Although the common view of the samurai in Western culture is the noble feudal warrior carrying two katana, as popularized in the films of Akira Kurosawa, this perception is a rather skewed, romantic vision of Japan's past. The term samurai generally refers to a class of society made up of families whose role were originally to be vassal warriors under the auspices of aristocratic clans. Both men and women from samurai clans were considered to be samurai, and were held to the same ethical standards.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (17th c.-19th c.) period of the history of Japan, a reordering of society was undertaken in which a strict class structure was developed to keep order from the top down. In the moral order of society, Samurai were considered second only to those of noble blood. Economic conditions and legal restrictions during the Tokugawa Shogunate would find the samurai in a downwardly mobile position in both politicaland monetary influence. On the eve of the Meiji Restoration, many samurai were starving and in debt.

At the very top of the moral order of society were the nobility, consisting of the Imperial famiy and other clans which were descended from the main branch. Likewise, at the lower end of society were the outcasts, the burakumin. Both of these groups were effectively removed from society during the Tokugawa: the nobility through sanctions against political action and cultural restrictions against associating with commoners, and the outcasts through ostracism and neglect.

The stereotype of the samurai no longer applied during the Tokugawa. By this time in Japanese history, the samurai had become bureaucrats, not warriors: the unification of Japan had left samurai with no wars to fight. In their new role in society, their position to protect the country was to be fulfilled by running the government. Although each family kept their heritage and tradition alive, they were no longer the warriors who ran into battle in the tradition of Musashi Miyamoto. Eventually their influence in society was passed up by wealthy merchants, who inadvertently profitted greatly under the reforms of the Tokugawa government.

With the Meiji Restoration came the abolition of static, formalized classes in Japan. The samurai were divested of their role, lands, and debts. However, many descendents of the old samurai clans, especially those in the wealthier segments of society, still maintain their family history and their old family crests.