Perhaps one of the strongest symbols of Japan is the samurai. Icons of a bygone era, samurai have been immortalized in popular culture through books, TV and film but while the majority of the references indicate samurai were warriors, the truth about these soldiers is often romanticized for theatrical effect.
Samurai began as a class of warriors in the Heian period and served as the first Imperial army. Far more than just soldiers though, samurai were also considered public servants and protectors who lived to a strict ethical code of honor and loyalty. The term ‘samurai’ itself stood for ‘those who serve in close attendance to nobility’, but their role was soon adapted as they became local peace-keepers who had the legal right to execute any commoner who showed them disrespect.
While modern media often portrays samurai simply as all-action warriors, in fact they were often studious individuals and were some of the most educated scholars in Japan, spending time not only perfecting their sword fighting and archery techniques, but also developing their literacy and language skills.
It’s thought that through their connections with nobility, the samurai began to accumulate political power through strategic marriages and beneficial agreements with influential parties and many samurai warriors made the transition to take up powerful posts as ministers and magistrates throughout the country, forming clans to consolidate their influence in various regions.
While it was possible to be initiated into a samurai clan, it was more commonly an ‘occupation’ that one had to be born into, especially in the higher ranking levels, with power passing down through samurai bloodlines or arranged marriages.
As their influence throughout the country grew, samurai power gradually expanded and eventually established a samurai-dominated government in the Edo Period (1603-1867) with more and more samurai spending their time as bureaucrats and administrators rather than warriors. Their iconic katana and wakizashi swords became symbols of power rather than weapons and many spent their time outside politics teaching or working on poetry, calligraphy or art.
When Emperor Meiji introduced a western-style army circa 1873, the political power of samurai was waning and their influence on modern Japan would soon be a thing of the past. Many samurai chose to volunteer themselves into the new army and often became officers, utilizing their martial skills and combat experience.
The new ‘modern’ army may have spelled the end for the ‘Way of the Warrior’, but whether romanticized or not, their noble aura and spirit lives on and will be an eternal reminder of Japan’s rich, unique history.
In today’s world, descendants of samurai from the Fukushima Prefecture still gather once a year to celebrate their ancestry at the Soma Nomaoi festival in Minami-Soma City, riding in horseback parades, dressing in family armor and carrying flags with their clan’s crest. The cultural festival has taken place for more than 1,000 years but fears have arisen for the future of the clans after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, which may have sadly cut several bloodlines of the Soma clan.
The festival even went ahead in the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant in July 2011 – just months after the devastation caused by the natural disaster. And although on a lower scale it demonstrated the indomitable spirit of the samurai, which will never be lost.
If you’re thinking of coming to Japan and would like to take a samurai sword class to learn more about the ancient warriors we would be happy to arrange a class for you with Tetsuro Shimaguchi – lead choreographer in Quentin Tarrantino’s movie Kill Bill Vol. 1. Simply get in touch with our Japan-based Travel Specialists who would be delighted to hear from you.