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Warriors, nobles, scholars and ultimately outcasts, the samurai, or as the Japanese are more apt to call them, bushi, were crucial figures in Japanese history for nearly a thousand years. For a third of that time, they ruled much of the country, but about 150 years ago, they all but disappeared. To understand why, we must know where they came from.

The first mentions of the word samurai appear in the 8th century, at a time when Japanese culture was in its early stages of development. During that time, samurai were not warriors; rather, they were bureaucrats in the imperial court – and in the lower half of the bureaucracy at that.

The samurai as warriors developed as Japan shifted away from the imperial structure that had dominated the country from its founding in the 7th century until the end of the 12th century, when the one of three clans in perpetual conflict, the Taira, emerged victorious in 1160 and established the first samurai goverment, and the Emperor became little more than a figurehead. Just a few decades later, power shifted to the rival Minamoto clan, whose leader, Minamoto no Yoritomo, moved the capital from its traditional home in Kyoto to coastal Kamakura.

Victorious through arms, the Kamakura Shogunate was ruled by warriors. Known as the Bakufu, or “tent government,” for the military’s tendency to live in tents, the militaristic government allowed the samurai to gain increasing power, and the old imperial aristocracy became secondary to the samurai. This period of time was also associated with the spread of Zen Buddhism, which the samurai studied for its austerity and indifference to death.

In 1272, the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan, having already conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty, attacked Japan on the southern island of Kyushu – and then again in 1281. Both times, the much larger invading mainland armadas were defeated by the outnumbered samurai. Both times they were aided by fierce and fortuitous storms, which only added to their legend – and gave Japan the phrase “the wind of the gods”: kami-no-kaze.

From those 13th century wars, the next several hundred years were marked by military rule, the last of which was the Tokugawa Shogunate, also known as the Edo Period for its establishment at the city of Edo (modern Tokyo). From the early 17th century on, battles for dominance during the Tokugawa Shogunate were greatly reduced, and the samurai put down their weapons and became a ruling class again.

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Those weapons remained an important part of their social stature. When samurai status was ruled in 1586 to be hereditary rather than earned, samurai gained even greater power: they were allowed to carry their curved swords (katana) and even allowed to kill, at their whim, anyone who they felt had disrespected them. One effect of this new hereditary status was to freeze social mobility and lock Japan into a feudal, medieval structure that became increasingly rigid through the 16th to 18th centuries.

Another effect was that the samurai occasionally became a social problem, as underemployed men with weapons tend to be. Whenever one of their masters, usually a daimyo, was required by the government to reduce his number of samurai, these unemployed warriors – thus known as ronin, literally “wave men,” for their wandering, unproductive ways – were set loose on a defenseless populace. The ronin, though subsequently romanticized in fiction and film, were loose cannons and caused considerable problems for the peasantry and shogunate.

Still, over the centuries, the samurai, or bushi, had developed complex and rigorous discipline under the samurai code, known as bushido, or “the way of the warrior.” They were also among the best educated of Japanese. Based in part on Zen and in part on Confucianism, bushido, with its emphasis on honor even over death, as well as loyalty to a master, has remained an essential component of the Japanese character.

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The samurai were warriors until the end, but when that end came, they disappeared relatively quickly: in 1873, an Edict from the new Emperor Meiji shifted the country to a Western-style, conscripted military, ending the role of hereditary samurai. After some years of armed resistance, the former samurai continued to play a role in Japanese culture and government, including in the modern military, as well as in fields such as journalism, education and business.

But the rule of the samurai as swashbuckling soldier was officially over, and today that image lives on only as the stuff of adventure movies, business books and history lessons.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON