- Japanese: 浪人 (Rounin) or 浪士 (Roushi)
The defining characteristic of a ronin is that he was a former samurai separated from service to a daimyo. The kanji that spell out the term "ronin" are literally translated as "wave person," as if he were set adrift to be tossed upon the waves of life. Sometimes, the term "ronin" is translated as "masterless samurai". There are quite a few chambara/jidaigeki films featuring ronin as main characters, including the very famous film Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) in which some Sengoku Period farmers hire ronin to protect their farms from bandits. In most of the films, the ronin characters are amazingly skilled swordsmen. They are sometimes completely villainous, lecherous, and greedy; more often, these film ronin are noble heroes who stand up for oppressed farmers and townspeople. The reality for most ronin was usually quite different than that portrayed in most films.
Strictly speaking, the term "samurai" means "servant" and designates a bushi (a warrior member of the buke class) who was a daimyo or retainer; samurai received a set stipend, given out in terms of koku (measurements of rice). Those samurai who were the shogun's direct retainers were known as hatamoto (bannermen). So strictly speaking, the term "ronin" refers to bushi who were not samurai retainers. However, many people throughout the ages have used the term "samurai" as a generic term indicating any bushi.
Ronin were allowed to continue to bear a family name and wear the distinctive two swords that they wore when they were clan samurai. However, they effectively existed outside of the official class structure (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants) that existed from the late Sengoku period through the Edo period. Most ronin lived in poverty without fixed incomes.
Becoming a Ronin
A bushi usually became ronin in one of four ways:
- A clan or fief was defeated and abolished in battle, or the shogunate authorities reduced a fief in size or abolished the fief entirely (this is what happened with the well-known 47 ronin of Ako han who eventually mounted an attack upon the man they saw as being responsible). The samurai involved all would become ronin. Unless the lord of that fief took his retainers with him to his new fief, the samurai in his service would become ronin.
- A samurai was dismissed from service by his daimyo. During the Tokugawa era, according to the Buke Shohatto, no daimyo was allowed to take into service a ronin who had been dismissed by his original daimyo.
- A samurai voluntarily left his fief, with or without his daimyo’s permission, and thus become a ronin.
- A bushi was born as a ronin; he was the son of a ronin.
Ronin during the Sengoku Period
During the Sengoku era (1467-1603), there were numerous inter-clan conflicts. Many samurai changed masters during this time. A bushi who came from a defeated clan could attach himself to another clan and serve as a samurai retainer. It is unclear as to whether or not there were greater numbers of ronin (created by the defeat of clans) or whether there were greater numbers of daimyo seeking samurai retainers during this time. This situation probably would have fluctuated according to specific conditions and events.
After the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged triumphant, becoming the first of a long line of Tokugawa shoguns and establishing peace and order throughout the country that lasted over 250 years. Many fiefs, mainly those connected with the Toyotomi clan, were abolished during the years following the 1615 siege of Osaka Castle in which the Toyotomi were defeated. At that time, around 500,000 ronin existed, without any income or means of support. These unengaged bushi were a persistant problem for the Tokugawa bakufu. There were at least two ronin rebellions during the 17th century. The first was led by Yui Shôsetsu, which was aborted before the actual attack; Shôsetsu and some colleagues disemboweled themselves before capture, while other conspirators were captured, tortured and executed. There was a second unsuccessful ronin rebellion in the latter part of the 17th century. The Tokugawa bakufu, at the beginning and middle of the 17th century, engaged in a campaign of suppression, advising daimyo against allowing ronin from entering their fiefs; law-abiding ronin engaged in making some sort of living were allowed to stay. Later on, more liberal government policies were put into place; daimyo and officials were encouraged to take more ronin into their service as samurai. However, this option only could serve a minority of ronin; in an era of peace, few clans needed the large number of samurai that they would need in times of war. The majority of ronin were basically left to fend for themselves. By the time of the end of the 17th century, the number of bushi – clan samurai plus ronin – had been reduced considerably.
Ronin during the Edo Period
Sixty-one daimyô lost their domains during the first fifty years of Tokugawa rule, most of them as the result of failing to properly name an heir in accordance with the stipulations and regulations set down by the shogunate. These attainders made roughly 150,000 samurai, as much as one-fifth of all the samurai in Japan, into ronin. Many of these newly lordless bushi traveled to Edo to seek new work; many failed to find work, and many turned to crime or other violent lifestyles. Many of these men joined forces opposing the shogunate in battles such as the Osaka Campaigns of 1614-1615 and the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-1638.
After a few generations had passed since the end of the Sengoku period, the majority of Edo period bushi became distanced from actual martial experience and were not particularly skilled with swords or other weapons, even if they did study martial arts in clan dojo. During the Tokugawa era, most clan samurai performed bureaucratic duties for their domains rather than engage in war or martial pursuits. The reality was unlike what many chambara/jidaigeki films that are set during the Edo period show (i.e. most Japanese historical films). Most Edo period samurai who became ronin would thus not be able to establish themselves as strong swordsmen who would bring justice and keep peace for commoners in exchange for room and board, as they do in many of these films. Some Edo period ronin even ended up selling their sword blades, replacing them with bamboo blades.
Kumazawa Banzan wrote a telling summary of conditions faced by ronin during the 17th century: "Today, the worst off of these people are the ronin. There are innumerable occasions of their starving to death during the frequent famines. Even rich harvests and the consequent lowering of the price of rice would not give much relief to those who are already hard up. Every year there are cases of starvation which are unknown to the general public."
The options open to a ronin during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868) were few. One option would have been engaging in criminal activities, becoming a highwayman or being hired by a yakuza gang as a bodyguard. A ronin, strong in martial arts, could engage in a musha shugyô (“warrior’s journeys”), traveling the width and breadth of Japan, engaged in learning and teaching martial arts. Traditionally, such a ronin would be homeless, sleeping under the skies or in temples; he would earn his rice by such chores as chopping wood or working as a common laborer. He could offer martial arts lessons to commoners; it is strongly speculated that the 17th century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who spent most of his life as a ronin, earned some of his keep that way. There were also a number of cases of ronin traveling overseas as mercenaries in foreign countries or as pirates and raiders (wakô).
A ronin with a family or who desired a more settled life would have a few other options, most which were not related to martial arts. He could teach in terakoya (neighborhood temple schools for commoner’s children). Sometimes, as depicted in some films, a ronin would earn his living, engaging in piecework handicrafts, fashioning fans, umbrellas, inkbrushes, insect cages, women’s hair combs and the like, selling his handcrafted wares to wholesalers; these were occupations also performed by low-ranking clan samurai needing extra earnings to survive.
A ronin was able to renounce his buke status and become either a farmer, artisan, or merchant; this option would likely become feasible only if he had connections with well-established commoner families to acquire land or learn a trade.
Ronin during the Bakumatsu
During the Bakumatsu Period (mid-19th century - 1868), many ronin found new opportunities to take action in the conflicts; many samurai left their fiefs and became ronin, joining up either with the Loyalist side (advocating the overthrow of the Tokugawa bakufu) or with groups such as the Shinsengumi (advocating preserving the shogunate). These conflicts during the Bakumatsu period eventually led to the Meiji Period and ended the era of the bushi. The final Tokugawa shogun abdicated in 1868. The daimyô domains were abolished in 1871. In 1876, the wearing of swords was outlawed.
- Hall, John Carey, translator. Buke Shohatto (The Tokugawa Legislation, Yokohama 1910). This is the text of the laws that mainly concern the conduct and behavior of those in the Buke class during the Tokugawa period.
- Kumazawa Banzan, translated from Japanese by Tsunoda Ryusaku, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene. "Development and Distribution of Wealth" included in Sources of Japanese History, Vol. I, compiled by Tsunoda Ryusaku, William Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene (Columbia University Press, New York, 1958 ) Kumazawa Banzan was a late 17th century bushi who was born a ronin and lived much of his life as a ronin. He was a poltical reformer who wrote many treatises. In this particular article, he discussed the general economy, the reform of government; among other points, he advocated relief for ronin suffering hardships.
- Sansom, George. History of Japan: 1615-1867, Stanford University Press June, 1963. This is a text of the general history of Japan during the Tokugawa period. There is a section that contains a general summary of how ronin fared during this time, including brief accounts of two different ronin rebellions.
- Tokitsu Kenji, translated from French by Cherad Kodzin Kohn. Miyamoto Musashi, His Life And Writings, Weatherhill; New Ed edition, June, 2006. A detailed biography and analysis of Miyamoto Musashi. Among other topics, discusses the particular issues that faced Miyamoto, a ronin who spent most of his life engaged in a musha shugyo.
- Yamakawa Kikue, translated by Kate Nakai. Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life, Stanford University Press, March, 2001. Not very much specifically about ronin, but good information about samurai clan life during the late Tokugawa period.
- Roberts, Luke. Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2012. p76.