侍 /士

A more appropriate title for samurai is bushi (武士), literally meaning "war-man", which came into use during the Edo period.

The samurai were the warrior class of feudal Japan. In many ways they were like European knights - they had a specific way of living, were the elite of the warrior world and lived to serve their masters. Indeed the kanji for samurai technically means "to serve". Of course there were many differences too.

Honour is everything

The samurai followed a strict code of honour. This was brought to attention by Nitobe Inazo in 1899 - he called it bushido the way of the warrior. However it is debated as to how much his version of bushido reflected the supposed code samurai lived by.

In any case samurai certainly had a generally agreed upon set of rules that they had to live by. Violating their duties would bring great shame upon a samurai and perhaps even force him to commit seppuku, a form of ritual suicide. They were loyal to a single daimyo, and they belonged to one clan. A samurai who did not belong to a clan or did not have a daimyo master was a ronin (lit. "wave-man"), who was without honour or income. When a samurai's master died, many followed him into the next life by committing suicide themselves. If he had died dishonourably and the clan was dissolved, the loyal retainer was expected to commit seppuku in that case too. Many ronin were too scared to do this. As seppuku was an honourable way of accounting for sin or dishonour, such a failure of duty was regarded as the highest form of shame a samurai could commit. A great deal of them resorted to banditry or offered their swords for hire. A few gave up the path of violence and led more respectable lives by joining temples or monastaries.

Martial prowess

Samurai formed the core of any army of their time, being far better equipped and trained than the ashigaru or peasant troops who fought alongside them. Popular Western images of the samurai are only of the katana-bearing foot-soldiers. Though a great deal preferred the katana and bow, many others also fought with weapons such as the yari (spear) and naginata (polearm), though the latter weapon was primarily used by women. They also formed fearsome cavalry units which could devastate any enemy formation. Practice was very important - a samurai had to hone his skills. Daimyo would employ the best sensei they could to teach their warriors and samurai would always accept a match against a worthy opponent. In battle they were capable warriors but unsurprisingly eager for personal glory. Many was the time that they broke ranks to seek one-on-one combat.

The life of a samurai was not all blood and violence though. In peaceful times, they also practiced the arts of writing poetry, calligraphy and also the tea ceremony. For many, bushido was a state of mind - true mastership could only come through being at peace with one's self and the world. In some cases samurai retired to a life of religion, giving up their swords. Some did this to gain a holy reputation and instill courage in their men, but those who did so were normally daimyo. Ordinary samurai normally only did this to escape a world stained crimson-red.

The landed class

Samurai were the majority of landowners in Japan. Though most of the land was owned by the daimyo, retainer samurai were also small landholders in their own right. They were dependent on their daimyo for promotion and according to their loyalty, skill and success were given a fief of variable size and a stipend which provided their income. They could become daimyo in their own right but that was not a common occurance. In feudal Japan, especially during the Tokugawa period, though it was possible in theory for people of any class to move up in society, it was in the interests of the nobility to stop people rising above their station and maintaining the status-quo. The Tokugawa government banned all non-samurai from carrying swords in public.

The stipends for the samurai (this includes daimyo) were fixed by the Tokugawa Shogunate. This created huge problems as inflation made their incomes worth less and less. Samurai (and daimyo) were thus forced to borrow from merchants. The interest payments could be crippling and though from time to time the government declared an amnesty for loans made by samurai, the warrior class were not spared from economic upheaval in Japan. The merchant class soon came to surpass the samurai in wealth. Many merchant families looked just like samurai families on the surface, though they could not carry swords. The men and women wore sumptious robes, while living in large estates. Their wealth motivated many samurai to marry their younger sons and daughters off to the children of rich merchants. The samurai clans gained the money they needed and the merchant families the status they craved.

Time moves on

Inevitably there came a time when the samurai were no longer relevant to Japanese society. The samurai class was abolished in the late 19th century under the reforms of the Meiji government. The forceful intervention of Western powers into Japan, cajoling her to open up for trade, had started a political revolution. The old Tokugawa regime had tried to isolate the foreigners, stopping their prescence contaminating the rest of the nation - why is why they had isolated themselves in the first place. However new ideas and technology brought about a change in the attitudes of many influential men. The bafuku was overthrown and a new, "forward-thinking" government came forward, backed by a resurgent Imperial Court eager to regain influence.

Some samurai banded together under Saigo Takamori, hoping to overthrow the government and convince the Meiji Emperor of his "misjudgement" in modernising Japan. The believed that the foreign devils could be driven out of the country, the new machines destroyed and new ideas drilled out of people's memories. Somehow the peaceful isolation could be won back. However such dreams were merely desperate attempts to preserve their privilged way of life. In the end katana and longbows were no match for modern rifles and at the Battle of Shiroyama, the last samurai battle ever, the rebels were crushed. With their defeat, the samurai class vanished forever.

Samurai women were subservient and strong, not submissive and weak

Though it is often forgotten, women were of samurai rank as well. Though very few ever fought in open battle, they were expected to protect their husband's and family's honour. They were trained in the use of the kaiten or Japanese dagger, which they would use to commit suicide or charge at the enemy, turning themselves into a living spear. Many were trained in the use of the naginata as well. It was important that samurai women could protect their honour, as well as that of their husband's and family. A samurai would not spend all his time at home, so it was important for his wife to be able to deal with any situation that occured.

During castle sieges, it was not unknown for women to sometimes help their husbands on the battlements. In Japan's early history, there were even times when they sallied from besieged castles and charged the besieging forces to try and lift the siege. The most famous female samurai of all is probably Tomoe Gozen.

Please note that Mauler added his kanji first - I was just being thorough by using both.