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.
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 (AD 1600) 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 (AD 1651). 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.
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).
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.
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 modern-day team of ex-covert operatives that is similar to the ancient ronin.
Jorge Luis Borges devoted a short story to the Forty-seven Ronin.
Frank Miller wrote and penciled the 1983 DC limited series Ronin, in which a psychic, legless, and mentally challenged boy named Billy, is seemingly possessed by the spirit of a Ronin from feudal Japan who must defeat the resurrected demon, Agat, in a dystopian New York City.
The expression 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 , meaning "absconding. The expression became popular in the Japanese speech.
The term rōnin is also used in modern Japan for students who have failed the yearly school entrance examination for the high school or university of their choice, and then decide to spend the next year studying to retake the exam. This use derives from their having no school to attend, as a ronin samurai has no leader to serve.