The samurai were some of the most awe-inspiring warriors the world has ever known. Fiercely loyal to their lords, they would rather kill themselves than face dishonor. These men were highly trained, battle-hardened career soldiers who would fight to the death in an instant.
Or at least they were during the Sengoku Period (1467-1603). By the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), a lot of them had become less militaristic and more bureaucratic. But they were still a powerful and formidable social class, so what force could take down these aristocratic warriors who had ruled Japan for over 700 years?
The decline and fall of the samurai came slowly, and as the result of many smaller moves that transitioned feudal Japan into a more modern country. Gradual modernization, and major events like the Satsuma Rebellion and the establishment of Meiji Japan, ultimately signaled the last days of warrior culture and the end of the samurai way of life.
During the 19th century, many samurai in the middle and lower class grew increasingly unhappy with the structure of Japanese society. At this point, the samurai were the ruling class in Japan. The defining characteristic of the class was that they were career military men, though in function they performed many ordinary tasks from bureaucratic jobs to even farming at times.
The Tokugawa clan was in charge, and they ruled from Edo (modern Tokyo) as the Tokugawa Shogunate. Having ruled since 1603, the Shogun was the head of the Tokugawa family who held the position of supreme military ruler. Edicts were passed from the Shogun to the local daimyō (clan heads) who ruled over their territories like governors. Individual samurai were paid via stipends, determined by the military hierarchy.
Status was determined by heredity and rank, and there was a massive difference in both wealth and status between the highest class samurai and the lowest ones. Middle-class samurai increasingly lacked upward mobility. While lower class samurai did have some upward mobility, they were unable to maintain it from generation to generation.
When Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1853, it set off a series of events that would forever change Japan. Perry was sent by President Millard Fillmore to open up trade between Japan and the United States. While Perry's mission was a peaceful one, the show of naval force was not taken lightly.
A split grew in Japan between those who wanted to maintain isolationism and those who wanted to welcome the foreigners. At the time, the Tokugawa Shogunate was in power and had been since 1603. The emperor still existed, but largely just as a figurehead.
The Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, ultimately decided in favor of opening up the ports, but Emperor Kōmei objected to the treaty. The Shogunate ignored the emperor's wishes and opened up the ports anyway. Then in 1863, Emperor Kōmei broke with the tradition of deferring to the Shogun, issuing an order to "expel the barbarians."
Ignoring the emperor's wishes regarding isolationism was not enough in itself to end the Tokugawa Shogunate, but it did raise the ire of many samurai, particularly in the Chōshū clan. The clan was located at the southwestern end of Honshu, relatively far from the power of the Shogun in Edo. In the Chōshū clan, power had fallen to samurai who were dissatisfied with the Shogunate and sought its end. They were anti-foreigner, and thus pro-emperor.
Military units formed in the Chōshū clan with the intent of driving off foreign invaders. The soldiers were recruited from the fringes of the samurai class, and this weakened the traditional samurai hierarchy within the clan.
The clan's dissatisfaction came to a head in 1864. In addition to fighting against foreigners as an effort to "expel the barbarians," the Chōshū raised the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion. Samurai from the clan tried to take over Kyoto (the seat of the emperor) and restore the emperor's political authority, but were repelled by Shogunate forces. In retaliation for the attack, the Shogunate launched an expedition against the Chōshū.
The Satsuma clan ultimately allied with the Chōshū against the Shogunate. The clan ruled Kyushu, across the sea from the Chōshū and equally far from the Shogun's power in Edo. Widespread support for the emperor did exist, but unlike in the Chōshū there were less radical elements in the Satsuma clan.
As a result, the loyalist movement in the Satsuma clan became more of an effort to restore the Emperor's authority via political means. By 1866, the loyalist elements had gained control of the Satsuma clan, and they joined the Chōshū in an anti-Shogunate alliance.
That year, the two clans united to defeat a second Shogun expedition against the Chōshū. This resulted in significant loss of authority for the Shogunate. Shortly thereafter, however, both Emperor Kōmei and Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi died. They were replaced by Emperor Meiji and Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu.