Japanese samurai and shoguns

The Japanese word samurai means 'one who serves'. The first samurai were warriors fighting for the emperor against the tribes of northern Japan in the late eighth century. From the tenth century the central government in Kyoto lost interest in governing the provinces, and samurai began to seize land and wealth and form private armies. Their leaders demanded absolute loyalty from their followers. Eventually, two clans, the Minamoto and the Heike faced each other in the Gempei Wars (1180-85). The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-99) set up his military government in Kamakura and was made Shogun in 1192. The samurai ethic emphasized austerity, self-control and a constant readiness for death, and the warriors favoured the rigorous Zen Buddhist sect.

The title Shogun, or seii taishōgun meaning 'Great Barbarian-Quelling General', was first used in the eighth century for the emperor's generals fighting in the north. However, from 1185, the title was given to the military dictators who controlled the whole country, including the emperor. However, shoguns in theory still owed their authority to the emperors who reigned as successors to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. The three shogunates were the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333) the Ashikaga or Muromachi Shogunate (1338-1573) and the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868).

During the period of Warring States (1477-1568) even the shoguns had little control over lawless warlords who built castles and attacked their neighbours. However, from 1568 a succession of three military leaders, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country. In his sword-hunt of 1588, Hideyoshi disarmed farmers and forced samurai to move to towns where they were easier to control. Ieyasu became Shogun in 1603.

During the comparatively peaceful Edo period, the samurai headed the strict class system. Since there were no wars to fight, Yamaga Sokō wrote The Way of the Warrior to remind samurai of their traditional role and way of life. However, with the abolition of the shogunate at the Meiji Restoration, the samurai class too lost their status.

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