The Rise of the Warrior Class in Japan

Introduction

During the Heian period, Japan experienced a golden age. That period was followed by civil war. In this chapter, you will learn about the rise of a powerful warrior class in Japan—the samurai .

Minamoto Yoritomo came to power in Japan in 1185. In 1192, he took the title of shogun, or commander-in-chief. Yoritomo did not take the place of the emperor. Instead, he set up a military government with its own capital in the city of Kamakura. While the imperial court remained in Heian-kyo, emperors played an increasingly less important role in the government of Japan.

The start of the Kamakura government marked the beginning of a new era in Japanese history. Eventually, professional warriors—the samurai—became Japan’s ruling class. The era of the samurai lasted for 700 years, until the emperor was restored to power in 1868.

Over time, an elaborate culture and code of conduct grew up around the samurai. A samurai was expected to be honest, brave, and intensely loyal to his lord. In fact, the word samurai means “those who serve.” The samurai code was very strict. Samurai sometimes killed themselves with their own swords rather than “lose face,” or personal honor.

The samurai were more than fearless fighters. They were educated in art, writing, and literature. Many were devout Buddhists. Their religious faith helped them prepare for their duties and face death bravely.

In this chapter, you will meet Japan’s samurai. You will learn about their code of conduct and the role they played in the military society of medieval Japan.