Tracing the Complicated Origins of the Samurai Warrior Class

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rokusonno Shrine, which enshrines Minamoto no Tsunemoto, was built on the site of the residence of Tsunemoto, the founder of the Seiwa Genji clan, in Minami Ward, Kyoto.

The Heian period (794-late 12th century) was an artistic golden age. In the then-capital Kyoto, nobles lived extravagant lives, composing waka poetry and playing traditional wind and string instruments.

Conversely, samurai warriors in rural areas in the eastern Togoku region— roughly equivalent to modern-day Kanto — lived simple spartan lifestyles. By increasing their military capabilities, these samurai eventually ousted the noble-based central government and established a feudal military ruling power in Kamakura.

This version of history is likely familiar to readers of old textbooks, historical novels and TV dramas. It also explains why many Japanese are warmly disposed to the samurai and why the “samurai” tag is appended to men’s national sports teams.

However, this perhaps overly simplified version of Japan’s past is increasingly being called into question. Some scholars now believe that early samurai warriors were part of Imperial court society — traditionally thought to be militarily weak — who extended their influence from Kyoto to Togoku and other areas.

Kobe University Prof. Emeritus Masaaki Takahashi is among the chief proponents of this theory. Takahashi has encouraged a stronger focus on the role of Kyoto’s samurai warriors, who traditionally play only a minor part in many versions of Japan’s history.

According to Takahashi, military officers existed prior to the Heian period, such as those in the Konoefu Imperial Guard office. Military nobles who succeeded these military officers in the late 10th century were Japan’s first samurai, Takahashi believes.

Emergence of military nobles

In 939, a rebellion led by Taira no Masakado kicked off in Togoku, but was contained by Fujiwara no Hidesato, a powerful aristocrat believed to have been a member of the Fujiwara Hokke family. Taira no Sadamori from the Kanmu Heishi clan is thought to have descended from Emperor Kanmu (781-806).

Meanwhile, Minamoto no Tsunemoto, a grandson of Emperor Seiwa (858-876) and the founder of the Seiwa Genji clan, played a leading role in suppressing a rebellion by Fujiwara no Sumitomo in the Seto Inland Sea in eastern Japan. Hidesato, Sadamori and Tsunemoto were all granted court ranks by the Imperial court and became military patricians.

Traditionally, Japanese nobles served the Imperial court by improving their artistic skills. For example, the Reizei family specialized in composing waka poetry, while the Asukai family specialized in kemari — a soccer-like game that involves keeping a ball aloft as long as possible. Families would pass down their respective skills to future generations.

Kyuba — shooting arrows while riding a horse — was also seen as a performing art. Hidesato, Sadamori and Tsunemoto became accomplished martial arts practitioners as part of their family “businesses” and used their skills to serve the Imperial court as military nobles. It is thought that this trio laid the ground for all future samurai.

The Imperial court allowed military aristocrats to carry weapons and use armed force. As such, they were assigned to guard the Imperial family’s inner palace. Subsequently, the descendants of these nobles left the Imperial court and settled down in regional cities, where they cracked down on robbery and suppressed rebellions, forming their own armed groups in the process. Many traditional theories cite such coteries as the original samurai.

Following Masakado’s rebellion, several clans such as Hojo, Miura, Kajiwara, Hatakeyama, Chiba and Kazusa settled in various parts of the Togoku region. Though technically not nobles, they were part of the Kanmu Heishi clan.

Taira and Heishi are clan names, while names such as Hojo and Miura — surnames, in effect — were given to the different areas where respective families settled down.

Minamoto no Yoritomo, a military aristocrat from the Seiwa Genji clan, was expelled from Kyoto to Togoku after he lost a battle. Yoritomo became a leader and established a feudal military government in Kamakura.

Following the establishment of the feudal military government, the Heike clan competed for power — the Heike had established a military government in Kyoto before other competing powers. The Heike clan was also part of the Kanmu Heishi clan but grabbed power in Kyoto in the form of a military aristocracy.

The battles between the major powers of the east and the west are referred to as the “Genpei War” after the family names of the two powers’ leaders. The major forces in the eastern Genji clan also originally hailed from the Kanmu Heishi clan.

As a footnote, if the dense sequence of events described above seems somewhat confusing, fear not. Even people who have grown up in Japan often have trouble untangling this multilayered part of the nation’s history.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rokuhara Mitsuji temple was built in Rokuhara, where Heike clan members including Taira no Kiyomori lived, in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto.