The truth behind the image stems from their creation centuries ago. They began as simple farmers trying to protect their lands, but eventually transformed and evolved into elite soldiers, only to become obsolete as Japan modernized into the 20th century.
What is samurai? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes it as a military retainer of a Japanese daimyo practicing the code of conduct of Bushido; the warrior aristocracy of Japan. This definition leads us to ask what Bushido exactly entails. Why were samurai created and, why did they create such romanticized nostalgia in today's world?
The image of the samurai, in particular, has pervaded our daily lives to such an extent that we do not even notice. There have been numerous films, TV shows, and mini-series made about samurai, including The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa - 1954), Samurai Jack (Genndy Tartakovsky- 2001-2004), and Shogun (Jerry London – 1980) – not to mention all the novels created as well. While these deal directly with samurai as their subjects, the influence of samurai culture and philosophy can be seen everywhere. One of the most striking examples is the Star Wars series, in which Darth Vader's suit is reminiscent of samurai armor and also in the Jedi training process which is reminiscent of the samurai training process. This fascination is not simply a phenomenon in Japan or even the United States. This fanaticism extends all over the world with places like Britain and other European and Asian countries portraying samurai in their fictions and other works. Not only is the simple image emulated, but the very way of life of the Samurai is held in high regard; Bushido, Seppuku, and many other practices are looked at with great curiosity and also enacted from time to time. To better understand this fascination, we must first turn our attention to better understanding the subject of concern.
The role of the samurai originated in ancient times when bands of farmers began to come together and align themselves with each other in order to protect their lands. From there, their roles evolved and samurai became more like land proprietors. They were the rulers of the land until about the sixteenth century, when they “exchanged their rural patrimony for residence in the castle town... [and] the institutionalized right to rule society by virtue of their two-sworded status” . What this change did was put samurai under the guidance of daimyos and other higher officials as opposed to no real authority above them before. In essence, it marked the transition of Japanese medieval times into the beginning of the modern era. This metamorphosis, although allowing a great redistribution of wealth, was hurtful to the samurai because they lost many of their privileges and authority in the villages. Conversely, they did gain status in the society, security (both financial and biological), and monetary benefits.
In 1559, a certain Register, which compiled a list of the samurai's retainers' landholdings, was created. With this information, the government was able to formulate a pseudo-army like structure, and with the changing profile of warfare (such as the need for more soldiers and the advent of modern technology like the rifle) there came a need for a larger and larger amount of soldiers who would fall into rank and file. By the second half of the century, battles had already shifted from the glory of a single samurai and his prowess to well-organized fights that did not allow for independent glory. This setup of battles made it easier to distinguished between lower-level samurai and higher-level samurai. The role of the samurai had continued its evolution and it would not stop here.
This distinction eventually led to the formation of the four classes division of the samurai based on geographic region. However, this did not help simplify the idea of samurai. In fact, it became even more complex to tell who was considered a samurai. While samurai were thought of as those living in the castle towns previously, the increased number of samurai could not be contained within the castles, so there were numerous samurai in the villages. These warriors were considered the lower samurai while the castle warriors were the higher samurai. This distinction is important only because historians have divided these warriors as such and because it allows for an easier method of understanding later developments.
During the Tokugawa era, the two divisions of samurai became the retainers of the Shogun (the higher level samurai) and the retainers of the daimyo (the lower level samurai). The Shogun retainers were banner-men and housemen while the daimyo retainers were lower and were not granted audience with the shogun. The difference between the two can be put simply (although not completely accurately) as soldiers of the army under the Shogun being the higher level, and the lower level being personal guards and hired hands for the daimyos, or feudal lords. This separation, as well as the developments of the political structure in Japan, eventually led to the slow downfall of the warrior class. However, that was a long way coming, and the samurai occupation would have to endure yet more changes.
The samurai class transformed from its military position into a more administrative position, as there was no wars occurring at the time. They had evolved from the small-time fighters to intelligent bureaucrats. As Nippon prospered during this era, so did the economy. However, this effect towards the economy soon resulted in grievances from the samurai (especially the ruling samurai). Traditionally, it was believed that the samurai's disapproval resulted from the increasing poverty they felt. While this point has its validity, one study takes into account what it exactly means to have increasing poverty. This study suggests an analogy where the samurai have a fixed income rate in a growing economy, in effect “providing higher real incomes to others within the economy” . As expected this led to discontent amongst the ruling samurai class and became one of the causes of the eventual downfall of the Tokugawa.
Other sources of discontent include “political conflicts over national policy within the ruling Tokugawa coalition of daimyo, the spread of formal education and growing respect (at least in principle) for individual ability among the samurai, and the feeling of intellectual isolation... Insecurity of status and feelings of social discrimination in the samurai class may have been another important reason for growing disenchantment with the status quo” .
In 1853, some samurai saw a hope that they would return to their former purpose when Perry arrived, however when later generations looked back upon the preceding events, they understood why “the Meiji state took away [their] swords and topknot” . These samurai could see that the Tokugawa had failed to perpetuate and maintain itself for two reasons: “To perpetuate itself, the Tokugawa would have had to share in the increasing agricultural output, for only then would it have been able to withstand the increasing need for cash in the increasingly monetized commercialized economy. To maintain itself, the Bakufu would have required the loyal support of an economically well-rewarded samurai class. The Tokugawa Shogunate failed on both counts” . In effect, the failures of the regime can be said to draw from its inability to appease its two biggest groups.
As the Tokugawa faded, Japan was already well on its way to modernizing as a result of Perry. By the end of the Shogunate, they had already acquired multiple western-styled battleships and the army had lost the need for swordsmen. Seeing this need for reform, the Meiji era fostered in an official army (as opposed to the previously exclusive samurai class of soldiers). The transition to the Meiji era was similar to the onset of the Tokugawa because the samurai were once again compensated for their forced change. The samurai lost their prestige, but were monetarily stipened in order to aid their transition to normal citizens.
The samurai had no problem doing this, as they played an integral part in bringing about the Restoration. They had had enough discontent with the Tokugawa. Unfortunately, this new era left the samurai with no apparent function – they had become obsolete as far as the rest of Japan was concerned. The Meiji government stripped them of their grants, their pensions, their authority, and their special place in society. However, “despite the wholesale deprivation of traditional status and role in these early years, the samurai remained very much a class” . The members of the class, although stripped of everything, could not be stripped of their pride in the fact that they were samurai. As government officials began to recognize this, they came up with the idea to push for samurai involvement in business and industry. “Among the most delicate of the reforms was the disestablishment of... a group that comprised five or six percent of a population of some thirty million" . This plan succeeded as numerous samurai entered the economic force and helped forge a new path in Japanese economy. Former samurai entered the government for work at a great percentage, and other entered law enforcement, education, and military. “And it may be, then, that the rapid transformation of Japanese society in the Meiji era was in large measure achieved because of the tools, training, education, leadership, and experience brought to it by members of the former feudal class” .
A few extreme cases needed more persuasion for them to end their samurai lifestyle, and a special rehabilitation program was designed for these members. “In December of 1871, after limited experimentation, the Meiji government took its first step in formulation of a samurai rehabilitation program when it promulgated the so-called commercial law” . This new law basically decreed that samurai could take up any job that they wanted. Even with these adjustments, samurai did not always have a permanent solution to their financial problems. Many scholars have differing thoughts on the success level of the samurai in the new age. Some argue that the samurai resulted in the success of the Meiji era while others argue that the samurai were unable to adapt to the Meiji era and were lost into the pages of history. In reality, a combination of both is probably true. The samurai were sure to have made an impact in the Meiji times, but there are always exceptions to the rule, and many samurai are sure to have faded into obscurity as failure ensued upon them. In modern days, the effects of the Meiji Restoration are still rippling as Japan has now become one of the world's leading economies.
While the samurai may have affected the world most in economic implications, there are other areas that were also affected. One such area is the Japanese military, which forms a basis from samurai tactics. This effect deals a lot with the samurai ideal of Bushido. “In its origins Bushido was the moral code of conduct of the bushi (samurai) or military class of pre-modern Japan and the first systematic exposition of Bushido was written in the mid-seventeenth century at a time when the function of the warrior class was changing from that of being strictly military to that of also providing the political, bureaucratic and intellectual leadership in the centralized feudal state being developed by the Tokugawa Shoguns” . While the ideals of Bushido were not completely followed, the Japanese soldiers took inspiration from the code, and used many of its points in their own lives. Certain points such as no fear of death and utmost obedience to superiors were highlighted by the military. These points are still highlighted today.
Other influences left by the samurai have less profound implications. They include the popular image of samurai. In films, books, and even advertisements samurai have been depicted as mystical figures with superhuman abilities and charm. Much of these images have been romanticized to a grand extent. As a result, the image given by the media has taken on a caricature personification. A very persistent and prominent example of this comes in the form of teenage turtles that fight crime while living in the sewers of America – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While they are named ninjas, they look and act more like a samurai. The creators of the show use the romanticized image of samurai to create a commercial product which can make them money. “Their images sell everything from cookies to dolls, cereal to towels, and their characters make special appearances in shopping malls and in the imaginations of young boys 'Ninja turtle-kicking' their way through elementary school and into the nurses' offices” . The image of the samurai here has been reduced to a tool for economic benefit, and many other such images exist.
Sometimes the images are negative, as in the crazed evil samurai of old films. Sometimes they are meant for comedy, as in the Saturday Night Live Skit of the Deli Samurai, and yet some are neutral or even positive as in the case of the popular children's cartoon Samurai Jack. There are just two common factors amongst these items: one, they all involve some image of samurai, and two, they are all made for the purpose of economic gain .
In conclusion, the samurai have had an impactful and ever-changing history. They originated from mere farmers and peasants banding together to become an elite warrior class and back to normal citizens. While samurai have usually been at the top of Japanese society, they fell pretty far below during the Meiji restoration. They were looked down during that time by the average citizens, who had been fed up with being dominated by the “elite.” Often times they were spit upon, kicked around, and harassed in many other ways and forced to cut off their top knots. The only way to escape this treatment was to assimilate into the new era by becoming businessmen or government officials of some sort.
As the samurai were able to escape their harassment, they made a grand impact in the economy by adding to the number of businesses and strengthening the industry with a large addition to the workforce. The most resounding effect left by the samurai in today's society is the economic boon they gave Japan. With their aid, Japan was able to speed into its miraculous growth in the 1800s and enter the age of modern states.
The samurai also left a mark on the Japanese military by creating a template from which the army could gain ideas and create defenses. While the new constitution of Japan does not allow for invasions, the samurai's Bushido was effectively incorporated in their defense force with each member willing to give his life for complete obedience of the state.
Probably the most prevalent effect left by the samurai is the popular images that exist. Children and adults are equally captivated by the lore that they have left behind. This is significant as it often influences dealing between the west and Japan.
Birt, Michael P.; “Samurai in Passage: The Transformation of the Sixteenth-Century Kanto” Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2; The Society for Japanese Studies (Summer, 1985); p. 369
 Yamamura, Kozo; “The Increasing Poverty of the Samurai in Tokugawa Japan, 1600-1868” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 31, No. 2; Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Economic History Association (Jun., 1971); p. 402
Moore, Ray A.; “Samurai Discontent and Social Mobility in the Late Tokugawa Period” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 24, No. ½; Sophia University (1969), pp. 79-80
 Birt, Michael P.; “Samurai in Passage: The Transformation of the Sixteenth-Century Kanto” Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2; The Society for Japanese Studies (Summer, 1985); p. 399
 Yamamura, Kozo; “The Increasing Poverty of the Samurai in Tokugawa Japan, 1600-1868” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 31, No. 2; Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Economic History Association (Jun., 1971); p. 403
 Harootunian, Harry D.; “The Progress of Japan and the Samurai Class, 1868-1882” The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 28, No. 3; University of California Press (Aug., 1959); p. 257
 Masatoshi, Sakeda; Akita, George; “The Samurai Disestablished. Abei Iwane and His Stipend” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 41, No. 3; Sophia University (Autumn, 1986); pp. 299-330
Harootunian, Harry D.; “The Progress of Japan and the Samurai Class, 1868-1882” The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 28, No. 3; University of California Press (Aug., 1959); p. 266
 Harootunian, Harry D.; “The Economic Rehabilitation of the Samurai in the Early Meiji Period” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4; Association for Asian Studies (Aug., 1960); p. 435
 Holmes, Colin; Ion, A. H.; “Bushidō and the Samurai: Images in British Public Opinion, 1894-1914” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2; Cambridge University Press (1980); p. 310
 Cobb, Nora Okja; “ Behind the Inscrutable Half-Shell: Images of Mutant Japanese and Ninja Turtles” MELUS, Vol. 16, No. 4, Toward the Multiculture; The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (Winter, 1989 - Winter, 1990), p. 90
 An interesting point to note is the idea of a perfect fighter in Japan and the West. In Japan, the samurai were normal framed men of no particular physical prowess, but in the West, knights were expected to be large strong-muscled men without flaws. The images of samurai these days suggest that samurai need not even be in proper conditioning – such as the blind swordsman Zatoichi – which once again adds to the lure of the samurai.