In the early Middle Ages-say, before the twelfth century-the soldiers of the Mikado's palace were said to samurau, that is, "be on guard" there. But when feudalism came in, the word Samurai was taken to denote the entire warrior class. "Warriors," "the military class," "the gentry," are perhaps the best English renderings of the word; for it was of the essence of Old Japan that all gentlemen must be soldiers, and all soldiers gentlemen.
The training, the occupations, the code of honour, the whole mental atmosphere of the Samurai exhibited a striking similarity to those of our own nobility and gentry during the Middle Ages. With them, as with us, obedience unquestioning and enthusiastic was yielded to feudal superiors, to monarchs ruling by right divine,-obedience even unto death. With them, as with us, it was birth and breeding that counted, not money. The Samurai's word was his bond, and he was taught to be gentle as well as brave. Doubtless, some well-marked shades of local colour distinguished Japanese chivalry from that of the West. The practice of suicide (harakiri) as part of the code of honour, where our own ancestors had the duel, at once occurs to the mind as a special feature. Even more so does the absence of gallantry towards the fair sex. No Japanese Ariosto would have dreamt of beginning his epic of chivalry with the words
Le donne, i cavalier, l'arme, gli amori, Le cortesie, l'audaci imprese io canto."God and the ladies!" was the motto of the European knight. But neither God nor the ladies inspired any enthusiasm in the Samurai's breast. Still, it is impossible not to see that, despite varying details, the same general trend of conditions produced kindred results on the two opposite sides of the globe. It is to be observed, too, that in Japan as in Europe the living reality of the earlier chivalry faded at last, under a centralised absolutism, into pageant and etiquette, though in the East as in the West a strong tinge of chivalrous feeling has survived in the upper class even to the present day.
The Japanese craze for altering names was exemplified in 1878, by the change of the historical and genuinely native word Samurai to that of Shizoku, a Chinese term of precisely the same meaning. Under this new designation, the Samurai still continue to exist, as one of the three classes into which Japanese society is divided.
In the feudal times, which lasted till A. D. 1871, the Samurai lived in his Daimyō's castle, attended his Daimyō on all occasions, and received from him rations for himself and his family,-rations which were calculated in so many koku, that is, bags of rice, annually. One of the early measures of the new Imperial administration was to commute these incomes for a lump sum, to be paid in government bonds. Optional at first, in 1873, the commutation was rendered obligatory by a second edict published in 1876. Since that time, many of the Samurai -unaccustomed as they had been to business and to the duty of working for their livelihood-have fallen into great misery. The more clever and ambitious, on the other hand, practically constitute the governing class of the country at the present day, their former lords and masters, the Daimyōs, having lagged behind in the race, and there being still a sufficient remnant of aristocratic spirit to render the rise of a plebeian to any position of importance a matter of considerable difficulty.
Books recommended - Almost every older work on Japan necessarily mentions the Samurai at every turn. See more particularly Mitford Tales of Old Japan for some of their famous feats of arms, McClatchie Feudal Mansions of Yedo ("Asiatic Transac tions", Vol. VII.) for the houses they inhabited, Nitobe Bushido for a theoretical discussion of Japanese chivalry and its moral code. The value of this last book, which is written by a Japanese in excellent English, is considerably impaired by the fact that the author has taken, not mediæval Europe, but modern America as his standard of comparison with feudal Japan. The contrast between Eastern and Western social evolution, which in reality is chiefly one of time (Japan having developed along the same lines as Europe, but more slowly), is thus made to figure as one of place and race.