Origins of the Samurai
Although an emperor reigned in Japan since ancient times, by the late 1100s powerful military leaders were challenging the power of the imperial court. From the thirteenth century on, Japan was ruled through a dual government structure. While the emperor retained cultural and religious sovereignty over the nation, the military elite during this period assumed political and economic leadership. This system of governance remained in place until the late 1800s.
Samurai (lit. “one who serves”) is the term used to refer to members of Japan’s warrior class. The origins of the samurai can be traced to the eighth and ninth centuries, when large landholdings moved into the hands of the imperial family and related members of the aristocracy (nobles). In the Heian period (794–1185), the Kyoto-based imperial court and nobles depended on the agricultural income from these landholdings, especially large private estates in northern Japan. The need to defend these distant estates from attacks by local chieftains led to the birth of the samurai. The nobles sent from the capital to govern the estates often lacked the skills and authority necessary to maintain security or provide effective administration in such remote districts, so the court appointed deputies from among the local population to assist them. Forerunners of the early samurai, these deputies built local and regional power by creating privately controlled militia known as “warrior bands."
Starting as little more than family organizations, warrior bands were initially formed for the duration of a specific military campaign and then disbanded to allow the men to return to farming. By the eleventh century the bands were changing to groups of fighting men not necessarily connected through kinship. Power was beginning to aggregate in the hands of a few elite military families, or clans, whose regional dominance was supported by the fighting abilities of retainers and vassals. These were men bound to their lords by vows of loyalty and/or other contractual obligations, such as grants of land or income in exchange for military service.

The First Warrior Government (The Kamakura Shogunate, 1185–1333)

By the late eleventh century, the Minamoto (also known as Genji) clan was recognized as the most powerful military clan in the northeastern region of Japan, having defeated several other powerful local groups. In the mid-twelfth century, the Minamoto clashed with the mighty Taira (also known as Heike) clan, which commanded an important western region including the area around Kyoto. A series of clashes, culminating in the Genpei War (1180–1185), ended with the defeat of the Taira.
The victorious Minamoto went on to establish a new, warrior-led government at Kamakura, their eastern stronghold. In 1185 the great Minamoto leader Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) was appointed sei-i-tai shogun (lit. “Great Barbarian-Subduing General”; abbreviated as “shogun”) by the emperor. Yoritomo established a military government, (bakufu: lit.“tent government”) appointing warriors to fill important regional posts as constables or military governors and land stewards. Reporting to the shogun were daimyo (lit. “great landholders”)—provincial landowners who led bands of warrior vassals and administered the major domains.

The Second Warrior Government: The Ashikaga Shogunate of the Muromachi Period (1338–1573)

The Kamakura shogunate was overthrown in 1333 and succeeded by the Ashikaga shogunate (1338–1573), based in Muromachi, near Kyoto. Under the Ashikaga, samurai were increasingly organized into lord–vassal hierarchies. Claiming loyalty to one lord, they adhered to a value system that promoted the virtues of honor, loyalty, and courage. As in the Kamakura period, the Ashikaga shogun was supported by direct vassals and by powerful but more independent regional daimyo, who administered the provinces. These regional leaders were expected to maintain order, administer justice, and ensure the delivery of taxes.
The Ashikaga shoguns were notably active in the cultural realm, amassing a prized collection of imported Chinese artworks, and leading the samurai by example in their patronage of ink painting, calligraphy, the Noh theater, Kabuki, and the “Way of Tea” (Chado). These practices were avidly pursued even during the years of growing disunity culminating in the Onin Civil War (1467–1477). Architectural remnants of this era include the “Golden Pavilion” of Kinkakuji temple, where the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimitsu (1358–1409) lived during his retirement years (only after his death was the site converted to a Buddhist temple). Covered in gold foil, the two story villa served as an elegant backdrop for the retired shogun’s cultural and leisure activities.

The Third Warrior Government: the Tokugawa Shogunate of The Edo Period (1615–1868)

In September of 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive victory over rival daimyo factions, including supporters of Hideyoshi’s heir, Hideyori. The Tokugawa military government, based in a new capital city at Edo (present-day Tokyo), achieved unparalleled control over the country, lasting more than 260 years, from 1600 to 1868. The regime’s unprecedented longevity was achieved through exceptional social control over the population, including the daimyo and their vassals. From 1639 until 1868, the country’s borders were closed to foreigners with the exception of a single port, Nagasaki, through which Dutch traders could operate under close supervision. For these and other reasons, the era of Tokugawa rule was a time of peace, when the warriors were increasingly called upon to fulfill bureaucratic roles.
Under the Tokugawa shogunate land taxes were based on an assessment of rice productivity. This calculation determined the allotment of daimyo domains and samurai stipends: so many bushels of rice (or the land necessary to produce them) could be granted as a reward for loyalty, or designated as an individual warrior’s yearly income. In the Tokugawa system, there were about 260 daimyo domains, each with its own castle, served and protected by samurai vassals. The distribution of land to the daimyo was based on security considerations, and the government held absolute control over all appointments. For example, the shogun might appoint a loyal daimyo to oversee a restless domain. Though entrusted with the administration of their domains, the daimyo thus held no authority independent of the central government. The Tokugawa authority was strengthened by their direct control over an immense area of land surrounding the Edo capital (present-day Tokyo); they also held authority over the other major urban centers. Profitable gold and silver mines also added to their power.
A further means of controlling the daimyo was the system of “alternate attendance,” which required daimyo to maintain at least two residences: one in their domain and the other within the capital at Edo. The shogun mandated they spend alternate years residing in Edo. During years spent in the home domain, the daimyo were required to leave their families in the castle town of Edo, in essence as political hostages of the shogun. Costly processions back and forth from Edo, together with the requirement to maintain lavish residences in each location, led to a gradual draining of the daimyo’s financial resources. Ironically, in this peacetime economy, many samurai became hopelessly indebted to moneylenders and lower-ranking members of society. Throughout the long peaceful reign of the Tokugawa, warriors were transformed into civil officials, and increasingly able to focus their energies on intellectual and cultural activities.

Restoration of Imperial Authority and the End of the Warriors’ Age: Meiji Period (1868–1912)

The imperial court, though technically maintaining the power to appoint the shogun, held little real military authority during the period between 1185 and 1868. In 1853, a squadron of “Black Ships” led by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed off the coast of Japan, threatening military action unless Japan ended its policy of national seclusion. This challenge to Tokugawa authority provided a pretext for influential samurai from several southwestern domains to overthrow the shogunate. In 1868, direct imperial rule was restored for the first time in almost 700 years. Although many prominent daimyo—especially those who helped to overthrow the shogunate—were invited to participate in the new government, the samurai were effectively stripped of power during the first decade of Meiji rule. They were ordered to restore their domains to the emperor, their stipends were reduced through taxation and other measures, and they were compelled to turn in their weapons. A new constitution was enacted in 1889, and the Diet—modern Japan’s first legislative body—was founded. In a few short years, Japan was transformed from a feudal warrior state to a parliamentary government.