The samurai, who were originally simple warriors from the provinces, came to power in the 12th century and would then become a powerful military caste that would govern Japan for nearly seven centuries. Loyally serving their daimyo (provincial governor) and fully supporting the authority of the shogun.
The samurai would perhaps even still be in power if the Meiji Restoration had not taken place in 1868 and abolished the feudal system then in place at the same time. However, many samurai at this time reconverted into modern politicians and retained their code of honor, Bushido.
The first samurai
During the Heian period (794-1185), samurai were primarily the personal armed forces of wealthy aristocrats who themselves owned large amounts of land. Most of these nobles then fled the imperial court to try to make their own fortune. Literally, samurai means “those who serve”.
However, political power gradually dispersed from the court to the different samurai clans who then controlled the country under four distinct factions. Two of them, the Taira and the Minamoto, fought in the war called the Genpei War (1180-1185) for control of the Japanese state.
The samurai takeover in Kamakura
Minamoto no Yoritomo, then shogun of Japan, established the seat of the country's decision-making government in Kamakura, where he resided, and in the process transferred all political power to the samurai. Since the samurai were also his main force of military power and it was they who allowed him to rule the country, he had to select them carefully and therefore no person could aspire to become a samurai without his approval. .
Buddhism , which was introduced a few centuries earlier by China, also intrigued more and more samurai with its simple and austere religious rituals . Many of them appreciated this form of inner salvation that Buddhism offered and which complemented their personal code of honor, Bushido. The samurai sword also took on crucial importance during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) where its manufacturing process and its details became a true art form in itself.
The weakening of Kamakura
The Kamakura shogunate will be heavily damaged following the two Mongol attacks led by China in the 13th century and Ashikaga Takauji will take advantage of this to organize a rebellion within the country. He won this rebellion and came to power in 1336. However, the Ashikaga shogunate never succeeded in establishing peace in the country as the Kamakura shogunate did and Japan then experienced two centuries of incessant wars. He actually lost his central authority over the country after the Onin War (1467-1477) and many rival clans fought each other in small turf wars.
Despite the numerous political turmoil and warlike quarrels between rival clans, this period known as the Muromachi period (1336-1573) will give rise to the country's many forms of cultural arts such as the tea ceremony , ikebana , Zen gardens, prints and even the theater.
The Tokugawa shogunate
The war constantly waged on Japanese territory, called Sengoku-Jidai, finally ended in 1615 thanks to the coming to power of the Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period 1603-1868). This date will then mark the beginning of a period of 250 years of peace for the country and for the first time the Japanese ruled the country using civilian and non-military means. The samurai also diversified their personal development by adding, in addition to their training in swordsmanship, all types of more intellectual and spiritual practices such as haikus or learning the politeness so advocated in Japanese culture. We are then witnessing the creation of true warrior poets.
The samurai code of conduct, Bushido, was also adopted by the entire country and at the same time eclipsed the hitherto very present Buddhist religion. He then highlighted noble values such as honor, courage, but also respect for elders. Here are the seven virtues of Bushido:
Even though the samurai remained great fighters, a majority of them were forced to work in offices or find more traditional employment due to the pacifism present throughout the country. However, they did not really integrate with the inhabitants and for good reason, in 1588 they were the only ones authorized to wear a blade as a mark of privilege, which clearly differentiated them from the rest of the population. Unfortunately, the fortunes of many samurai declined during the Tokugawa period as the allowances paid from landowners gradually diminished.
The Meiji Restoration and the end of feudalism in Japan
Although no war took place in the country for a long time, this did not prevent its policy and direction from becoming fragile from within, notably because of famines which struck the country. The arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy in 1853 and the opening of Japan to international trade in 1858 with France, Great Britain, Russia, Holland and the United States finally brought about the supremacy of the Tokugawa shogunate. This decision was not in fact approved by everyone, particularly the samurai who demanded the restoration of the emperor's power.
The Tokugawa shogunate was finally overthrown by the unification of the two powerful clans Choshu and Satsuma who then announced an “imperial restoration” in honor of Emperor Meiji in 1868. Feudalism was abolished at the same time in 1871 as well as the wearing of the saber for samurai, then reserved for the country's national army. The samurai then lost many privileges such as their allowances, which led to multiple rebellions on their part. Alas, none will be powerful enough to overthrow the system then put in place. We will then witness numerous seppuku on the part of the samurai but also the creation of ultra-nationalist groups and secret societies such as the Black Dragon Society.
What is rather ironic about this Meiji Restoration is that it was former samurai who abolished the old samurai of the feudal period to become leaders of modern Japanese society that it would then tend to become.
Bushido continued to evolve in Japan as the dominant moral code in the same way that Shintoism continued to be the country's cultural religion. Japan gradually strengthened its military power but also its international relations such as its military alliance with Great Britain. At the end of the First World War, Japan was considered one of the five greatest world powers alongside France, Italy, the United States and Great Britain.