A Brief History of Pre-Samurai Japan and the Rise of the Samurai Clans
Created | Updated Apr 15, 2011
Prehistoric Japan to the Emergence of a Centralised State
Ancient Japan - The Jomon Period (c 8000 BC to c 300 BC) and the Yayoi Period (c 300 BC to c 300 AD)
The Jomon period represents the earliest known Japanese culture. Jomon Japan (although the nation did not exist at the time) was home to a hunter-gatherer society, and is named after its characteristic pottery decoration1. This period covers the mythical foundation of Japan by Prince Jimmu Tenno, though no evidence for this exists.
The Yayoi period2 saw the introduction of rice culture in around 100 BC, the rise of agriculture and the formation of early social classes. Iron and other advanced technology was imported from Korea. Chinese sources suggest the presence of some centralised authority under a queen named Himika or Pimiku, but there is little evidence as to the nature of such a state, if it existed at all.
The Yamato Period (c 300 to 710)
Named after a political centre in Yamato3 province, this period saw the first historically supportable unification of Japan (or at least of a significant portion of the central islands), around 400 AD. Insular ritual burial practices arose, and from China came Buddhism (in 538 or 552 depending on sources), Taoism, Confucianism and the Chinese writing system. The first emperors of Japan began to rule from a processing capital, forming a symbolic focus of the native Shinto religion as well as of the emergent state.
In the early part of the Yamato period, the Soga Clan effectively wielded political power, but in and around 645 they were displaced by the Fujiwara under Nakatomi no Kamatari, and the government and administration of Japan were remodelled after a Chinese plan in the Taika ('Great Change') reforms. Land was bought up by the State and redistributed, with local governors in charge of a new taxation system, and the primary military force of Japan took the form of a conscripted army.
The Taiho Code was also established in 702, dividing the government's religious and administrative functions into separate offices. In 710, at the close of the Yamato period, the Imperial Court took up permanent residence in the city of Nara, establishing the first long term capital in Japan's history, again based on a Chinese model.
The Nara Period (710 - 794)
The Nara period was a time of powerful Chinese influence, although Shinto remained a significant religion. Many Buddhist monasteries were established in the new capital to place them close to the centre of power, in an ideal position to lobby the court.
At this stage, 'Japan' was still limited to the central islands. Attempts were made in this period to expand northwards into the Tohuko (north east) region of Honshu, but they were opposed by the native Emishi4. Faced with ongoing Emishi resistance, the Imperial Court created the rank of Jeisetsu Seii-taishogun meaning 'Great Barbarian Conquering General', for the war leader placed in charge of the campaign. The first to bear the title, normally abbreviated to 'Shogun', was Tajihi Agatamori, although at this stage it was only a temporary assignment. While the shoguns sent against the Emishi had mixed successes, the title persisted, and would become important in Japan's later history.
Away from the capital, the Taika reforms led to increasingly high taxes. Independent farmers were forced to sell their property to larger landowners, becoming tenants on their own farms. As a result, these provincial landowners began to grow in power, as did the wealthy Buddhist monasteries. In 784, the capital was moved to Nagaoka to escape the ever-increasing influence of Nara's Buddhist sects.
Early Japanese Warriors
The earliest Japanese soldiers were not the samurai we think of today at all. They were armed and organised in a manner drawn from Chinese and Korean influences, wearing the tanko or 'short armour', a corset of iron plates; the shokkau tsuki kabuto ('battering ram helmet', named for its shape); the kata yoroi ('shoulder armour'); and the akabe yoroi ('neck armour'). All of these pieces were made from metal, and were lacquered to protect them from corrosion. Most fighters would be on foot, and would use a shield, and probably a spear.
Horses were brought to Japanese warfare during the fourth century, along with keiko ('hanging armour'), a kind of intricate scaled armour which hung with its weight on the shoulders instead of on the hips. Keiko was worn by the new horse warriors, and later samurai armour was patterned after it. The same period saw the introduction of leg armour - far more important on cavalry than on infantry as the legs are the easiest part of a horseman to strike - and flexible splint shoulder-protectors replacing the heavy kata yoroi.
Warriors of this period used swords, spears and bows, mostly of styles imported from China. The spear would likely have been the primary battlefield weapon, especially for infantry. Bows were long, but curved such that the archer would grip the staff towards one end, instead of in the middle as with a European bow. This meant that the bow had considerable power, yet could be fired from horseback. The swords were straight and double-edged, the most common type being the kabutschi tachi, a heavy sword similar in design principle to the Scottish claymore, which saw widespread use throughout the fourth and fifth centuries.
Later, the warabite tachi, a shorter sword, gained in popularity, but it would not be until after the Mongol invasions of the late 13th Century that the sword would begin to see serious use as a primary battlefield weapon. It was probably from the Emishi of central Honshu that the Japanese adopted the practice of constructing their swords single-edged, with a curved blade, although legend attributes this innovation to the swordsmith Amakuni.
The Heian Period (794 - 1192) and the Rise of the Warrior Class
The Imperial Court and the Provincial Clans
A decade after its arrival in Nagaoka, the Imperial capital was shifted to Kyoto, then known as Heian-Kyo or Tsuki no Miyako (the 'City of the Moon'). So began the Heian period. This new era saw the decline of Chinese influence and a growth of nationalism and conservatism. It also saw the birth of Japan's first true feudal system, with local authorities, owing loyalty to the Emperor, controlling their own domains, instead of direct control of the land from the centre. While the feudal model made sense in the absence of rapid transit and communications, it had a major drawback for the Imperial Court. Although the Court continued to consolidate its power, the local rulers gained a great deal of autonomy, and a deep division between the Court and the clans who controlled the provinces developed.
The dominant family in the early Heian period was the Fujiwara. Their power was based on control of the Imperial Throne, and grew as they married into the Imperial family and gained greater and greater influence within the Court. But while their position in Heian was strong, many of the provincial lords grew resentful of the Fujiwara's privileged position, and moreover remained largely free of their control. Foremost among the provincials were the disparate branches of the sprawling Taira and Minamoto Clans.
The Heian period also saw the abandonment of the conscripted Imperial army, leaving the hereditary warriors of the military clans as the primary source of fighting men in Japan. Increasingly, the Emperor needed to turn to the clans when he required military action, and this added to their influence. Financially, the provincial lords grew fat on the continuing consolidation of farm-land under fewer and fewer dominant landlords, and in time the aristocracy and the Japanised Buddhist sects both managed to acquire a tax-exempt status which heightened the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
It was during the 10th Century that palace guards first bore the title samurai - 'those who serve'.
Fujiwara Michinaga came to power in his clan in 995, and in 1016 became Kampaku (Regent) of Japan. This was the height of the Fujiwara's power, but thereafter the clan's influence was on the wane. The wealthy land-owners began to hire their own samurai as bodyguards and protectors of their estates, and as a result the military class began to gain real power. The same development also narrowed the gap in military power between the Imperial Court and the provincial aristocracy, as these samurai protectors came to form private armies of varying size and professionalism.
The Fujiwara's power began to crumble when, in 1068, Go-Sanjo became Emperor of Japan. Go-Sanjo only remained Emperor for 18 years, abdicating in 1086, but he brought the Imperial throne from under the Fujiwara shadow, breaking the clan's grip on Japan, and once more reorganised the government. Over the next century, the Taira and Minamoto Clans, each presenting an increasingly unified front, made significant advances in power. The Minamoto gained considerably by being at the forefront of the expansion of the Empire of Japan into the north of Honshu.
The Hogen Disturbance of 1155 provided the writing on the wall for the Imperial Court. It was a minor rebellion, as such things go, and was swiftly put down, but like the shooting of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, it had lasting repercussions. Its importance lies in the fact that the troops sent to deal with the rebels were not warriors of the Imperial Court, but of the Taira and Minamoto Clans, firmly establishing that the Emperor was no longer the enforcer of his own law, and that the clans to watch were now the rival provincial powers.
The Heiji Rising and the Gempei War
The rivalry between the Taira and the Minamoto first came to a head in the Heiji Rising of 1159. Taira Kiyomori overcame his enemies in this conflict, and established himself as military leader of Japan. Kiyomori became the effective ruler of the country - although ruling through the Emperor - from 1168 to 1180. Meanwhile, the Minamoto licked their wounds and waited for an opportunity to present itself.
The opportunity came in 1179, when Shigemori, the ambitious head of the Taira Clan, died and was succeeded by his vacillating brother, Muramori. Having failed once before to break the power of the shrewd Kiyomori and his clan, the now-retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa5 moved against the Taira and their new lord, dismissing many Taira officials. Kiyomori however did not go quietly, instead leading his troops into Heian, and displacing the Emperor Takakura in favour of his own grandson.
In need of warriors, Takakura went to the Taira's enemies for aid, and in 1180 Minamoto Yorimoto led his clan in arms against the Taira, in the first stages of the Gempei War. Eventually, the victory of Yorimoto brought an end to the Heian period. He made himself the leader of Japan, and set up a new capital in his home city of Kamakura, for which the new historical era is known. The system of government was simplified, and the new system, known as the Kamakura Bakufu6, made the samurai the ruling class.
Minamoto Yorimoto became the first man to bear the permanent title Shogun. The Age of the Samurai had dawned.