The samurai are among the most iconic warriors in history. The fighting elite of feudal Japan, they have played a dominant role in the country's life for over 1,000 years. Even today, a century and a half after the rule of the samurai has formally ended, they remain a powerful symbol of martial might, and the embodiment of the stoic warrior.
Like the knights who fought in Europe during the same era, the samurai were a feudal aristocracy. Militarily, politically, socially, and economically, they were the most powerful, the most influential, and the most privileged members of society. Though not all samurai were equal in power and status, they were almost always better off than the rest of Japanese society.
The word samurai, meaning "those who serve", indicates the foundation upon which their power was built. As a feudal society, medieval Japan was shaped by a hierarchy of land ownership and its associated obligations. Most samurai held their land for a more senior overlord, to whom they owed military service. That overlord owed service to his overlord, and so on up the hierarchy, which allowed the most powerful lords to raise great armies. A proud and dominant force, the collective dominance of the samurai arose from a dedication to service. Such service also created the opportunity for revolt, as a lord with enough loyal followers might try to usurp his master, and battles for land and power between competing samurai factions dominated Japanese history for centuries as a result.
The wealth of the samurai not only led to their role as leaders but as a hard-hitting military elite as well, mostly because they could afford the armor, weapons, and horses that gave them an edge in battle. Supported by the labor of the people who lived on their lands, they were also able to spare the time to train for war, something for which young men of the samurai class were prepared from an early age.
The Samurai: The History and Legacy of Japan’s Military Elite looks at who the samurai were, how they fought, and the historical wars in which they played a leading part. You will learn about the samurai like never before.