Regardless of race, the way of the samurai lives on in humans everywhere. The codes of honor of this Japanese warrior social class have been immortalized in various forms of media, capturing the imaginations throughout the generations.
The samurai have been historically considered as Japan’s equivalent of the knight—warriors loyal to their lord in an ever-shifting feudal society. For over a millennium, the samurai contributed significantly to molding and forming what would become the foundations of Japanese life and culture.
Their “way of the warrior”, or bushido, placed great emphasis on the tenets of duty, service, and honor. These values continue to be recognized as an integral part of Japan’s way of life up to the present, and have seeped into the cultural consciousness of popular culture around the world as well.
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History of the Samurai
The term samurai (stemming from the Japanese saburau, “to serve”) was used previously to refer to court administrators, and later, imperial guards in the early 8th century.
After numerous landlords were barred from power by the ruling Fujiwara clan, these same landlords began looking for support. Their armed supporters eventually took on the name. As time passed, landlords began to greatly reward military service, and the samurai gradually gained a certain aristocratic prestige.
The Golden Years
The samurai social class grew, and the power of the Japanese Emperor waned. The provincial landlords slowly gained control.
By the 12th century, conflict arose in the form of a war between two dominant clans, the Taira and Minamoto, fighting over succession after the death of the emperor. Minamoto Yoshitsune, arguably the most famous samurai in history, led the Taira to victory, ushering in the first government led by samurai, which would influence Japanese history in the coming centuries.
The Taira victory did not last long, however. In 1180, the Minamoto defeated the Taira in the Gempei war, establishing the shogun as we know it today—a sitting military dictator. This war also established much of the legend of the samurai, from their selflessness, heroism, codes of conduct, ability and battle, as well as the cultured nature of the warrior, a calm complement to their martial prowess. Throughout the centuries to come, the samurai would become an institution as exemplars of Zen Buddhism and the Japanese way of life.
Conflict remained, and in the 14th century, the Nanbokucho Wars between the emperor and the shogunate, introduced the concept of seppuku, or ritual suicide. Originated by the legendary samurai Kusunoki Masashige, this practice added seppuku to bushido—dishonor came from being slain by the enemy, but sepukku gave samurai honor in death.
During the Warring States prior from the 15th to 17th centuries, revolutions in weaponry emerged. The samurai became adept with the famous katana, and later, firearms would change combat forever.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi gained control over Japan in 1591, surpassing every other shogun before him. However, Hideyoshi over reached by attempting to conquer China and Korea. Subsequently, Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Hideyoshi’s army and established a government that would endure until the middle of the 19th century.
The End of the Samurai Era
The era of the samurai ended when Japan opened its doors to the “Western” world in the 1800s. Several of the ceremonial rights of the samurai were removed as the Japanese modernized their military.
Despite the loss of their status, many prominent samurai pushed for the Meiji Restoration, which would remove the feudal system that gave them their power in the first place. However, the way of the samurai would live on in bushido, a code that still persists in contemporary Japanese society.
The Samurai of Today
Despite their place in the past, samurai continue to be prevalent today. Their honorable way of life, as well as their prowess in combat, have been the subject of stories, films, and television shows, even inspiring the Jedi.
Their example inspires people to be more than they can be in today’s cynical world, and these 30 samples digital art captures the essence of the samurai for the modern age.