The Samurai: Historical Context

The Samurai

A samurai army marches to fight in the Gempei Wars. (Miller)

The Samurai are romanticized by today’s pop culture. We are often captivated by the idea of the disciplined warrior whose entire life has been devoted to the training of mind, body, and soul. But how much of what the big screens portray about the samurai is actually true? Are they as capable of warriors as hollywood have us believe? Was their entire life really spent in discipline? How did religion play into the Samurai lifestyle? Well, before we do any of that, it’s pretty important that we understand the historical context first.


A portrait of Minamoto Yoritomo. (Miller)

The first Shogunate (military stated governed by samurai) was established in 1185 by Minamoto Yoritomo. However, existence of the samurai tracks back earlier than that into the Heian Period, the last Period of Classical Japan’s true empire. In the Gempei War of the late 12th century, the Minamoto clan, taking advantage of the emporer’s weakness, seized control of Japan from one rival samurai clan, the Taira. At the end of the conflict, Yoritomo Minamoto was appointed sei-i taishogun– leader of the samurai class. (Miller, 18). The new shogunate issued in the Kamakura period, named after the capitol city, Kamakura.  This new era of governance differed from earlier periods in that daimyo (feudal lords) were unified under the national government unlike the previous imperial rule where governance was loose and daimyo administered their provinces almost completely independent of the emperor. The Joei Shikimoku code of 1232 in the Kamakura period was the first nationalized legal system. It limited the powers of the imperial court to cultural affairs and clarified the new relationship between the shogunate and the daimyo. (Deal, 3-5)


Emporer Go Daigo. (Miller)

In 1336 after the resolution of a successional dispute known as the Kemmu Restoration, Ashikaga Takauji took power from Emporer Go-Daigo who had just reclaimed imperial rule from the Minamoto Shogunate at the end of the restoration. In 1338, the newly established Ashikaga Shogunate ushered in the Muromachi Period- again named after the capitol city of Muromachi. Joei Shikimoku remained the government model, and relationships between the shogunate and the daimyo was of the utmost importance. These relationships degraded over time until it sparked into civil war. The Onin War fought over succession within the Ashikaga family. This war plunged the entire country into the Warring States (Sengoku) Period between 1467-1568. This period of one hundred years is summarized by the power struggle between the all of the nation’s daimyo who fought for control. (Deal, 10-11)

During the turmoil that decimated the Ashikaga Shogunate, Europeans began making contact with the Japanese, starting with the Portuguese in 1543, followed by the Spanish, English and the Dutch. All of whom brought advanced technologies such as the arquebus to the island nation despite strict regulation against foreign influences. Along with these traders, Christian missionaries began trickling in under the leadership of Jesuit Francis Xavier in 1549. (Deal, 11)


A portrait of the legendary warrior, Oda Nobunaga. (Miller)

1573 ushered in a new era into Japan’s history known as the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, named after two castles owned by the dynamic duo of the age, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi respectively. With Nobunaga leading the charge, the pair started waging war across the entire country, slowly but surely taking control over the Daimyo and even the Imperial court. When Nobunaga was assasinated in 1582, Toyotomi, Nobunaga’s highest general, took control over the efforts. Hideyoshi’s death left his son too young to succeed. Dispute led to the forceful self-instatement of Tokugawa Ieyasu- a close ally to Nobunaga and Hideyoshi as well as a supporter of Hideyoshi’s son- to Shogun to oversee the campaigns. (Deal, 11-12)


Tokugawa Ieyasu is portrayed tightening his helmet after victory in battle as was customary of Japanese generals. (Miller)

In 1615, Tokugawa rule was fully actualized with the formal establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate (known as the Edo Period for the city of Edo- present day Tokyo) and the unification of Japan. This age of peace would last until 1868. The major themes to come from this time period were national isolationism, strict regulation of the class system. This period of peace facilitated the patronage of traditional arts and culture, which came to include the samurai customs. (Deal, 12-13)

DSC00442Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded Tokugawa Ieyasu in the line of ‘super shogun’. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)









Bushido: The Way of the Warrior

Suggested Readings

Deal, William E. Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan. New York: Facts On File, 2006. Print.

Miller, David. Samurai Warriors. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.