Samurai was a term for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. The word "samurai" is derived from the archaic Japanese verb "samorau," changed to "saburau," meaning "to serve"; thus, a "samurai" is a servant, i.e. the servant of a lord.
It is believed warriors and foot-soldiers in the sixth century may have formed a proto-samurai. Following a disastrous military engagement with Tang China and Silla, Japan underwent widespread reforms. One of the most important was that of the Taika Reform, issued by Prince Naka no Oe (Emperor Tenji) in 646 AD. This edict introduced Chinese cultural practices and administrative techniques throughout the Japanese aristocracy and bureaucracy. As part of the Yoro Code, and the later Taiho Code, of 702 AD, the population was required to report regularly for census, which was used as a precursor for national conscription. With an understanding of how the population was distributed, Emperor Mommu introduced the law whereby 1 in 4 adult males were drafted into the national military. These soldiers were required to supply their own weapons, and in return were exempted from duties and taxes. This was one of the first attempts by the Imperial government to form an organized army modeled after the Chinese system. It was called "gundan-sei" by later historians and is believed to have been short lived.
The Taiho Code classified Imperial bureaucrats into 12 ranks, each divided into two sub-ranks, 1st rank being the highest adviser to the emperor. Those of 6th rank and below were referred to as "samurai" and dealt with day-to-day affairs. Although these "samurai" were civilian public servants, the name is believed to have derived from this term. Military men, however, would not be referred to as "samurai" for many more centuries.
In the early Heian period, the late 8th and early 9th centuries, Emperor Kammu sought to consolidate and expand his rule in northern Honshu, but the armies he sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi people lacked motivation and discipline, and were unable to prevail. Emperor Kammu introduced the title of Seiitaishogun, or shogun, and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery (kyudo), these clan warriors became the emperor's preferred tool for putting down rebellions. Although these warriors may have been educated, at this time (7th to 9th century) the Imperial court officials considered them to be little more than barbarians.
Ultimately, Emperor Kammu disbanded his army, and from this time, the emperor's power gradually declined . While the emperor was still the ruler, powerful clans around Kyoto assumed positions as ministers, and their relatives bought positions as magistrates. To amass wealth and repay their debts, magistrates often imposed heavy taxes, resulting in many farmers becoming landless. As the threat of robbery rose, the clans began recruiting these exiled warriors in the Kanto plains. Because of their intense training in the martial arts, they proved to be effective guards. Small numbers would accompany tax collectors and, merely by their presence, deter thieves and bandits from attacking. They were samurai, armed retainers, yet their advantage of being the sole armed party quickly became apparent. Through protective agreements and political marriages, they accumulated political power, eventually surpassing the traditional aristocracy.
Some clans were originally formed by farmers who had taken up arms to protect themselves from the imperial magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes. These clans formed alliances to protect themselves against more powerful clans, and by the mid-Heian period they had adopted characteristic Japanese armor and weapons, and laid the foundations of Bushido, their ethical code. However, Bushido was never a code of ethics per se, and only in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century did the term gain popular currency.
For most of samurai history, warriors described themselves as followers of "kyuba no michi," or the "way of the bow and horse," and had no overlying code of ethics to which they were beholden. To be sure, samurai were expected to comport themselves in a certain manner, but any specific points of behavior would have been limited to family or clan teachings.
Before the 14th century, samurai were generally illiterate, rusticated brutes; they did, however, aspire to the more cultured abilities of the nobility. Few achieved this until later periods, however. Examples such as Taira Tadanori (a samurai who appears in the Heike Monogatari or "Tale of the Heike") demonstrate that some warriors did respect the arts and aspire to become skilled in them; Tadanori is famous for his skill with the pen, indicating that it was rare for a samurai to possess such skill as to be recognized for it.
Beginning around the fourteenth century, samurai were expected to be cultured and literate, and the ancient saying "Bun Bu Ryo Do" (lit. literary arts, military arts, both ways) or "The pen and the sword in accord," was an ideal to which many aspired. However, the number of men who actually achieved the ideal and lived their lives by it was low. Few warriors had the time or inclination to dedicate their already difficult lives to such pursuits.
An early term for warrior, "uruwashii", was written with a kanji that combined the characters for literary study ("bun" 文) and military arts ("bu" 武), and is mentioned in the Heike Monogatari (late 12th century). The Heike Monogatari makes reference to the educated poet-swordsman ideal in its mention of Taira no Tadanori's death:
"Friends and foes alike wet their sleeves with tears and said, 'What a pity! Tadanori was a great general, pre-eminent in the arts of both sword and poetry.'"
According to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai: "The warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. With the Heike Monogatari, the image of the Japanese warrior in literature came to its full maturity." Wilson then translates the writings of several warriors who mention the Heike Monogatari as an example for their men to follow.
It is necessary to remember, however, that the Heike warriors are men fictionalized by a fourteenth century dramatist, and the tales about such warriors had been modified for centuries before the Tale of the Heike was actually written down.
Thus, while we can see how warriors behaved in literary sources, the actual behavior of early samurai is difficult to glean from literature alone.
Originally, the samurai were employed by the emperor and nobility. In time, they amassed enough manpower, resources and political backing in the form of alliances with one another, to establish the first samurai-dominated government.
As the power of these regional clans grew, their chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor, and a lesser member of one of three families: the Fujiwara, Minamoto, and Taira.
Though originally sent to provincial areas for a fixed four-year term as a magistrate, the toryo declined to return to the capital when their terms ended, and their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian period.
Samurai fought at the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185. Because of their rising military and economic power, the warriors ultimately became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the Hogen in the late Heian period consolidated their power, and finally pitted the rival Minamoto and Taira clans against each other in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160.
The winner, Taira no Kiyomori, became an imperial advisor, and was the first warrior to attain such a position. He eventually seized control of the central government, establishing the first samurai-dominated government and relegating the emperor to figurehead status.
However, the Taira clan was still very conservative when compared to its eventual successor, the Minamoto, and instead of expanding or strengthening its military might, the Taira clan had its women marry emperors and exercise control through the emperor.
The Taira and the Minamoto clashed again in 1180, beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy. In 1190, he visited Kyoto and in 1192, became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate, or Kamakura Bakufu. Instead of ruling from Kyoto, he set up the Shogunate in Kamakura, near his base of power. "Bakufu" means "tent government," taken from the encampments the soldiers would live in, in accordance with the Bakufu's status as a military government.
Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility, or "buke", who were only nominally under the court aristocracy. When the samurai began to adopt aristocratic pastimes like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats in turn began to adopt samurai customs. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the Shogun and the samurai.
Zen Buddhism spread among the samurai in the 13th century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and killing, but among the general populace, Pure Land Buddhism was favored.
Social mobility was high, as the ancient regime collapsed and emerging samurai needed to maintain large military and administrative organizations in their areas of influence. Most of the samurai families that survived to the 19th century originated in this era, declaring themselves to be the blood of one of the four ancient noble clans, Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara and Tachibana. In most cases, however, it is hard to prove these claims.
It is important to note that the distinction between samurai and non-samurai was so obscure that during the 16th century, most male adults in any social class (even small farmers) belonged to at least one military organization of their own and served in wars before and during Hideyoshi's rule. It can be said that an "all against all" situation continued for a century.
The authorized samurai families after the 17th century were those that chose to follow Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. Large battles occurred during the change between regimes, and a number of defeated samurai were destroyed, went ronin or were absorbed into the general populace.
During the Tokugawa era, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. With no warfare since the early 17th century, samurai gradually lost their military function during the Tokugawa era (also called the Edo period).
By the end of the Tokugawa era, samurai were aristocratic bureaucrats for the daimyo, with their daisho, the paired long and short swords of the samurai (cf. katana and wakizashi) becoming more of a symbolic emblem of power rather than a weapon used in daily life.
They still had the legal right to cut down any commoner who did not show proper respect (kiri sute gomen), but to what extent this right was used is unknown. When the central government forced daimyos to cut the size of their armies, unemployed ronin became a social problem.
Theoretical obligations between a samurai and his lord (usually a daimyo) increased from the Genpei era to the Edo era. They were strongly emphasized by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius (ca 550 B.C.) which were required reading for the educated samurai class. During the Edo period, after the general end of hostilities, the code of Bushido was formalized. It is important to note that bushido was an ideal, but that it remained uniform from the 13th century to the 19th century — the ideals of Bushido transcended social class, time and geographic location of the warrior class.
Bushido ("way of the warrior") was formalized by many samurai in this time of peace in much the same fashion as chivalry was formalized after knights as a warrior class became obsolete in Europe. The conduct of samurai became a favorable model of a citizen in Edo, with formalities being emphasized. With time on their hands, samurai spent more time in pursuit of other interests such as becoming scholars. Bushido still survives in present-day Japanese society, as do many other aspects of the samurai's way of life.