Brief History of the Samurai The word samurai originally meant “one who serves,” and referred to men of noble birth assigned to guard members of the Imperial Court. This service ethic spawned the roots of samurai nobility, both social and spiritual. Over time, the nobility had trouble maintaining centralized control of the nation, and began “outsourcing” military, administrative, and tax collecting duties to former rivals who acted like regional governors. As the Imperial Court grew weaker, local governors grew more powerful. Eventually some evolved into daimyo, or feudal lords who ruled specific territories independently of the central government. In 1185 Minamoto no Yoritomo, a warlord of the eastern provinces who traced his lineage back to the imperial family, established the nation’s first military government and Japan entered its feudal period (1185-1867). The country was essentially under military rule for nearly 700 years. But the initial stability Minamoto achieved failed to bring lasting peace. Other regimes came and went, and in 1467 the national military government collapsed, plunging Japan into turmoil. Thus began the infamous Age of Wars, a bloody century of strife when local warlords fought to protect their domains and schemed to conquer rivals. By the time Japan plunged into the turbulent Age of Wars, the term samurai had come to signify armed government officials, peacekeeping officers, and professional soldiers: in short, almost anyone who carried a sword and was ready and able to exercise deadly force. The worst of these medieval Japanese warriors were little better than street thugs; the best were fiercely loyal to their masters and true to the unwritten code of chivalrous behaviour known today as Bushido (usually translated as “Precepts of Knighthood” or “Way of the Warrior”). Virtuous or villainous, the samurai emerged as the colourful central figures of Japanese history: a romantic archetype akin to Europe’s medieval knights or the American cowboy of the Wild West. But the samurai changed dramatically after Hideyoshi pacified Japan. With civil society at peace, their role as professional fighters disappeared, and they became less preoccupied with martial training and more concerned with spiritual development, teaching, and the arts. By 1867, when the public wearing of swords was outlawed and the warrior class was abolished, they had evolved into what Hideyoshi had envisioned nearly three centuries earlier: swordless samurai.
Posted on: Sun, 28 Jul 2013 11:36:38 +0000
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