Samurai's brief history and famous samurai heroes

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Very brief history of samurai

Origin and transition

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In the 9th century, some of the court nobles in charge of military action were sent to the local regions to pacify recurrent uprisings. They had surnames of Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heishi). Even after the war, many of their descendants and relatives stayed in those regions, expanded estates, and overtime established their own armed groups sharing a common destiny.

Since those noble group leaders had close relationships with the major political figures in the Imperial court, the warriors in the groups were regarded as something like the national security forces and those from good families were called samurai or bushi.

In time those samurai groups began to make light of the intentions of the central government, and fought with each other continually over land and power. Successful leaders who had greatly expanded their territories were called daimyo. In doing so, the samurai groups undermined the ritsuryo legal system and eclipsed religious powers, bringing about the Japanese version of feudalism.

Muscular Strength alone was not enough to be called samurai. They must have noble origin or come from samurai families, and they usually had job titles in the legal system with the emperor at the top.

**This was why Kikuchiyo in the Japanese movie, Seven Samurai, was not called samurai in the beginning, however he was strong. In the end, after his death, they added him in the group of samurai for mercy’s sake.

• Goals of life

The high-ranking samurai, as the leader of the family, pushed forward to expand their territories and grace the family name. The majority of samurai served their lords loyally at the risk of their lives following the samurai’s sense of honor.

• Ruler of Japan

In the middle of the twelfth century, a high-ranking samurai nobleman, Taira-no-Kiyomori, took real power, not only militarily, but also politically and economically, shoving Imperial and religious powers to the side. Samurai’s military government lasting seven hundred years was just about to get started.

• Period of warring states...Sengoku

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, leadership competition among samurai warlords broke out one after another all over the country, which lasted more than a hundred years. Many people lost their lives, family members were broken apart, and houses and plow land devastated.

But this war-torn period liquidated the multiple claims on land and diluted the influence of temples and shrines. And the social chaos helped people get free from the medieval bondages and encouraged economic growth, paving the way for a new era.

It was Tokugawa Ieyasu who put an end to this country-wide warfare and started the Tokugawa military government in Edo (Tokyo) in 1603. The Tokugawa Shogunate lasted for about three hundred years until the emperor retrieved (nominally) the ruling power from the samurai in the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

• Changing faces of samurai

Samurai lived up to its name to the fullest extent in the period of warring states. Some rose from modest beginnings and became the ruler of an entire country, and others devoted themselves to mastering martial arts and gave birth to many ingenious schools of swordplay.

In the Edo period ruled by the Tokugawa family, samurai took the central role as goverment official and administrator in their respective home countries called "Han".They wore long and short swords whenever they got out. They didn't do so to use them for intended purposes, but wore them as insignia indicating that they were in the ruling class, and anyone who would defy their power would be punished.

It's sad to see those panicking Edo samurai at the news of seppuku punishment. They don't even know the seppuku protocol, let alone don't have the drive to do it.
--The Phantom of Sengoku--

Quite naturally in the peaceful environment, Edo samurai lost the rough temper and virtues of samurai characteristic of the past war-torn era, but the loyalty to lord and country, self-discipline, sophistication centering around Chinese classics and Confucian values were retained and carried over to the Meiji period. But for the spirit of self-reliance and dedicated activities by groups of passionate samurai, Japan would have given in to the pressures from the great powers, torn apart, and finally got colonized.

• Bushido

In the age of provincial wars, it was not uncommon for vassals to kill their lords to take over the country, for sons to get rid of their fathers and siblings, and for samurai husbands to leave their hostage wives and children to die. While surviving in such harsh conditions, samurai warriors made their minds up gradually about what their lives to be, how they conduct themselves. Their frame of mind were later organized as codes of conduct. That is what is termed bushido.

Samurai heroes in history

Popular daimyo warlords

The following are the five most popular samurai warlords. Their lives were dramas by themselves. Take a look at their birth dates. Towards the end of the period of warring states, a galaxy of prominent warlords miraculously appeared above soil. In the peaceful Edo period run by Tokugawa family, Japan had no heroes at all for better or worse, except for the last days of the Edo period.

Takeda Shingen(1521--1573)

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He underwent a coup to oust his father and seized power of the Takeda family at the age of 20. By using his rational mindset to the full, he built the strongest army force, and expanded his territory by ten times in one generation.

His words of choice: “A man whom ninety-nine people out of a hundred say good things about is not a good man.”

Webmaster’s tag line: Guru of Organizational Management

Uesugi Kenshin(1530–1578)

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A spiritual seeker of war and educated person having contact with many noblemen, the lifelong rival of Takeda Shingen. He had great sympathy for Zen, kept women away, and loved sake.

His words of choice: "You should not reward samurai with much compensation or exceptional promotion only for his good performances in the battlefield. For samurai, those performances are just the name of the game."

Webmaster’s tag line: War is art

Oda Nobunaga(1534–1582)

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He had a revolutionary mind which is an extremely rare trait for a Japanese. To construct a centralized samurai government, he completely destroyed his enemies mercilessly, whether they’re soldiers or common folk, and burned down their temples and forts to wipe them out. Just before the realization of his dream, he was assassinated by his vassal backed by the old-guard crony. *

*The webmaster wrote a novel titled "Demon Sword " featuring this incomparable warlord. Please take a look.

His words of choice: “It’s eccentric persons who change the world all through the ages. Warlords should have a capacity to accept them.

Webmaster’s tag line: Creative Destruction

Toyotomi (Hashiba) Hideyoshi(1537–1598)

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After the death of his lord, Oda Nobunaga, he shrewdly took over what his lord had achieved and reached the very top. Up from a humble family of part-time soldier, he became the first fully-fledged samurai ruler of Japan. His life is the most beloved rags-to-riches drama in Japan.

His words of choice: “Hoarding up money is just like walling a person of ability in the prison.”

Webmaster’s tag line: Outstanding cordial schemer

Tokugawa Ieyasu(1543–1616)

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His childhood days as a hostage with no guarantee of life taught him the value of patience and careful consideration. Under the rule of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, he bided his time and persevered to become the first shogun of the long-lasing samurai government in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The Tokugawa Shogunate achieved a 270-year-long durable peace until foreign powers broke open its gate to the world.

His words of choice: “Burden makes man."

Webmaster’s tag line: Patience is my life

Popular Sword Masters

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In their desperate effort to survive, samurai warriors invented various combat skills involving the use of bows, spears, swords, cudgels, chain weights, throwing knives, bare hands, etc. Many of those samurai perfected their skills to give birth to a multitude of schools of martial arts.

Time went by and the way wars were fought was changed drastically too. Group fight between armies equipped with firearms and the wars involving large-scale civil engineering work superseded individual match.

Meanwhile, Japanese swords and swordplay enjoyed an enviable position as the moral support for samurai, and many outstanding swordsmen came out. Among them were Tsukahara Bokuden, Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, Yagyu Munetoshi, and Miyamoto Musashi (see image above).

Here's a kendo match video, which will give you a feel for what swordplay is like. Kendo is swordplay turned into a sport.

Samurai heroes in the Edo period

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, ruled Japan by giving much authority to former regional lords. Samurai warriors, who used to crawl along the ground, spend restless nights in rain, and eat grass to stave off hunger pains, now served their lords as hereditary central or local government officials by taking care of legislative, judicial, and executive duties sitting in the castle rooms. There were no heroes, but those self-disciplined samurai officials played a major role in maintaining the peaceful Tokugawa military government.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, foreign powers appeared off the coast of Japan to press for the opening of the country. Facing the risk of being colonized, local samurai officials, regardless of their classes, rose against not only foreign powers but the Tokugawa government which remained ambiguous even on the potential risks of colonization.

If there were heroes in the Edo period, it is those unsung local samurai officials , whether high-ranking or minor. Many of them were killed by the Tokugawa-backed band of samurai like Shinsen-gumi or by their own lords without seeing the “new born” Japan.

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