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What Life Was Really Like As A Samurai In Feudal Japan

Updated December 17, 2019 5.3k views13 items

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: 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. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.