Education About Asia: Online Archives

Once and Future Warriors: The Samurai in Japanese History

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By Karl Friday

The samurai exercise a powerful hold on popular imaginations, both in and out of Japan, rivaling cherry blossoms, geisha, and Sony as Japanese cultural icons. Emerging during the early part of the Heian period (794–1185), these warriors— known as bushi, tsuwamono, musha, mononofu, and other names at various times in their history—dominated the political and economic landscape by the early 1200s, and ruled outright from the late fourteenth to the late nineteenth century. Their story is, therefore, central to the history of premodern and early modern Japan, and has become the subject of dozens of popular and scholarly books. It also inspires a veritable Mt. Fuji of misperceptions and misinformation— a karate instructor in Japan once told me of a New Zealand man who came to live and train with him, and who was absolutely convinced that samurai were still living on some sort of reservation on the back side of a nearby mountain!