Practically everyone has heard the tales of Japan’s famous samurai warriors. There are movies and television shows about them, LEGO sets representing them, and even comic books and graphic novels that tell their story. But did they really exist?
Samurai did exist. Also known as the bushi, the samurai were some of the most fierce warriors in premodern Japan. They were experts with the sword, but they also used spears, bows and arrows, and even guns.
This article will shed more light on the samurai culture. It will discuss the period when samurai were most popular, who the last real samurai was, and why and when the era of the samurai finally ended.
Also see Did Samurai Know Martial Arts? to learn more.
When Did Samurai Exist?
Most people credit the years 1185 through 1868 as being the “age of the samurai,” but there were samurai warriors in Japan long before 1185.
Samurai began appearing in Japan’s Heian Period, which ranged from 794 to 1185. During that time, they were warriors and allies of affluent landowners. They played a pivotal part in a great war between two major clans from 1180 to 1185, ushering in the “age of the samurai” that began in 1185.
During this time, the mighty samurai were the real power in Japan, and their reign was a long one.
There were three central governments for the six-plus centuries of the samurai’s control. These were:
- The Kamakura – 1185-1333
- The Ashikaga – 1336-1573*
- The Tokugawa – 1600-1868
*Some sources credit the Ashikaga’s ruling years as being from 1338 to 1573 instead. 
Also see Did Samurai Have an Honor Code? to learn more.
What Does the Word ‘Samurai’ Mean?
Today, ‘samurai’ is defined as “any member of the Japanese warrior caste.” However, the word ‘samurai’ originally meant “to serve” or “to be in attendance.” Initially, samurai were called bushi. They took their name from their duties, which were to serve and fight for the ruling elite.
There were several different samurai clans, usually made up of powerful families and their allies. These clans fought for control of Japan. The three most well-known are those mentioned above: the Kamakura, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa.
They became famous because their attempts to rule Japan were successful, and they found themselves in power for some time. However, those three weren’t the only samurai clans in Japan. Others included:
- Asakura 
Also see Did Samurai Have Long Hair? to learn more.
Why Did the Samurai End?
The time of the samurai officially ended in 1868, though samurai existed until 1877. In 1868, there was a political revolution called the Honorable Restoration. (Today, it is known as the Meiji Restoration.) It ended not just the samurai’s position of power but also the samurai culture altogether.
Until that point, Japan had a feudal system of government. That was replaced with the imperial system, which ushered Japan into the modern world and united it against outside forces. 
None of that happened overnight, however. Though the official “end date” for samurai culture is recognized as 1868, Japan didn’t officially end feudalism until three years later, in 1871. It took another five years before samurai stipends were transferred over into government bonds. Japan also made it illegal for anyone other than members of the armed forces to carry swords.
The samurai code of conduct, though, wasn’t abolished. Instead, Japan adopted it – the bushido code – as the official “ruling moral code” of the country.  The government also chose Shinto as the national religion of Japan.
Several decades later, during World War II, Japan’s armed forces picked up their samurai swords once more, carrying them into battle and fighting to the death, following the samurai code of “death before dishonor.” However, for all intents and purposes, samurai culture ended shortly after the end of feudalism in 1868.
Who Was the Last Real Samurai?
History recognizes Saigo Takamori as the last samurai. He was a member of the Fujiwara clan and a descendant of the Kikuchi. Along with two others, he played a central role in the Meiji Restoration. Later, he led the Satsuma Rebellion against the Meiji government and died in the rebellion in 1877.
He started his career as a low-ranking samurai official. However, over the years, he gained much esteem and prestige for his roles in the various wars and restorations throughout Japan’s history.
Although he was instrumental in Japan’s shift from a feudal to an imperial government, things changed in 1877. Saigo had fought for change in Japan because he wanted a strengthened, more central, and modernized government and country. 
Once Japan had achieved that goal, Saigo set his sights on Korea, urging the new regime to attack, even going so far as to offer himself as a sacrificial lamb of sorts to put the plan in motion. The new Japanese government demurred, refusing to attack Korea at that time.
Unhappy with this decision, Saigo parted ways with the government – unhappy but peaceful – and returned to his home in Kagoshima. Many of the remaining samurai went with him, which made the new regime nervous. They were afraid the samurai would band together and attack, seeking to overthrow the newly created system.
Also see Did Samurai Have Tattoos? to learn more.
The Samurai’s Last Battle
To avoid this, the government sent a large contingent of Japan’s national armed forces to Kagoshima, which Saigo and the other samurai considered an aggressive act. They, led by 49-year-old Saigo Takamori, fought back. It was a futile fight; somewhere near 40,000 against the government’s 300,000 troops.
The two sides fought until only 400 samurai remained with nothing but the traditional samurai weapons of swords, bows, arrows, and spears. Saigo was shot, and according to legend, he committed the sacred samurai act of seppuku rather than allowing the Japanese army to capture or kill him.
Most historians, however, agree that he died from bullet wounds and that his men removed his head afterward to spread the story of him committing seppuku.
Either way, as Saigo Takamori died, so, too, did the samurai culture.
Samurai existed, and not so long ago as people think. They were pivotal in Japan’s history from 1185 through 1868. The last died in 1877.