“Fujiyama-geisha” is a common English expression that refers to the stereotypical images that foreigners hold of Japan. Since the 1980s and Japanese economic dominance, however, most Westerners have become much more knowledgeable about the Land of the Rising Sun. Where once Japanese food could only be obtained on the West Coast or New York, now you can buy sushi in the supermarket. Nevertheless, certain types of stereotypes have persisted. A pervasive one, supported by Japanese film and animation, is the samurai as an elite warrior who lives by a strict code. This idealized and romanticized image has only the most tenuous connection to historical reality.
The word samurai is derived from the verb saburau, to serve. In the Heian period (794–1185) the original samurai by title were people who directly served the upper echelons of the aristocracy. It could refer to a wide variety of positions, including the armed guards who protected the members of the Imperial family. In the case of the emperor, sometimes this samurai was even a family member and thus a member of the aristocracy. This broad usage continued even into the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the first warrior-led government.
It was not until the breakdown of imperial rule and the rise of the warrior class that led to the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate that this term came to refer to warriors. The origins of the warrior class in Japan are debated. Some scholars believe they evolved from regional militias, and others emphasize the aristocratic origins of the upper echelons. In either case, there were class differences between the upper and lower members of the warrior class but there was much less distinction between warriors at the bottom end of the scale and other social classes. Some men farmed until they were needed and then went to war. Although legal records from the late Kamakura period like the Samirenshō (1319) show increasing class distinctions, they were not well defined or rigid. It was not until hundreds of years later that the title samurai was used exclusively for the warrior class, and then not all members of it. It is for this reason that scholars usually prefer the term bushi, or warrior class, to samurai because it is more precise.