Samurai, a warrior and bureaucrat

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kato Kiyomasa and Captives, c. 1820s. Woodblock Print. Fine Art Print.


The Tokugawa Shogunate from 1603 to 1867 was a military dictatorship in Japan. The dynasty known as the Tokugawa clan established its power and united Japan after winning the battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600. The founder of the Tokugawa shogunate called Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) set up a new system of governance with a great deal of emphasis on the origin of an individual and the stories from the war chronicle Genpei Jōsuiki. The new order therefore placed a great deal of emphasis on achieving harmonious political order through military power and isolating Japan so that foreign influence was limited.[1]

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s system was also about ancestry, so from birth it was determined which position you belonged to. The four positions were as follows; at the top you had the warriors, below the farmers, then the manual workers and at the bottom the traders. The warrior class was divided into three at the top was the shōgun, followed by the daimyō and finally closed by the samurai.[2] This essay is about the class of samurai. So the samurai, which means ‘eh who serves’ was part of the upper class. This essay looks at the power of the samurai. The central question here is how does the Japanese samurai from the Tokugawa shogunate symbolize power? In order to answer this question, we will look at the origin and development of the samurai, its power and tasks, the samurai armor and weapons, and this essay will close with the the end of the Tokugawa period.

Tokugawa clan and the samurai

Samurai were the military nobility and officer’s kaste from medieval and early modern Japan. In Japanese, they are usually called bushi.[3] One of the oldest references to the word samurai appears in the Kokin Wakashū, one of the first imperial anthologies of poems, completed during the 10th century. By the end of the 12th century, the word samurai was almost entirely synonymous with bushi, and the word was closely linked to the middle and higher levels of the warrior class. The samurai were mostly allied to a clan and its lord, they were sometimes trained as officers in military tactics and grand strategy, and they followed a series of rules that later became known as the bushidō or the way of the warrior.[4]

After the Tokugawa clan established its power around 1600, there was a transition from elite warriors to ruling aristocracy.[5] Then the Tokugawa clan set up the system in such a way that the taxes were paid by the population to the daimyōs who had the role of regional rulers. The daimyōs eventually had to pay the proceeds back to the shōgun. The samurai played the role of administrator.[6] The samurai also supported the daimyō and the shōgun in various other government tasks. Some of these tasks are to ensure that the farmers stayed on the land and the workers in their workshops, essentially maintaining public order and keeping records.[7] Unlike China’s officials, they were selected not on the basis of extensive knowledge and expertise but on the basis of military service, birth and loyalty.[8]

The samurai harness

The Japanese samurai harnesses are believed to have evolved from harnesses used in China around the 4th century AD. In Japan, the harness experienced a number of changes that gave it the external characteristics such as the distinctive helmet during the Heian period from 794 to 1185.[9] This eventually created the O-Yorai harness style which was known for its large size, was used in man-to-man fights and horse-related struggle.[10] Then after centuries of conflict, Japan was united by the Tokugawa clan and a time of relative peace and unity began. This period is known as the Edo period.

The transition to a relatively peaceful period also led to a transition in harness design. The Edo period harnesses were manufactured from the knowledge that it would hardly be used in conflict.[11] These harnesses were worn by both daimyō and samurai.

The harness on the right dates from 1855. This means that this harness was manufactured during the Edo period.[12] This harness consists of a helmet, brisket, back piece, leg protectors and arm protectors. The harness is made of lacquered strips of deer leather that are attached to each other with laces and metal. It can also be assumed that the harness is decorated with pieces of gold brocade, silk and processed venerated leather.[13] The decorative elements can clearly be seen in the gold brocade carefully processed as decoration on the shoulders, helmet and breastplate. Further decorative elements such as the floral pattern on the arms and the other patterns processed for decoration on the leg pieces, the skirt and the helmet clearly show the element of showpiece.[14] These patterns are manufactured on silk.[15]

The armor probably belonged to someone from the higher circles, this because valuable raw materials such as gold, silk and deerskin are processed. So probably this armor was from a daimyō or a wealthy samurai. This is because using this materials was expensive and therefore not put away for everyone used to be. The armor contains elements such as silk and gold, these elements offer little protection. It probably had a ceremonial and symbolic function.[16]

Originally, the samurai was a warrior, so they wielded a number of weapons. One of the more famous weapons is a set of swords. The first was the Katana a long sword about three feet and the second was a short sword about two feet called the Wakizashi. This set Swords is called the Daisho. A samurai carries both of these swords through the belt of his armor or kimono.[17]

The samurai harness (RMV)

Harness style

The samurai harness from the image is a fusion of certain currents in the field of harness styles known as Archaic revival. Usually this was a combination of the following two styles, the Tōsei-gusoku this style was a more modern style that connected well to the body and was used in group oriented warfare and the already mentioned O-Yorai style.[18]

For example, it is clearly visible that the armor is influenced by the Tōsei-gusoku style, just like with the Tōsei-gusoku style, it can be seen in this samurai armor that the breastplate consists of a succession of horizontal strips and connects well with the body. The previous O-Yorai mainly used small rectangular pieces of leather connected in horizontal rows. Next, it should be noted that the armor consists of many small contiguous parts, similar to the Tōsei-gusoku style, whose previous styles were often composed of less movable large pieces.[19] However, it also includes O-Yoroj elements such as the style of the helmet. According to Takaaki Suga, this combination of armor from the Achaean revival symbolized the belief in military might to intervene forcefully when necessary.[20] So it’s a projection of their belief in their own military superiority .

The armor is an amalgamation of styles, because it contains certain elements from the Tōsei-gusoku style, the O-Yoraj style and the characteristics of the peaceful period. The armor is therefore not only a sign of power, but also a sign of the coming together of different ideas. In addition, wearing the daisho meant that you belonged to the ruling warrior class

Left O-Yoroi harnas Right Tosei-goseku harnas

Suga, Takaaki. ‘Perceptions of Armor during the Edo Period.’ (Jstor)

The origens of modern Japan

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open up to the outside world. This powerful demonstration of power showed the Japanese that the foreign Western powers possessed advanced weapons. This also turned out to be a shock as the opening up of Japan by outsiders showed that the Tokugawa clan no longer had military superiority. This created a sense of national crisis, especially among the samurai whose power was based on military strength.[21] One of those such was Yoshida Shōin (1830-1859) and his view was that action should be taken on this issue of national security. He also taught this to his students and this in the end led to the creation of a small group of revolutionary samurai who strived for political change and to obtain western techniques to keep the Western powers at bay.[22] In addition to dissatisfaction with dealing with foreign countries, a lack of social mobility also played a role in the growing resistance of the middle and lower warrior classes.[23] Eventually this group would show agency by replacing the shogun with the emperor and abolishing the class society, this event has gone down in the books as the Meiji restoration.[24]

The End

In the hierarchical society of Tokugawa Japan, the warrior class was at the top. The warrior class of which the daimyōs and samurai belonged to were part of the regional government. Thus the different regions were governed and administered by the samurai. Both classes have historically worn the O-Yorai and Tosei-goseku style.

The elaborate armor, however, is in the Archaic Revival style and decorated with gold, silk and deerskin. This style comes from a more peaceful period when armor was not used for combat, but as a projection of military superiority. In this era life was peaceful and the warriors mostly wore a daisho and this was a sign that belonged to the warrior class. One must assume that these warriors took on a more bureaucratic and administrative function during the Edo period. This because the period was relatively peaceful, which you can see in the armor, which now shows some decorative elements that offer little protection and are reflected in the form of silk and gold.

In any case, the Edo time period went on until 1867, in this year the Meiji Restoration occurred and the Tokugawa shogunate was abrogated. This additionally stopped the stand society. A subsequent examination could additionally address the samurai’s part in the Meiji Restoration and japan’s resulting post-Tokugawa modernization.

[1] Vyjayanthi R. Selinger, Authorizing the Shogunate : Ritual and Material Symbolism in the Literary Construction of Warrior Order (Leiden 2013) 22-25.

[2] Mikiso Hane, Modern Japan: a historical survey (Abingdon 1992) 23.

[3] William Scott Wilson, Ideals of the Samurai (Valencia 1982) 17.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] David Spafford, ‘Emperor and Shogun, Pope and King: The Development of Japan’s Warrior Aristocracy.’, Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 88 (2014) 1/4, 10-19 there 17-18.

[6] Robert Tigner E.a., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: from 1000 ce to the present (New York 2018), 506.

[7] Kenichiro Aratake,’Samurai and Peasants in the Civil Administration of Early Modern Japan.’, In Masayuki Tanimoto in R. Bin Wong (ed.), Public Goods Provision in the Early Modern Economy: Comparative Perspectives from Japan, China, and Europe (Oakland 2019) 38-56, there 39-42.

[8] Douglas R. Howland, ‘Samurai Status, Class, and Bureaucracy: A Historiographical Essay.’, The Journal of Asian Studies 60 (2001) 2, 353-380, there 353-355.

[9] William Wayne Farris, Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan (Honolulu 1998) 67-76.

[10] Takaaki Suga, ‘Perceptions of Armor during the Edo Period’ Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 88 (2014) 1/4, 34-43, there 35-37.

[11] Ibid., 35.

[12] NMVW, ‘Helmet with neck piece, part of an armor’ (version 09-01-2020 ), (09-01-2020).

[13] National Cultural Heritage Agency, ‘Borstpantser, part of an armor’ (version 09-01-2020) (09-01-2020).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Suga, ‘Perceptions of Armor during the Edo Period’, 36-37.

[17] NMVW, ‘Sword rack – katanakake’ (version 09-01-2020) (09-01-2020).

[18] Suga,’Perceptions of Armor during the Edo Period’, 35-37.

[19] Ibid., 35-36.

[20] Ibid., 46-48.

[21] E. Ikegami ‘Shame and the Samurai: Institutions, Trusthworthiness, and Autonomy in the Elite Honor Culture.’, Social Research 70 (2003) 4, 1351-1378, there 1354-1355.

[22] Ibid., 1358-1359.

[23] Spafford, ‘Emperor and Shogun, Pope and King’,b18.

[24] Ibid., 18.

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