from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Satsuma Samurai , in the 1860s, photograph by Felice Beato

Samurai ( Japanese or more rarely ) is the common name in the West for a member of the warrior class in pre-industrial Japan . In Japan itself, the name Bushi is common. Today, samurai is only used for the warrior nobility of that time and not, for example, for Ashigaru (Japanese 足 軽 ; lightly armored foot soldiers ; literally "light-footed"). Samurai who had become adoptable were referred to as Rōnin (dt. "Wave men").


The origin of the word is in Japan of the pre- Heian period . It was probably Saburai and meant "servant" or "companion". It was only in the early modern period, namely in the Azuchi-Momoyama period and the early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, that the word samurai became common instead of saburai . However, the meaning had changed a long time before. The term samurai is still derived from the Japanese verb saberu = "serve", "support", which means "servant" or "protector".



The armies of the Japanese emperor originally consisted of conscripts who were assigned to the corresponding provinces of Japan in the event of war or rebellion . They were modeled on the Chinese armies and consisted of a third of the combat-capable adult male population. Every soldier had to pay for his own weapons and supplies.

With the Taika reforms of 645 and the Taihō code of 702, on the basis of which a land reform was carried out and a uniform tax system was introduced, the development of powerful clans and thus of the sword nobility began. The term samurai, however, only appears later, during the idealization of the warrior type in the Sengoku and Edo periods . Before that, the term buke (warrior) was used for the sword nobility and their relatives. The taxes also included compulsory service and military service. Small farmers who wanted to get rid of their taxes and especially their military service gave their land away to institutions such as monasteries or to nobles and leased it back from their new masters. A symbiotic community of large farmers and followers, master and servant ( Shujū ) emerged. This method was called Kishin (Donation). However, the Kishin method (which had been a criminal offense since the Nara period , which, however, was unsuccessful) collapsed the already difficult to manage and ineffective system of conscription. During the early Heian period, ie in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, Emperor Kammu (737-806) strove for a consolidation and expansion of his empire into the northern Honshū region. He sent his armies out to those in the north under the old traditions of the Jomon living Emishi to subject, and was given the title of shogun , where he is in subduing the Emishi to the strong regional clans left.

A Yamato-Japanese samurai on Hokkaido accepts tribute payments from subject Ainu / Emishi.

In the war against the Emishi from 780 onwards, however, the conscripts turned out to be poor fighters - the strongest military units were the mounted elite officers. As a result, conscription was abolished in 792 and the army switched to a volunteer army. However, it was no longer able to maintain security across the country. The situation deteriorated particularly in the remote provinces, so that the large local farmers there ultimately had to take care of their own defense. They were so successful in this that some families specialized in carrying out military orders for the imperial family over time - the sword nobility ( Buke ) was born. Princes who sought their fortune in the provinces played a special role: The Taira , Minamoto and other clans all have imperial ancestors.

During the Heian period (794–1192), samurai referred primarily to the guards of the imperial palace and the sword-bearers. These forerunners of the classic samurai were equipped by the ruler. It was prescribed for them to continuously improve their mastery of the martial arts.

Since at the beginning the greatest advantage of these military units lay in their experience in mountain fighting and especially in archery , for most of the following feudal period , the era of samurai rule, the term yumitori ( archer ) remained the honorary title of an excellent warrior itself when sword fighting had become more important.


Samurai in full armor, 1860

Originally the samurai were only soldiers in the service of the emperor and the noble tribes. With the rise of the shogunate and the associated establishment of a military aristocracy, however, the samurai rose to become the ruling class.

While the regional daimyo joined forces and gathered manpower and resources, they formed a hierarchy geared towards the Tōryō (leader). This Tōryō was either a distant relative of the emperor or a lower-ranking member of one of the three noble families, the Fujiwara , the Minamoto or the Taira . Although the Tōryō had originally only been sent to the provinces as magistrates for a limited period of four years, they decided to stay, knowing that they would only play minor roles in the government after their return. Her sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the regional daimyo from the middle to the end of the Heian period in crushing rebellions across Japan.

Because of their military and economic strength, the daimyo developed into a new power factor in politics at the imperial court. Their participation in the Hōgen rebellion towards the end of the Heian period helped to consolidate their power. During the Heiji Rebellion in 1160 there was a fight between the rival Minamoto and Taira . Taira no Kiyomori (1118–1181), who emerged victorious from the rebellion, became the first warrior to achieve such a position, imperial adviser and eventually took control of the government. In this way he formed the first samurai-dominated government and relegated the emperor to an exclusively ceremonial function.

Japan in feudal times

Another clash between the Taira and the Minamoto in 1180 led to the Gempei War , which lasted until 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–1199) went to Kyōto in 1190 and was appointed Seii-Tai-Shogun (as the title Shogun is in full). He founded the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333).

The Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan sent emissaries to the Japanese imperial court during the early feudal period to demand the submission of the Japanese emperor. The Japanese Kamakura shogunate, however, refused to obey Kublai Khan's demands and sent the ambassadors back to their master. In 1274 the Mongols under Kublai Khan attacked Japan with a fleet of 900 ships and 23,000 soldiers. The attack failed and many of the ships were badly damaged by a storm that forced the Mongols to withdraw. The storm first became famous as kamikaze in the 20th century . Whether the storm occurred is historically disputed.

When Kublai Khan sent envoys again in 1275, Hōjō Tokimune , Shikken of the Kamakura Shogunate, had them beheaded. Years later, around 1281, the Mongols tried again at the Battle of Kōan with an even larger army of 4,500 ships and 142,000 soldiers to conquer Japan, but this failed due to poor weather conditions and the tough resistance and counterattacks of the Kamakura-Bushi.

Because the war won had been a defensive battle, there was no newly won land to be given to the Bushi as a reward. In addition, Bushi had to bear the costs of the defense service themselves, which made their financial situation even more difficult. Despite the efforts of the Kamakura shogunate, such as debt cancellation policy, the financial situation of the Bushi continued to deteriorate, resulting in the growing discontent among the Bushi. Coming together and falling apart within the Bushi group and with members of the imperial family shook society.

In the course of time, powerful samurai daimyo became aristocrats (buke) who were only nominally subordinate to the aristocracy of the court ( kuge ). While the samurai adopted courtly customs such as calligraphy , poetry, and music , the kuge adopted samurai skills in return . Many of the arts cultivated by the samurai, especially martial arts, were deeply anchored in Japanese culture and are still alive today ( kendo , suijutsu , sumo ).

Despite various intrigues and brief periods under the rule of various emperors, real power lay in the hands of the shoguns and the aristocrats.

During the Sengoku Jidai ("Period of the Warring Provinces", 1467–1568) the Japanese class system was still so flexible that men from lower social classes could make a name for themselves as warriors and become samurai (even if they had a formal Bushidō status hardly had any value with 150 warlords fighting for influence at the same time). This changed when Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), himself the son of a foot soldier, became First Minister (Kampaku) after a furious rise . In 1586 he passed a law that stipulated membership of the samurai class as permanent and hereditary and prohibited non-samurai from carrying weapons.

Kabuki actors disguised as samurai (around 1880)

During the Tokugawa Shogunate or the Edo period (1603-1867) samurai were increasingly courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators instead of fighters and Daishō . It was probably during this time that a European, William Adams , was appointed samurai for the first time .

The samurai sword pair ( katana and wakizashi ) became more of a symbolic emblem of power than a weapon of everyday use. Samurai continued to have the right to strike down any citizen who did not show them due respect; However, it is not known to what extent this right was used. When the government finally forced the daimyo to reduce the size of their armies, unemployed ronins became a major social problem.

The code of conduct of the sword nobility, the bushidō , was written into its final form during the Tokugawa period. It was during this period that the most famous book of kenjutsu , The Book of Five Rings , was written by Miyamoto Musashi in 1643 .

In 1703 the events of the 47 abandoned samurai (rōnin) who avenged the forced suicide of their former master led to a conflict in society between warrior honor and the legal system created by the Tokugawa shogunate. In the end, 46 the ronin were ordered to commit seppuku . These events serve as a charge in the feature film 47 Ronin .

Personal income and living situation

The samurai were granted a fixed annual amount of rice ( koku ) as a kind of salary by their liege lord ( daimyō ) . The koku was dependent on status, family affiliation and personal merit. A “poorer” daimyo had at least 10,000 koku rice per year, a wealthy one over 100,000. Measured in terms of purchasing power development, 1 koku corresponds to around 100 euros as things stand today.

In a small princely fief ( han ) like Yamagata , which produced 70,000 koku around 1865, a samurai in a high military or official position might receive a few thousand koku. But a samurai with 1200 koku was also considered wealthy. A 400-koku family was wealthy and might have a respectable property with an ornamental garden and several servants. Even a samurai with 150 koku lived in secure financial circumstances.

A 50-koku samurai (such as a ranked soldier or a low-ranking official in the castle administration), on the other hand, led a precarious existence, although - like every samurai - he was exempt from taxes and the employer might provide accommodation. Life in a modest "samurai row house settlement" was typical: small, fenced-in houses with farm buildings, plus a vegetable garden, which he may have tended with the help of what was probably his only servant. If the samurai also had a wife and two or three children to look after, the risk of poverty and indebtedness was great. In the event of a protracted illness, for example, Koku shares were threatened with pledging, so that the net income might drop to 30 Koku. In this case, it became impossible to finance adequate clothing and food at the same time, and family members were now forced to work from home or to take up gainful employment. In this situation, at least materially, life hardly differed from that of a small farmer.

Every samurai was threatened with the fate of being relegated to a manless and penniless Rōnin . If he fell out of favor or had his successor no longer of any use for him after the death of his master, the samurai family sometimes wandered for years in search of a new employer.


Almost all samurai were followers of a syncretism from Shinto and Buddhism .

End during the Meiji Restoration

Samurai in historical armor, ca.1880

In 1867 during the Meiji Restoration , samurai loyal to the emperor from the fiefs of Chōshū and Satsuma defeated the armed forces of Bakufu. Emperor Meiji (actually Mutsuhito , 1852-1912) lifted the samurai status in favor of a more modern, western-oriented army and only kept the katana for officers. The samurai booth was renamed Shizoku (士族). In 1876 the samurai were banned from wearing their traditional costume with two swords in public, and their privileges were withdrawn. The samurai led several wars against the emperor, but viewed them as war for the emperor. The last uprising of dissatisfied samurai, the Satsuma Rebellion , was put down in losing battles by the new Japanese conscript army in 1876/77 .

Even during the Second World War , some of the Bushidō's thoughts influenced the actions of Japanese soldiers. Many samurai bloodlines , such as the Honda House , are still influential in Japanese economics and politics today.


Wakizashi sword of the Edo period , 19th century
Helmet and breastplate

The outer sign of the lofty social position was the pair of swords ( Daishō ) , which were reserved exclusively for samurai to wear. The Daishō formed the main armament of the samurai. It consisted of the long katana , which emerged from the tachi in the 15th century and was traditionally used by the samurai from the end of the 14th century (early Muromachi period), and the short wakizashi or kōtetsu . In contrast to the mostly straight swords of the European knights , the Japanese sword was slightly curved and shaped more like a saber and designed for cutting. The front and back were hardened differently. A hit caused deep cuts or severed limbs. As with the European nobility of the Middle Ages, importance was attached to the ornament of the sword and the sword scabbard .

Another weapon of the samurai was the yumi ( bow ), in particular the dai-kyū ( longbow ), which was feared because of its enormous size, its enormous range and its great penetrating power. A trained marksman could safely hit a moving object the size of a dog from a distance of about 150 meters, but ranges of about 300 meters were also possible. Its asymmetrical shape also made it possible to use it from horseback, which made it feared as a rider's weapon. For their self-defense they also had the tanto , a combat knife .

Two lances were also part of a samurai's equipment: the blade of the Naginata sword lance was long and slightly curved, the yari usually had a dagger-like and triangular tip and was sharpened on both sides. The yari could also have hooks on one or both sides. In the cross shape one speaks of the Jumonji -Yari.

The bow was the main weapon until the Ashikaga period in the 14th century. Until the middle of the 16th century, the longbow was superior to firearms in terms of use, accuracy and range. Swords were only used after all arrows had been fired. The fight became a duel after the warrior stepped out of the formation and called the names of his ancestors, who also enjoyed fame as samurai, in order to then face an equal opponent. Battles in closed formations with massive use of the lance ( yari-ashigaru ) did not occur until the Sengoku Jidai , the Age of Warring States , at the end of the 15th to the end of the 16th centuries.


  • Japan's warriors ( Memoirs of a Secret Empire ). 3 parts. USA / Japan 2004. German premiere: ZDFinfo , September 25, 2014.


  • Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, Roger Diederen (Ed.): Samurai. Splendor of Japanese chivalry. (= Companion volume to the exhibition of the same name). Hirmer, Munich 2019, ISBN 978-3-7774-3258-8 .
  • Hubbard Ben: The Great Samurai Book. The golden age of the Japanese elite warriors. Wieland, Bad Aibling 2019, ISBN 978-3-938711-93-4 .
  • Oleg Benesch: Inventing the Way of the Samurai. Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-870662-5 (English).
  • Roland Habersetzer : The Warriors of Ancient Japan - Famous Samurai, Rōnin and Ninja. 2nd Edition. Palisander Verlag, Chemnitz 2011, ISBN 978-3-938305-07-2 .
  • Ivan Morris: Samurai or the Dignity of Failure. Tragic heroes in the history of Japan. Insel Verlag, Leipzig / Frankfurt am Main 1999, ISBN 3-458-34215-X .
  • Inazo Nitobe : Bushido. The soul of Japan. Angkor Verlag, Frankfurt 2003, ISBN 3-936018-16-2 .
  • Thomas Röbke, Haluka Maier-Borst, Hauke ​​Friedrichs, Christine Dohler: PM History . Issue 02/2016: The Japan of the Samuari. Gruner + Jahr, Hamburg 2016, ISSN  2510-0661 , pp. 26–68.
  • Walter Saller: The spirit of the samurai. In: Michael Schaper (ed.): The imperial Japan. (= GEO epoch. No. 21). Gruner + Jahr, Hamburg 2006, ISBN 3-570-19556-2 , pp. 52-65.
  • Wolfgang Schwentker : The Samurai. (= CH Beck Wissen, No. 2188). Beck, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-406-47988-X .
  • Taira Shigesuke: Budô Shoshinshû. Angkor Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 978-3-936018-50-9 .
  • Stephen Turnbull: History of the Samurai. Japan's warrior caste in historical retrospect. Motorbuch, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 978-3-613-30540-3 .
  • Yamamoto Tsunetomo : Hagakure. The way of the samurai. Angkor Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2012, ISBN 978-3-936018-27-1 .
  • Mishima Yukio : To an ethic of action. Introduction to Hagakure, the samurai teaching of the 18th century. Hanser, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-446-14516-8 .
  • Susanne Völker (Ed.): Samurai. (= Companion volume to the exhibition of the same name in the Palatinate Historical Museum). Thorbecke, Ostfildern 2008, ISBN 978-3-7995-0805-6 .

Web links

Commons : Samurai  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Samurai  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  2. Archive link ( Memento of the original from April 6, 2003 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  3. World of the Samurai
  4. Japan's warriors. In: Retrieved November 7, 2019 .
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on September 21, 2005 .