Westerners often use the word samurai (侍) when the word bushi (武士) would be more appropriate. (Pronounced "boo+she," not "bushy.") Literally, the word "bushi" means "military (武) gentleman (士)." The bushi were the warrior class of Japan. The samurai were a particular rank of bushi. It is from the word bushi that we get bushido (武士道), the Way of the Warrior.
When we talk about class, in this case, we are really talking about inheritance. One usually became a member of the warrior class because one's parents were members. It was quite like being born into the US Marine Corps. There were regulation haircuts and clothing styles for bushi children, and for adult bushi. Military training in one form or another began in early childhood. If you were born a bushi, you would be a bushi for life, unless you joined a monastery or some political catastrophe struck your household.
Of course, in the Edo period (1600-1868), there were about 250 consecutive years of peace, and the bushi gradually become bureaucrats. So, being born a bushi for most Edo warriors was like being born into, say, the Quartermaster Corps, or the Judge Advocates Corps, or the police force, etc.
I love reading about bushi, watching the historical bushi dramas and movies, and some of my heroes (Musashi, Ieyasu) were famous bushi. But there is no way I would want to actually be one.
First off, being born into a profession . . . sure, you'd be good, but what if at heart you're a baker, yet you are forced to spend every day swinging wooden swords around, getting banged up in training, standing guard duty, being bored out of your skull; they won't even let you near the kitchen. And they don't ask you if you want to be one -- your draft notice is your birth certificate.
Second, you can't marry outside your caste. Really. Think about lovely Kimiko, the printer's daughter. Totally hot babe, smart, educated, fiery spirit, everything you want in a woman. You are madly in love with her, and miracle of miracles, you are pretty sure she feels the same about you . . . Forget it, bub! You are bushi; she's in the artisan caste. You will never get permission for that. In fact, your parents have already picked out a nice wife for you, although you haven't met her yet.
Third, think about the US election this year. Oh, okay, the bushi never got a choice of who to follow. But let's just say, for the sake of argument, that the bushi got to vote. You might be an ardent Bush supporter, but your lord better never find out -- he's voting Kerry. Thinking about putting a Bush-Cheney '04 sticker on your helmet? You'd be spilling your guts, quite literally, the day your leige saw it, or more likely was informed of it by your squad leader.
So, me, I'll just do their martial arts and tea ceremony, wander their old castles, read their history, and dream of distant times. Then I'll do the job I like, marry the girl I love, say whatever I please to anyone who crosses my path, and vote however I want, thank you very much. No, no bushi-status for me. I like my freedom too, too much.