They have dominated Japan for a good millennium and yet remain little known in the West. Originally men of war, condemned to peace at their peak, they themselves dreamed their myth and came to believe it. National Geographic History and Wars & History take a look this summer at the legends and realities of a caste warrior: the samurai.
From the advent of the shogunate in 1192 to the abolition of the samurai caste in 1877. Japan's military elite presided over the country's destinies for nearly seven centuries. First shared with the emperor, then embodied by successive dynasties of shoguns, the power of the samurai has become one of the founding myths of Japan.
The samurai were, in the tenth century, a well-marked social class, characterized by land ownership, warlike activity and a hereditary status. Armed, these powerful soldiers inspired fear and respect in the peasants, while the imperial court, noble and refined, believing that violence was a source of defilement, despised these bloodthirsty warriors, considered impure.
This combination of circumstances allowed the samurai to devote themselves freely to their military activities and to establish their reputation as warriors. By the middle of the 14th century, they were at their peak and made a remarkable entrance on the Japanese political scene. In 1156, the death of Emperor Toba sparked a war, known as the Hogen Rebellion, between the various factions of the nobility. Four years later, a second bloody conflict broke out over the question of the imperial throne: the Heiji rebellion. These two crises highlighted the weakness of the Japanese imperial court as well as the crucial role of the samurai in resolving these disputes ...
The samurai: legend and reality of a warrior caste. Guerres & Histoire, July-August 2014, on newsstands and by subscription.
The samurai in power. National Geographic Histoire, July-August 2014, on newsstands and by subscription.