SAMURAI - A BRIEF HISTORY
By Sparsh Sutariya
Samurai are warriors of legend. These battle hardened fighters are the source of several folklore tales as well as the basis of countless Western media like movies and books. These warriors were highly trained and were often seen leading armies into battle during the medieval period in Japan. The origin of the Samurai traces back to when the Japanese ruling system underwent major reform, leading to more power to the militaries of individual families and clans.
Originally, the Samurai were employed by wealthy families or large clans. The emperors, especially had Samurai warriors at their disposal. Eventually, the Samurai became so wealthy and powerful, they became a separate entity and established the first Samurai based government in around 1100. This became known as a Shogunate or a military government. This helped Japan amass great military power and was vital in allowing the country to defend itself from hostile neighbours.
In 1274, the Mongols sent an invading army of 40,000 men and 900 ships to the northern coast of Japan. With a bit of help from a thunderstorm, the Japanese army of 10,000 men defeated the invading force. The Mongols tried again in 1281, only to be pushed back by a typhoon and a Samurai-led army of 40,000 men. It was in the Sengoku period in the 15th and 16th centuries, where the Samurai turned against each other.
During the ‘warring-states’ period of Japan, the emperor had died. There was conflict between who should be next in line, and so individual clans and families took up arms and entered a feudal period. During this time, the most famous Samurai were born and they fought for their individual allegiances. Some notable Samurai include Naomasa Li, also known as the Red Demon. He fought for the Li clan and later sided with the Tokugawa clan for control of Japan. He was distinctive because of his fierce reputation, superior fighting skill and eye-catching armour.
It was also in this time that William Adams was made into a samurai. William Adams was an Irish sailor who made it to Japan to open up trade routes. He successfully helped the Tokugawa clan repel Portuguese invaders and was awarded the title of Samurai. He was the first ever foreign Samurai in history and was known as Anjin Miura. He died at the age of 70, having had 2 children with his Japanese wife.
At the end of the period, the Tokugawa clan formed a Shogunate (military government) and the overall fighting within Japan was over. There were small invasions by the Japanese Shogunate such as the ones of China and Korea. However, the overall period was more peaceful than before. This marked the start of the decline of Samurai.
No more wars lead to the demand for Samurai decreasing. In 1853, the US forced Japan to open its borders for trade and Japan was exposed to a modern conscripted army. Eventually in 1874, Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai's right to be the only armed force in favour of a more modern, western-style, conscripted army. Samurai became Shizoku, honorary warriors who retained some of their previous rights but lost others. Eventually the right to wear a sheathed katana in public was removed as well as the right to execute commoners who showed them disrespect.
The warrior class of samurai were abolished completely due to modern, western reforms in the 1800s by Emperor Meiji. These warriors were well trained in arts, business and literature, with many ex-samurai becoming teachers, students, businessmen and politicians. The Japanese army was now entirely conscripted and renamed the Japanese Imperial army. After the defeat in WWII, the name and title of Shizoku disappeared under law, marking the end of 900 years of samurai tradition, culture and history.