Samurai (侍, Samurai or, more rarely, ) was a term for the military nobility in pre-industrial Japan who were active primarily between the tenth and nineteenth century. The word samurai is derived from the Japanese verb saburau, meaning "to serve"; a samurai is the retainer of a lord. Samurai gradually developed Bushido (武士道), or the "Samurai code," by integrating Confucian ethics and Zen Buddhism, which played an important role in developing Japanese ethical virtues and spiritual ethos. Almost all the key leaders of the Meiji Restoration were lower class samurai. The samurai is a heroic figure often featured in literature, film and television shows that are popular not only with Japanese but with Western audiences. Originally warrior mercenaries in the employ of the emperor and noble clans (kuge, ), the samurai slowly gathered enough power to usurp the aristocracy and established the first samurai-dominated government after the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. The samurai gradually became a noble class, and developed a culture and tradition which strongly influenced the culture of Japan. After the eleventh century, samurai were expected to be cultured and literate.
Social mobility allowed those who were heroic in battle to rise to samurai status until Toyotomi Hideyoshi, himself the son of a poor peasant family, became a grand minister in 1586 and created a law making the samurai caste permanent and heritable, and forbidding non-samurai to carry weapons. During the thirteenth century, Zen Buddhism spread among samurai and helped to shape their standards of conduct. Shinto traditions and Confucian ethics also contributed to their code of conduct, which was formalized as the Bushido during the Edo period. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (c. 1706) is a manual of instruction which exemplified the behavior expected of an ideal samurai. The military tactics of the samurai evolved with the development of new weapons. The arquebus, a matchlock gun introduced by the Portuguese in 1543 was quickly assimilated, and by the end of the feudal period, several hundred thousand firearms of superior workmanship existed in Japan. The katana (sword) which is synonymous with samurai did not become the primary weapon until the Edo period. It was usually paired with a dagger (wakizashi), and the katana and wakizashi together were called a daisho ("big and small").
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During the Edo period (the Tokugawa era), after the general end of hostilities, the samurai gradually lost their military function and became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. They maintained a strict social hierarchy, marrying only other samurai, and developed cultural interests in scholarship, literature, art, poetry, tea and music. The samurai class was dissolved during the Meiji Restoration, and many samurai families were impoverished. Many samurai used their education and training to enter into new professions and were gradually absorbed into the government bureaucracy and the middle class. The origins of modern samurai are disputed, but it is believed that mounted warriors, archers, and foot-soldiers in the sixth century may have formed a proto-samurai. Following a disastrous military engagement with Tang China and the Silla dynasty in Korea, Japan underwent widespread reforms. One of the most important was the Taika Reform, an edict issued by Emperor Kōtoku in 646 CE Chinese cultural practices and administrative techniques throughout the Japanese aristocracy and bureaucracy. The later Taihō Code of 702 CE With an understanding of how the population was distributed, Emperor Mommu introduced a law drafting one of every three or four adult males into the national military. These soldiers were required to supply their own weapons, and in return were exempted from duties and taxes.
In the early Heian period, during the late eighth and early ninth centuries, Emperor Kammu (桓武天皇) sought to consolidate and expand his rule in northern Honshu, but the armies he sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi lacked motivation and discipline, and were unable to prevail. Emperor Kammu introduced the title of Seiitaishogun (征夷大将軍) or shogun, and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery (kyudo, ), these clan warriors were used by the emperor to put down rebellions. Although these warriors may have been educated, at this time (seventh to ninth centuries CE) the Imperial court officials considered them to be little more than barbarians. Emperor Kammu finally disbanded his army, and from this time the emperor's power gradually declined. While the emperor was still the ruler, powerful clans around Kyoto (京都) assumed positions as ministers, and their relatives bought positions as magistrates. To amass wealth and repay their debts, magistrates often imposed heavy taxes on the farmers, with the result that many of them lost their land. As the danger of robbery increased, the clans began recruiting these exiles in the Kanto plains. With their intense training in the martial arts, they proved to be effective guards. Small numbers of them would accompany tax collectors and could deter thieves and bandits from attacking, only by their presence.
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They were saburai, armed retainers, yet the advantage which they held by being the sole bearers of arms quickly became apparent. Through protective agreements and political marriages, they accumulated political power, eventually surpassing the traditional aristocracy. Some clans had been originally formed by farmers who had taken up arms to protect themselves from the imperial magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes. These clans formed alliances to protect themselves against more powerful clans, and by the mid-Heian period they had adopted characteristic Japanese armor and weapons, and laid the foundations of Bushido, their ethical code. After the eleventh century, samurai were expected to be cultured and literate, and they lived up to the ancient saying "Bun Bu Ryo Do" ("literary arts, military arts, both ways") or "The pen and the sword in accord. " An early term for warrior, Uruwashii, was written with a Chinese character that combined the characters for literary study ("bun," ) and military arts ("bu," ), and is mentioned in the Heike Monogatari (late twelfth century ). Friends and foes alike wet their sleeves with tears and said, "What a pity!
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The warriors in the "Heike Monogatari" served as models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. With the "Heike Monogatari," the image of the Japanese warrior in literature came to its full maturity. Wilson then translates the writings of several warriors who mention the "Heike Monogatari" as an example for their men to follow. Originally the warriors were merely mercenaries in the employ of the emperor and noble clans (kuge, ), but slowly they gathered enough power to usurp the aristocracy and establish the first samurai-dominated government. As regional clans gathered manpower and resources and struck alliances with each other, they formed a hierarchy centered around a toryo (chief). This chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor, and a lesser member of one of three noble families (the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or the Taira). Originally sent to provincial areas for fixed four-year terms as magistrates, the toryo declined to return to the capital when their terms ended, and their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later Hey period.
Because of their rising military and economic power, the clans gradually became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the Hōgen Rebellion in the late Heian period consolidated their power, and finally pitted the rival Minamoto and the Taira clans against each other, in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. Emerging victorious, Taira no Kiyomori became an imperial advisor, the first warrior to attain such a position, and eventually established control of the central government, establishing the first samurai-dominated government and relegating the emperor to figurehead status. However, the Taira clan was still very conservative in comparison with its eventual successor, the Minamoto. Instead of expanding or strengthening its military might, the Taira clan attempted to exercise control through the emperor by arranging marriages between its women and the emperors. The Taira and the Minamoto clashed again in 1180, beginning the Genpei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy. In 1190 he visited Kyoto and in 1192 became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate or Kamakura Bakufu.
Instead of ruling from Kyoto, he set up the Shogunate in Kamakura, Kanagawa, near his base of power. Bakufu means "tent government," taken from the encampments the soldiers would live in, in accordance with the Bakufu's status as a military government. Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility (buke), who were only nominally under the court aristocracy. When the samurai began to adopt aristocratic pastimes like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocratic in turn began to adopt samurai customs. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the shogun and the samurai. In 1274, the Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) sent a force of some 40,000 men and nine hundred ships to invade northern Kyushu in Japan. Japan mustered a mere ten thousand Samurai to meet this threat. The invading army was harassed by major thunderstorms throughout the invasion, which aided the defenders by inflicting heavy casualties. The Yuan army was eventually recalled and the invasion called off. The Mongol invaders used small, exploding bombs, probably the first appearance of bombs and gunpowder in Japan. The Japanese defenders recognized the possibility of a renewed invasion, and began construction of a great stone barrier around Hakata Bay in 1276. Completed in 1277, this wall stretched for 20 kilometers around the border of the bay. This would later serve as a strong defensive point against the Mongols.
The Mongols attempted to settle matters in a diplomatic way from 1275 to 1279. Each envoy that was sent to Japan was executed, and this time set the stage for one of the most famous engagements in Japanese history. In 1281, a Yuan army of 140,000 men with 4,400 ships was mustered for a renewed invasion of Japan. Northern Kyushu was defended by a Japanese army of 40,000 men. The Mongol army was still on its ships preparing for the landing operation when a typhoon hit north Kyushu Island. The casualties and damage inflicted by the typhoon, followed by the Japanese defense of the Hakata Bay barrier, and in the Mongols again recalling their armies. The thunderstorms of 1274 and the typhoon of 1281 helped the samurai defenders of Japan repel the Mongol invaders despite their being vastly outnumbered. These winds became known as kami-no-kaze, which literally translates as "wind of the gods." This is often given a simplified translation as "divine wind." The kami-no-kaze lent credence to the Japanese belief that their lands were indeed divine and under supernatural protection. In the fourteenth century, a blacksmith called Masamune developed a two-layer structure of soft and hard steel for use in swords. This structure gave swords much-improved cutting performance and endurance, and the production technique led to Japanese swords (katana) being recognized as some of the most potent hand weapons of pre-industrial East Asia.