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The Significance of the Samurai in Japanese History

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Japan’s first capital city, Nara, was directly modeled after the Tang capital city, Chang’an. Out of the total Japanese population of about 5-6 million residents, Nara constituted for some 20,000 of them. Within that time period (710-784 C.E.), land was nationalized in the name of the emperor and distributed equally to the peasants; who in turn paid the government a land and labor tax. Nara leaders encouraged a blend of Chinese culture and Japanese traditions. They conducted rituals and ceremonies in the imperial court, which derived from Tang Chinese models, but featured orchestral music and stately dances with the accompaniment of Japanese versions of Chinese instruments. Musical instruments such as the zither, flute, and lute. After being battered by a wave of economic ruin, Nara saw many of its residents abandon their fields for new territory. In response, Japan would move the capital from Nara to Heian (or Kyoto).

The samurai (or the warrior class) refers to a supreme ranking military officer of the Japanese imperial court; they originated from the rural lords and their military retainers. A small percentage of the overall population, they represented the highest level of the social system. The samurai came from nobility and abided by an idealized feudal ethic known as Bushido, which translates to “way of the warrior.” As part of the qualifications of becoming one, the person had to be able to supply their own horse, armor, and weapon; this attracted more wealthy people to the role because they could afford it. The samurai were notable for their uncompromising loyalty to leadership and indifference to physical hardship. Samurai committed themselves to seeing missions through; if they failed to achieve their purpose or to do their duty, then they would commit suicide. Suicide was seen as an honorable and respectable display of their courage and faithfulness to Bushido. Women were allowed to become samurai as well, although very few actually engaged in physical combat. Samurai women were usually devoted to protecting and running the family estates.

The first Kamakura Shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, was commissioned by the emperor of Japan in the 12th century. A shogun acted as a military dictator who controlled the country in the name of the emperor. They handled the internal and external defense of the empire, and could choose the person who would succeed them in their duties. The Kamakura Shogunate was only nominally subordinate to the emperors and had real power. By the year 1333 conspiracies and civil wars brought about the demise of the Shogunate; they were officially replaced by a government led by the Kyoto-based Ashikaga family (1228-1568).

During the Ashikaga Shogun period, political power became rather decentralized as internal conflicts in the empire arose over local authorities struggling to claim more land for their territory. In response, several hundred landowning territorial magnates came into existence; they were the called daimyo (which translates to “great name”). Each daimyo had his own samurai to support his interests and welfare, his own monopoly of local power, as well as a channel of income derived from the peasants that worked his land.

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