Samurai Have a Significant Impact on Japanese Term Paper

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¶ … Samurai have a Significant Impact on Japanese Culture and Historical Events in the Long Run?

The samurai were an aristocratic warrior class that emerged in Japan during the 12th-century wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans and which were consolidated during the Tokugawa period (Samurai 41974). The impact of this warrior class on Japanese culture and society has been profound, and in some ways, it has even influenced the outcome of world history in the 20th century. This paper provides a review of the relevant literature to determine who the samurai were, and what influences they had on Japanese culture over the centuries. A summary of the research and salient findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

While the popular impression of the samurai in the West is one of ornately clad warriors, there was much more to these men than mere armor and weaponry. According to Houston (2004), "The core of the Samurai is one of ethics and service. While the Samurai were warriors, they were also poets, artists and philosophers" (60). The influence of this warrior class on Japanese history - and Japanese culture - cannot be overstated. One historian reports that, "They were samurai -- men who 'served' -- and they behaved in accordance with an unwritten code that stressed manly arrogance, fighting prowess, unswerving loyalty to one's overlord, and a truculent pride in family lineage" (Varley 73).Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Term Paper on Samurai Have a Significant Impact on Japanese Assignment

These values were to become firmly inculcated throughout Japanese culture in the centuries to come, but some important events in Japanese history played a role in shaping the lives of the samurai and vice versa. For example, during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), the samurai lost their former direct control of villages and were compelled to relocate to castle towns, but were provided with government stipends (Samurai 41974). At this point in Japanese history, the samurai were encouraged to assume bureaucratic positions, a shift that caused them to forfeit some of their earlier martial arts expertise; samurai from the Choshu and Satsuma domains of West Japan were responsible in large part for overthrowing the shogun in 1867 and when feudalism was abolished after the Meiji restoration, some former samurai also participated in the Satsuma revolt under Takamori Saigo in 1877 (Samurai 41974).

The samurai also influenced the very nature of Japanese society itself prior to national unification in ways that would persist to the present day. In this regard, Thomas reports that, "During the unsettled era before national unification, the arts created liminal arenas, or mu'en, where contacts made across class boundaries hinted at the possibility of a more equal society. Indeed, these medieval horizontal alliances would have had the potential to generate a more democratic tradition of self-government in Japan had their autonomy not been swept away at the end of the sixteenth century with the consolidation of the samurai class" (Thomas 491). In fact, the modern Japanese state can be said to have been the result of the spirit of nationalism that the samurai managed to engender in the Japanese people. For instance, Varley reports that, "The Japanese samurai of the Tokugawa period clearly treasured loyalty above filial piety. This powerful sentiment of loyalty, exemplified in the samurai tradition, was of great importance because it was ultimately transmuted into the spirit of nationalism -- in the form of loyalty to emperor and nation -- when Japan entered the modern age in the Meiji Restoration of 1868" (emphasis added) (185).

The cultural impact of the samurai can also be discerned in what the common Japanese did in response to these events. According to one historian, "After the Tokugawa ascendancy, arts groups became more private, but some still served as relatively egalitarian arenas where status, wealth and even gender mattered less than in the public realm. Commoner pursuits, such as joruri songs, attracted adherents among the elite, while koto playing and other high-class arts gained adepts among the lower orders. Publishing houses sprang up to serve these interests and nurtured networks of communication throughout this otherwise fragmented society" (Thomas 491).

While they were perhaps best known for their martial arts prowess, this was not the only aspect of samurai life that would bear on Japanese culture in the years to come. For instance, "In 1915, the old Japanese culture changed when the samurai warriors were told by the Japanese emperor to lay down their swords. This was controversial because samurai were considered more important than common people. In 1915, the Japanese emperor changed their status and required everyone to be treated in the same way" (Van Der Vaart 6). Even stripped of their formal titles, though, the samurai continued to exert a profound influence on Japanese culture. According to Smith and Beardsley (1962), "The most important innovators during this period were the large landlords, many of whom were ex-samurai and literate men, who actively promoted experimentation in new seeds, new fertilizers, and new weeding methods" (106). These former samurai were also aware that these technological innovations were in their own best economic interests as well; however, they also promoted a positive attitude toward novelty, science, and progress among their tenants and fellow villagers; in addition, the creation of the public school system during this period reinforced the same attitudes (Smith and Beardsley 106). One former samurai, following his release from prison for anti-Imperialist activity at the time of the Restoration, started a ranch where he experimented with innovations in animal husbandry and agriculture and ultimately became founder of the Japan Livestock Association (Smith and Beardsley 107).

The samurai spirit also influenced how the Japanese government prosecuted World War II and may have led the U.S. government to the decision that atomic bombs were the only viable option to invading a homeland populated by bushido-inspired citizens. According to Varley, "Kabuki was a bourgeois theatre that the Tokugawa authorities at first had barely tolerated. Yet by modern times Kabuki had unchallengeably become the main theatre of Japan. Although its low beginning may never have been entirely forgotten, part of its repertory was also viewed as a repository of traditional morality and the feudalistic values of the premodern samurai class. It was for this reason that the military authorities generally favored it during the war" (Varley 288). Other aspects of the samurai code appear to have profoundly influenced Japanese culture during World War II as well. For instance, Lebra and Lebra point out that, despite accounts in the popular press, the Japanese do not have the highest suicide rate in the world, but the rate was high during the early post-World War II period; however, some aspects of the Japanese suicide ritual are directly tied to the samurai tradition: "Most notable was the highly ritualized samurai practice of hara-kiri imposed by the authorities for a violation of law, resorted to as a protest against authority, or undertaken in military defeat to avoid the humiliation of capture" (Lebra and Lebra 340).

The Edo period lasted from 1603 to 1868 and was characterized by peace but isolation from the rest of the world (Rodeghier 8). According to this author, "Fifteen generations of shoguns, or military dictators, from the ruling Tokugawa family ran Japan from Edo Castle in what is now Tokyo. A strict social hierarchy prevailed. Shantytowns sprung up on the lowlands and samurai built their grand residences in the hills. The buildings of old Edo have vanished, a victim of warfare and Westernization, but rituals and customs such as these still form the undercurrent of Japanese society" (emphasis added) (Rodeghier 8). Likewise, as the encyclopedic entry for the country notes, "As statesmen, soldiers, and businessmen, former samurai took the lead in building modern Japan" (emphasis added) (Samurai 41974).


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APA Style

Samurai Have a Significant Impact on Japanese.  (2007, November 21).  Retrieved April 2, 2020, from

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"Samurai Have a Significant Impact on Japanese."  21 November 2007.  Web.  2 April 2020. <>.

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"Samurai Have a Significant Impact on Japanese."  November 21, 2007.  Accessed April 2, 2020.