by Ewa Nowogorski
With their unique armour and unmistakable katana carried at their sides, Samurai are a very popular icon of Japanese culture, and even though there are no more real Samurai in Japan today, they once held a very important role in Japanese society. They were hereditary military nobility who served as retainers for great feudal landowners, well-paid and well-respected.
There were Samurai from 12th Century medieval Japan until the 1870s, when the Samurai caste system was abolished. The image of Samurai held in American minds is quite simple. They were brave warriors who fought in fierce battles with their awesome katanas, but the reality of their role in society was far more complex.
While it is true that they were important tools for daimyo to expand their territory during military campaigns and quell uprisings. However, during more peaceful times they more simply served as vassals for lords, patrolling the lands for them, helping to maintain the peace. Samurai were given the special privilege of carrying 2 swords with them. For a long time Samurai followed strict principles and teachings, and their lineage was hereditary.
It was during the warring states period when samurai culture loosened, and people from different castes and professions were able to become Samurai. This is probably the kind of samurai that is portrayed in popular media most often. They are relatively poor rounin, without a fixed tie to one lord or land. They were more like mercenaries during this time, and money was more important than loyalty.
Samurai interestingly developed their own cultural arts that were eventually adopted by Japan as a whole, such as tea ceremony, rock gardens and monochrome ink paintings. The interesting love of Samurai still exists today, and their legacies live on.