After the Battle of Hakusukinoe (663 AD) Japan underwent major changes, the most important of which was the Taika Reform. This, and the following edicts were first tries at establishing a regular army in Japan, in the fashion mimicking that of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. One of every four adult men were required to join the Imperial Army, being relieved from tax duties in exchange. Although this is believed to be failure, it was the first historically proven attempt of militarizing Japan. After that, the definition of the word Samurai took its first shape, meaning "public servant". These early samurai were not associated with the military and dealt with every-day duties in the Imperial Court, being "office workers" more than anything else. The records of first actual "samurai warriors" can be found in the Heian Period, when Emperor Kammu used regional clan warriors to crush rebellions, and established the office of the first Shogun. After Kammu disbanded his army of clan warriors, his power started to decrease dramatically. In that time, the most powerful clans concentrated around Kyoto took the chance and seized power in many magistrates, thus surpassing the actual nobility. This was a lengthy process, however it bore fruit in the late Heian Period. Samurai were already a dangerous threat to the aristocracy, and the two groups started merging, as the samurai started educating themselves in court customs, and vice versa. In the end, despite efforts from the noblemen to control the country through arranged marriages and power transfers, the shogun and the samurai became the factual ruling class of Japan, reducing the function of the Emperor to being nothing more but a symbol.
During the Warring States Period the ethos of samurai was established, and that era had the biggest influence on how samurai are depicted in modern fiction. Japan was in a state of conztant war for many decades, and that helped speed things up, encouraging faster development of better weapons and armor. After the country was unified by shogun Tokugawa Ieasu, the samurai class remained the ruling royalty. When not at war samurai were direct representatives of the shogun, responsible for collecting taxes, etc. As time went by in peace, the samurai clans became stagnant and lost a huge amount of their former glory, with no wars to fight, they were forced to once again be nothing but armed office workers. In this way the class resembled the European knights. Finally, in the 19th Century, the Meiji Restoration stripped the samurai class of all their privileges and royal status, making them equal with the common man. They not only lost their status and privileges, but also their land, which cast most of them into poverty.
Their 1000 year reign was over.
Samurai were bound by the Bushido code of conduct, which was an extremely strict and precise set of rules. The number one rule in this code was that a samurai warrior must be loyal to his master, even if it means death. This is how seppuku (aka harakiri) came to be. Bushido ordered samurai warriors to commit suicide upon their master's death, or as a form of apology. In practice, hundreds of samurai killed themselves needlessly for ridiculous reasons. Contrary to the popular belief, Bushido was not created and written down at one point in history. It is rumored to be engraved in stone by some nameless warrior, however such a stone has never been found. Bushido took a couple of centuries to achieve it's final form, and when it finally did, several warlords wrote and published "Bushido manuals", such as the "Hagakure", the most famous book on Bushido. The code itself can be described as a very hard and demanding form of chivalry. The opening statement in "Hagakure" says boldly that "the essence of Bushido lays in dying". It is because of Bushido that we recognize samurai as we do today. The bold, fearless, devoted, disciplined war machines, but also humble, reserved and well mannered. This is the samurai ethos.
After the samurai were no longer the ruling class in Japan, the lower classes gained power and because the commoners were now higher ranking in society than the samurai, they made the warrior's life miserable, until the last flames of Bushido died out. This was because many samurai lords were in fact cruel to the people they ruled over, and these people, now in power, wanted revenge for centuries of abuse and mistreatment. Of course, the wold outside of Japan almost instantly associates the word and idea behind it with Japan - to the outside world samurai are symbols of Japan. However, in Japan itself the samurai and the memories of them are truly hated by the majority of the society. Today it is shameful and socially dangerous to admit having samurai ancestry (much like it is shameful for Germans to mention that their family members were Third Reich soldiers, etc). Since the Meiji Restoration the common Japanese folk did everything in their power to almost completely erase samurai from the national memory. Obviously doing such a thing is not possible to do. The tradition lives on in radical right wing groups, as well as amongst the yakuza. The samurai may have been abolished, but the "historical joke" is that most of the CEOs of Japans biggest corporations are in fact descendants of samurai, like the CEO of Mitsubishi Motors, for example. Again, the samurai as depicted in movies and video games are something modern Japan hates, and the rest of the world loves. The piece of the puzzle that seems to be missing, though, is that de facto samurai were only battling for a rather small fraction of their timeline, and near the end of their formal existence they were mostly officers employed by the government.
- Before the Meiji Restoration it was legal for a samurai to slay any non-samurai on the spot for even the slightest sign of disrespect.
- During WW2 the samurai code of honor and traditions were used to convince (trick) young men to join the Kamikaze force.
- At a certain time it was "in good taste" for an older samurai retainer to have a wife, and young male lover on the side.
- One of modern Japan's greatest poets and writers, Mishima Yukio is often referred to as The Last Samurai. Mishima was a radical nationalist, he had his own private army and tried to breathe the spirit of Bushido back into the hearts of the Japanese. Ultimately he committed ritualistic suicide, harakiri, in front of the chief-in-command of the Japanese army, after admitting defeat and concluding that the spirit of Bushido is in fact dead.
- A samurai's sword was also called his soul, as it was the ultimate symbol of the social status.
Samurai in Video Games
Samurai fiction is a great foundation for video games, mostly due to the samurai's combat mastery. In Japan countless video games featuring samurai were published, the titles localized for Western audiences being just a small fraction of the overall library. Titles like Bushido Blade, Ryu ga Gotoku: Kenzan!, Samurai Showdown, Way of the Samurai are based strictly on the samurai ethos. There also exists a variety of games that refer to samurai tradition indirectly, such as the Final Fantasy franchise. Probably the most interesting (from a cultural point of view) samurai game is Afro Samurai, which does a great job merging the old samurai ethos with modern hip hop culture.