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The Rise and Demise of the Samurai

In feudal 10th century Japan, local chieftains began raising fighting forces to do battle on their behalf. The clans of warriors, who became known as samurai, would wage war and then return to farming in times of peace. Over time though, the clans rose up to become a powerful elite class in their own rite. With the emperor of Japan unable to keep control over the provinces, the samurai clans established themselves as political entities.

The samurai lords eventually became so powerful that by the end of the 12th century, they ruled central Japan as well as the provinces. Thus the samurai class evolved as a hugely powerful influence in Japan for many centuries. Truly a warrior class, yet bound by a code influenced heavily by Zen Buddhism and Confucianism, they lived in a world of strict moral values and military discipline.

The Way of the Samurai

A samurai was trained from early childhood to be a warrior. At school he would study spiritual discipline, poetry and the way of the sword, otherwise known as Kendo. He would grow up as an adherent of Zen Buddhism and the samurai moral code. A further doctrine which dominated the life of a samurai was called Bushido (The way of the warrior). The ethics of Bushido were influenced by Confucianism and dictated a number of rules for samurai life, which included:

·        Loyalty to one’s master

·        Ethical behavior

·        Strict self-discipline

·        Respect for superiors

Even women of the samurai clans were taught the martial arts and although they did not attend the battlefield, were more than capable of defending themselves and their homes when the need arose. However, only the men of the samurai warrior class wore the daisho, the name for the paired katana and wakizashi, two of the most famous and beautifully crafted swords, you can see our huge selection here at swords of the east.

Never was the phrase “live by the sword, die by the sword” more true than in the values of the samurai warrior. Rather than accept defeat by their enemies, the samurai would prefer to die at their own hands through committing “seppuku” or ritual suicide. To take one’s own life before suffering dishonor was the mark of valiance in samurai society. Samurai swords are a sacred part of the samurai warriors life and philosophy.

Samurai Decline

At around the turn of the 17th century, Japan became unified under Tokugawa Ieyasu and thus began the end of the samurai’s reign as lords and warriors. Instead they began to evolve from soldiers into bureaucrats and although they still trained for fighting, rarely used their weapons in anger. Some 300 years later, the samurai finally lost their right to exist as the only military force in Japan and to wear their katana when Emperor Meiji implemented a new army in western style, with troops conscripted from Japan’s general population.

The samurai class was abolished by Meiji and although many samurai joined the new army and quickly rose through the ranks, the samurai way of life was consigned to the annals of history. However many elements of samurai ethics are still held dear to the hearts of Japanese citizens to this day.