The word samurai is generally used to designate a wide variety of warriors from ancient Japan, although its true meaning is that of a military elite who ruled the country for hundreds of years.
The origin of the samurai dates from around the so-called tenth century and was strengthened at the end of the Genpei Wars at the end of the thirteenth century, when a military government was instituted under the figure of shōgun, by which the Emperor of Japan was in his shadow as a mere spectator of the political situation of the country. Its peak moment took place during the Sengoku period, a time of great instability and continuing power struggles between the different existing clans, so this stage in Japan’s history is referred to as the “period of the states at war.” The country’s military leadership would continue at the hands of this elite until the institution of the Tokugawa shogunate in the seventeenth century by a powerful samurai landowner (known as daimyō) called Tokugawa Ieyasu, who paradoxically, by becoming the highest authority by being named as shōgun, fought to reduce the privileges and social status of the warrior class, a process that finally culminated in his disappearance when the emperor resumed his role as ruler during the Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century.
Historically, the image of a samurai was more related to that of a horse archer than to that of a swordsman, and it was not until a relative peace reigned that the sword acquired the importance with which it is currently related; The fantasy and reality of the samurai has been intermingled and idealized and their stories have been the basis of both novels, as well as movies and comics.
Although there is no certainty of the exact origin of the word samurai, most historians agree that it has its origin in a variation of the verb, in ancient Japanese, saburau meaning “to serve,” so the derivative term saburai becomes “Those who serve.”
The first record that has been found of the word samurai dates from the eighteenth century and was not applied with a martial character, but was used to refer to domestic servants in charge of caring for the elderly. The word eventually derived to a military aspect and its meaning as we know it today arose with the Gunkimono, a series of stories of war of the thirteenth century thanks to which it has been possible to study the behavior, methodology and appearance of the military elite.
The terms bushi and samurai have been used as synonyms, but the difference is that the word bushi simply means “warrior” regardless of position or hierarchy, while the word samurai refers to the members of a military elite.