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Samurai - the Japanese Warrior Class

Chronicle of One Hundred Famous and Brave People - Wada Yoshimori

By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

Samurai is the word for a Japanese warrior class and for a member of this class. Samurai warriors have been glorified in numerous films, books, comic series, TV shows and theater plays. The Samurai history is a source of fascination for adults and children all over the world.

Japanese Samurai and their Origins

The Japanese samurai warriors came into existence in the 12th century when two powerful Japanese clans fought bitter wars against each other - the Taira and the Minamato. At that time the Japanese shogunate, a system of a military ruler, called the shogun was formed. Under the shogun the next hierarchy were the daimyo, local rulers comparable to dukes in Europe. The Japanese samurai were the military retainers of a daimyo.

And finally you may have heard of the 47 ronin. Ronin are samurai without a master. This is what happened to the 47 Ronin in the famous story of Chushingura after their lord was forced to commit suicide.

According to historians the fierce fights between hostile clans and war lords was mainly a battle for land. Only 20 percent of Japan's rugged and mountainous area can be used for agriculture.

Attributes and Privileges

Samurai warriors had several privileges. They were allowed to wear two swords - a long one and a short one. Commoners were not allowed to wear any weapons at all. At a certain period samurai warriors were even allowed to behead a commoner who had offended them.

The Japanese samurai caste itself had different ranks with different privileges. A basic ranking system from the twelfth century distinguished three major ranks:

During the end of the 15th century, the Ashikaga shogunate had lost control over the country. Powerful feudal lords had ravaged Japan in a series of civil wars lasting for roughly 100 years. Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) could finally pacify and unify Japan.

Both men introduced a series of wide-ranging reforms that changed the life of the samurai class. From now and the samurai lived permanently in castles. Until then they were farming their own land during peacetime.

It was like the change from an army of draftees to an army of professionals. To finance the system, Toyotomi Hideyoshi introduced a rice taxation system under which every samurai warrior received a certain amount of rice depending on his rank.

The samurai warriors had an ethic code of behavior called bushido, meaning "way of the warrior". The central point of the bushido was complete loyalty towards the lord, the daimyo.

Belonging to the Japanese samurai class was a hereditary membership.

Seppuku

Seppuku is a ritual suicide and considered as an honorable death. Seppuku was part of bushido. Hara-kiri means literally "stomach-cutting" and was the practiced form of seppuku.

When done outside a battle, it was performed in a formal ceremony. Spectators attended the event. The act was a painful one. The person doing hara-kiri had to slice up his abdomen. When finished he stretched out his neck. An assistant was waiting behind him and had to behead the suicide with one stroke of his sword.

Reasons for committing seppuku were connected to honor and disgrace. One occasion for committing seppuku was the death of the lord. It was an expression of grief at one's master's death and was the utmost form of loyalty to the lord. Other reasons were punishment.

Seppuku could also be a way of showing a disagreement with one's master. A frequent reason for committing hara-kiri was in a lost battle to avoid the disgrace of falling into the hands of an enemy.

The ritual suicide was actually not supported by all high-ranking Japanese. In 1603 and again in 1663 the practice was largly forbidden. But it continued nevertheless.

The idea that an honorable death is better than a life of disgrace continues in modern Japan. Japan has the highest rate of suicides in the world. Japanese kill themselves for failing in business or for not passing an exam.

Decline and End of the Samurai History

During the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 to 1867 (the Edo period) the country lived in peace. The samurai warrior class had basically nothing to do. Now they took other tasks, in the bureaucracy for instance.

In 1867 the last shogun resigned and the emperor was reinstalled as the formal leader of Japan. In 1871 the old feudal system and the privileges of the Japanese samurai class were officially abolished. The daimyo had to return the land to the emperor for which they received pensions by the Japanese state.

Historians estimate the percentage that belonged to the samurai class at 8 percent of the overall population of Japan. The abolishment of the samurai class caused severe social problems. Many samurai did not know how to make a living and survive. There were cases of samurai wives who sold themselves to brothels to support the family.

The Satsuma Rebellion 1876-1877

But Samurai history had not yet ended. Many samurai were desperate with their situation and the loss of their former status. They gathered under Takamori Saigo, a samurai and statesman who had worked for the local clan leader of Satsuma in the southern region on the island of Kyushu. Saigo had served the new Meiji government well in leading positions and had carried many of the Meiji reforms.

But after several years he became dissatisfied with the directions the Meiji government took. Major issues of disagreement were the far-reaching measures to abolish the old samurai privileges and the refusal to invade and occupy Korea as proposed by Saigo Takamori. He quit and gathered around his Kyushu residence an army of samurai warriors hostile towards the central imperial government.

In 1877 it came to open military conflicts. The rebels were lead by Saigo Takamori. It was a clash of brave fighters equipped with inferior weapons against a modern army with Western technology and trained in modern Western warfare.

60,000 government troops faced 20,000 rebels. After several lost battles Saigo and 300 die-hard samurai had retreated to the hills of Shiroyama near their hometown of Kagoshima. Exhausted and without ammunition and food, the last samurai knew that they had no chance.

In the morning hours of September 24, 1877 the artillery shelling by the government forces began. Saigo Takamori was wounded and committed suicide in samurai tradition - the last samurai beheaded each other.

Saigo Takamori became a hero for the Japanese. The victorious government made a clever move many years later. They pardoned Saigo posthumously and honored him as a national hero.

Samurai in Modern Japan

Although samurai do not have any official status in today's modern Japan, descendants of samurai families still enjoy a high esteem among the Japanese population.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

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