Talk the Talk

The word Shogun actually means Barbarian Subduing General. This is in reference to the first men who held the office, who were charged with the task of subduing the Ainu.

Walk the Walk

At this time, warriors usually fought on horseback and the bow was their weapon of choice.

The Japanese samurai’s sword was mainly used for close-in fighting and for collecting the heads of defeated enemies, which were then delivered to the warlord to show the number of important kills a samurai warrior had achieved in a particular battle.

Samurai History Fact

During the eleventh century, Japanese literature saw the introduction of the code of ethics that laid out the rules that a warrior should live by which was known as Bushido (Way of the Warrior).

This code would replace an earlier code which was known as Kyusen no Michi (Way of the Bow and Arrow).

Samurai Warriors of the Heian Period (794 – 1185)

The Heian Period is an important time in the history of the martial arts as it represents the establishment of a new social class in Japan, a class of samurai warriors.

They were formed initially as a result of fighting the Northern tribes, a distinct race known as the Ainu who are believed to be descended from some of the earliest inhabitants of the country and can still be found in the North of Japan to this day.

The Birth of the Japanese Samurai

The land between the capital city of Kyoto and the North traditionally acted as a buffer zone that served to insulate the Emperor from the fighting. As a result, the boarders produced the best soldiers the country had to offer and the landowners who controlled these warriors were given the task of subduing the Ainu, considered by the Japanese to be barbarians.

With the eventual subduing of the Ainu, the warrior families of the borders who had fought them for generations were rewarded with tax exempt territories. The heads of the clans were believed to be able to trace their lineage back to the gods and their men were of high born status. They became known as samurai warriors and they believed in loyalty to their warlord above all else.

From the early ninth century, the various powerful families in Japan started to compete against each other, with the strongest increasing their holdings through the spoils of war. From this, three powerful rivals emerged, the Fujiwara, the Taira and the Minamoto clans.

The Fujiwara, the Taira and the Minamoto

The first of these clans to dominate was the Fujiwara, who had close ties with the Emperor. By around 850, the Fujiwara clan controlled the Emperor and his government almost completely as they held most administrative and military posts of any importance. The head of the family would be a Regent to child Emperors and would be the first consoler to an adult Emperor.

For centuries, when an Emperor of Japan married, it would be to a Fujiwara bride putting the clan in a perfect position to rule the country with the Emperor becoming no more than a puppet, controlled by the head of the Fujiwara family. However over the course of the Heian Period, the insulated government became weaker and weaker and its hold on power outside of the capital diminished; as a result so too did the overall power of the Fujiwara Clan.

The Taira and the Minamoto clans were growing in strength between the tenth and twelfth centuries by defeating weaker, neighbouring clans and taking their lands and wealth. The two clans would have two major conflicts that would ultimately bring about the end of the Heian Period.

In 1160, Yoshitomo Minamoto was defeated by Kiyomori Taira. Unusually for those times, three of his sons were allowed to live, Yoshitsune, Noriyori and Yoshitomo’s heir Yoritomo. However this proved to be a mistake as both Yoritomo and Yoshitsune decided to learn martial arts from a young age in a bid to avenge their father’s death.

Both grew up to be great warriors and samurai legends that, in a series of decisive battles known as the Gempei Wars, defeated the Taira clan leaving Yoritomo Minamoto as ipso-facto ruler of Japan. Yoritomo then cemented his position with a number of political changes and brought an end to the age in which the samurai legend was first born, the Heian Period.

Further Reading

Brief History of the Samurai. [Internet]. 2012. Michigan University. Available from: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~malokofs/SCA/Persona/History/samurai.html [Accessed 13 November, 2012].

Cook, H. 1993. Samurai – The Story of a Warrior Tradition. London. Blandford Press.

Heian Japan: An Introductory Essay. [Internet]. 2010. Colorado University. Available from http://www.colorado.edu/cas/tea/curriculum/imaging-japanese-history/heian/essay.html [Accessed 13 November, 2012].

Heian period c. 800 -1200. [Internet]. 2012. Elon University. Available from: http://facstaff.elon.edu/sullivan/h&ktimes.htm [Accessed 13 November, 2012].

The Samurai of the Heian Period (794 – 1185). 2009. Socyberty. Available from: http://socyberty.com/military/the-samurai-of-the-heian-period-794-1185/ [Accessed 13 November, 2012].

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