Rise of the Samurai Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 792, the emperor Kammu abolished armies conscripted from peasants and created a system whereby the sons of noble families were recruited to serve as aristocrat-warriors. Members of this group eventually became known as samurai.

Summary of Event

When Nara became the capital of Japan in 710, a new system of government was fabricated along with the city. An emperor, reigning with absolute authority, ruled through a centralized bureaucracy over three distinct classes: the emperor’s immediate family, free subjects (officials and state tenants), and slaves. This new social system, designed to improve the efficiency of land management and increase state revenue, also inculcated Buddhism Buddhism;Japan into the new government as a means of keeping the subjects peaceful and subservient. Each province was required to build monasteries and temples, eventually resulting in forty-eight Buddhist temples in Nara alone. As these temples amassed great wealth, monks endowed with high political positions increasingly began to meddle in secular affairs and drain resources from the state. Civil and religious establishments became so hopelessly entwined and corruption so prevalent that a strong reaction against Buddhistic political influence arose. [kw]Rise of the Samurai (792) [kw]Samurai, Rise of the (792) Samurai Japan;792: Rise of the Samurai[0780] Government and politics;792: Rise of the Samurai[0780] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;792: Rise of the Samurai[0780] Kammu

When Kammu Kammu , who had no Buddhist leanings, became emperor in 781, he resolved to solve the problem in a typically Japanese roundabout manner by deserting Nara for a new capital city from which the Nara temples would be physically excluded. By this means, Kammu could sever political connections to temples, escape the control of meddlesome priests, and re-establish a secular government far removed from possible competitors for the throne. Although he abandoned Nara in 784, he was unable to establish a new capital until 794, when Heian (present-day Kyoto) became the seat of government. Buddhist monasteries were prohibited from transferring their headquarters, and priests were forbidden to interfere in affairs of state; Buddhism was allowed to serve only as a religion.

During the Nara period Nara period (710-794), because less than 10 percent of the population were slaves, the largest and most important group of freemen were the farmers. Each male child was granted a state-owned rice field to cultivate, but the government levied a 3 percent tax on the produce as well as a head tax on adult males. Although the rice tax Taxation;Japan Japan;taxation was low, the head tax, payable in rice or other commodities, imposed a heavy burden. A further burden was imposed because the farmers bore the full responsibility for transporting their tax from the provinces to the capital, an enormous encumbrance on those living far away. In addition, all adult males were obliged to provide labor of up to sixty days yearly for public works and to serve in the military. Up to one-third of mature males in a province could be conscripted into service during their years of eligibility (ages twenty through fifty-nine). Each was obligated to serve one year at the capital and three years on the frontier. While on active duty, a soldier was required to provide his own equipment and provisions, this burden falling on his local province. One’s service could be commuted by produce, or one could pay for a substitute. The resulting armies, reluctantly conscripted from the lower classes and lacking discipline and fighting spirit, degenerated into little more than labor gangs. Conscription, Japan

In 792, Kammu abolished conscription so that he could replace the cumbersome and ill-trained armies with a more efficient system for expanding the frontier wars in the provinces of the still growing nation. Local militia henceforth were to be recruited from among the sons of local government officers and the provincial gentry. Volunteers were to be paid or have their family taxes remitted in lieu of service. The emphasis changed from an obligation of peasants to a service loyally contributed to the nation and the emperor by the noble class.

These aristocratic warriors (bushi), who came to prominence in the subsequent Heian period (794-1185), eventually came to be known as samurai, from the Japanese verb “to serve.” They followed bushidō Bushidō , a moral code of chivalry that stressed integrity, justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, unswerving loyalty to one’s feudal lord, and stoicism in suffering. Samurai warriors scorned death (a constant threat during the feudal period) and held their personal honor in such high esteem that they would atone for errors by willingly committing ritual suicide by disembowelment (seppuku) rather than face possible disgrace. The sakura (cherry blossom), with its short-lived beauty, came to epitomize the samurai’s glorious but brief life.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, powerful landowners came to control most of the country’s wealth. These aristocrats led a life of luxury on proceeds from their vast estates. Lower-ranking aristocrats unable to acquire land near the capital would assume posts in the provinces, where they could establish their own power bases. To protect and increase their land holdings, they allowed the local peasants to join the ranks of the samurai and trained them to become superb swordsmen. The system was effective and was to have far-reaching influence on the political development of provinces. Although the court had wealth and power in the environs of the capital, centralized control over the country weakened, and military aristocracies, controlled by influential families, ruled in the provinces. With huge armies of highly trained samurai warriors, the slightest incident would provoke armed conflict as these powerful earls vied with each other to amass power and property. Samurai did not own land but were totally dependent on their daimyō (feudal barons), who provided their support. In return, the samurai placed loyalty to their daimyō above all other personal or family commitments. The great age of samurai warfare raged in Japan for some four hundred years, finally ceasing in 1603 when Ieyasu Tokugawa unified the country and became the first national shogun. Feudalism;Japan Japan;feudalism


Originally used to denote the aristocratic warriors (bushi), the samurai caste was to dominate the Japanese government through the almost constant warfare of the Middle Ages. It was under samurai leadership that many of the distinctive features of Japanese culture evolved; these characteristics have remained characteristic traits of Japanese society, particularly for political and industrial leaders, down to the present.

The samurai code had three main sources: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintō. The ethical elements, emphasizing political loyalty, obligation, and always adhering to the proper rules of etiquette, were thoroughly Confucian. Confucianism;Japan Samurai were trained to suffer affliction with patience and self-control, and to never expose their emotions. They were expected to repudiate money and commercial transactions and to abhor underhanded dealings. Samurai labored for justice and strove to always show compassion and benevolence toward the oppressed. They were presumed to always speak the truth, to sustain an unblemished honor, and to avoid disgrace.

Buddhism provided the warrior with the recognition that life is impermanent and that one must always be ready to submit stoically to the inevitability of death. Zen Buddhism Zen Buddhism;samurai and , with its emphasis on effective mind and body control through a life of disciplined simplicity and earnest labor, became an integral aspect of a samurai’s training. He learned to make decisions quickly and to prefer action above argument.

From the Shintō Shintō[Shinto];samurai and tradition, samurai came to champion loyalty to their daimyō and to the emperor, the spiritual guardian of the nation. Political loyalty was considered more important than family loyalty and national honor a higher purpose than personal honor.

During the peaceful Tokugawa period (1603-1867), the samurai class, with no more battles to fight, became stewards and chamberlains of the baron’s estates. The Tokugawa shogunate solidified the feudal system and created a highly stratified bureaucratic society; every detail of the class system was scrupulously regulated. Admittance to the bureaucracy was limited to the former warriors, who were placed on stipends and whose privileged caste position was protected by law. Because samurai were the highest of four classes (samurai, farmers, craftspeople, and merchants, in descending order), they engendered great respect. Consequently, unique forms of art, literature, and drama congenial to the samurai emerged. Although samurai cultural dominance ended about 1700, members of the class did not lose their privileged status until 1871, when feudalism was officially abolished.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, Charles. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1989. Although this book concentrates on Japanese life during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1867), it includes an entire chapter devoted to the samurai class.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido: The Soul of Japan. 1904. Reprint. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1994. Bushidō embodies the samurai’s governing code of honor throughout Japan’s long feudal age, which set the criteria of manners, ideals, and moral codes of obligation that have come to characterize Japanese culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993. A compact but comprehensive survey of Japanese history from its origins through the late twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. A concise survey of two thousand years of Japanese history with an emphasis on the distinctive elements of Japanese culture.

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