What Life Was Like As A Samurai In Feudal Japan

The way of the samurai: if you saw that Tom Cruise movie or played Ghost of Tsushima, you've probably got your finger on the pulse of the whole shebang, right? Surprise twist: it turns out it's a lot more complicated than that.

According to Ancient, it all started in the Heian Period (794-1185 CE). Military conscription had been brought to an end, and the business of running an army went privatized. If you were rich and owned land, you might have been interested in shelling out some ducats for your own private fighting force, especially if you were planning on spending a lot of time away from home. That's where the word "samurai" comes from: it literally means "attendant." For the first chapter of their collective existence, they were living scattershot lives in castles, barracks, and even their own homes, essentially serving as history's most badass house sitters.

Then, in the 12th century, a remarkable power shift occurred when the samurai took the same action honored throughout time by the underappreciated, overworked, and avaricious alike: they unionized.

Lots of swords, no Bactine

During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE), the samurai began to group together under the command of various warlords. The Imperial Court was an easy mark at this point, and, per Japan Guide, these warrior tribes had taken control of Japan by 1192.

Around this time, a code of conduct and disciplinary standards began to gestate. Different lifestyles were prescribed to different classes of samurai — mid-ranking goshi often served as both warriors and farmers, while hatamoto bannermen were treated more like high-ranking, authoritative officers, sometimes controlling their own districts. This is all being painted in pretty broad strokes. Across different regions and time periods, the roles assigned to samurai of all stations shifted heavily. Sometimes hatamoto were tax collectors. Sometimes they were cops.

The samurai experience can't be summed up in a few quick paragraphs or, for that matter, a weekend at one of the Delos Corporation's luxurious amusement parks. Their traditions reach back to the 10th century CE, and they continued to hold sway until the 1800s. It's a little like asking "what's it like to be a knight?" Difficult for the followers of Robert the Bruce, considerably easier for Ian McKellen.