A r?nin (, "drifter" or "wanderer") was a samurai without a lord or master during the feudal period (1185-1868) of Japan. A samurai became masterless upon the death of his master or after the loss of his master's favor or privilege.
In modern Japanese usage, sometimes the term is used to describe a salaryman who is unemployed or a secondary school graduate who has not yet been admitted to university.
The word r?nin literally means "wave man". It is an idiomatic expression for "vagrant" or "wandering man", someone who finds the way without belonging to one place. The term originated in the Nara and Heian periods, when it referred to a serf who had fled or deserted his master's land. In medieval times, the Ronin were depicted as the shadows of samurai, master-less and less honorable. It then came to be used for a samurai who had no master (hence the term "wave man" illustrating one who is socially adrift).
According to the Bushido Shoshinshu (the "Code of the Warrior"), a samurai was supposed to commit seppuku (also harakiri, "belly cutting", a form of ritual suicide) upon the loss of his master. One who chose not to honor the code was "on his own" and was meant to suffer great shame. The undesirability of r?nin status was mainly a discrimination imposed by other samurai and by daimy?, the feudal lords.
Like other samurai, r?nin wore two swords. R?nin used a variety of other weapons as well. Some r?nin--usually those who lacked money--would carry a b? (staff around 1.5 to 1.8 m (5 to 6 ft)) or j? (smaller staff or walking stick around 0.9 to 1.5 m (3 to 5 ft)) or a yumi (bow). Most weapons would reflect the ry? (martial arts school) from which they came if they were students.
During the Edo period, with the shogunate's rigid class system and laws, the number of r?nin greatly increased. Confiscation of fiefs during the rule of the third Tokugawa sh?gun Iemitsu resulted in an especially large increase of r?nin. During previous ages, samurai were able to move between masters and even between occupations. They could 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.
Because the former samurai could not legally take up a new trade, or because of pride were loath to do so, many r?nin looked for other ways to make a living with their swords. Those r?nin who desired steady, legal employment became mercenaries that guarded trade caravans, or bodyguards for wealthy merchants. Many other r?nin became criminals, operating as bandits and highwaymen, or joining organized crime in towns and cities. R?nin were known to operate or serve as hired muscle for gangs that ran gambling rings, brothels, protection rackets, and similar activities. Many were petty thieves and muggers. The criminal segment gave the r?nin of the Edo period a persistent reputation of disgrace, with an image of being thugs, bullies, cutthroats, and wandering vagrants.
In the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, when warriors held lands that they occupied, a r?nin was a warrior who had lost his lands. During these periods, as small-scale wars frequently occurred throughout Japan, the daimy? needed to augment their armies, so r?nin had opportunities to serve new masters. Also, some r?nin joined in bands, engaging in robbery and uprisings.
Especially in the Sengoku period, daimy? needed additional fighting men, and even if a master had perished, his r?nin were able to serve new lords. 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 daimy?. As an example, T?d? 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. Sait? D?san was one merchant who rose through the warrior ranks to become a daimy?.
As Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified progressively larger parts of the country, daimy? found it unnecessary to recruit new soldiers. The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 resulted in the confiscation or reduction of the fiefs of large numbers of daimy? on the losing side; consequently, many samurai became r?nin. As many as a hundred thousand r?nin 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 r?nin turned to farming or became townspeople. A few, such as Yamada Nagamasa, sought adventure overseas as mercenaries. Still, the majority lived in poverty as r?nin. Under the third Tokugawa sh?gun 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 r?nin found themselves with fewer options, they joined in the Keian Uprising in 1651. This forced the shogunate to rethink its policy. It relaxed restrictions on daimy? inheritance, resulting in fewer confiscations of fiefs, and it permitted r?nin to join new masters.
Not having the status or power of employed samurai, r?nin were often disreputable and festive, and the group was a target of humiliation or satire. It was undesirable to be a r?nin, as it meant being without a stipend or land. As an indication of the humiliation felt by samurai who became r?nin, Lord Redesdale recorded that a r?nin killed himself at the graves of the forty-seven r?nin. He left a note saying that he had tried to enter the service of the daimy? of Ch?sh? Domain but was refused. Wanting to serve no other master, and hating being a r?nin, he killed 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 voluntarily became a r?nin, and eventually spent his time writing books (many of them about samurai) and engaging in festivities.
Numerous modern works of Japanese fiction set in the Edo period cast characters who are r?nin.