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!

Until a generation ago, scholars pondering the samurai were all-too-readily seduced by perceptions of an essential similarity between conditions in medieval Japan and those of northwestern Europe. Samurai and daimy¬ (the regional military lords who emerged during Japan’s late medieval age) were equated with knights and barons; and theories on the origins and evolution of the samurai were heavily colored by conceptions of how the knights and their lords had come to be. Such comparisons and reasoning by analogy can be found in the descriptive essays of the first Jesuits in Japan, continued in the writings of nineteenth-century Western visitors to the islands, and were reified by succeeding generations of historians—to the point at which assertions like, “there are only two fully proven cases of feudalism, those of Western Europe and of Japan,” or “almost every feature of Japanese feudal development duplicated what had happened in Northern France,” could pass virtually unchallenged.1