The Samurai or Bashi were the warriors of pre-modern Japan. They later made up the ruling military class that eventually became the highest ranking social caste of the Edo period (1603 -1867). They employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and polearms but their greatest symbol and weapon was the sword. From childhood the Samurai were trained in self-discipline and a sense of duty together with a contempt for material goods, fear, refusal to acknowledge pain and total acceptance of an honourable death. The main symbol and weapon was the sword. The very soul of the Samurai lay within this weapon.
They were bound to lead their lives according to the ethic code of bushido (the way of the warrior). Strongly Confucion in nature bushido stressed concepts such as loyalty to ones master, self discipline and respectful ethical behaviour. Many Samurai were also drawn to the teachings and practises of Zen Buddhism. The Samurai trace their origins to the Heian period campaigns to subdue the native Emishi people in the Tohoku region. Around this time warriors were increasingly hired by wealthy landowners who had grown independent of the central government and built armies for their protection. The two most powerful of these landowning clans, the Minamoto and Taira eventually challenged the Government and battled each other for supremacy over the entire country. Minamoto Yoritoma emerged victorious and set up a new military government in 1192 led by the Shogun or Supreme Military Commander. The Samurai would rule over Japan for most of the next 700 years.
During the chaotic era of warring states in the 15th and 16th centuries Japan splintered into dozens of independent states constantly at war with one another. Consequently warriors were in high demand. The country was eventually reunited in the late 1500’s and a rigid social caste system was established during the Edo period that placed the Samurai at the top followed by the farmers, artisans and merchants respectively. During this time the Samurai were forced to live in castle towns, were the only ones allowed to own and carry swords and were paid in rice by their Daimyo or Feudal Lord. Masterless Samurai were called Ronin and caused minor troubles during the 1600’s.
Relative peace prevailed during the 250 years of the Edo Period. As a result the importance of martial skills declined and manySamurai became bureaucrats, teachers or artists. Japan’s feudal era eventually came to a close in 1868 and the Samurai class was abolished a few years afterwards.