samurai

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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samurai

samurai (sä´mōōrī´), knights of feudal Japan, retainers of the daimyo. This aristocratic warrior class arose during the 12th-century wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans and was consolidated in the Tokugawa period. Samurai were privileged to wear two swords, and at one time had the right to cut down any commoner who offended them. They cultivated the martial virtues, indifference to pain or death, and unfailing loyalty to their overlords (see bushido). Samurai were the dominant group in Japan, and the masterless samurai, the ronin, were a serious social problem. Under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), the samurai were removed from direct control of the villages, moved into the domain castle towns, and given government stipends. They were encouraged to take up bureaucratic posts. As a result, they lost a measure of their earlier martial skill. Dissatisfied samurai from the Choshu and Satsuma domains of W Japan were largely responsible for overthrowing the shogun in 1867. When feudalism was abolished after the Meiji restoration, some former samurai also took part in the Satsuma revolt under Takamori Saigo in 1877. As statesmen, soldiers, and businessmen, former samurai took the lead in building modern Japan.

See H. P. Varley, The Samurai (1970).

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