Japanese Military Society & Samurais in the 12th Century

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  • 0:02 Shoguns & Samurai
  • 0:44 Rise of the Shogun
  • 1:59 The Samurai Class & Culture
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the rise of the samurai and the Japanese military culture of the 12th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Shoguns and Samurai

Hiiiiiiiiii-ya. That's my best samurai impression. Pretty good, right? Actually, I don't think the real samurai would have been too impressed. You see, the samurai were a highly trained class of noble warriors who fought for land-owning lords in Japan. While there were skilled warriors in Japan for many centuries, the highly militarized culture and many wars of the 12th century turned the highest class of warriors into a new social class of noble, intellectual masters of martial arts. These were the true samurai. Towards the end of the 12th century Japan was so dependent on military leaders that a new political order emerged, led by a powerful military governor called the shogun.

Rise of the Shogun

The title Sei-i Taishogun, which literally means 'a military commander who fights barbarians,' first appeared during the Heian period of Japanese history (roughly 794-1185). The shogun was appointed by the emperor to eliminate those who resisted the government. When the shogun developed enough power, they became the practical rulers of Japan, and controlled the actions of the emperor. An era when Japan was controlled by a shogun is called a shogunate.

The first true shogunate was the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1333), during which the Minamoto family essentially ruled Japan from the city of Kamakura. While the emperor and his advisers officially ruled Japan, the real power was Minamoto and his armies. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the patriarch of the Minamota clan, was officially awarded the title of shogun in 1192.

Minamoto established a system of awarding his supporters with property, which let them develop their own wealth. Starting in the 12th century, land-owning noble lords surrounded themselves with elite warriors as they fought each other for power in the very militaristic society of the 12th and 13th centuries. Those elite warriors were the samurai.

The Samurai Class and Culture

As integral parts of the shogunate system, samurai were considered part of the nobility, although they did not own land themselves and were financially supported by the lords for whom they fought. Although samurai, or warriors like the samurai, had technically existed in Japan for centuries, it was not until the Kamakura Shogunate that the samurai became a powerful social class. The samurai were so important to the land-owning lords that these warriors developed significant political and social power of their own. They were highly respected and their opinions were consulted in the imperial court.

The first samurai to rise to the rank of imperial advisor was Taira no Kiyomori during the first wars between the Minamoto clan and another powerful family near the end of the Heian period. Samurai played a major role in the eventual victory of the Minamoto in the Genpei War of 1180, and after the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate they became frequent members of the imperial court and were formally recognized as nobles. The emperor and shogun both treated this new nobility with immense respect, and the samurai began changing from hardened warriors to intellectual martial artists who studied poetry and art as devoutly as politics and warfare.

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