Some of the policies adopted by the WW2 Japanese army , seem to be along the lines of the ancient samurai code of Bushido. Policies such as extreme loyalty to the emperor , honor unto death and suicidal warfare.

My question is about the missing connection/link between these two era of Japanese history.

How did modernization of Japan in the Early twentieth century affect the Samurai, and why was there such a strong influence of the samurai on the Japanese army who followed similar methods of warfare ?

Were there any officers in the Japanese army, who were descendants of the samurai ? If there were such officers/soldiers, did they wear any insignia on their uniforms, to mark their samurai legacy ?

Were these officers/soldiers allowed to wield any other weapons or the samurai katana, apart from the standard issue firearms ?

4 Answers 4


The Meiji Restoration that took place between 1868 - 1912 saw many of the traditional rights and privileges of the Samurai class drastically changed or removed entirely.

In 1869 all Samurai were renamed as Shizoku and the Samurai class ceased to exist.

In 1869 members of the samurai class and quasi-samurai were legally categorized as either shizoku or sotsuzoku. In 1872 sotsuzoku were categorized as shizoku or as seimin (common people). The word shizoku, therefore, denoted a former samurai, and 3 million Japanese fell into this category in 1872.

Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History, Hunter. J., University of California Press

Subsequently, Shizoku saw many of their traditional rights stripped away. The right to carry swords was abolished, conscription in the Imperial Japanese Army was implemented and the traditional stipends payed to Samurai were converted to be government bonds.

The book quoted above goes on to say that these changes combined to undermine the traditionally privileged position of the Samurai. Despite this, the Shizoku began to dominate the social, political and economic life of Meiji Japan. However, the importance of the class was further eroded when the class of an individual was no longer officially recorded from 1914, making the term an indicator of Samurai heritage more than it was a privileged position.

This was a fractious time, and the changes being made caused several rebellions stemming from the Shizoku class, as well as peasant classes. One example of such a rebellion is the Satsuma Rebellion that took place in 1877.

In 1871 the first units of the Imperial Japanese Army were formed.

In early 1871, when a force of about 10,000 men drawn from the feudal armies was organized, Yamagata was promoted to vice minister of military affairs. This Imperial Force was later renamed the Imperial Guard (Konoe), and Yamagata became its commander.

Encyclopedia Britannica, Yamagata Aritomo

The encyclopedia only states that the men were drawn from feudal armies so we can assume that the majority of the men were once either Samurai or Ashigaru (Professional Foot soldiers employed by Samurai).

Evidence of the of importance of the Shizoku in it's formation can be drawn from the fact that the commander of the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army, Yamagata Aritomo was a member of a Samurai family from the Choshu domain and that the initial commander of the Imperial Guard, Saigo Takamori (the eventual leader of the Satsuma Rebellion), who was a Samurai from the Satsuma domain.

Further more, there are many other examples of members of the Shizuko class holding high rank in World War 2. One of the most well known examples of this is Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of Japanese forces during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi was born in 1891 to a minor Samurai family in the Hanishina District, Nagano prefecture.

The Imperial Japanese Army did not issue any insignia or special weapons to officers drawn from the Shizoku, but the influence of the Samurai culture can still be seen. When specifically looking at the IJA in WW2, a sword known as the Shin Gunto was issued to NCOs and Officers of the IJA between 1935 and 1945. While different swords were issued to NCOs and Officers of different ranks there was no special variant issued to Shizoku. (The Japanese Army 1931-45 (2): 1942-45, Philip S. Jowett)

The Shin Gunto swords were close enough in aesthetics to appear to be traditional Katana, but were however of inferior construction as they were not made using the traditional materials and methods but were instead mass produced using western steel. (The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords, Kōkan Nagayama)

  • 2
    Brilliant answer, couldn't ask for a better example that kuribayashi.. Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 7:34
  • While this is a good answer, I feel it is remiss in not mentioning that at the time of the Restoration, the samurai were one of the few people who were (highly) educated in the country which no doubt helped in their rise. While possibly a simplistic understanding, I've understood even poor samurai as having studied in domain schools while richer merchants did not care for subjects such as classical Chinese, etc, which would have made these people unsuitable for many government posts.
    – gktscrk
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 5:07
  • Similarly, the payments samurai received from their old domains at the time of the breaking of this relationship were instrumental for some of them. While I don't remember if that was the specific case for say Mitsubishi, many samurai tried their hand in small business after the Restoration (and many were ruined) which also undoubtedly helped some of them be successful, but the unsuccessful ones to turn to other fields ("Dutch studies", etc)...
    – gktscrk
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 5:10

missing connection/link between these two era of japanese history

I think you are exaggerating the ideological transformation brought by Meiji Restoration. The main emphasis was economic modernization, not social equity.

How did modernization of Japan in the Early twentieth century affect the Samurai and why was there such a strong influence of the samurai on the japanese army who followed similiar methods of warfare ?

While feudal classes were officially abolished, there was no prosecution of samurai, so they went on to do what they were good at - police and army. "Ex"-samurai became and remained the backbone of the IJA.

Were there any officers in the Japanese army ,who were descendants of the samurai ? If there were such officers/soldiers , did they wear any insignia on their uniforms , to mark their samurai legacy ?

There were no official insignia, but many kept their family katanas with them.

Were these officers/soldiers allowed to wield any other weapons or the samurai katana , apart from the standard issue firearms ?

Like in any army, officers enjoyed certain privileges, like, e.g., an ability to chose their sidearms.

See also Contest to kill 100 people using a sword.


The heritage of the Samurai, the Bushido code, played a major role in how Japan conducted operations in WW2.

The first effect was the 'no surrender' policy. The Japanese soldier fought to the death, almost to a man. In the end, the result was a senseless slaughter with no measurable goal. Roughly three million Japanese died during the war, as opposed to the half a million casualties the US suffered in both theaters. On Iwo Jima, the US took 17,000 casualties, around 6,000 dead. Japan suffered 22,000 casualties, with maybe 200 surviving as prisoners. By this point in the war, the banzai charges into heavily armed Marines had been abandoned as ineffective.

Later in the war, Bushido was twisted to include Kamikaze attacks. That association of suicidal attacks with Bushido was not entirely true - Bushido stressed the 'fight another day' policy - a dead Samurai is not very useful. However, the proponents of Kamikaze overlooked that, and played up the self sacrifice aspects to convince impressionable young men to carry out the attacks with no hope of survival, or even victory.

So it wasn't so much the Samurai tradition, but a twisting of it by the militarists, that led to Japan taking such high casualties during the war.


The highest levels of the Japanese army were a mess from the political point of view.

Japanese Army tried to invade Soviet Union (Khalkhin Gol battle) without orders from the civilian government. If that's not medieval mentality I don't know what it is. They were still seeing themselves as feudal lords etc.

  • Good points, but would be better if your assertions were supported by sources. Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:33

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