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Hierarchy In Feudal Japan

Society was divided into two classes in Feudal Japan, the nobility and the peasants. The noble class made up roughly twelve percent of the population with peasants making up the rest.

Emperor and Shogun
The Emperor and the Shogun were the highest ranking nobles. During Japan's feudal period the Shogun held the most power while the Emperor was more of a puppet figure with little actual power. As the Shogun was a military leader his sword, or Nihonto in Japanese (katana came later in the Mid-Muromachi period), was an important part of his attire.

Daimyo were powerful warlords and the most powerful rulers under the Shogun from the 10th century to the early 19th century. Within their province the Daimyo had complete military and economic power. Daimyo had vast hereditary land holdings and armies to protect the land and its workers. The most powerful warlords sometimes achieved the status of Shogun.

The Daimyo armies were made up of Samurai warriors. Samurai worked under Daimyo, but they had additional privileges and held a higher social status than common people. These privileges included being able to have a surname, a family crest, and carry two swords. People with Samurai family names are still treated with great respect in Japan today. Although most samurai were not well educated, they had a strict code of honor or the "way of the warrior", known as bushido in Japanese. If a Samurai broke the bushido code and brought dishonor to him/herself they would be expected to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide. Women were allowed to serve as samurai but always served under a male leader.

Peasants were divided into several sub-classes. The highest ranking of the peasants were farmers. Farmers who owned their own land ranked higher than farmers who did not. Craftsmen, or artisans, were the second highest ranking after the farmers. They worked with wood and metal and some became well-known as expert Samura sword makers. Merchants were the lowest ranking because it was felt they made their living off of other people's work. However, in later times when Japan began to use money more as currency merchants became more wealthy.


Kamakura Period: 1185 – 1333

The Kamakura period began with Minamoto no Yorimoto establishing the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192 in Kamakura. Minamoto referred to his new government as bakufu, which translates to "tent government". The Emperor gave the military title of Seii Tai-shogun to Minamoto and in Western literature his government is often referred to as the shogunate. The bakufu had two main divisions, one to oversee the samurai, and one to judge legal suits. The shogun often had complete power over the emperor and imperial court. Later in the Kamakura period the Hojo clan installed a regent for the shogun. During the Hojo regency the shogun was reduced to a powerless figurehead much like the emperor.

Women who belonged to the aristocracy were allowed to take part in politics. Women could also become samurai warriors but this was not allowed if they were in the aristocratic class. Although women were allowed to become samurai, a male samurai of equal rank could give orders to a female samurai. Female samurai were able to give orders to men of lower social classes like farmers and craftsmen. In the beginning of the Kamakura period women were also allowed to inherit land estates. However, this changed later as the amount of available land decreased towards the middle of Kamakura period.

Vassals of the shogunate during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods were called gokenin. Gokenin exchanged loyalty to the shogunate for protection and the right to attain higher positions in government. Through this system the gokenin provided the shogun with the military force needed to control the country. The gokenin were allowed to own land their children were allowed to inherit the land estates. This led to a weakening of the shogunate. During the Muromachi period the gokenin class were replaced by Daimyo.

Agriculture and Manufacturing
Agricultural methods improved during the Kamakura and farmers were learning how to increase yields by raising two crops a year. Cows and horses were being used to help plow the land and water wheels were implemented for irrigating crops and grinding grain. People who worked on farms often had side jobs of making silk, paper, and pottery. Many of these people quit working on the farm once they realized they could make a living by producing and selling their own goods.

Mongols Attack
The shogunate had little interest in foreign relations and even ignored communications sent from China. In 1268 a new Mongol leader came to power, Kublai Khan, and demanded that Japan pay tribute to his nation. Japan ignored the demands and began to prepare for a potential Mongol invasion. In 1274 the first Mongol invasion took place with a combined force of 23,000 Chinese, Mongol, and Korean troops. They arrived on 600 ships and brought catapults, crude missiles, and archers. The Mongol invaders landed at northern Kyushu at Hakata where they fought with the local Japanese troops. After only one day of fighting a Typhoon wiped out the Mongol forces. Kublai Khan realized that his forces had been defeated by a nature and not superior military force. He decided to attack again 7 years later in 1281. Again the forces landed in northern Kyushu and fought with the Japanese for 7 weeks. Again a typhoon wiped out the Mongol fleet. Shinto priests said that a kamikaze, or divine wind, protected Japan. The victories were a great source of pride and also helped legitimize the shogunate system of government.

Kenmu Restoration
For a short time at the end of the Kamakura period Emperor Go-Daigo regained control of Japan from the shogunate. He tried to restore imperial authority and give back power to the court nobility. Eventually, after almost 60 years of war, Go Daigo was driven from Kyoto and the shogunate system was re-established.

Photos of Kamakura period artifacts


Muromachi Period: 1336 – 1573

The Muromachi period began with the official establishment of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336. The term Nanboku-cho, Northern and Southern Court in Japanese, is used to describe the early years of the Muromachi from 1336-1392. Ashikaga Takauji gained support from samurai who were dissatisfied with Emperor Go-Daigo's rule and was able to depose the emperor and appoint himself as shogun. Ashikaga Takauji governed from Kyoto while Emperor Go-Daigo, who had escaped confinement, established his own headquarters in nearby Nara city. The Muromachi period is named after the district in Kyoto from where the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, built his headquarters.

Trade With Ming Dynasty
After the bakufu government agreed to suppress Japanese piracy trade with the Ming Dynasty began. The government in China saw it as Japan paying tribute to the Chinese empire while Japan viewed the arrangement as a profitable trade agreement. Japan's main items of export were gold and copper while China gave Japan mostly silk and books. The trade industry rapidly grew and import taxes on goods from China were an important source of income for the Ashikaga bakufu. Wars were common between regional families who fought to control trade routes.

The apparent role of kamikaze, or "divine wind", in defeating the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281 helped renew interest in the Shinto religion. From the Nara period Buddhism and Shinto had coexisted with Shinto practices slowly being incorporated into Buddhism. In 1339 Kitabatake Chikafusa Shotoki, a noble in the Southern Court, wrote the Jinno Shotoki, "Chronicles of the Authentic Lineages of the Divine Emperors". The work sought to remind people of Japan's divine origin and supremacy over other nations as evidenced in the prologue:

"Great Japan is the divine land. The heavenly progenitor founded it, and the sun goddess bequeathed it to her descendants to rule eternally. Only in our country is this true; there are no similar examples in other countries. This is why our country is called the divine land."

Shinto would later become the primary belief system and develop its own scriptures and philosophy.

Onin War 1467-1477
The Ashikaga shogunate maintained order early on but slowly lost power to regional Daimyo which resulted in the Onin War from 1467-1477. The bakufu system of government ended and the nation fell into anarchy as provinces went to war against each other for control of the country. As central control disappeared samurai rose against their overlords and peasants against their landlords. Nobles of the Imperial Court were dispossessed and aristocratic society became very military in character. The provincial wars lasted 100 years until Japan was united under one rule by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the late 16th century.

Western Influence and Christianity
The Portuguese arrived in southern Kyushu in 1543 and were soon making regular visits to Japan. Other nations also tried to establish trade with the Spanish arriving in 1587 and the Dutch in 1609. Japan traded precious metals for European guns, tobacco, fabrics, clocks, and other Western technology. Spanish missionaries, led by Saint Francis Xavier, were successful in converting as many as 150,000 Japanese to Christianity by 1582. Tolerance for Christianity was short-lived and outright persecutions began in 1597. During the later Tokugawa period the exclusion and suppression of Christianity would become national policy.

Photos of Muromachi period artifacts


Azuchi Momoyama Period: 1568 – 1603

The Azuchi-Momoyama period takes its name from Azuchi Castle and Momoyama Castle. Azuchi Castle was one of Oda Nobunaga's main fortresses located next to Lake Biwa in Omi Province. It was built close enough to Kyoto to enable sentries to see any approaching armies, but far enough way to provide protection from lesser conflicts which were not uncommon in the capital. Momoyama Castle, also known as Fushimi Castle, was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Kyoto's Fushimi Ward in 1594. It was actually built as a place for Toyotomi to retire and has a famous tea ceremony room with walls covered in gold leaf. All that is left today of the original castles are their stone bases.

Oda Nobunaga
The period begins with Oda Nobunaga gaining control of Kyoto and receiving recognition from the emperor for Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the 15th Ashikaga Shogun. Yoshiaki was only a puppet shogun and was eventually driven from Kyoto in 1573 by Oda Nobunaga. Oda Nobunaga had a reputation as a brutal warlord and unyielding enemy.

In 1582 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a close ally, requested military assistance from Oda Nobunaga. On his way, Oda Nobunaga stopped in Kyoto and was forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, by one of his own discontented generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Oda Nobunaga had made public insults about Akechi Mitsuhide and had broken a peace treaty with a rival clan resulting in the murder of Akechi Mitsuhide's mother. Toyotomi Hideyoshi soon tracked down Akechi Mitsuhide and defeated him at the Battle of Yamazaki. There are conflicting rumors regarding the fate of Akechi Mitsuhide. One says that he was killed by a peasant with a bamboo spear, and another says he was not killed but began a new life as a priest.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Rise to Power
After the death of Oda Nobunaga a power struggle began between competing daimyo. Eventually, 1584, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was able to reach an advantageous stalemate with Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Komaki and Nagakute and take control of Kyoto and the former Oda domains. By 1590 Toyotomi Hideyoshi had established an army 200,000 strong who defeated rival daimyo in Shikoku, Kyushu, and eastern Honshu. With all areas of the country under Toyotomi Hideyoshi's control, the reunification of Japan was complete.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi instituted measures to secure his position in Kyoto. He sent the rival Tokugawa family to the Kanto region so they would be far from the capital. He took the wives and heirs of rival daimyo as hostages and kept them at nearby Osaka. People of different classes were required to live in separate areas of town. In order to avoid peasants uprising against samurai, peasants were not allowed to carry weapons. Samurai were required to live in castle towns and were not allowed to farm. The campaigns to disarm peasants, as well as enemy forces, were called katanagari, or sword hunts.

Korean Invasions
From 1592 to 1598 Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent Japanese forces to invade China and Korea. Within the first three months the Japanese army had occupied Seoul and Pyongyang. The Chinese intervened which resulted in Japan eventually withdrawing its forces in 1598, a month after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Joseon and Ming navies engaged the withdrawing Japanese forces inflicting heavy damage. Out of 500 Japanese ships only 150-200 were able to make it back to Japan. During the battle the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin was shot and killed by a Japanese arquebus, a type of muzzle-loaded firearm. The failure to conquer Ming China weakened the Toyotomi family name and clans loyal to it.

Photos of Azuchi-Momoyama artifacts