AskDefine | Define Ronin

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浪人 (rōnin).


  1. Masterless samurai.


masterless samurai

Extensive Definition

A was a samurai with no lord or master during the feudal period (1185–1868) of Japan. A samurai became masterless from the ruin or fall of his master (as in the case of death in a war), or after the loss of his master's favor or privilege.


The word rōnin literally means "drifting person". The term originated in the Nara and Heian periods, when it referred to a serf who had fled or deserted his master's land. It then came to be used for a samurai who had lost his master.


According to the Bushido Shoshinshu (the Code of the Samurai), a samurai was supposed to commit oibara seppuku (also "hara kiri" – ritual suicide) upon the loss of his master. One who chose to not honor the code was "on his own" and was meant to suffer great shame. The undesirability of ronin status was mainly a discrimination imposed by other samurai and by the daimyo (the feudal lords).
Like regular samurai, ronin wore their two swords.
During the Edo period, with the shogunate's rigid class system and laws, the number of ronin greatly increased. Confiscation of fiefs during the rule of the third Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu resulted in an especially large increase of ronin. During previous ages, samurai were easily able to move between masters and even between occupations. They would also marry between classes. However, during the Edo period, samurai were restricted, and were above all forbidden to become employed by another master without their previous master's permission. Also, low-level samurai, often poor and without choice, were forced to quit or escape their master.


In the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, when warriors held lands that they occupied, a ronin was a warrior who had lost his lands. During these periods, as small-scale wars frequently occurred throughout Japan, the daimyo needed to augment their armies, so ronin had opportunities to serve new masters. Also, some ronin joined in bands, engaging in robbery and uprisings.
Especially in the Sengoku period, daimyo needed additional fighting men, and even if one's master had perished, a ronin was able to serve a new lord. In contrast to the later Edo period, the bond between the lord and the samurai was loose, and some samurai who were dissatisfied with their treatment left their masters and sought new lords. Many warriors served a succession of masters, and some even became daimyo. As an example, Tōdō Takatora served ten lords. Additionally, the division of the population into classes had not yet taken place, so it was possible to change one's occupation from warrior to merchant or farmer, or the reverse. Saitō Dōsan was one merchant who rose through the warrior ranks to become a daimyo.
As Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified progressively larger parts of the country, daimyo found it unnecessary to recruit new soldiers. Next, the Battle of Sekigahara resulted in the confiscation or reduction of the fiefs of large numbers of daimyo on the losing side; in consequence, many samurai became ronin. As many as a hundred thousand ronin joined forces with Toyotomi Hideyori and fought at the Siege of Osaka. In the ensuing years of peace, there was less need to maintain expensive standing armies, and many surviving ronin turned to farming or became townspeople. A few, such as Yamada Nagamasa, sought adventure overseas as mercenaries. Still, the majority lived in poverty as ronin. 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 ronin found themselves with fewer and fewer options, they joined in the Keian Uprising. This forced the shogunate to rethink its policy. It relaxed restrictions on daimyo inheritance, resulting in fewer confiscations of fiefs; and it permitted ronin to join new masters.
Among the most famous ronin are Miyamoto Musashi, the famed swordsman, and the Forty-seven Ronin.
Not having the status or power of employed samurai, ronin were often disreputable, and the group was a target of humiliation or satire. It was undesirable to be a ronin, as it meant being without a stipend.
As an indication of the humiliation felt by samurai who became ronin, Lord Redesdale recorded that a ronin killed himself at the graves of the Forty-Seven Ronin. He left a note saying that he had tried to enter the service of the daimyo of the Chōshū Domain, but was refused. Wanting to serve no other master, and hating being a ronin, he had decided to kill himself.
On the other hand, the famous 18th century writer Kyokutei Bakin renounced his allegiance to Matsudaira Nobunari, in whose service Bakin's samurai father had spent his life. Bakin became voluntarily a ronin, and eventually spent his time writing books (many of them about samurai).

Portrayals in media

Thousands of modern works of Japanese fiction set in the Edo period cast characters who are ronin. They are often portrayed as yojimbo (bodyguards) or as mercenary fighters. Another stereotypical occupation for fictional ronin is the umbrella-maker.
Bound and dedicated men, most samurai resented the personal freedom that the wandering ronin enjoyed. Ronin were the epitome of self-determination; they were independent men who dictated their own path in life, answering only to themselves and making decisions as they saw fit.
Akira Kurosawa's films Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are two widely known examples of jidaigeki in which such ronin figure prominently.
Ronin have influenced Western movies. Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name closely resembles a ronin. The movies The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai) and A Fistful of Dollars (Yojimbo) are western remakes of Akira Kurosawa's films. The 1998 film Ronin tells the story of a team of modern-day ronin.
Jorge Luis Borges devoted a short story to the Forty-seven Ronin.
Miyamoto Usagi is a rabbit bodyguard from the Usagi Yojimbo comic series by Stan Sakai. Portrayed as an unfailiingly honorable ronin, his Musha shugyō began after his lord was killed.

"Ronin" as metaphor

The expression Tenjiku rōnin (天竺浪人) was employed by Hiraga Gennai as a pen name. Here Tenjiku, rather than the East Asian name of India, is as an inverted word for chikuden (逐電), meaning "absconding". The expression became popular in the Japanese speech.
The term rōnin is also used in modern Japan for those who have failed the yearly school entrance examinations for high school or university, and then decide to spend the next year studying to retake those exams. This use derives from their having no school to attend, as a ronin samurai has no leader to serve.


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