Rare Photographs Reveal the Honorable History of Japan’s Samurai

Photo Credit: Baron Raimund von Stillfried / Canadian Centre for Architecture / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Japan’s samurai were among the most powerful warriors of their time, rising through the ranks of society to become rulers in their own right. Not only were they fierce fighters, scholars and protectors in Feudal Japan, they were also leaders who helped shaped the country into what we know it to be today.

Early samurai were the servants of rulers

The term “samurai” roughly translates to “those who serve.” These warriors began as armed supporters of wealthy landowners between 794-1185 CE, during the Heian Period. They’d left the imperial court in search of their own fortune following the rise of the Fujiwara clan, a family of regents who held control until the restoration of imperial rule in Japan in 1868.

Charles K. Dillaway sitting with four students
Charles K. Dillaway and students. (Photo Credit: Sonrel / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Four kabuki actors dressed as samurai
Kabuki actors dressed as samurai, 1880. (Photo Credit: Baron Raimund von Stillfried / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The samurai soon evolved into powerful landowners in their own right. Toward the end of the Heian Period, power in Feudal Japan began to shift from the emperor and his nobles to the heads of clans with large land holdings and resources.

Portrait of six samurai
Young samurai who aided in the restoration of imperial rule in Japan, 1869. (Photo Credit: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Ten samurai looking at a map
Samurai with the Chosyu clan during the Boshin War, 1860s. (Photo Credit: Felice Beato / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

At the outbreak of the Genpei War, also known as the Jishō-Juei War, in 1180, two great clans, the Taira and Minamoto, fought for control of Japan. The conflict began following the 1179 coup d’état by the Taira, which saw the removal and banishment of the clan’s government rivals.

Portrait of a samurai dressed in ornate armor
Samurai wearing ornate armor, 1881. (Photo Credit: Baron Raimund von Stillfried / Capital Collections / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Samurai wielding his sword
Samurai wielding his sword, 1860. (Photo Credit: Felice Beato / Britannica / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

What ensued was a five-year war that came to an end following the Battle of Dan-no-ura, when the forces led by Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of the most famous samurai in Japanese history, defeated the Taira.

Rise of the samurai

Following the conclusion of the Genpei War, Miniamoto no Yoshitsune was driven into exile by his half-brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo, who established the first shogunate in Japan – a hereditary military dictatorship led by the Sei-i Taishōgun (someone akin to an emperor). It was through this system that the samurai became some of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in Japan.

Two samurai watching a third performing the Seppuku ritual on another
Seppuku, also known as hara-kiri, is a form of ritual death through disembowlment. (Photo Credit: Adolfo Farsari / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Japanese warrior dressed in traditional armor
Japanese warrior in traditional armor, 1925. (Photo Credit: National Museum of Denmark / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The samurai crafted much of their culture around the significance of the sword; it was in the weapon that a man’s honor resided. Given this, the blades were carefully hammered and inlaid with gold and silver. The handgrips, which were made from sharkskin, also featured impressive detail.

The samurai beliefs surrounding swords sparked a tradition of careful and elaborate craftsmanship, which spread to their armor and other weapons in their arsenal, becoming a key component of their image.

Five samurai engaged in battle
Samurai in old-style armor, 1880. (Photo Credit: Ogawa Kazumasa / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Portrait of a samurai wearing armor
Samurai, 1890. (Photo Credit: Not Listed / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Zen Buddhism, introduced to Japan following the Heian Period, also influenced Japanese art, including that of the samurai. The religion, which also spread through China around this time and can trace its origins to India, “teaches that enlightenment is achieved through the profound realization that one is already an enlightened being.” Given this, scripture and deities can only provide minute assistance.

End of feudalism in Japan

The samurai continued to play a pivotal role in Japanese leadership through the various Sei-i Taishōgun who fought for power. By the middle of the 19th century, during the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal system, which upheld the very structure of shogunates, began to crumble. Famine, poverty and the arrival of Westerners triggered unrest in the peasant population.

Man in traditional Japanese dress
Man in traditional Japanese dress, 1860. (Photo Credit: Mathew Brady / National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The friction between feudal leaders and workers intensified when Cdre. Matthew C. Perry of the US Navy arrived in Japan, tasked with encouraging trade with the United States. In July 1858, Japan and the US signed the controversial Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which prompted movements across the country that resisted the shogunate and called for the restoration of the emperor. Despite their high-profile role in the shogunate, a number of samurai also called for this.

Three samurai dressed in traditional armor
Samurai in traditional armor. (Photo Credit: Kusakabe Kimbei / Smithsonian Institution Research Information System / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Portrait of five samurai
Samurai of Mito Domain, 1868. (Photo Credit: 不明 – 写真集「水戸百年」編集委員会『水戸百年』/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In 1871, Japan abolished the feudal system that had been in existence for seven centuries. This had a negative effect of the status of the samurai, who subsequently lost their privilege and their swords. A number of rebellions occurred, with victory awarded to the Imperial Japanese Army each time. Some joined underground organizations that aimed to incite conflict in China, to distract Japan’s military force.

Taking inspiration from the samurai

By 1912, the once-divided Japan was swiftly becoming a military competitor on the world stage, something that became evident following the end of World War I at the Paris Peace Conference, where the country was recognized as one of the “Big Five” global powers.

Portrait of a samurai dressed in historic armor
Samurai in historic armor, 1880. (Photo Credit: Nagasaki University Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Portrait of three samurai
Samurai wearing kusari katabira, kusari zukin and hachi-gane, 19th century. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

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During the Second World War, many Japanese soldiers brought antique samurai swords or traditional katanas into battle as a way of portraying the prowess, skill and intimidation the fighters represented. They also continued the tradition of “banzai” attacks, wherein soldiers relentlessly fight until they die,  reminiscent of the samurai principle of death before defeat, to preserve honor.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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