When most people think of feudalism, medieval Europe from about the ninth to 15th centuries is most likely to come to mind. The term feudalism is of fairly recent origin, coined in the 17th century by lawyers and antiquarians who used it to describe rules of land tenure, legal customs, and political institutions that had survived from medieval times. For Marxist historians the key elements of feudalism are the relationships between the feudal landholders and their serfs, whom they compel by force, custom, or law to provide labor, money, or tribute. Other non-Marxist historians define feudalism as a system of military and political organizations in which armed warriors or knights served leaders, who in turn provided them with land grants in return for personal service. Despite the fact that many of Japan’s governmental structures and institutions were based in part on those of China, Japan’s feudal culture was in many ways more like that of feudal Europe. By the 19th century, historians generally agreed that the warriors of Japan were the “Oriental” counterparts to the knights of Europe. The roots of Japanese feudalism can be traced back to the seventh century in Japan and extend through the medieval period of Japanese history.
Japan’s political and economic order did not meet the definition of “full feudalism” until about the year 1300, which is much later than the onset of European feudalism. Many of the laws and institutions described as feudal protected privileges of the landholding aristocracy and allowed them to use their power over the peasant class. Feudalism from the modern historian’s perspective has taken on negative connotations as being outdated, oppressive, or irrational.
The primary virtue in the Japanese feudal system was loyalty, because the entire social-political system depended on personal relationships. Contrary to the lord-vassal relationships of European feudalism that were based on mutual and contractual obligation, the Japanese emphasized morality. Loyalty to one’s lord manifested from a belief that he was the superior moral leader. Unlike in China, where familial loyalty was the dominant ideology, in Japan loyalty to one’s lord was paramount. This is not to say that family ties were unimportant in medieval Japanese society, as inheritance determined power and prestige as well as property ownership. Japanese feudalism also differed from European feudalism in that there was no cult of chivalry that put women on a romantic pedestal as fragile and inferior beings. Japanese warriors expected their women to be as strong as they were and accept self-sacrifice as part of their obligation to their lord.
The Japanese warriors, who were known as samurai, or “servitors,” placed great importance on the military virtues of bravery, honor, self-discipline, and the stoical acceptance of death. Seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment, became the dominant alternative to dishonor or capture. Warrior class-consciousness—a sense of the warrior class as a separate entity—did not materialize until the 13th century when the Kamakura Shogunate (rule by a military generalissimo) took power. The new institution created a new category of shogunal retainer that held special privileges and responsibilities and narrowed the scope of social classes the samurai class comprised. Its founder, Minamoto Yoritoto, consciously helped foster this new warrior ethos by holding hunts and archery competitions that helped to solidify the warrior identity. As the samurai served as the enforcers of feudal rule, their role in Japanese history was extremely important and the lord-vassal relationship was pivotal to feudal order.
Beginning in the early seventh century the Yamato court introduced several Chinese political and governmental practices in order to increase the power of the ruler. Within one century the Yamato court transformed itself into a Chinese-style monarchy. The main players in this governmental shift came not only from members of the ruling family, but also from powerful group leaders associated with the Yamato court. China provided both political ideals and a set of political institutions that extended further than the unsophisticated attempts at centralization begun in the sixth century.
Integral to the innovations of the seventh and eighth centuries was a new concept of ruler. Reformers borrowed the Chinese notion of an absolute monarch whose authority went beyond kinship ties. The monarch was considered “the master of the people and the master of the whole land,” and people pledged their allegiance to him and him alone. By the end of the seventh century the ruler was called tenno, or emperor, and the title brought with it increased authority. The establishment of an imperial capital also helped legitimize the emperor’s ruling status. The first capital was constructed in the southern end of the Yamato Basin but was eventually moved to Nara in 710. In 794 the capital was moved to Heian, later known as Kyoto, where it remained until the 19th century. However the monarchial state did not survive much beyond the eighth century.
Part of the demise of the monarchy can be attributed to the emphasis placed on heredity rather than meritocracy. The members of the Yamato clan were unwilling to share power, as it was synonymous with wealth in the form of land grants, household servants, and agricultural laborers. The old clan leadership was thus transformed into a new ruling class that was dependent on imperial supremacy.
Notwithstanding the departure of the monarchial state from the goals originally intended by the reformers of the seventh century, the emperor, the court, and the aristocracy at the capital survived for several more centuries largely because of the rise of private estates called shoen. Private estates became the primary source of aristocratic wealth and allowed court aristocrats to exert more power and control. By the end of the 12th century, some historians estimate, more than half the cultivated land was owned privately.
By the late 10th and early 11th centuries warrior chieftains threatened political order and began to emerge with more regularity. Powerful chieftains like Taira Masakado, who owned vast landed estates in the Kanto region, capitalized on the imperial government’s weakness and challenged its authority. These challenges contributed to the breakup of the court into many aristocratic factions that competed for power and drew certain warrior families into capital politics. Most influential were the Seiwa branch of the Minamoto family and the Ise branch of the Taira family. By the late 11th century the Seiwa influence in the east and the Taira influence in the west had both established important connections in the capital. After a series of power struggles, Taira Kiyomori emerged with increased influence in the court and political power. With a lack of local authority, however, Kiyomori’s ascendancy ended with the outbreak of the Gempei War (1180–85). Minamoto Yorimoto and his followers succeeded in driving the Taira out of the capital and in 1185 their armies were defeated in the west. The victory meant that Yorimoto became the most powerful chieftain in Japan.
This victory was a defining moment in Japanese history because it resulted in the founding of the Kamakura Bakufu, or “tent government.” Yorimoto sought political independence and wanted to avoid immersion in court politics. Yorimoto’s success can largely be attributed to the lord-vassal bonds he established during the Gempei War. In 1192 Yorimoto took the title of shogun or “generalissimo.” This title brought with it the responsibility of preserving national peace and order. Eventually however the shogun became a warrior monarch whose power came from the imperial government and actually extended beyond it. Yorimoto remained in power until his death in 1199. His death started a crisis of sorts because Yorimoto, perhaps because he distrusted his closest kin, did not make effective arrangements for a successor. Hence power fell into the hands of the Hojo clan, where it remained until the end of the Bakufu in 1333. The Kamakura Bakufu marked a big step toward a purely feudal political order. The decline of Bakufu authority was integral to the onset of full political feudalism, and the Kamakura government was overthrown in 1334, driven by the anarchistic ambitions of Go-Daigo, who hoped to reinstate direct imperial rule. This demise combined with civil war brought the estate system to an end. Go-Daigo’s reign was short-lived and in 1336 Ashikaga Takauji, a powerful warrior leader, was named shogun by Go-Daigo’s successor.
Civil war ended in 1392, and, even though some order was restored, Japan was less unified. By the mid-15th century, social and political unrest led to the Onin War in Japan. The period after the Onin War is considered the beginning of the “warring states” period in Japanese history, a time when the Ashikaga Shogunate was destroyed and a new group of feudal magistrates emerged from the local warrior class. Domains fell into the hands of feudal lords, known as daimyo, who used force and their loyal vassals to maintain their power, enforcing land taxes to keep the peasantry under much stricter control.
By 1500 the country was divided into the hands of roughly 300 daimyo. By the 1560s many of the more powerful daimyo sought power beyond their realms and some even hoped to control all of Japan. Unification, however, was largely the work of three men, sometimes called “the great unifiers,” Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nobunaga seized Kyoto in 1568, allegedly in support of the last Ashikaga shogun; crushed the power of the lesser lords in central Japan; and destroyed the Buddhist monasteries. Nobunaga was assassinated in 1590 and power fell into the hands of his most able general, Hideyoshi. By 1590 Hideyoshi established control over the entire realm.
Hideyoshi never took the title of shogun but did assume high positions in imperial government. Hideyoshi monopolized foreign trade, had land surveyed, and confiscated weapons from the peasant class. These actions further divided the samurai and peasant classes while increasing Hideyoshi’s military might. In 1592 he set out to conquer Korea, a first step toward world conquest, which for him essentially meant China. However Chinese armies in northern Korea stopped the Japanese, and they were forced to withdraw after Hideyoshi’s death in
- Hideyoshi did not leave an heir, and power shifted to the victor of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu took the title of shogun and moved his residence from Kyoto to Edo (modern Tokyo). He closed the country to foreigners and for more than 250 years, Japan remained in seclusion from the rest of the world.
While feudalism in Japan began later than in Europe, its demise was much more recent. In 1600 when Tokugawa Ieyasu took power, Japan entered the period of rule known as “centralized feudalism.” In this system, the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan but gave relative autonomy to his vassal daimyo in exchange for loyalty. Tokugawa rule continued in Japan until 1868, when the Meiji Restoration ended feudal rule, abolished the warrior class, and opened Japan to the rest of the world.
- Duus, Peter. Feudalism in Japan. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1993;
- Friday, Karl F. Samurai Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan. New York: Routledge, 2004;
- Norman, Herbert E. Ando Shoeki and the Anatomy of Japanese Feudalism. Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, 1979;
- O’Neill, Tom. “Samurai: Japan’s Way of the Warrior.” National Geographic (December 2003);
- Reischauer, Edwin O. The Japanese. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.