the first samurai’s death.

Ritual Suicide

The price for failing to live up to the code of Bushido was seppuku, or ritual suicide. There were many reasons for seppuku, including preserving personal honor and avoiding capture in battle. Samurai might also perform seppuku to pay for a crime, a shameful deed, or an insult to a person of higher rank. Some samurai even killed themselves when their lord died or as a form of protest against an injustice.

Training in Spiritual Strength

Overview

Most samurai were Buddhists. Two forms of Buddhism that became popular in Japan were Amida and Zen. Samurai were drawn to both kinds of Buddhism, but especially to Zen.

Amida Buddhism

Amitābha statue in gold leaf with inlaid crystal eyes / Photo by Daderot, Tokyo National Museum, Wikimedia Commons

In the 12th century, a monk named Honen founded a popular form of Buddhism, Amida Buddhism. These Buddhists believed that all people could reach paradise. Honen taught that believers could do this by relying on the mercy of the Amida Buddha.

Amida had been an Indian prince. When he became a Buddha, it was said, he set up a western paradise called the Pure Land. Honen said that believers could enter the Pure Land by prayerfully repeating Amida’s name over and over—up to 70,000 times a day. Then, when a believer died, Amida Buddha and a group of bodhisattvas would be waiting to escort the believer into the Pure Land.

Honen’s disciple Shinran made this “Pure Land Buddhism” even more popular. He taught that believers could reach the western paradise by sincerely saying Amida’s name only once.

Zen Buddhism

The ‘meditation hall’ (Jp. zendō, Ch. chántáng) of Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji / Wikimedia Commons

The form of Buddhism called Zen appealed to many samurai because of its emphasis on effort and discipline. Zen stresses self-reliance and achieving enlightenment through meditation.

To reach enlightenment, Zen Buddhists meditate for hours. They must sit erect and cross-legged without moving.

According to the beliefs of Zen Buddhism, becoming enlightened requires giving up everyday, logical thinking. To jolt the mind into enlightenment, masters pose puzzling questions called koans (KOHahnz). Probably the most well-known koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Zen masters created gardens to aid in meditation. These artfully arranged gardens were often simple and stark. They symbolized nature instead of imitating it. Rocks in sand, for example, might represent islands in the sea.

Zen Buddhism was a good match for the samurai way of life. Zen helped samurai learn discipline, focus their minds, and overcome their fear of death.

Training in Writing and Literature

Portrait of Matsuo Bashō by Hokusai, late 18th century / Wikimedia Commons

By the more peaceful 17th century, samurai had to be students of culture, as well as fierce warriors. They were expected to be educated in both writing and literature.

Samurai practiced calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. A calligrapher’s main tools were a brush, a block of ink, and paper or silk. The calligrapher moistened the ink block and rubbed it on an ink stone until the ink reached the right consistency. Then he carefully drew each character with his brush.

Samurai also wrote poetry. One famous samurai poet was Matsuo Basho. He invented a new form of short poetry that was later called haiku (high-KOO). A haiku has three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, making 17 syllables in all. A haiku poet uses imagery to suggest an idea or create a mood. Basho added to the beauty of haiku by choosing simple words. Here is his most famous haiku:

Furu ike ya
An ancient pond

Kawazu tobikumu
A frog jumps in

Mizu no oto
The splash of water

Training for the Tea Ceremony

Master Sen no Rikyū, who codified the way of tea (painting by Hasegawa Tōhaku) / Wikimedia Commons

Another aspect of culture that samurai studied was the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony fostered a spirit of harmony, reverence, and calm among these warriors. It also served as an important way to form political alliances.

Each step of the ceremony had to be performed in a certain way. A tea master invited guests into a small room. They entered through a doorway so low that they had to crawl.

The tearoom was very simple. The only decorations were a scroll painting or an artistic flower arrangement. The guests sat silently, watching the master make and serve the tea. They then engaged in sophisticated discussions as they admired the utensils and the beautiful way the tea master had combined them.

To make the tea, the master heated water in an iron urn over a charcoal fire. Then he scooped powdered green tea from a container called a tea caddy into a small bowl. He ladled hot water into the bowl with a wooden dipper and then whipped the water and tea with a bamboo whisk. Each guest in turn took the bowl, bowed to the others, took three sips, and cleaned the rim with a tissue. Then he passed the bowl back to the master to prepare tea for the next guest.

Women in Samurai Society

Overview

The position of women in samurai society declined over time. In the 12th century, the women of the warrior class enjoyed honor and respect. By the 17th century, however, samurai women were treated as inferior to their husbands.

Samurai Women in the 12th Century

Ishi-jo wielding a naginata, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi / Wikimedia Commons

In the 12th century, samurai women enjoyed considerable status. A samurai’s wife helped manage the household and promote the family’s interests. When her husband died, she could inherit his property and perform the duties of a vassal. Though women rarely fought, they were expected to be as loyal and brave as men.

Some women, like Tomoe Gozen (TOH-moh-eh GO-zen), did take part in battles alongside men. Fighting one-on-one, she killed several enemies in a battle. Then she fenced with the enemy leader, who tried to drag her from her horse. When he tore off her sleeve, she spun her horse around and killed him.

A woman named Koman is another famous warrior. During a battle on a lake, she saved her clan’s banner by swimming to shore under a shower of arrows with the banner clenched in her teeth.

Samurai Women in the 17th Century

Empress Jingu In Korean Campaign / Wikimedia Commons

As the warrior culture developed, women’s position weakened. By the 17th century, samurai men were the unquestioned lords of their households. According to one saying, when young, women should obey their fathers; when grown, their husbands; and when old, their sons.

Girls did not choose their own husbands. Instead, families arranged marriages for their daughters to increase their position and wealth. Wives were expected to bear sons, manage the home, and look after their husbands.

A popular book of the time told women how to behave. They were to get up early and go to bed late. During the day they must weave, sew, spin, and take care of their households. They must stick to simple food and clothes and stay away from plays, singing, and other entertainment.

Not all Japanese women were treated the same way. Peasant women had some respect and independence because they worked alongside their husbands. But in samurai families, women were completely under men’s control.

Tomoe Gozen: History or Legend?

Overview

Japanese history tells stories about women warriors of the samurai period. Strong and skillful fighters, they were willing to die with honor rather than face defeat and disgrace. Tomoe Gozen is one of the most well known of these fierce Japanese women samurai. The tales say that she was an important figure in the wars of the late Heian period. But was she a real woman or a fictional character?

Tomoe Gozen is first mentioned in The Tale of the Heike (HAY-keh). The most famous epic from medieval Japan, the tale is actually a series of stories about the Genpei War, which took place in the 1180s, during the late Heian period. The war was a struggle between two powerful rival clans for control of Japan.

The Tale of the Heike had many authors. Storytellers repeated the narrative over several generations before it was written down. Experts say the most definitive version of the Heike tale probably was first recorded in the 1300s. Many other versions and translations have appeared since then.

A Woman Warrior

Tomoe Gozen, a drawing by Shitomi Kangetsu (1747–1797) / Wikimedia Commons

Tomoe appears only briefly in The Tale of the Heike, fighting for a general named Yoshinaka. However, she makes a strong impression:

Tomoe was especially beautiful. . . . She was also a remarkably
strong archer, and as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth
a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on
foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed
[unhurt] down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was
imminent [about to begin], Yoshinaka sent her out as his first
captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a
mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of
his other warriors.

Some versions of the story say that Tomoe was General Yoshinaka’s wife, while others state she was not. In either case, she was a strong woman warrior. In the final battle of the Genpei War, as described in the Heike tale, Tomoe fights bravely, but General Yoshinaka is mortally wounded. She wants to stay and die with him, but he orders her to leave the battlefield. Tomoe obeys, but is very frustrated. She thinks, “Ah! If only I could find a worthy foe! I would fight a last battle for His Lordship to watch.”

Suddenly, a powerful and strong enemy leader appears nearby. Tomoe rides toward him, drags him from his horse, pulls him down against her saddle, cuts off his head, and throws it aside. When she is done, she removes her armor and helmet and rides off toward the eastern provinces.

Was Tomoe a Real Person?

Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama no Shigetada. Woodblock print by Yōshū Chikanobu, 1899 / Wikimedia Commons

This brief but powerful appearance of Tomoe in The Tale of the Heike is all we know about her. Was she a real person? To decide, historians looked at the evidence. Since The Tale of the Heike is one of the main sources for historical knowledge of the Genpei War, historians had to read all the versions of it written over the centuries.

Historians have good evidence that Tomoe was, in fact, a real person. First, much samurai history says that there actually were female warriors, like Tomoe, who fought just as skillfully and fiercely as men. Second, The Tale of the Heikesays that General Yoshinaka “had brought . . . two female attendants, Tomoe and Yamabuki” with him to the wars. Since other figures and events in the book are real, historians conclude that Tomoe was most likely real, too.

Robin Hood is a good example of a legendary figure in Western culture. Some historians think he might have been real. As his story was retold, however, he turned from a historical figure into a legend, fighting for the poor against the rich. Countless ballads, plays, poems, movies, and TV series have told about his adventures.

Similarly, over the centuries, Tomoe became a legend in Asian culture. Her story was retold over centuries in Japan. Details were added to explain what happened to her after she went off to the eastern provinces. Various versions have her running away, dying with Yoshinaka, getting married, or becoming a Buddhist nun.

One thing is certain: over time, Tomoe came to symbolize loyalty, strength, and bravery, and became a role model of a strong and powerful woman. Her unknown fate would be the seed of her growing legend. As it grew, Tomoe the Heian warrior became Tomoe Gozen. Gozen is a title of respect, similar to the English title “Lady.

The Legend Grows

Tomoe Gozen in the Battle of Awazu—by Utagawa Yoshikazu / Wikimedia Commons

From the 14th to the 17th centuries, Tomoe and her story were a favorite theme for dramatists. Tomoe is the title of a haunting Japanese drama written in the 14th century. The story takes place at a shrine built where General Yoshinaka died. There, a figure appears—the spirit of Tomoe. She cries as she tells the story of Yoshinaka and Tomoe. She says that Yoshinaka ordered her to leave him dying on the battlefield so that someone would live to tell his story. A monk comforts her ghost. The audience is left with the idea that Tomoe will someday reappear. “For where I suffered . . . I shall rise,” the ghost says.

Traveling entertainers also helped keep her story alive. Many became the character of Tomoe. These “Tomoes” earned a living by traveling to famous battle sites. Audiences watched in awe as the actor “Tomoe” related the sad story of Yoshinaka’s death as if he or she had been an eyewitness. In this way, her story spread.

New and largely made-up details were added to Tomoe’s story by these wandering entertainers. One expert thinks that it was they who created most of the later explanations of Tomoe’s fate. At this point, she was becoming one of the most important cultural icons in the history of Japan.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Tomoe Gozen’s image and story became even more popular. She appeared as a character in Kabuki theater. Kabuki is a type of Japanese drama with song and dance and very elaborate costumes. Artists also created both painted scrolls and woodblock prints showing some of the best-known incidents in her life. In fact, there are many more print portraits of Tomoe Gozen than of her more famous commander, Yoshinaka.

Tomoe Gozen Today

Memorial to Tomoe at Gichū-ji, Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture / Wikimedia Commons

Today, Tomoe Gozen has inspired many types of artistic expression. Artists and writers have given Tomoe Gozen new life in novels, comic books, graphic novels, TV series, anime films, and video games. Some, like the wandering entertainers of the past, add details to her story to explain her life after Yoshinaka’s death. Others reinvent her into a modern woman warrior.

In the Japanese comic book Samurai Deeper Kyo, Tomoe comes back to life as the character Saisei (SIGH-say). In the Japanese samurai comic Usagi Yojimbo, Tomoe Ame (AH-meh) is a woman warrior partly based on the historic Tomoe. In the 21st century, Tomoe Gozen has become almost a superhero, like Superman or Batman. Tomoe Gozen’s name and image have survived for more than 800 years. Whether she lived or not, may not be important; her loyalty, bravery, and strength make her an important role model.

The Legend Begins

How does a legend start? Generally, it starts with a historical figure. Over the years, people retell the person’s story. New details are added from one generation to the next. These details tend to make the story more exciting, but less realistic. The historical figure becomes super-human, extremely wise, strong, or magical. He or she may also become a symbol, standing for positive or negative characteristics that capture people’s imagination.

The Influence of Samurai Values and Traditions in Modern Times

Japan’s warrior society lasted until 1868, when political upheavals led to the restoration of the emperor to ruling power. Modern Japan still feels the influence of the long era of the samurai.

In the 1940s, the Japanese who fought in World War II stayed true to the warrior code. Many soldiers killed themselves rather than surrender. Suicide pilots crashed planes loaded with explosives into enemy battleships. These pilots were called kamikazes (“divine winds”) after the storms that helped destroy an invading Chinese fleet in the 13th century.

Japanese and other peoples around the world study martial arts. Sports such as judo and fighting with bamboo swords reflect samurai discipline and skill.

Other elements of samurai culture persist today. People in Japan continue to write haiku and practice calligraphy. Zen gardens and the tea ceremony remain popular. And the samurai ideals of loyalty to family and respect for rank are still alive in modern Japan.


Originally published by Flores World History, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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