In Japanese society, the samurai were influential members of the military caste system. These armored warriors grew to be significant figures in the 12th century. They were born at the dawn of military governments called the shogunate. Many were employed by feudal lords, called daimyo, to protect their territories from intruders.
were highly respected for their swordsmanship, prestige, and dedication to their lords. They are a well-known and captivating part of Japanese history and culture. Like knights, they pledged loyalty to their lords and country. However, the term “samurai” cannot accurately describe all sub-classes of warriors during the Japanese feudal period. Sometimes, a samurai would find himself without a master due to death or betrayal. These masterless samurai were known as “ronin.”
Ronin were nomadic warriors who lost their fief and noble sponsorship. They were banished to roam the country. Frequently, they lost their position in society by refusing to honor the traditions that were observed after the defeat of their masters. The story of the ronin is one of fascination, rebellion, and tragedy.
Though not considered traditional samurai, they helped shape Japanese culture and tradition. They are a lost chapter in Japan’s history—a chapter that longs to be retold. In this list, we will examine the fascinating world of ronin. Discover the little-known facts about these anti-hero warriors and learn what made them an adversary of the shogunate.
10 The True Meaning of the Term “Ronin”
The term “ronin” is allegedly derived from the Japanese characters meaning floating man. It can also be translated to mean “wandering man,” “wanderer,” or “wave man.” This is because ronin were considered directionless, like the waves of an ocean.
The phrase ronin first appeared in the Nara (710–794) and Hein periods (794–1185). The term described serfs who rebelled against their masters and ran away from service. It wasn’t until the Kamakura period (1185–1333) that the term came to be known throughout Japan. It was then used to describe samurai who had defied Japanese tradition and were forced to wander from place to place.
Other samurai and feudal lords imposed the ronin status to discriminate against warriors who rebelled. This was likely a way to discourage insubordination.
The word ronin was also used interchangeably with other terms such as “hired swords” or “mercenaries.” This is because many ronin resorted to banditry or hired themselves as bodyguards. Others became pirates or assassins who resisted the law.
9 Ronin Were Born Due to Cultural Shifts
Ronin became well-known during Japan’s Edo period (1600–1878). At this time, politics caused many samurai to shift into ronin. During the previous era, known as the Sengoku period, samurai were permitted to find new masters. The Bushido Code allowed for re-employment under a new daimyo if their current lord was killed in battle.
There was a constant need for warriors during this time, so most masterless samurai had a plethora of opportunities. Seppuku—often called “hara-kiri” in the West—was less popular with the samurai.
As the Edo period approached, Japan’s leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, united the country with the help of the shogunate. Because of this peaceful union, warriors became less in demand. As the Edo period continued, the Tokugawa shogunate began to enforce increasingly strict moral codes for samurai. They could no longer seek work under a new daimyo if their current lord died. They also could not take up a new trade, which left them with little to no options (aside from seppuku). This led many samurai to the vagrant path of the ronin. They had to survive using what they knew: their swords.
8 Ronin Were No Longer Considered Samurai
The shogunate created a strict social order that placed samurai as key members of the military hierarchy. Samurai served their masters, the daimyo. The daimyo served the shogun, and the shogun served the emperor (or king). Ronin did not have masters and were no longer a part of this elite hierarchy.
The samurai class looked down upon the ronin, who wanted nothing to do with them. Sometimes, ronin were referred to as “rogue samurai,” but this was most likely commoners who repeated this term. Samurai, by definition, means “those who serve.” Therefore, a ronin could not hold the title of samurai because they no longer had masters (daimyo) to serve.
7 Ronin Were Deemed Lower Class
Japan had a four-tier class system from the 12th to 19th centuries. Ronin were viewed as being of a lower social class than samurai and were grouped with the farmer/peasant class. This is because they were no longer employed by a lord and did not have the same privileges as those who were.
The feudal hierarchy of Japan considered ronin to be a disgrace. They were seen as men who had failed in their duty to their lord and country. It could be compared to a dishonorable discharge from the modern-day military. Although, the status of ronin was much more debilitating.
As a samurai, the primary purpose was to serve their daimyo. Without a master, they were considered dishonorable and without purpose. And because of the strict Bushido codes placed on samurai by the Tokugawa shogunate, many ronin further degenerated into criminals. It is hard to blame the ronin, as they were victims of a system that worked against them in many ways.
6 Ronin Shattered Japanese Tradition
Ronin were not only masterless warriors, but they were also deemed rebels. The same rules no longer bound them as traditional samurai. Ronin did not adhere to the samurai code of honor. This moral code dictated how a samurai was supposed to live and die. As ronin were no longer considered samurai, they were not held to practice the eight virtues of Bushido. But surely, some still used these virtues to live life. However, they did not have to abide as rigidly as they once did.
When a samurai’s master died, Bushido required warriors to perform seppuku or suffer incredible shame. Seppuku was a form of ritual suicide viewed as an honorable way to die. It involved stabbing and slicing open the belly with a tanto blade. Then the knife would be turned upward to deliver death.
However, ronin did not obey this tradition, hence why they came to be ronin. Most samurai performed seppuku if there was no chance of finding a new master. Others killed themselves to honor their deceased masters, even if they had the chance to find new employment.
5 Ronin Had a Notorious Reputation
The shogunate considered ronin to be unpredictable and dangerous. They were often associated with crime and violence. This was because many ronin resorted to criminal activities to make a living. Other warriors that desired to preserve some of their lost honor became mercenaries or bodyguards for the wealthy. Many ronin fell into career paths involving thievery, violence, and gangs. Their image became especially tainted during the Edo period.
Ronin were known to be excellent swordsmen due to their previous lives and training as samurai. They carried two swords like their samurai counterparts but also used many other weapons, such as bo staffs and bows. This made them some of the most deadly warriors for hire.
4 Ronin Often Rebelled against Authority
There have been numerous instances where groups of ronin took up arms against the shogunate and other authorities. The most famous case is the 47 Ronin, also referred to as the Akō Incident. The 47 Ronin was a group of masterless samurai who avenged their daimyo’s death in 1703, killing a court official named Kira Yoshinaka. This act of samurai loyalty and revenge was later turned into a popular play and movie.
Another famous example is the Keian Uprising of 1651. A group of ronin planned to force the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan to treat ronin with more respect. This military coup involved setting fires in the city of Edo and raiding the Edo castle. While it ultimately failed, it pushed the shogunate to relax restrictions on ronin and, additionally, on all samurai.
3 Some Samurai Desired to Become Ronin
While becoming a ronin was often looked down upon, some samurai aspired to this lifestyle. They believed they could live a freer and more honorable life without being bound by the revised Bushido Code. During the 19th century, the ronin movement became attractive to struggling samurai. The 260-year dictatorship of the Tokugawa was nearing an end.
Many desired to rid Japan of Westerners and restore the imperial family as rightful rulers of the country. In a turn of events, samurai willingly left their lords to become ronin. It is believed that these ronin inspired the Meiji Restoration, a time when the Tokugawa Shogunate (military government) was brought to its demise. This event ended the Edo period in 1867.
2 A Ronin Invented the Modern-Day Haiku
During the Edo period, a new independent form of poetry arose from the renga style. This poetic style, called hokku, was made popular by a ronin named Matsuo Basho. His poems were different from traditional Japanese poetry. He did not favor the current style known as haikai and renga. Instead, Basho began dissecting the arts, writing hokku with a 17-syllable structure. He called this “Shofu” or “Basho style.”
Basho’s work is considered one of the most essential inspirations for haiku. He is largely responsible for separating the hokku from its origins as part of renga poetry. His version of hokku transformed into the haiku later in the 19th century. Basho’s poem “An Old Pond!” is regarded as the oldest work representing the modern-day haiku.
1 Ronin Evolved over Time
As Japan transitioned out of feudalism, the role of ronin and samurai also changed. During the Meiji period, Japan underwent a large process of modernization. This led to the abolishment of the samurai class in 1876. Because of this, the warrior class had to adapt along with the rest of Japan. They went through a transition from “feudal vassal to patrimonial bureaucrat,” as historians would say.
The Meiji Restoration resulted in many ex-samurais joining the military or becoming teachers, farmers, or merchants. The Meiji Restoration brought about new opportunities for ronin and helped to redefine their place in Japanese society.