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The Samurai: The warriors of pre-modern Japan

The samurai is a greatly respected military figure of Japan. From all eras and periods of Japanese history, the samurai evolved and adapted with the changing times to become what we know it as today. Samurai were usually associated with a clan and were trained as officers in military tactics and grand strategy. Let’s take a look at their history and how far this ancient military honour has come.

Asuka and Nara periods

The Asuka and Nara period is where the first depictions of the samurai began to emerge. The then ruler, Emperor Monmu introduced a new law whereby 1 in 3 Japanese adult males were to be drafted into the national military. This was one of the first attempts by the imperial government to form an organised army modelled after the Chinese system, however, it was believed to be short-lived. This new structure was divided into an array of ranks and sub-ranks with the 1st being the highest adviser to the emperor of the time. Those who belonged to the 6th rank and below were referred to as ‘samurai’ and were left to deal with the day-to-day affairs. Even though these ‘samurai’ were civilian public servants, the modern use of the word ‘samurai’ is said to derive from this movement.

Heian period

As Japan entered into the early Heian period, Emperor Kanmu sought to expand his rule, sending military campaigns against the Emishi. As time went on, the Emperor ultimately disbanded his army and his power gradually declined. Through his reign, many clans formed to protect themselves from the imperial magistrates. By the mid-Heian period, they had adopted characteristic Japanese armour and weapons which were thought to be the first steps in the establishment and evolution of this Japanese warrior.

Late Heian Period and Kamakura Bakufu

Originally, the Emperor and non-warrior nobility employed these newly allied warrior nobles. In time, the clans amassed plenty of manpower, resources and political backing. After the Genpei war, Yoritomo, the founder and the first shōgun, was allowed to organize soldiers and police, seeing the samurai-class begin to appear as the political ruling power in Japan.

Ashikaga shogunate and the Mongol invasions

Various samurai clans struggled for power during the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates. Zen Buddhism spread among the samurai in the 13th century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming the fear of death and killing. During this time, the samurai fought in the Mongolian invasions with the thunderstorms of 1274 and the typhoon of 1281 helping the warrior defenders of Japan repel the Mongol invaders. Invasions of neighbouring territories became common to avoid infighting, and bickering among samurai was a constant problem.

Sengoku period

The Sengoku period was marked by the loosening of samurai culture, with people born into other social statuses sometimes making a name for themselves as warriors. Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly during this time and introduced a more mobilized infantry, providing the this Japanese warrior with the opportunity to evolve and improve their weapons and fighting skills. By the end of the Sengoku period, several hundred thousand firearms existed in Japan and massive armies numbering over 100,000 clashed in battles.

Azuchi–Momoyama period

During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister, created a law codifying the samurai caste as permanent and hereditary, and forbidding non-samurai to carry weapons. It is important to note that the distinction between the samurai and non-samurai was so obscure that during the 16th century, most male adults in any social class belonged to at least one military organization. Large battles occurred during the change between regimes, and a number of defeated warriors were retired of their duties, destroyed or became without a lord or master.

Tokugawa shogunate

During the Tokugawa shogunate, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. With no warfare since the early 17th century, samurai gradually lost their military function. Here, samurai served as role model behaviour for the other social classes. With time on their hands, they pursued other interests such as becoming renowned scholars.


The last real evidence of the original Japanese warrior was in 1867 when the warriors from Chōshū and Satsuma provinces defeated the Shogunate forces in favour of the rule of the Emperor. Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai’s right to be the only armed force in favour of a more modern, Western-style army in 1873. The samurai finally came to an end after hundreds of years of enjoyment of their status, their powers, and their ability to shape the government of Japan. The future of these Japanese warriors was to be determined by the fact that many of them were exchange students. Because so many of them were literate and well-educated scholars, some of these exchange students started private schools for higher education, while many decided to take on new careers, becoming reporters and writers and introduced new governmental services.
There are many areas of Japanese culture that have come and gone, but some have stayed for generations. Atelier Japan aims to keep traditional Japanese craft alive for as long as possible. Visit our website to browse our collection of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans, and add a piece of Japanese history to your home.