The Samurai (or Bushi) were the warriors of premodern Japan. They later made up the ruling military class that eventually became the highest ranking social caste of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword. Samurai were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan from the late 12th century to their abolition in 1876. They were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo (the great feudal landholders). They had high prestige and special privileges such as wearing two swords. They cultivated the bushido codes of martial virtues, indifference to pain, and unflinching loyalty, engaging in many local battles. Though they had predecssors in earlier military and administrative officers, the samurai truly emerged during the Kamakura shogunate, ruling from c.1185–1333. They became the ruling political class, with significant power but also significant responsibility.
During the 1200’s, the samurai proved themselves as adept warriors against the invading Mongols. During the peaceful Edo era (1603 to 1868) they became the stewards and chamberlains of the daimyo estates, gaining managerial experience and education. In the 1870s samurai families comprised 5% of the population. As modern militaries emerged in the 1800’s, Japan faced growing threats from China and a desire to rival the great powers. Samurai were rendered increasingly obsolete and very expensive compared to the average conscript soldier. The Meiji Restoration ended their feudal roles, and they moved into professional and entrepreneurial roles. Their memory and weaponry remain prominent in Japanese popular culture. Samurai were supposed to lead their lives according to the ethic code of bushido (“the way of the warrior“). Strongly Confucian in Nature, bushido stressed concepts such as loyalty to one’s master, self discipline and respectful, ethical behavior. Many Samurai were also drawn to the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism.
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