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Origin and Development of the Samurai

by Alexey R. Basov

Japanese history is full of fierce battles between warriors and various barbaric tribes. Between the 3rd and 4th centuries Japanese society was military-oriented. This is confirmed by artifacts found in graves, including swords, spears, and other weapons, as well as cultic figurines of warriors dressed in armor called haniwa. Even their throats were covered by their helmets and their hands rested on their sword hilt, ready to draw. There is no doubt that the martial spirit had deep roots in Japan.
Like in any other nation, the Japanese military class was formed to fulfill two missions: to maintain domestic order and ward off external threats. The transformation of the samurai into a class had been a long process which lasted almost five centuries, and was established even though Japan hadn’t faced any foreign threats for a long time.


Origin of Samurai

Torii Gates Watercolor Art

But to expand, the Japanese state had to force other tribes out. Active and systematic territorial expansion started when the centralized state took shape around 645 CE, the period of the rise of the samurai class.

While the establishment of the samurai class was promoted by the expansionist government and old military aristocracy or appointed nobles, there were also spontaneous elements. Hotheads and brave adventurers, which preferred dangers of combat to the tediousness of the plough, gathered at the borders where they found an outlet for their energy, war.

Their most aggressive adversaries were the Ainu – tribes of a different race who resembled the aboriginal people of Australia. They had extremely hairy bodies, were stalky and tall, and were generally physically stronger and had better endurance than the shorter and less vigorous Japanese. The Ainu mainly practiced hunting, fishing, and savagely plundering each other and their neighbors, a trait that earned them the moniker “courageous snow leopards.” In the event of defeat they would often commit suicide, and the women were known to kill themselves as well as their children. Furthermore, in a practice that was considered most unbecoming for a samurai, the Ainu would dip their arrows in poison that was so fatal; many samurai died just from being scratched. Needless to say, the threat of being attacked by the Ainu kept the Japanese on alert day and night.

Origin of Samurai

The clashes with the Ainu lasted for hundreds of years and the samurai tasted victories and defeats. The war dragged on until the fall of the Ainu’s last stronghold, Hokkaido Island, in the 15th century. But in the long run, the Ainu were useful because they helped strengthen the samurai spirit and made it indomitable.

To control conquered territories, feudal lords needed permanent, well-armed squadrons. Initially they were both managed and financed by the central government, but as the empire grew, the imperial court gradually relinquished control of the provinces and shifted the responsibility of the squadrons to local feudal families. As their influence expanded, they became less submissive to the emperor and the Fujiwara, their blood relatives. Therefore, from the 10th century onwards, state power was becoming more and more precarious and separatist revolts abounded.

An unlucky omen came in 1052 when a Buddhist sanctuary, the Haseji monastery, was consumed in flames. This event marked the beginning of the Age of Dharma Decline.[1] The Japanese had been anticipating dreadful changes for a century. As early as in 936, a descendant of the Fujiwara clan, Fujiwara Sumitomo, incited a mutiny in Kyushu Island. Then, in 938, ruler of eight provinces and warrior leader Taira Masakado spearheaded a rebellion in the eastern part of the country. The samurai squadrons who were loyal to the government had to fight fiercely in order to quell these revolts. And because many squadrons were still under the command of the rebels, samurai fought against samurai. But the government’s victory was short-lived and did not deter future upheavals, nor did it have a military capable of withstanding the onslaught of the provinces. Instead, it used their samurai to pacify the other squadrons and essentially became a prisoner of the situation.

The court did not realize the significance of the rise of the samurai class. The Fujiwara were confident that they were masters of intrigue, unparalleled in their ability to outmaneuver and manipulate the backward, irrational, and unsophisticated samurai-provincials and pit them against each other to maintain power. They arrogantly believed that the country could not function without their orders because, naturally, they were spiritually and mentally superior. Even though it was in decline, the life of the court was still carefree and the courtiers looked down on those outside their small clique. This included the samurai, whose occupation was supposedly beneath them.

But the way the court viewed the world was far from reality. After all, they themselves were granting more and more power to the samurai. By employing them, the central government was actually bringing them closer to the ruling circles – a proximity that was becoming more and more dangerous. Furthermore, the ruling circles were divided and rival factions in the court were scheming against the Fujiwara, even convincing the emperor to marry a woman who did not belong to the Fujiwara family, making their son a claimant to throne. But they didn’t stop there. The anti-Fujiwara nobility kept searching for support and found it in the mighty military clan of Taira, which had previously been granted significant advantages and vast properties in the western provinces. On their part, the Fujiwara relied upon the equally mighty Minamoto who possessed the provinces in the eastern parts where the war was being waged with barbaric tribes.

This initially trivial power struggle, not uncommon to most counties in that period, became more devious and complex with every passing year until it turned into a pandemonium: a Taira went against a Taira, a Minamoto against a Minamoto, and as Japanese records put it, “brother fought against brother, and father against son.” History has shown that in the game of power, kinship is irrelevant and the obsession with wielding authority always prevails.


[1] According to the Buddhist teaching of the Three Ages, the Teacher’s attainment of Nirvana would be followed by 500 years of the Age of the Right Dharma, the period of triumph of the true faith. After The Age of the Right Dharma, the Second Age would ensue when the true faith would leave human hearts and only be kept formally. In this Age of Semblance, Dharma would last 1000 years. After this the period of triumph of evil, the powers of darkness would arrive – The Third Age – which was called the Age of Dharma Decline. The people believed that the turmoil and collapse of the state was divine punishment for sins and religious deviations.

A Leap in Eternity

Intrepid Taira and Minamoto
Ride madly to meet in a clash...
Go for death! Go for glory!
Go for immortality!
The Fallen Banners still hover
And stars do not fall –
This is an illusion of mortals
unseeing the Wings of Eternity…
No death for the Heroes,
No death for the Dream!
A. B.


This is a chapter from the book Samurai. Ascension

I will not get lost...
The North Star is shining in the darkness...
The road to Valhalla, straight like a sword, is always in front of me!

Copyright 2000-2021 Alexey R. Basov, Tatiana Basova. All rights reserved.

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