Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. 

Japan had over 30 million foreign tourists a year in 2018 and 2019, of course the figure dropped catastrophically in 2020, but still, Japan is getting more attention than ever before. But yet, we see questions on the Internet asking whether samurais still exist. 

The answer is no. They’re all gone. But then I think the next question is, well, how? How did they get wiped out entirely? Did a meteor hit one day and eradicate all of them; is it the same deal with dinosaurs? Actually, the answer to that is: kinda yes. I can draw many parallels with how dinosaurs disappeared from the face of the Earth. 

So I’m confident the story of how the end came to samurais will fascinate you just as much as the story of how the age of dinos ended. 

When and how did Samurais first come about?

Who were the first samurais?

So let’s go back to when samurais first appeared in history. To put you in the picture, way back in the 9th century, the Imperial family and royalty serving for them were the people who were ruling Japan. 

They had just defeated a rival race up in northeastern Japan and there were no more immediate threats to the emperor’s regime. The military they had, they thought, was becoming redundant because although the Tang Dynasty of China and Silla Kingdom of Korea were potential threats to Japan, it was not like they were actively trying to come and invade the country. 

And interestingly enough, there was a prevailing belief called Kotodama in Japan back then, perhaps a little bit among us Japanese people still now. Kotodama refers to the belief that words and names carry mystical powers. 

It’s like for example if you kept telling your girlfriend she’s pretty, she would actually become prettier through time, or I should say she would become even prettier through time. Or if your parents kept telling you “you are a bad boy,” then you might end up actually behaving that way. There is some truth in this belief. 

So anyway partly because of the belief in Kotodama, Japan decided to disband the military all together. They thought having to even say the word “military” would bring about war. So there was no more military, and therefore there was no more armed government-run organization to police Japan. And that was as bad news as it sounds.

So mobs were free to roam around stealing from and hurting peasants in rural areas away from the capital, which was Kyoto at the time. Peasants just wanted to farm but mobs would come over and destroy and take away everything. And corruption in local governments was also a big problem. Some dipshit governors would just take away farmland just because they felt like it. There was no justice for peasants.

And this is why samurais came about. They were peasants who armed themselves and honed their skills with their weapons in order to protect their farmlands and other peasants who focused on farming. It’s thought that samurais started appearing in the 10th century.

Many of them bunched up together to form clans for better protection, because some clans started invading other clans in order to better their lives. So samurais became specialists in warfare who risked and sacrificed their own lives to protect peasants. 

And not only that, samurais were like mayors and state governors who addressed real problems at a local level as opposed to royalty who just stayed in Kyoto and never really knew much about peasants’ lives or gave enough thought about them. You can imagine how respected samurais must have been by their people. 

A few more centuries and samurais became the center of politics of all of Japan because they were the ones with the ability and means to overthrow the government and also to protect the government from being overthrown by other samurais. 

So through a course of over 900 years, the samurai class was the ruling class of Japan. There were hundreds of samurai families all over Japan trying to protect and grow the land their samurai ancestors had claimed. 

The start of the end

The first Tokugawa Shogun

And here’s where samurais start to die off. By around the 17th century, Japan ended up being governed under one samurai family called the Tokugawa family and there were basically no more territorial wars within Japan. All the samurai families that ruled parts of Japan for centuries and  fought each other in the 15th and 16th centuries either surrendered to the Tokugawa family or were defeated in battle. Until then war took place very commonly between samurai lords so their skills were in high demand. 

But when Japan was united, the Tokugawa government didn’t want the samurais working under it to hone their combat and warfare skills much anymore, because one, the government preferred not to be overthrown, and two, well, it was time for Japan to move on to becoming a more livable and cultural country from a bloodthirsty, war-infested nation. 

So the samurai class starts to get treated harshly. Every time there was a scandal in a samurai family or a samurai failed in his job, the government took the opportunity to take away the house and land the samurai family lived in – basically the whole family of that samurai was demolished. So only the very obedient and loyal samurai families were allowed to stay. So it was like a gigantic group company axing the presidents of its subsidiary companies so that they can be replaced by a more obedient president.

But then firing off samurai families and kicking them out of politics meant they were producing unemployed samurais everywhere in Japan. Some actually turned into bandits and became a threat to ordinary people. 

So in the late 17th century the government started shifting towards ruling not by exercising power but by getting everyone educated in Confucianism. A big takeaway of Confucianism is about attaining peace by mutual compassion between parents and children, bosses and subordinates, and between friends. So everyone in Japan was taught to be polite to each other, and being polite involved not trying to kill each other. 

The idea of introducing Confucianism itself was a wise move and as a matter of fact, peace lasted for over 200 years partly thanks to this new policy. What we would now call liberal arts schools were built everywhere in the country and samurais attended them because education was what increased their chances of getting themselves a better job. Not their skills with swords and spears so much anymore. 

So there was less demand for better samurai warriors. On top of that the Tokugawa government had practically closed the country from the rest of the world in the early 17th century and there was really no international war wanted or expected for a long time. Again, Japan remained at peace for over 200 years. 

A wakeup call

Commodore Perry’s warship appears off the coast of Tokyo Bay

But one day in 1853, 6 warships of the American Navy appeared off the shore of what is now called Tokyo Bay. At that time America was looking to establish a relay point for their trade ships to stop by when they wanted to trade with Asia, and Japan or Okinawa which was a separate kingdom at the time, were perfect candidates. 

Japan had had no intention whatsoever to discuss anything close to any deal with any foreign country for about 220 years, so US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry, not the actor from Friends, Commodore Perry took an effective approach of threatening Japan to open up to trade with his big black warships running on steam engines, which of course was a showcase of Western technology at the time, and their technology was so advanced that Japanese people got terrified. The Tokugawa government was terrified too. 

And at the end of the day, Commodore Perry pretty much got what he wanted and Japan made a treaty to start trading with the US, which meant from the eyes of Japanese people, the Tokugawa government surrendered to a foreign country. Some people started doubting whether the Tokugawa government should continue to take the wheel. 

So a couple of samurai clans in a western region of Japan started plotting a coup de tat. These clans were called the Satsuma and Choshu clans. They were thinking of making the emperor the ruler of Japan once again like in the old times and help to make Japan a more internationally competitive country so that it wouldn’t get colonized by the West. Actually the emperor was technically the ruler of Japan all throughout history – the emperor was a symbol of power – but samurais were the practical rulers ever since the 12th century. 

Now the Tokugawa government of course wanted to stay in power so they sent troops to the these problematic samurai clans to shut them up but unfortunately, they get defeated. So now from public eyes it was really doubtful if the Tokugawa government should keep the throne. I mean, they’re samurais. They’re supposed to be strong but they bent to America, and now they failed to discipline a couple of clans. 

Samurai rule of Japan ends

Can you feel the end of samurais creeping in? But then the Tokugawa government made a very unexpected move. They forfeited their rule and offered to give the throne back to the emperor. They proposed that the emperor rule Japan with a parliamentary system under him, and in return make the Tokugawa Shogun, the ruler of Japan at the time, the chairman of the upper house. 

It was a move that would have kept the Tokugawa family in power just by giving up the king’s name on paper. This also meant that from the eyes of the rebellious western samurai clans, the government they were trying to defeat was no more. 

The Satsuma and Choshu clans were not happy with this at all because if the Tokugawa family stayed in politics, they thought there wouldn’t be any new politics. So what they did was surround the imperial palace with their troops, proposed a new, parliamentary political system under the emperor and of course the Shogun’s name wouldn’t be in there, and had the emperor agree to it without the consent of the Tokugawa government, because technically, the Tokugawa government was no more. 

So in 1868, it was publicly announced under the name of the emperor that Japan will become a monarchy and political decisions will be made by a new parliament and approved by the emperor, and that the Tokugawa Shogun will not be a part of the new parliament. It was a bloodless coup de tat. 

The former Tokugawa Shogun was infuriated of course, and attacked Kyoto where the new government was with about 15,000 men against around just 4,000 men on the side of the Satsuma and Choshu clans. But surprisingly the Tokugawa Shogun loses very quickly. There were royalty supporting the coup de tat and what they did was they had made a bunch of flags of red and gold which represented the imperial army. 

So in battle, the men on the side of the Satsuma and Choshu clans had this flag up, making it clear that they were fighting for the emperor. Meanwhile, the morale of the samurais on the side of the Tokugawa Shogun plunged when they saw the flags because it meant they were the rebels. They had worked for the government of Japan their whole career, but suddenly it was like the whole country was against their very existence. 

So the Tokugawa Shogun flees and retires quietly after that. The Tokugawa government was both technically and practically no more at this point. Although the key members of the new government were almost entirely politicians coming from samurai families of the Satsuma and Choshu clans, they were samurais who strived to un-samurai Japan so that it would become a globally competitive nation.

The new government abolishes the Samurai class 

One of the first things the new imperial government did was deprive samurais of their privileges and therefore their identity. By the way the word “samurai” is actually not a term for the class or job these people were classified into. The proper term is Bushi. Bushi refers to a class of people who actually existed, and they had many rights other classes didn’t have, and one of them was being allowed to carry around a katana sword on their waists. 

The word “samurai” is more of a term that represents a way of living or a person with positive characteristics that people associate with Bushi. It’s like how you might say someone is figuratively a cowboy. So just for the sake of accuracy, I’ll use the term Bushi in place of samurais. 

So the new imperial government first of all deprived Bushis of their social rank. Bushis were a privileged group of people who had a few things peasants didn’t and one of them was family names. Bushis and royalty were the only people with family names until 1870. So Bushis would have extravagant, cool-sounding names such as Tokugawa Yoshinobu or Katsu Kaishu while peasants would just call themselves Gonbei or Ichiro. 

Bushis not only had the privilege to carry around katana swords, they were also permitted to kill people, even if they were not in battle. The condition for a legal kill was when a Bushi felt he was insulted to the point that’s unbearable. So in Japan, Bushis were able to kill people if somebody pissed them off too much. The new imperial government was worried that other more developed countries would see this practice as barbaric, and therefore wouldn’t take Japan seriously. They wanted to correct that. 

And Bushis were entitled to annual allowances just for being a Bushi. That’s how they made a living. After Japan entered the age of peace in the 17th century, they really did nothing productive but got paid to be that way, and you can imagine how ordinary people must have felt about Bushis back then. By the 19th century, most Bushis understood how useless they were being when the whole country was trying to be more productive and competitive. 

So in 1869, Bushis were no longer called Bushis. The name of their class was discontinued. In 1870, all peasants were allowed to have a family name just like Bushis. 

And then from 1876, nobody was allowed to carry around a katana sword anymore. Of course the ex-Bushis were not allowed to kill anyone just because their pride was offended anymore. So I think we can say that 1876 was when samurais formally seized to exist. 

Ex-samurais get kicked out of politics

The goal of the imperial government for doing all this was again, to grow Japan into being a credible member of the global superpowers. Because otherwise, the west might try to colonize Japan. They thought Japan didn’t have much time to spare, so they hastily tried to lay the foundations of making the country into a globally competitive country. And that meant Bushis had to go. 

Bushis were also deprived of their territories. Bushis born into legacy samurai families had lived in different parts of Japan as the head of a local government for centuries, but one day in 1871, Bushis from all over the country were all called to Tokyo, which had become the new capital after the emperor moved in from Kyoto, and they were suddenly told that they were no longer going to be the governors of their land. 

They were told to move to Tokyo and in return, the imperial government was going to take responsibility of paying salaries for all the servants serving for Bushi families across the country. So it was like the top Bushis were told to sell their organization to the government. 

Not only that, the government was going to pay for their new lives in Tokyo. So they all complied. Besides, nobody could openly complain or disagree with the emperor.

So after the imperial government picked Bushis off of local governments, they sent non-Bushi governors they handpicked to replace them. Quite a drastic move, isn’t it?

And here’s further bad news for Bushis. So giving them annual allowances just like how things had been for centuries and now giving some of them allowances to live in Tokyo was getting too expensive for the imperial government – it amounted to a third of all government expenses. 

So the size of the allowances was reduced gradually, and in 1876, just 5 years after they were promised a free ride on living expenses, the imperial government told Bushis “You know, this is getting way too more expensive than we thought, so you guys are going to need to find a way to feed yourselves, like everyone else. Good luck, man.” 

And they forced Bushis to take an early retirement package – basically money that would last them 5 or 6 years as they try to figure out how to make a living. Some of them tried to start a business only to realize that business wasn’t all that easy. They tried to sell desserts, firewood and antiques, but only a handful of these ex-Bushi businesses survived after a year. Most of them used up all the funds they got for early retirement within a year. Are you crying now? Because I feel like it.  It’s sad. 

Ordinary people who had been living the harsh reality all along were probably like “finally, justice has been done!” Of course a few Bushi families succeed in changing careers. One of them called Iwasaki Yataro founded what is now Mitsubishi group, ranked 42nd place on the Fortune 500 list of the greatest global companies. Yes, Mitsubishi group was founded by an ex-samurai. 

Ex-samurais rebel, but are defeated by technology

So what happened to all the Bushis who lost everything? There were several small revolts by a few hundred of these ex-Bushis in western Japan. All of them resulted in defeat, death and imprisonment. And then there was one big civil war called the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, again in western Japan which involved more than *10,000 ex-Bushis and 40,000 imperial soldiers. They fought against each other. Most of the imperial soldiers were peasants who got conscripted. 

*Sekiguchi, Hiroshi and Hosaka, Masayasu. Mou ichido! Kin-gendai-shi Meiji no Nippon. Kodan-sha, 2020.

There are no reliable sources left but it is believed that there were also at least  1,000 females participating in this battle. The newspaper back then said the wives and daughters of the ex-Bushis fought with their spears against the imperial army.

The imperial government sent double the number of troops the ex-Bushis had and also used the latest fire arms while the ex-Bushis had a more classic weaponry. As a result, although there was a significant number of casualties in the government’s army, the rebellion was put out. The 10,000 ex-Bushis either died or fled. 

So here, samurais who were supposed to be professionals of battle, lost to an army consisting primarily of peasants who were armed with the best weapons imported from western countries. The last samurais were defeated by technology, and sadly, their own inability to adapt to changes. 

And that is pretty much the story of how samurais disappeared from the face of Japan. Again, some of them succeeded in evolving themselves into merchants or some other profession and their descendants are still with us now. They’re all ordinary Japanese people. 

The way samurais disappeared is analogous to how dinosaurs disappeared. Most were wiped out because they failed to adapt to environmental changes, while some of them succeeded in adaptation and evolved into birds. 

I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you liked what you listened to, please subscribe to this Podcast channel on Spotify or wherever you are listening. The full transcript is on my blog which is www.metro-classic-japanese.net . You’ll also find many other interesting topics about Japan and its culture. Please check it out, and until next time! それでは、またお会いしましょう。