Samurai - Etymology of Samurai and Related Words

Etymology of Samurai and Related Words

The Term samurai originally meant "those who serve in close attendance to nobility", and was written in the Chinese character (or kanji) that had the same meaning. In Japanese, it was originally pronounced in the pre-Heian period as saburau and later as saburai, then samurai in the Edo period. In Japanese literature, there is an early reference to samurai in the Kokinshū (古今集, early 10th century):

Attendant to your nobility

Ask for your master's umbrella
The dews 'neath the trees of Miyagino

Are thicker than rain

The word bushi (武士, lit. "warrior or armsman") first appears in an early history of Japan called Shoku Nihongi (続日本記, AD 797). In a portion of the book covering the year AD 721, Shoku Nihongi states: "Literary men and Warriors are they whom the nation values". The term bushi is of Chinese origin and adds to the indigenous Japanese words for warrior: tsuwamono and mononofu.

Bushi was the name given to the ancient Japanese soldiers from traditional warrior families. The bushi class was developed mainly in the north of Japan. They formed powerful clans, which in the 12th century were against the noble families who were grouping themselves to support the imperial family who lived in Kyoto. Samurai was a word used by the Kuge aristocratic class with warriors themselves preferring the word bushi. The term Bushidō, the "way of the warrior," is derived from this term and the mansion of a warrior was called bukeyashiki.

The terms bushi and samurai became synonymous near the end of the 12th century, according to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai—Writings of Japanese Warriors. Wilson's book explores the origins of the word warrior in Japanese history as well as the kanji used to represent the word.

"Breaking down the character bu (武) reveals the radical (止), meaning "to stop," and an abbreviation of the radical (戈 ) "spear." The Shuo Wen, an early Chinese dictionary, gives this definition: "Bu consists of subduing the weapon and therefore stopping the spear." The Tso Chuan, another early Chinese source, goes further:

Bu consists of bun (文), literature or letters (and generally the arts of peace), stopping the spear. Bu prohibits violence and subdues weapons ... it puts the people at peace, and harmonizes the masses.

The radical shi (士) on the other hand seems to have originally meant a person who performs some function or who has the ability in some field. Early in Chinese history it came to define the upper class of society, and in the Book of Han this definition is given :

The shi, the farmer, the craftsman, and the tradesman are the four professions of the people. He who occupies his rank by means of learning is called a shi.

Wilson states that the shi, as the highest of the four classes, brandished the weapons as well as the books. bushi therefore translates as "a man who has the ability to keep the peace, either by literary or military means, but predominantly by the latter".

It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai was replaced with samurai. However, the meaning had changed long before that.

During the era of the rule of the samurai, the term yumitori (弓取, "bowman") was also used as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even though swordsmanship had become more important. (Japanese archery (kyujutsu) is still strongly associated with the war god Hachiman.)

A samurai with no attachment to a clan or daimyo (大名) was called a ronin (浪人). In Japanese, the word ronin means "wave man", a person destined to wander aimlessly forever, like the waves in the sea. The word came to mean a samurai who was no longer in the service of a lord because his lord had died, because the samurai had been banished or simply because the samurai chose to become a ronin.

The pay of samurai was measured in koku of rice (180 liters; enough to feed a man for one year). Samurai in the service of the han are called hanshi.

The following terms are related to samurai or the samurai tradition:

  • Uruwashii
    a cultured warrior symbolized by the kanji for "bun" (literary study) and "bu" (military study or arts)
  • Buke (武家)
    A martial house or a member of such a house
  • Mononofu (もののふ)
    An ancient term meaning a warrior.
  • Musha (武者)
    A shortened form of bugeisha (武芸者), lit. martial art man.
  • Shi (士)
    A word roughly meaning "gentleman," it is sometimes used for samurai, in particular in words such as bushi (武士, meaning warrior or samurai).
  • Tsuwamono (兵)
    An old term for a soldier popularized by Matsuo Bashō in his famous haiku. Literally meaning a strong person.

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