In Japanese society, samurai were influential members of the military caste system. These armed warriors became significant figures in the 12th century. They were born at the dawn of military governments called the shogunate. Many were employed by feudal lords, called daimyo, to protect their territories from intruders.
Samurai they were highly respected for their swordsmanship, their prestige, and their dedication to their lords. They are a well-known and captivating part of Japanese history and culture. As knights, they swore allegiance to their lords and to the country. However, the term “samurai” cannot accurately describe all subclasses of warriors during the Japanese feudal period. Sometimes a samurai found himself without a master due to death or betrayal. These masterless samurai were known as “ronin”.
The ronin were nomadic warriors who lost their fiefdom and noble patronage. They were banished to wander the country. They often lost their position in society by refusing to honor the traditions that were observed after the defeat of their masters. The story of the ronin is one of fascination, rebellion, and tragedy.
Although they are not considered traditional samurai, they helped shape Japanese culture and tradition. They are a lost chapter in Japan’s history, a chapter longing to be retold. In this list, we will examine the fascinating world of the ronin. Discover the little-known facts about these anti-hero warriors and find out what made them adversaries of the shogunate.
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10 The true meaning of the term “Ronin”
The term “ronin” is supposedly derived from the Japanese characters meaning floating man. It can also be translated as “wandering man”, “vagrant” or “man of the waves”. This is because the ronin considered themselves directionless, like the waves of an ocean.
The phrase ronin first appeared in the Nara (710–794) and Hein (794–1185) periods. The term described serfs who rebelled against their masters and fled the service. It was not until the Kamakura period (1185-1333) that the term became known throughout Japan. It was then used to describe samurai who had defied Japanese tradition and were forced to wander from one place to another.
Other samurai and feudal lords imposed the status of ronin to discriminate against warriors who rebelled. This was probably a way to discourage insubordination.
The word ronin was also used interchangeably with other terms such as “swords-for-hire” or “mercenaries”. This is because many ronin resorted to brigandage or hired themselves as bodyguards. Others became pirates or assassins who resisted the law.
9 The ronin were born due to cultural changes
Ronin became famous during Japan’s Edo period (1600–1878). At that time, politics caused many samurai to become ronin. During the previous era, known as the Sengoku period, samurai were allowed to find new teachers. The Bushido Code allowed for reemployment under a new daimyo if their current lord was killed in battle.
There was a constant need for warriors during this time, so most masterless samurai had plenty of opportunities. Seppuku, often called “hara-kiri” in the West, was less popular with samurai.
As the Edo period approached, Japan’s leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi united the country with the help of the shogunate. Due to this peaceful union, warriors became less in demand. As the Edo period continued, the Tokugawa shogunate began to impose ever stricter moral codes for samurai. They could no longer seek work under a new daimyo if their current master died. They were also unable to take up a new trade, leaving them with few or no options (other than seppuku). This led many samurai to the wandering path of the ronin. They had to survive using what they knew: their swords.
8 Ronin were no longer considered samurai.
The shogunate created a strict social order that placed the samurai as key members of the military hierarchy. The samurai served their masters, the daimyo. The daimyo served the shogun, and the shogun served the emperor (or king). The ronin had no masters and were no longer part of this elite hierarchy.
The samurai class looked down on the ronin, who wanted nothing to do with them. Ronin were sometimes referred to as “rogue samurai”, but the term was most likely repeated by commoners. Samurai, by definition, means “those who serve.” Therefore, a ronin could not hold the title of samurai because he no longer had masters (daimyo) to serve.
7 Ronin were considered lower class
Japan had a four-level class system from the 12th to the 19th century. Ronin were considered to be of a lower social class than samurai and were grouped with the farmer/peasant class. This is because they were no longer employed by a lord and did not have the same privileges as those who were.
The feudal hierarchy of Japan considered the ronin a disgrace. They were seen as men who had failed in their duty to their lord and his country. It could be compared to a dishonorable discharge from the modern army. Although, the state of the ronin was much more debilitating.
As a samurai, the main objective was to serve his daimyo. Without a master, they were considered dishonorable and purposeless. And due to the strict Bushido codes imposed on samurai by the Tokugawa shogunate, many ronin degenerated further into criminals. It’s hard to blame the ronin, as they fell victim to a system that wronged them in so many ways.
6 Ronin Shattered Japanese Tradition
The ronin were not only warriors without a master, but were also considered rebels. They are no longer subject to the same rules as traditional samurai. Ronin did not adhere to the samurai code of honor. This moral code dictated how a samurai was supposed to live and die. Since ronin were no longer considered samurai, they were not required to practice the eight virtues of Bushido. But surely, some still used these virtues to live life. However, they did not have to stick to it as rigidly as before.
When a samurai’s master died, Bushido required the warriors to perform seppuku or suffer incredible shame. Seppuku was a form of ritual suicide seen as an honorable way to die. It involved stabbing and opening the belly with both a blade. The knife would then be turned up to deliver the kill.
However, the ronin did not obey this tradition, so they became ronin. Most samurai performed seppuku if there was no chance to find a new master. Others committed suicide to honor their deceased teachers, even if they had the chance to find new employment.
5 Ronin had a notorious reputation
The shogunate considered ronin unpredictable and dangerous. They were often associated with crime and violence. This was because many ronin turned to criminal activities to earn a living. Other warriors who wished to preserve some of their lost honor became mercenaries or bodyguards for the wealthy. Many ronin fell into careers associated with theft, violence, and gangs. His image was especially tainted during the Edo period.
Ronin were known to be excellent swordsmen due to their previous lives and training as samurai. They carried two swords like their samurai counterparts, but also used many other weapons, such as bo staffs and bows. This made them some of the deadliest warriors-for-hire.
4 Ronin often rebelled against authority
There have been numerous cases where groups of ronin took up arms against the shogunate and other authorities. The most famous case is that of the 47 Ronin, also known as the Akō Incident. The 47 Ronin were a group of masterless samurai who avenged the death of their daimyo in 1703 by killing a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. This samurai act of loyalty and revenge was later made into a popular stage play and film.
Another famous example is the Keian Uprising of 1651. A group of ronin planned to force the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan to treat the ronin with more respect. This military coup involved burning down the city of Edo and storming Edo Castle. Although he ultimately failed, he did pressure the shogunate to relax restrictions on ronin and, furthermore, on all samurai.
3 Some samurai wished to become ronin
While becoming a ronin was often looked down upon, some samurai aspired to this lifestyle. They believed that they could live a freer and more honorable life without being bound by the revised Bushido Code. During the 19th century, the ronin movement became attractive to samurai in distress. The Tokugawa dictatorship of 260 years was coming to an end.
Many wanted to rid Japan of Westerners and restore the imperial family as the country’s rightful rulers. In a turn of events, samurai voluntarily abandoned their masters to become ronin. These ronin are believed to have inspired the Meiji Restoration, a time when the Tokugawa Shogunate (military government) was driven to its demise. This event ended the Edo period in 1867.
2 A Ronin invented the modern Haiku
During the Edo period, a new form of poetry emerged independent of the renga style. This style of poetry, called hokku, was popularized by a ronin named Matsuo Basho. His poems were different from traditional Japanese poetry. He did not favor the current style known as haikai and renga. Instead, Basho began to dissect the arts, writing hokku with a 17-syllable structure. He called this “Shofu” or “Basho style”.
Basho’s work is considered one of the most essential inspirations for haiku. He is largely responsible for separating hokku from its origins as part of renga poetry. The hokku version of him was made into haiku later in the 19th century. Basho’s poem “An Old Pond!” it is considered the oldest work representing modern haiku.
1 Ronin evolved over time
As Japan emerged from feudalism, the role of the ronin and samurai also changed. During the Meiji period, Japan underwent a great process of modernization. This led to the abolition of the samurai class in 1876. Because of this, the warrior class had to adapt along with the rest of Japan. They went through a transition from “feudal vassal to patrimonial bureaucrat”, as historians would say.
The Meiji Restoration resulted in many former samurai joining the military or becoming teachers, farmers, or merchants. The Meiji Restoration created new opportunities for the ronin and helped redefine their place in Japanese society.
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