“Samurai: A Concise History” by Michael Wert

18th-century watercolor of a samurai warrior in his armor.  (Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons) 18th-century watercolor of a samurai warrior in his armor. (Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons)

The term samurai brings to mind disciplined, well-trained warrior-soldiers, skillfully wielding swords and following a strict military-ethical code of honor and sacrifice. Michael Wert, an associate professor at Marquette University who specializes in Japanese history, seeks to dispel this popular depiction in his fascinating short history of the samurai.

Professor Wert, in a little more than a hundred pages, reviews the development of the samurai in Japan from the 8th to the late 19th century. It is a fast-paced book; indeed, perhaps too fast-paced for those less schooled in Japanese history in general and about the samurai in particular. Wert shows that the real story of the samurai is more complex, more nuanced, and more interesting than its popular portrayal.


According to Wert, samurai originally was the term used for those who served members of Japan’s nobility. Only gradually did samurai take on its more popularly known military title. Samurai from the 8th to 11th centuries served nobles and warlords throughout Japan, as well as rulers in Kyoto, then Japan’s largest city. It was after the Gempi War (a struggle between the Yoritomo and Taira warlord families during 1180-85) and the founding of the Kamakura shogunate, notes Wert, that a “broadly conceived warrior identity” first emerged.

The Kamakura shogunate was Japan’s “first warrior regime.” Its establishment was, writes Wert, “a watershed moment … that forever changed how one group of warriors related to another.” Samurai, who previously interacted mostly with family members, now associated with other warriors and “developed as a social group” at Yoritomo’s palace at Kamakura. Samurai trained, hunted, and socialized together, which strengthened “the bonds to each other and to the shogunate.”

The Kamakura shogunate developed a “legal code” called Goseibai Shikimoku (Laws and Regulations for Judgment) in 1232. This, notes Wert, was a “model for behavior applicable to warriors across space and time.” Samurai studied it as late as the 19th century. The Kamakura shogunate, Wert contends, served as a model for successor samurai regimes.

The fall of the Kamakura shogunate in the 14th century ushered in a period of what Wert calls “endemic” warfare among warlords and nobles. Samurai fought each other on horseback and on foot, wielding bows and arrows, swords, pikes, crossbows, shields, battle axes, and mallets. In the 15th century, matchlock guns were introduced into Japan; Europeans brought more and better guns to Japan in the next century. Some samurai remained loyal to their lords, but others readily switched sides when it suited them. Self-sacrifice was an ideal, but not always the reality.

Wert describes the brutal nature of samurai warfare: enemies were frequently decapitated (“some warriors made cups from an enemy’s lacquered skull”); noses and ears were cut off. Wert reproduces a 14th century hand scroll of the Battle of Rokuhara that shows two samurai decapitating an enemy warrior. Yet, there were also periodic warrior codes of conduct that appeared, which advocated that samurai “understand the arts of peace” as well as war, adhere to the principles of “loyalty and filial piety”, listen to other people’s viewpoints, value education, eschew idleness, associate with good men, and know and cherish both civil and military culture.


Samurai: A Concise History. Michael Wert (Oxford University Press, July 2019)
Samurai: A Concise History, Michael Wert (Oxford University Press, July 2019)

The height of samurai rule was during the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868). “[U]ntil the very end of the Tokugawa period,” Wert writes,


the nobility and emperors in Kyoto no longer had the authority they once did. …  No emperor even considered challenging the warrior regime during the Tokugawa period.


In 1615, the shogunate issued Codes for Warrior Households, that urged samurai to study both the civil and military arts, live frugally, and avoid “frivolous activities like drinking and gambling.” The shogunate’s capital was Edo (modern Tokyo), but its rule did not extend to all of Japan. Tokugawa controlled 60,000 samurai. Some had official duties as bureaucrats. “A samurai’s career trajectory,” Wert explains, “was determined, in order of importance, by the rank of the family, seniority, and talent.” Many warriors studied literature, poetry, music, philosophy and martial arts, but also “supplemented their meager hereditary income with small-scale work.” Some samurai, Wert notes, “gambled, begged, and borrowed their way through life.”

The Tokugawa shogunate collapsed as a result of factionalism and civil war. The emperor’s authority replaced the shogunate in 1868, known as the Meiji Restoration. The fighting, Wert notes, resulted in more than 13,000 deaths and the abolition of the shogunate. The privileged status of the samurai was eliminated. Former warriors fell on hard times financially. Wert notes that some samurai even sold their swords, armor, and other venerated objects. “Many Japanese in the late nineteenth century,” Wert writes, “considered the samurai an anachronistic embarrassment, unproductive, and useless.”

In the 1920s, 1930s, and throughout the Second World War, samurai history and the philosophy of bushido were central to Japanese propaganda.

The ideal of the samurai warrior tradition, however, was revived when Japan waged war against China in 1894-95, and Russia in 1904-05. Japan’s educational system promoted the “warrior code” of self-sacrifice, martial spirit, and love of and obedience toward the emperor. Wert claims that what was called the “way of the samurai” was more popular among government and military leaders than the general populace. In the 1920s, 1930s, and throughout the Second World War, samurai history and the philosophy of bushido were central to Japanese propaganda.

After the war, quite understandably, the samurai image was taboo. It was revived again in Japan the 1960s in the form of “corporate warriors” who were expected to remain loyal to, and sacrifice for, the corporation that employed them. Wert notes, however, that medieval Japanese warriors were not always loyal to their nobles and their self-sacrifice “was the exception that proved the rule.”

“One wonders,” he concludes, “how the use of a more historically accurate image of the samurai might affect Japanese culture, business and otherwise, in the future.”

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.