Samurai: A Thousand Years of Warriors

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Samurai: A Thousand Years of Warriors


Stern, Fred, The World and I


They dominated Japanese history for the better part of a thousand years. And although the samurai--the elite military class of Japan which originated in the late 8th Century--were transformed into primarily political and cultural entities by events of the 19th Century, their exploits on the battlefield, their Zen philosophy and stoicism which inspired great bravery, even their beautifully crafted accoutrements of war continue to excite and exert outsize influence in Japan and beyond.

Origin and evolving roles of Samurai

Japan is a relatively small island nation, and the limits of its land mass are exaggerated by its mountainous terrain. The result is a country of great beauty but of limited arable land, i.e. land suitable for farming. Therein lies the underlying reason for the rise of a Japanese military class, the samurai. As the eminent British Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of El Alamein, second in command under General Dwight Eisenhower in World War II, noted about the origin of the samurai in his fascinating History of Warfare: "The Japanese archipelago stretches for over 1,000 miles, but a great part of the land is mountainous and infertile, and the high incidence of war can largely be attributed to competition for the sparse areas of good rice land."

Early in the 8th Century, a system of "shoens," roughly the equivalent of European medieval manors, evolved in Japan, and and remained for centuries. With good land so scarce and so valuable, it is not surprising that these large landowners sought to protect their crops and their holdings. To keep intruders away they hired armed guards, many of whom had previously policed the imperial cities or had had some military background. They were called "samurai," a word that probably had its roots in a term meaning "to serve."

Most of the samurai's military actions were domestic in nature, civil wars of varying size and duration, fought primarily for the protection of their lords and their property. In this role, the samurai became very powerful, and on a grander scale, they even decided who would be Japan's ruling families.

But during two foreign invasions of Japan, the samurai were drawn into battles beyond domestic squabbles and land or power grabs. This time they were fighting foreign armies, and the outcome of these wars would determine their islands' future. These were the Mongol invasions, launched by Mongol fleets from Korean coasts. The period of the invasions and the unrest which followed lasted from 1274-1281 AD. The first invasion was said to involve some 900 ships and more than 30,000 assorted Mongolian troops and their satellites--Koreans, Chinese and other outsiders who greatly outnumbered the defending samurai. The aggression proved unsuccessful largely because of hurricane force winds which came to the aid of the samurai. The second Mongol invasion was said to fail because of the emperor's prayers, although no doubt fierce storms, a fortified coastal wall that the Japanese had constructed after the first invasion, and of course the brave and determined samurai, again vastly outnumbered, also played critical roles.

The Mongol invasions forced disparate groups of samurai who had heretofore fought among themselves, to unite and face a common enemy. Thus the Kamakura Period (1192-1332) became a pivotal era in Japanese history. Additionally, this was the time that the position of shogun was established. The shogun was the highest ranking samurai warrior in the land, and from that time on shoguns assumed the top governmental post, essentially running the government and making administrative appointments. They ruled from the city of Edo, now called Tokyo, while the emperors were based in Kyoto which was technically speaking the Japanese capital at that time.

The Muramachi Period which followed (1333-1573) brought 250 turbulent years. It is easy to compare this period to the middle ages in Europe where many small armies were engaged in perpetual and counterproductive fighting. …

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