Ronin (浪人, lit. “wave-man”) were masterless samurai in feudal Japan (1168-1868). The term was coined in the Nara (710-794) and Heian periods (794-1185) and was initially applied to serfs who had fled or deserted their master’s land.
Samurai became rōnin
Nowadays, the term is used for unemployed salarymen or high-school graduates who failed in their university entrance examinations, waiting for their next chance to enter college or university.
- when their masters passed away
- when their masters lost their privileges or
- when they lost their master’s favour.
The social status of rōnin was very low: according to bushidō, masterless warriors were bound to commit seppuku. Failure to comply resulted in great shame and disgrace, contributing to the negative public image rōnin held until the end of the Tokugawa period. While in earlier periods it was possible for samurai to change their occupation from warrior to merchant or farmer, or the reverse, Japan’s rigid class system during the Edo period (and often enough their pride) did not permit them to take up other professions, hence many of them either chose to hire themselves out as mercenaries or bodyguards (用心棒, yōjimbo) or turned to thuggery and banditry.
In the wake of the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), many samurais became rōnin. In the following years of peace, there was less need to maintain expensive standing armies. Thus many surviving rōnin turned to farm or became townspeople. Others, such as Yamada Nagamasa, sought adventure overseas as mercenaries. Still, the majority lived in poverty as rōnin. Under the third Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu, their number approached half a million.
Initially, the shogunate viewed them as dangerous, and banished them from the cities or restricted the quarters where they could live. They also prohibited serving new masters. As rōnin found themselves with fewer and fewer options, they joined in the Keian Uprising (慶安事件, Keian jiken) a coup d’etat of exasperated rōnin against the Tokugawa shogunate in 1651.
This forced the shogunate to rethink its policy. It relaxed restrictions on daimyo inheritance, resulting in fewer confiscations of fiefs; and it permitted rōnin to join new masters. Not having the status or power of the employed samurai, it was undesirable to be a rōnin, as it meant being without a stipend or farm.
The story of the Forty-seven Rōnin is one of the most heroic legends in Japanese history and literature. In modern-day works of fiction or historical TV dramas, rōnin are often depicted as ferrymen or umbrella-makers.
Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada: Father and Son (Horibe Yahei and Horibe Yasubei), members of the Forty-Seven Rônin from Chûshingura, the Treasury of Loyal Retainers: The People Involved in the Night Attack (Image credit)