If you must grasp Japanese history in a nutshell, it is useful to envision five hills lined up in a row; five bell curves, if you will.
The first is the period spanning “Kamiyo” to the end of the Heian Period (around 1192). “Kamiyo” means “age of the gods” and is largely a period known through oral legends. Jinmu Tenno, the great-great-great-grandson of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, started from a place called Nakatsu Kuni (literally Middle Earth) and conquered eastward until he united all of known Japan of the time. This supposedly happened in 7th century B.C. He became the first emperor of Japan. Although some records of early Japan can be found in Chinese documents, written history did not begin in Japan until the 7th century A.D. Japan began to “modernize” and build a more structured form of government, based on the bureaucratic system in China, in the late 6th century. The architect of the reform, Prince Shotoku admonished his subjects to preserve “wa” (peace) at all costs, which pretty much suggests that Japanese rulers up to this point were a rather violent bunch. They tried to build a capitol city, in Nara, Fujiwara, and finally Kyoto (794 A.D.). The emperor gradually lost power and his regents ruled the government. The imperial aristocrats took the “wa” business seriously. Killing was deemed a vile and low class vocation. The “kebiishi”, armed law enforcers who patrolled Kyoto, were not even given official ranks in government and called “office-less mandarin”. As a branch of government, they did not officially exist. The aristocrats dealt with all matters related to violence at arm’s length, which gave rise to a new social class who specialized in the killing business; the samurai.
There are tons of medieval literature dealing with this period. The Tale of Genji, often said to be the world’s oldest novel, is set in the pre-samurai Heian era, and deals mostly with the amorous ways of the aristocracy. Modern fiction involving the first bell curve deal with the decadent decline of the era, such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Toyoda’s Portrait of Hell (both of which are based on short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke).
The second bell curve began as the first bell curve waned. In 1185, after much romanticized drama and glorified bloodshed, Minamoto Yoritomo, the heir of the Minamoto clan, became the shogun, a position appointed by the emperor. He built his office in Kamakura, 30km south west of modern Yokohama, which became the Kamakura shogunate. The shogun’s office was placed far from Kyoto to avoid imperial influence and the shogunate soon started behaving like the de facto ruling body of Japan. Almost immediately, the shogun became a figurehead and power was held by his regents, the Hojo clan. The imperial aristocracy maintained their influence by marrying their daughters to powerful samurai, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the shogun. Eventually, the shogun and his close associates became cultured and foppish. They would read poetry and appreciate incense burning. In the late 13th century, Kublai Klan would make two attempts to invade Japan. The invasions are successfully repelled, but the expenditures sapped at the shogunate’s strength and eventually, this bell curve also waned.
The drama surrounding the rise of Minamoto Yoritomo, and the consequent fall of his rival Taira Kiyomori, is the regular staple and the fundamental template of samurai literature. The decline of this period did not become a source of popular fiction until modern times.
Between 1333 and 1336, as the shogunate fell apart, Emperor Godaigo saw an opportunity to revive the imperial throne and bring power back to the emperor. But times had changed and the old ways of the aristocracy had not. His ambition was met with failure, a schism formed in the imperial throne, the emperor once again became a figurehead, and a new shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, started a new shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. This was the beginning of the third bell curve, the Muromachi shogunate. Since this shogunate began with the suppression of clans allied with Emperor Godaigo, and supporting an alternate imperial throne, it had more power over the emperor than the previous shogunate. But eventually, as the schism was annulled and the throne united, and aristocrats sought influence through intermarriage with the shogun and his regents, the shogunate once again became cultured and foppish. The 8th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa was so engaged in the arts, he is credited for creating the Japanese culture that we know today; one of subdued and austere aesthetics. However, he was a total disaster as a politician. He let his wife, Hino Tomiko, get involved with government and fight with his regents over power. The confusion eventually lead to Onin Wars (1467) which snowballed into the Sengoku Period, the Period of the Warring Lords. Japan became a free for all and any one of the regional war lords could gain supremacy over others. Most notably, Hideyoshi who started his life as a peasant farmer boy went on to rule Japan. This mouse-eats-cat situation continued as the bell curve of the Muromachi shogunate waned.
Out of the multitudes of war lords vying for power, Oda Nobunaga eventually became the de facto ruler of Japan. Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the last shogun of the Muromachi era, sent letters to various samurai clans “ordering” them to attack Nobunaga. The war lords complied only as long as it was convenient for them. They saw the edicts as justifications to ally and overthrow Nobunaga. But as Nobunaga destroyed his enemies one by one, the shogun’s edicts became increasingly irrelevant. By the time an official letter arrived from the emperor discharging Yoshiaki from office (1573), the shogun was as powerless as the emperor himself. After the death of Nobunaga (1582), power would shift to Hashiba Hideyoshi (later Toyotomi Hideyoshi), then finally to Tokugawa Ieyasu who established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo). This era, between the final waning of the Muromachi shogunate and the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, by coincidence overlaps with the life of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). This is the era most often depicted in samurai fiction, including James Clavell’s Shogun and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress.
The Tokugawa shogunate was established in 1603, but Hideyoshi’s clan would not perish until 1615. This is the beginning of the forth bell curve, the Edo era. The shogun appointed “metsuke” (inspectors) to maintain law and order among commoners and low level samurais, and “oometsuke” (grand inspectors) to suppress rogue action by the regional lords. The first grand inspector was the celebrated ninja Yagyu Munefuyu, brother of the legendary Yagyu Jubei. But as prolonged peace extended over centuries, the grand inspectors stopped sending assassins to keep the lords in line, but switched to subtly changing seating arrangements at official functions to punish the lords for various transgressions. By the time Western gunships arrived in Edo harbor, the shogunate was ill equipped to fend off foreign invasions. But regional lords, particularly the ones whose position in government was low due to fighting on the wrong side against the Tokugawas in the early days, were quietly modernizing their forces. As the Tokugawa shogunate waned, the regional lords would form the backbone of the new Imperial Japanese government.
The prolonged peace of the Edo period resulted in the prosperity of the masses, and for the first time, widespread literacy among the commoners. Wood block printing not only produced beautiful art for mass consumption, but numerous popular books. Kabuki plays, joruri puppet theater, and many forms of stylized story telling, such as kodan and rakugo became popular. Many of these works dealt with the lives of commoners. Others dealt with historical stories.
The end game of the last shogunate, called bakumatsu, is another era often depicted in samurai fiction. The movie Last Samurai with Tom Cruise comes to mind.
Thus comes the fifth bell curve. In 1866, the shogun officially gave power back to the emperor. But of course the emperor did not have the means to govern. Even though the shogun was overthrown by an alliance of regional lords, bureaucrats of the shogunate were needed to run the country. This class of shogunate aristocracy had intermarried with the imperial aristocracy over the centuries and had more affinity with the imperial society than the regional lords who put the emperor in power (albeit as a figurehead). The two kinds of samurais would struggle for power while Japan went through rapid modernization, repelled Western colonizers, and started colonizing its Asian neighbors. The problem really surfaced when the military, mostly controlled by regional clans and low level samurai, and the foreign ministry, controlled by imperial aristocracy, could not agree on foreign policy, especially what kind of wars to wage. Japan delved into militarism while the key players wrestled over the steering wheel. The emperor was a figurehead. Tojo became a figurehead. Many layers below them became figureheads of various interests. The mighty Japanese empire went into a tailspin that culminated in the dropping of two atomic bombs.
One of the things General Douglas MacArthur did after the war was to ban the possession of samurai swords permanently. Numerous priceless swords were destroyed. It took a lot of petitioning to get the Americans to understand that some of these swords were irreplaceable art pieces. Japanese citizens would eventually own swords again but the samurai class would never be the same. Land owning gentry had their lands confiscated and an entire social class was systematically destroyed. That was the end of the fifth bell curve.
People speak of “The Last Samurai” as if there was only one. But the age of the samurai ended three times: Once at the end of the Sengoku era, once at the end of the Edo era, and once at the end of WWII. Meanwhile, the Onin Wars is said to be the end of the imperial aristocratic lifestyle. But the strange rivalry between the aristocracy and the samurai continue in different forms. You might say that a sixth bell curve came after WWII when a new democratic Japan rose to the position of an economic giant. But that does not fit with the picture of previous five bell curves of Japanese power. Postwar Japan seems like a new entity. A place where no samurai would ever live.