The samurai was a member of the Japanese warrior caste. The term samurai was originally used to denote the aristocratic warriors (bushi), but it came to apply to all the members of the warrior class that rose to power in the 12th century and dominated the Japanese government until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Earliest mentions appear during the eighth century under the name of saburai which is a derivative of the verb saburau meaning to serve. It was used to denote people who took care of the elderly and only during the tenth century it encompassed military attributes in the shape of provincial warriors going to the capital to serve as a samurai.
Minamoto Mitsunaka(912-97) who was the first to bear the surname of Minamoto, was among the earliest of that illustrious clan to act as a samurai and in the following years. Successive generations of Minamoto and Taira developed the tradition of samurai service, quelling rebels on the emperor's behalf, pushing back the frontiers of imperial territory.
For the samurai, the most important asset is his sword and in the words of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu the sword is the “soul of the samurai”. But now we know that the sword is only part of the arsenal and as a whole, a samurai had bows, daggers, spears and even bare hands. Early chronicles name them warriors of horse and bow and make no reference to swords. In the end, the most devastating weapon was the firearm introduced in the 16th century.
A full suit of traditional Samurai armor could include the following items:
Dou or dō, a chest armor made up of iron and or leather plates of various sizes and shapes with pendant. Kusazuri made from iron or leather plates hanging from the front and back of the dou (dō) to protect the lower body and upper leg. Sode, large rectangular shoulder protection made from iron and or leather plates. Kote, armored gloves like sleeves which extended to the shoulder or han kote (kote gauntlets) which covered the forearms. Kabuto, a helmet made from iron or leather plates (from 3 to over 100 plates) riveted together. Mengu, various types of lacquered metal and or leather facial armor designed in a way that the top heavy helmet kabuto could be tied and secured to them by various metal posts. Haidate, thigh guards which tied around the waist and covered the thighs.
The ideal samurai was supposed to be a stoic warrior who followed an unwritten code of conduct, later formalized as Bushidō, which held bravery, honor, and personal loyalty above life itself
The samurai class lost its privileged position when feudalism was officially abolished in 1871.