Samurai: An Introduction to Japanese Culture

Maria Zontou

In modern pop culture, we frequently hear about samurai as warriors. But what were they?

As a powerful social group, the Samurai replaced the aristocracy in medieval Japan between 1185 and 1603 CE. In the Middle Ages, Japan was characterized by a feudal system. Their emergence was a product of socio-economic and political upheavals. They arose to protect their land. Land was their most valuable asset. During that period, the armies grew in size. Samurai were more of a social class than soldiers. They were a hereditary military aristocracy. Originally, the name “Samurai” was used to refer to fighters from the upper classes (also known as “bushi”, historical warriors, or “buke”, meaning “military family”). Eventually, the phrase came to refer to every warrior who gained power during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and ruled Japan until the restoration of the Meiji in 1868. Some argue that the year of its abolition was 1876. In their period of decline, they suffered from poverty. Samurai were particularly proficient in the use of the bow and sword. Their appearance was particularly distinctive. Their armor was made of elaborately stitched leather and metal. Furthermore, they were shaved on the front of their heads. In terms of population, they made up 5%. Among them, they had developed a code of honor known as “bushido” (the way of the warrior), which espoused ideals such as loyalty, courage, self-discipline, martial virtues, indifference to pain, and participation in many battles. They were expected to defend the interests and honor of their master. They would ritually end their lives when they were unable to do so. This practice was called “seppuku” or “hara-kiri” and was institutionalized as a respected alternative to disgrace or defeat. They would plunge a short sword into the left side of their abdomen, draw the blade sideways to the right, and then turn it upwards. In this way, they released their spirit. In the same context, women also performed a ritual suicide called “jigai”. Unlike men, they cut their throats and not their abdomens. Samurai had high status and special privileges. One such privilege was to wear two swords. Another privilege was the “Kiri-sute gomen” i.e., the right to kill anyone who was a member of a lower class. Although they had a variety of weapons at their disposal, including guns, spears, and bows and arrows, the sword was their most recognizable item.
Samurai: An Introduction to Japanese Culture
Armored Samurai

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Samurai developed their own culture, which influenced Japanese culture

The tea ritual, flower arrangement (“ikebana”), monochrome ink drawing, rock gardens, and poetry are examples of cultural traditions connected to the samurai. All of this was a result of their growing Zen Buddhist influence and Confucian nature. Their stoicism developed a disciplined culture. In general, they were very educated as a social group. Some had “buke bunko” or a “warrior library”. They had personal libraries that contained texts on strategy, the art of war, and other records that have proven helpful for that period. They combined one kanji from their father or grandfather with one new kanji to create their name. Usually, they would only use a piece of their whole name. Regarding marriage, they had arranged marriages and married people of the same or higher class. They had the right to divorce, although this was not common because, after a divorce, samurai had to return the money from the engagement. They could still have concubines, but first, they had to check their backgrounds. Maintaining the household was the main duty of women who belonged to the samurai class. The most significant duty of a samurai's daughter was civil marriage. For diplomatic purposes, they married members of their families' enemy tribes. They have been the subject of legends, folktales, theater productions, literature, films, anime, TV shows, manga, video games, festivals, museums, and music. There are places to visit that are associated with them, like castles, old houses, museums, historical theme parks, and dress-up tours. Their memory and weapons remain prominent in Japanese popular culture.
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Samurai: An Introduction to Japanese Culture

Maria Zontou

Maria Zontou is a graduate of the University of Peloponnese, Department of History, Archaeology, and Cultural Resources Management. She lives in Greece and spends her time reading books, walking, and taking pictures.
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