Member of the Japanese warrior class. In early Japanese history, culture
was associated with the imperial court, and warriors were accorded low
status. The samurai became important with the rise in private estates (shoen), which needed military protection. Their
power increased, and when Minamoto
Yoritomo became the first shogun
(military ruler) of the Kamakura
period (1192 – 1333), they became the ruling class. They came to be
characterized by the ethic of bushido, which stressed discipline, stoicism, and
service. Samurai culture developed further under the Ashikaga shoguns
of the Muromachi
period (1338 – 1573). During the long interval of peace of the Tokugawa
period (1603 – 1867), they were largely transformed into civil
bureaucrats. As government employees, they received a stipend that was
worth less and less in the flourishing merchant economy of the 18th –
19th centuries in Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka. By the mid-19th century,
lower-ranking samurai, eager for societal change and anxious to create a
strong Japan in the face of Western encroachment, overthrew the
shogunal government in the Meiji
Restoration of 1868. Feudal distinctions were abolished in 1871.
Some samurai rebelled (seeSaigo
Takamori), but most threw themselves into the task of modernizing
Japan. See alsodaimyo;
no Yoichi shooting his famous shot at a fan atop the mast of a
Taira ship. From a hanging scroll, Watanabe Museum, Tottori Prefecture,
is the term for the military nobility of pre-industrialJapan.
According to translator William
Scott Wilson: "In Chinese, the character 侍 was originally a verb
meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of
society, and this is also true of the original term in Japanese, saburau.
In both countries the terms were nominalized to mean "those who serve
in close attendance to the nobility," the pronunciation in Japanese
changing to saburai."
According to Wilson, an early reference to the word "samurai" appears in
Wakashū (905-914), the first imperial anthology of poems, completed
in the first part of the ninth century.
By the end of the 12th century, samurai became almost entirely
synonymous with bushi (武士), and the word was closely associated
with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class. The samurai
followed a set of written rules called the Bushidō.
They numbered less than 10% of Japan’s population.
Samurai teachings can still be found today in modern day society with
the martial art Kendō,
meaning the way of the sword.