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The Samurai

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The elite military class that ruled Japan from the end of the twelfth century until the Meiji restoration of imperial power in 1868 was known as the samurai.

The term samurai eventually came to apply to the whole warrior class that rose to power during the eleventh century AD and then dominated the Japanese government until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Rise to Prominence

By the eleventh century the power of the centralized imperial government in Japan, under the dominance of the Fujiwara family, had begun to wane and a new warrior class, the samurai or bushi, became established.

The development of this class began in the provinces, where low-ranking aristocrats and younger members of the imperial family had settled. Unable to rise to high positions under the Fujiwaras these men had settled on provincial estates and organized armed forces to protect their property. Gradually the more powerful of these samurai began to move back to the cities, acting as military police and being drawn into the aristocratic world of the court. Powerful samurai families vied for prominence and Kiyomori, from the Taira family, became grand minister of state at court.

At the end of the twelfth century, Yorimoto, the head of the Minamoto samurai family, defeated the forces of the Taira and established a military government, or shogunate, in Kamakura. This marked the end of imperial rule and the beginning of a new form of government, led by the samurai class and backed by a feudal system. Until the end of the sixteenth century the country was troubled by warfare between rival groups and courageous men were highly valued, so entry to the samurai class was easy. After 1600 the country was pacified under the rule of the Tokugawa shogun and for 250 years there was peace.

During the peaceful Tokugawa period (1603-1867), the samurai even became scholarly bureaucrats, and they developed new forms of art, literature and religious practice to suit their way of life.

The principles by which the samurai lived were formulated into a code known as bushido (warrior's way); it stressed the values of military training, honor, loyalty, self control and, ultimately, honorable death.

Cultural Influence

The samurai had a profound influence on the culture of Japan. At the end of the fourteenth century, the warrior families in Kyoto brought to Japan various Chinese cultural influences, particularly the culture of #Zen Buddhism#, which became closely associated with the samurai. The Zen concept of retreat from the world began to influence art and architecture, influences still seen in #modern Japan#. Under the patronage of the samurai the tea ceremony was created, Noh drama was widely enjoyed, the symbolic gardens of sand and stones were idealized and other distinctive cultural institutions saw their beginnings.

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