Photo: Yoshitoshi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

What Life Was Really Like As A Samurai In Feudal Japan

Derived from the Japanese word "saburau," which means "to serve," the concept of the samurai came into being during the 700s AD. These ancient warriors evolved and survived well into the 20th century - but what was life like for the earliest samurai? How did they become such an essential part of Japanese culture?

Similar to knights during the Middle Ages, samurai date back to the Heian period (794-1185 AD). When the Japanese government became a military dictatorship led by a shogun during the Kamakura period (1185-1333 AD), the samurai were appointed as the official Japanese military force.

Daily life for samurai during this time varied due to a number of circumstances: armed conflicts, power shifts, class, and geographic location. However, by the end of the Kamakura period, the samurai were well on their way to becoming the cultured and disciplined warrior class mythologized in film, books, and folklore.

Photo: Yoshitoshi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • In Their Early Days, Samurai Were Armed Imperial Guards
    Photo: Kobayashi Kiyochika / PICRYL / Public Domain

    In Their Early Days, Samurai Were Armed Imperial Guards

    During the Heian period, rulers of Japan's imperial court stopped drafting what they considered the unreliable peasantry for military duty. Instead, the government turned toward the privately trained elite infantry that had been serving the country's nobility for a century. Integrating these warriors into the country's military establishment birthed the samurai order.

    This privatization of the government's armed forces allowed noble families to use their wealth to influence policy for their personal gains. At the same time, the new military - essentially composed of professional mercenaries - drew the attention of elites and aristocrats low on the totem pole who knew they could gain money and skilled training by signing up to serve. 

  • During The Kamakura Period, The Samurai Transformed Into A Military Police Force
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During The Kamakura Period, The Samurai Transformed Into A Military Police Force

    Around the mid-12th century, noble families vying for power engaged in the Gempei War of 1180. The Minamoto clan defeated the Taira clan, and transformed Japan's government into a military dictatorship ruled by a shogun. Minamoto Yoritomo was the first shogun to rule Japan, beginning the Kamakura period.

    This shift strengthened the role of the samurai, who ran the government at the shogun's behest. Networks of samurai were stationed all over the country and served as royal vassals who maintained order in the provinces. The imperial court worked alongside the shogun, but as the era progressed, the shogun gained more control and established the first shogunate.

    Military rule was heightened during the Mongol incursion of the 13th century, when all of Japan united to fend off the forces of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan.

  • Samurai Maintained Loyalty To Feudal Lords And The Shogun
    Photo: Unknown / PICRYL / Public Domain

    Samurai Maintained Loyalty To Feudal Lords And The Shogun

    Technically, the samurai were loyal to the shogun and the feudal lords who controlled regions of Japan. These warrior lords, known as daimyo, were trained to rule their areas with humanity and intelligence - although this didn't always occur in practice. Many daimyo were power-hungry, and plotted to seize control of regions beyond their appointed domains. They often set their sights on the government's capital, Kyoto.

    Samurai, though taught to act with dutiful discipline and reason, were honor-bound to carry out the orders of their sometimes greedy daimyo. This contributed to samurai developing a reputation for unlawful and vicious behavior in feudal Japan.

  • Many Samurai Struggled Economically Due To Caste Obligations
    Photo: Katsukawa Shunshō / PICRYL / Public Domain

    Many Samurai Struggled Economically Due To Caste Obligations

    Medieval Japan was organized by a strict caste system, and samurai were members of a special military class. Though well-respected, samurai were not originally considered nobility, and they dealt with many of the financial hardships faced by members of Japan's merchant class. One of the largest motivations for becoming a samurai, especially during times of conflict, was access to a stable income - which was hard to come by in feudal Japan.

    Samurai caste status was also affected by rules enacted by different shoguns. During his rule, shogun Minamoto Yoritomo defined the samurai caste as an elite body, less so to grant them more rights than to extend the limits of his military power. This did little to affect the day-to-day lives of samurai.

  • Most Samurai Practiced The Rituals And Tenets Of Zen Buddhism
    Photo: Takuma Tametō / PICRYL / Public Domain

    Most Samurai Practiced The Rituals And Tenets Of Zen Buddhism

    Buddhism reached Japan in the sixth century, and Zen Buddhism arrived in the 12th century. Samurai applied the tenets of Zen Buddhism to their lives.

    Zen Buddhism is practice-based, and adherents follow a strict meditation schedule. This meshed well with the samurai lifestyle, which required restraint and control. The physical endurance needed to participate in long periods of meditation was alluring to samurai, many of whom enjoyed testing the limits of their strength.

    Philosophically, Zen Buddhism gave samurai a method to process their own mortality. These warriors faced danger at every turn, both on the battlefield and off. Adopting the Zen Buddhist indifference to the circle of life gave them the peace and tranquility they needed to be effective warriors. As one author from Japan's Tokugawa period explained, "One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind, by day and by night... the fact that he has to [perish]. That is his chief business."

  • Medieval Samurai Had A Rich Mythological History

    Medieval samurai tales have been passed down orally or transcribed into epics. The Tale of the Heike tells the story of the doomed Taira clan, wiped out by the Minamoto. The narrative is marked by long descriptions of engagements and the fearless warriors who fought them, as this passage demonstrates:

    He advanced slowly astride a whitish roan, his eyes fixed on Naozane. Naozane and his son did not retreat a step. Instead, they raised their swords to their foreheads and advanced at a steady walk, staying side by side to avoid being separated.

    Samurai also play a prominent role in Japanese mythology. One of the most famous samurai is Yoshitsune, a successful general in the Gempei War who was considered an immaculate warrior. Yoshitsune's brother, the shogun Yoritomo, became jealous of his sibling. Forced to flee Yoritomo's bloody wrath, Yoshitsune was eventually found, and his tragic end has been retold by Kabuki and Noh theaters ever since.

    In addition to commemorating the samurai tradition, these tales offered lessons and guidance for warriors facing their own combat and military service.