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How was the samurai born?

Akio Kawajiri
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Looking back on Japanese history, we notice the extreme significance of the samurai, the warrior class in old Japan. However, it is actually not well understood when and how the samurai was born. In this article, I will introduce my own recent studies on it.

It has generally been believed that the samurai came into being in the remote countryside. According to this view, in the mid Heian era – around the 10th century – social order deteriorated and robber groups emerged in local regions as the Ritsuryo government – the then central government based on a Chinese-style legal system – declined. Lords of manors and dominant farmers arming themselves for defense against robbery later evolved to the samurai.

In recent years, on the other hand, an opinion that the samurai was born in the capital has been more and more accepted. This argues that the martial arts originating from military officers under the Ritsuryo regime were passed through the household guard to the Minamoto and the Taira clans in the 10th century or later, and those who maintained public order and guarded the emperor in Heian-Kyo – the then capital, now Kyoto – were acknowledged by the throne (the emperor) as professionals, that is, the samurai.

I also consider that the samurai class was created by the throne. My argument on its particular causes goes as follows: The nobility in the Heian era did not always regard an individual who was skilled in the martial arts as a samurai; they attached great importance to whether he also belonged to a specific clan / family line. For example, in the 25th volume of Konjaku Monogatari-Shu, a collection of ancient Buddhist tales, even a person who was known for his bravery was described as “not a warrior succeeding to a family” because he was not from a samurai family. This family line was meant as the posterity of Mitsunaka Minamoto and Sadamori Taira, as said “grandchildren of Mitsunaka and Sadamori” in the 19th volume of the same book.

Mitsunaka Minamoto was from the Seiwa Minamoto clan and a son of Tsunemoto Minamoto, who rendered distinguished service in suppressing a rebellion raised by Masakado Taira in eastern Japan. Sadamori Taira was a cousin of Masakado from the Kammu Taira clan and killed Masakado. From this perspective, it follows that the samurai family lines were families who quelled the rebellion of Masakado Taira.

Studies on how succeeding generations viewed the Masakado rebellion have revealed interesting facts. For instance, when a noble named Kanezane (Kujo) Fujiwara first heard that Yoritomo Minamoto, who later became the first shogun ever in Japanese history, had raised an army in Izu Province (now Shizuoka Prefecture), he wrote “it is like Masakado” in his diary titled Gyokuyo in September 1180. The Masakado rebellion was not simply a transient revolt but a “memory” recalled when a serious affair occurred even 250 years after it. In addition, the memory was recalled almost exclusively during two periods: the wars between the Minamoto and the Taira clans in the 12th century; and the disturbed period when the dynasty was split into south and north in the 14th century. In short, the Masakado rebellion was passed down from generation to generation within the aristocratic society as a “negative” memory of serious strife and carnage.

Considering this way, we can well understand why only the Minamoto and the Taira clans could be the heads of samurai families: the nobility seemed to regard the posterity of those who suppressed the Masakado rebellion as exceptional family lines with “military power to keep evil away.” In the medieval period, there was a manner called “uji-bumi yomi,” in which soldiers loudly shouted their family history to each other prior to a battle. In so doing, many clans boasted that their ancestors had suppressed the Masakado rebellion. This is probably related to such recognition.

If so, when was the samurai established? It was probably around the end of the 10th century, when both the Minamoto and the Taira clans formed families. In particular, this coincided with the timing when children and nephews of Sadamori closely united as the clan of the Taira family. I believe that this was the establishment of the samurai.

However, it should also be noted that the samurai was not accepted by the aristocratic society as “honorable warriors.” The samurai was recognized as a murder group, as seen in a description of Yoshiie (Hachimantaro) Minamoto, who was praised as “the samurai of samurais” in pre-war textbooks, as “killing many innocent people” in a paragraph of January 1108 in Chuyuki, a diary of a noble. In the modern society, there is an image that the samurai was brave and graceful. In history, to the contrary, it is appropriate to see them as a necessary evil for maintenance of public order.

Incidentally, both the Seiwa Minamoto and the Kammu Taira clans became the samurai not because they wanted to do so from the outset. This argument may cause a counterargument that the samurai conquered the country in the medieval period. However, this counterargument is possible only because we know the historical outcome. In fact, clans in the 10th century generally preferred to serve the throne as civilians. However, their wish did not come true, and the clans who encountered the Masakado rebellion chose to become the samurai. It can be said that the samurai came into existence from an extremely special environment.


Akio Kawajiri, Wars in Japanese History 4: Rebellion of Masakado Taira [Senso no Nihon-shi 4: Taira no Masakado no Ran] (Yoshikawakoubunkan, 2007)
Akio Kawajiri, Japanese History 4: The Aristocratic Society Unsettled [Nihon no Rekishi 4: Yureugoku Kizoku Shakai] (Shogakukan, 2008)

Akio Kawajiri
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Kawajiri was born in 1961 in Sawara (now Katori) City, Chiba Prefecture. He graduated from the undergraduate course of Japanese history in School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University, and finished the course of history (Japanese history) in the Master’s Program at Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. He served Natural History Museum and Institute Chiba as a curator and researcher since 1986 before assuming the present position in 2003 as Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Professor Kawajiri received a doctoral degree in literature. He specializes in ancient Japanese history. His publications include Basic studies on History of Ancient Eastern Japan [Kodai Togoku-shi no Kisoteki Kenkyu] (Hanawashobo, 2003) and Grades and Property Ledgers in Ancient Japan [Nihon Kodai no Kaku to Sizai-cho] (Yosikawakoubunkan, 2003), along with the above.