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Japanese samurai were warriors of the shogun rulers during feudal times. While their origins are unknown, what is known is that they were fearsome in combat and were fast on horseback. In the 8th century, Japan's government sent warriors to subdue barbarians in northern Honshu. The government relied heavily on these warriors, and the term samurai ('those who serve') came into use in this period. Samurai were also hired by wealthy landowners, who feared for their safety while local clans fought over land and power. In exchange for protection and loyalty, the samurai were given land and rights. By this time samurai began to adopt the first signs of samurai tradition, including leather and metal armour and curved blades.

After samurai Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1198) won control of most of Japan from the emperor, following five years of fighting, the samurai became more powerful. Yoritomo was made 'Sei-i Tai Shogun' (Great General Subduing the Barbarians). The shogun issued power by giving orders to other samurai, and until they were abolished in the Meiji Restoration (1868), the samurai remained the most influential class. Refer Image 1

Way of the warrior

Samurai were extremely disciplined and followed a strict code of honour, called bushido (way of the warrior). Bushido was so strict that the samurai were prepared to kill themselves if they broke its rules. When a samurai killed himself it was a form of suicide called harakiri which involved his slitting himself open with his own sword. As defenders, they could be relied upon to fight to the death for the protection of their lords and property. They trained for both armed and unarmed combat. When they were not fighting, the samurai lived on their own lands.

Arms and armour

Samurai wore armour made of metal plates and leather, held together by colourful cords. These were elaborate suits that included a protective headpiece. The weapons used by samurai were the lance, bow and sword; and were carried by the samurai as they rode into battle on horseback. Samurai were the only class in Japan who had the right to carry a sword. Samurai carried two types of sword, the katana and wakizashi, which hung on the samurai's left side as symbols of power. They wore their hair tied back at the top of their head in a knot. The brow and crown, at the top of the head, were shaved bare. Refer Image 2

Position of the samurai

Samurai were the only people in Japan who could ride horses, carry swords and even have a last name. As such, they had great rights and responsibilities, and occupied a high position in society. Samurai were expected to be fearless, loyal servants of the samurai lords, the daimyo, while leading a plain and simple life. These warriors made up a very small portion of the Japanese population, while the rest of the population were farmers, merchants, priests, monks and artisans. Samurai answered only to their lords, who hired them to fight their wars and protect their land. The position of a samurai was inherited from father to son. Samurai were expected to be kind to the poor, but also had the right to kill if insulted by a person of a lower social rank. Refer Image 3


Ronin is a term used to describe a samurai who no longer had a lord, either through his lord's downfall, or through the loss of his lord's favour. Many ronin emerged during the relatively peaceful period of the Edo shoguns (1600-1868), and worked as writers, Confucian scholars or teachers, instructors of martial arts or bodyguards. The ronin were forbidden to work as farmers or merchants, roles which were restricted to the lower classes. Many ronin were consequently on fixed incomes and became poor and unhappy.

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1. What was the samurai code of honour?






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