A Brief History of Fuedal Japan

Table of Contents

Japan’s influence on the west has been nothing short of miraculous, in less than a century and a half they have risen from a small isolated culture to one of the preeminent superpowers of the world. Although most people know a little about modern Japan most people do not know anything about the early history of the Japanese islands. For this essay I have chosen to focus on three major points of Japanese history, Origins to 710, Early Medieval History from 710-1600, and the Tokugawa Period from 1600-1868.

Origins of the People and State to 710

The early history of the Japanese people is, in many ways, similar to the history of the Native Americans and the British, French, and Spanish immigrations. To understand where the people of Japan come from you first need to understand that there are two “races” of people living in Japan now, the “Japanese” people and the Ainu, who live chiefly in the northern part of the country areas like Hokkaido and northern Honshu. The Ainu are similar to Native Americans of the United States in so far as they are the indigenous people of the land. (Henshall, 7)

About thirty to fifteen thousand years ago, during the last glacial age, groups of immigrants crossed over several land bridges connecting ancient Japan to the Asian mainland, they were called the “Jomon.” These people were the original inhabitants of Japan, they were hunter/gatherers and lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, however they did not look like traditional Japanese people, they were short, muscular, and had wide, square faces. During the Jomon Period (13,000BC – 300BC) these people dominated the island, by 300 BC though most of them had settled in the north eastern most part of Japan, what would later become know as Hokkaido.

By 300BC a new wave of immigration was bringing a new racial stock of people from the Asian mainland over to the island, these peoples were slightly taller than the natives and resembled the modern Japanese much more closely. They would eventually come to be called the Yamato, the descendents of the people of modern Japan.

These new immigrants were to change the face of Jomon Japan forever, they settled in the southern and southeastern areas of the islands, chiefly in Kyushu and the Southern Honshu regions. The Yamato immigrants (or Yayoi as they are historically called) first established individual tribes within the area that eventually grew into small kingdoms, one of the strongest of which was a kingdom called “Yamatai.” (Henshall, 10)

By 300AD a central kingdom began to emerge in the Nara Bay region of Central Japan, this was later called the Yamato State, named for the main city of the area, and was the first kingdom of Japan that formed a unified island state. Yamato, its believed, formed from a city named Yamatai that was mentioned in Chinese histories of the time, Its first recorded ruler was a shaman queen named Himiko, who ruled from approx. 238-248AD.

Although the Chinese histories name Himiko as the first sovereign of Japan the first verifiable ruler was the Emperor Suijin (?-318AD) it was under him, and the other early emperors, that Japan moved away from loose tribal leadership and formed a larger political entity, Suijin was the leader that got the majority of the existing tribes to form a coalition, or political alliance, some joined with him willingly and others were coerced or threatened into submission, the one point that is clear is that he didn’t conquer all the tribes he came across, a great many of them he negotiated with. Once the tribes were unified the new emperor slowly began to increase the power of his position giving the former leaders of the tribes ranks and power in the new kingdom. The first half of the era was a first among equals type of rule, by the early 500’s though power seems to have consolidated within the Yamato Imperial line.

Also during the late 500’s Buddhism was introduced to Japan by the Soga, a powerful clan within the Yamato structure, and Emperor Yomei.

The Soga clan had controlled much of the government of Yamato until 645 when a coup led by a man named Fujiwara no Kamatari displaced them and took control of the kingdom, he enacted several reforms including:

  1. The nationalization of land – government allocated rice paddies
  2. Establishment of a permanent capitol at Naniwa, present-day Osaka, meant to be permanent but it didn’t last for more than a few years
  3. Emulation of the Chinese, at this time Japan took much of its example from China, its laws were modeled on Chinese precedents and stressed the authority of the emperor and centralization of power, as well as penal codes.

These were collectively know as the reforms 645, he and his family line would rule Japan for centuries to come.

During the opening years of this era the empire was showing the first signs of decentralization, this was caused by many factors, chiefly of which was a lack of a central capitol. In 743 a law was enacted that allowed for private land ownership, prior to this the distribution of properties were done by the state, but the new law stated that if your family could clear the land for cultivation then it would be yours. The state also suffered from a lack of tax income, any person who owned their own land had to pay taxes on it but if a small farmer worked for a larger farm owner he didn’t have to pay taxes to the state, by doing this the populace began to owe their loyalty to the individual nobles, the people who would become the samurai.

In 794 the capitol, although it was merely symbolic and not functional, was moved from Nara, where it had been since 710, to Heian, present day Kyoto. This era, called the Heian Period, was the turning point in decay of the empire, by this time the imperial court was absolutely meaningless in governing the state, its courtiers were only there in a symbolic manner, all of the functional power of the government had already passed to the provincial warriors, these early samurai are the ones who wielded the real power in the empire.

In 1156 the next shock to the Japanese culture occurred, rival members of the Fujiwara clan tried to take control of the throne, by enlisting the help of different families. While the details of the war would take too long to go into here, it is important to note that the Taira and Minamoto clans were the soldiers for the Fujiwara. And although the Taira won in the initial fighting, the sons of the vanquished Minamoto allied themselves with another claimant to the throne, a prince Mochihito. However, the final battle between Yoritomo Minamoto and the Taira wouldn’t be conducted until 1185 because of a widespread famine and pestilence. Yoritomo’s brother, Yoshitsune, won the war against the Taira in a naval battle at Dannoura, at the southern tip of Honshu, in 1185. (Sansom – History to 1334, 315)

Yoritomo, in an effort to legitimize the power he won in the war, had the court grant him the title “seii-tai-shogun,” or more commonly know as Shogun. It was he who instituted the feudal system of government, granting large tracts of land and the powers of a lord to whom he saw fit. Yoritomo was by far one of the most ruthless rulers that Japan had seen, he had most of his family executed because he didn’t trust them not to try something against him, and in an ironic twist of fate in 1199 he fell of his horse and died. His two sons, Yoriie and Sanetomo, were controlled and eventually murdered by their own family.
During this intrigue the Mongols decided to invade, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai, came to power in 1260 and conducted two invasions of Japan, one in 1274 and the other in 1281. Both failed due in part to resistance of the Japanese and two well time typhoons. During both invasions the Mongols landed on and penetrated the Japanese island of Kyushu but on each occasion after they landed a severe storm damaged most of their ships, both killing a significant number of men and preventing them from pushing any further. (Sansom – History to 1334, 442)

In 1318, the new emperor, Go-Daigo, ascended to the throne and tried to wipe out the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. After two unsuccessful attempts, one in 1324 and the other in 1331, he allied himself with Ashikaga Takauji, an opportunistic general who betrayed the shogunate. With the aid of another general who turned traitor against the shogunate, Nitta Yoshisada, they destroyed its power base at Kamakara in 1333.
After the shogunate had been toppled General Takauji wanted the title of Shogun from Emperor Go-Daigo, Go-Daigo refused him and he promptly turned his back on the new government. Thinking that he was being defied, Go-Daigo sent Nitta Yoshisada after him, to kill him. Takauji defeated Yoshiada and had him killed; he then marched on to Kyoto and forced Go-Daigo to flee the city.

The Ashikaga line of shoguns continues for two more generations until the death of Shogun Yoshimitsu in 1408, after that shogunal power begins to drop dramatically and the provincial families gained more and more power showing the beginning of the “Daimyo,” feudal lords, of a later age. Unchecked by the shogunal or imperial powers these families fought amongst themselves. This time was known as the “Sengoku,” or Warring States Era.
Near the end of the Warring States Era in 1543 three Portuguese explorers on a Chinese trading ship were blown off course and landed on the Japanese island of Tanegashima. This was Japan’s first contact with west. (Henshall, 40)

The Warring States Era was brought to end by a Daimyo named Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga took control of Kyoto in 1568, and although members of the Ashikaga clan still held the title of Shogun, it was Nobunaga who wielded the true power. As for war, Nobunaga was easily the most ruthless and brutal warlord in quite some time, he had his younger brother murdered, he casually had Buddhist priests executed, he saw them as troublesome and potential threats, and he also once had 20,000 captured enemy troops burned alive. Although he was a cruel and merciless warlord he did enact some much needed reforms that started to reunify the country, first by surveying all his land holdings and bringing as much as he could under his direct control, he confiscated the peasants weapons, probably in fear of an uprising, and he standardized the weights and measures.

Nobunaga’s successor was a man named Toyotomi Hideyoshi; Hideyoshi served as one of Nobunaga’s leading generals and served him loyally until Nubunaga’s death in 1582, a very uncommon virtue in that time. Although his loyalty during Nobunaga’s life was admirable his respect to him after death was not, Hideyoshi had Nobunaga’s infant grandson recognized as heir, instead of his eldest son, and, of course, he wielded the true power through the infant Hidenobu.

Hideyoshi’s reign as regent was, however, somewhat beneficial to Japan, he continued the land survey and the standardization of weights and measures, he also, in 1590, conducted the first population Census, and by 1591 he had gained control of the provinces in the far north. Near the end of Hideyoshi’s life he started to become quite paranoid, seeing threats where there were none, he had his young nephew commit suicide and murdered his nephew’s wife, sons, and servants. After his death a struggle rose as to who would rule the realm, either his infant heir, Hideyori, or his sometimes rival/ally Tokugawa Ieyasu. In the end Tokugawa won out and in October of 1600 claimed the seat of power in Japan, thus beginning the Tokugawa Period.

During the first few years of the Tokugawa Period Ieyasu consolidated his holdings, and built his power base at the small fishing village of Edo, later to be known as Tokyo. The main staple of Tokugawa’s rule was the further reunification of the country, he increased the power of the shogunate and decreased the power of the courts and military houses, codes of conduct were established for the Daimyo’s and everyone was expected to act in the prescribed manner, punishment for “rude behavior” was often death. He also continued Hideyoshi’s freezing of the classes, by the end of Ieyasu’s reign there were strict rules in place governing almost every aspect of peoples’ lives, including the type of work, clothing, food, and even gifts that you could give. (Henshall, 51)

Tokugawa kept the nation stable by playing the rival Daimyos’ off against each other, he kept the provincial rulers that weren’t completely loyal separated and away from the central areas, loyal followers were placed between them to stop alliances among enemies, whenever a Daimyo was suspected of disloyalty he was promptly killed or lost all or part of their domain, and finally all the Daimyo’s were required to spend alternating years in Edo and at their provinces this kept the lords from accumulating too much wealth thanks to the cost it took to keep two separate manors operational.
During this time Japan was effectively closed off from the rest of the world, by 1639 all of the westerners had either been driven out or voluntarily left. Christian missionaries were thrown out even earlier, by 1614. Japan was starting to develop a national consciousness and closed of its borders to any foreigners, including all the Japanese who were traveling overseas, these people, perhaps numbering in the thousands, were forbidden from ever returning under penalty of death.

This closed off period continued for over a century and a half, no foreign contact, except for one Dutch trading settlement, was allowed and the nation experienced no major wars or significant rebellions. In fact the nation almost stagnated with no major advancements and almost nothing of importance occurring until the late eighteenth century. In the late 1700’s the rigid structures of the class system began to ease due to rise of the merchant class. Mercantilism was at first frowned upon by the shogunate as being undignified, this feeling quickly faded as the Daimyos become indebted to the merchants, and with the return of the westerners.

From around the 1830’s the populace began to lose respect for the shogunate, thanks in part to its inability to deal with national emergencies, such as a famine from 1833-7 and even a small scale uprising in 1837 that the government should have been able to deal with, but couldn’t. This ineffectiveness was brought to a head in July 1853 when

Commodore Matthew Perry from the US navy sailed into Edo bay and presented a treaty that demanded three things from the Japanese:
2. Opening of ports for provisions and fuel
Perry returned the following February for their answer with an even larger force of ships, and Japan was forced to open its doors to foreign influence. Also the Shogunate was forced to sign several treaties that helped and aided the western presence in the nation. Needless to say the Daimyo and populace were very displeased with this.
The family that caused the downfall of the shogun government was a powerful clan from the western edge of Honshu called Choshu. In July of 1863 and again in September of 1864 the Choshu fleet opened fire on British and American ships. It was a disaster for them, and in 1865 and 1866 the government, probably at the insistence of the United States and Britain, sent troops to punish them for their actions. The family, with the aid of ronin (masterless) samurai and an army of peasants, managed to hold back the Shogunate’s army. Two years later, on January 3 1868, the choshu, allied with other families from the region and with the aid of a Shogun noble named Iwakura Tomomi and also with an Imperial doctrine that called for the abolition of the Shogunate, invaded and occupied the Shogun palace, effectively bringing an end to the Shogunate.

The Imperial line was restored to power, and the new ruler was the Emperor Mutsuhito, who would come to be known after his death as Meiji, “The Enlightened One.”
After 1868 Japan enters an era of its history known as the Meiji Period, or Meiji “Restoration”. During this time the government of the island nation undergoes a radical alteration by moving away from the feudal classes of the previous eras. The Samurai class was completely abolished within a decade and the gradual westernization of the islands began.

There are several points on Japanese culture and philosophy that would be beneficial to the understanding of Japan’s history and culture.

  1. The Japanese have never had a strict moral code like the Christians and Europeans, this is because decisions based on moral or ethical problems were considered in the context of the situation not with any absolute laws or doctrines. For example, murder was a crime, but not if a rival warlord had murdered one of your family members or servants.
  2. The Japanese have also had an incredible ability to learn from and emulate other cultures, beliefs, and opinions. They did this to the Chinese until they felt they had nothing left to learn from them. They also did this to the United States, but to a greater extent, they did this to all the western world. (Sansom – History to 1334, 67)

In conclusion, feudal Japan was a violent and tumultuous time filled by years of war followed by a sparse peace, which was to be followed by more war in a vicious cycle that lasted till almost the present era. The Emperors, warlords and self-appointed Shoguns were all struggling to make a name for themselves and to gain as much power as possible, this was allowed, in part, by the values of the age, values and beliefs that continue to the present day. Although the majority of Japan’s history is a bloody one the feudal age also saw some of the truly remarkable accomplishments of their history, it witnessed the birth the national spirit and through the hard work of the people brought Japan from the feudal age into a superpower in less than two-hundred years.


References Henshall, Kenneth G. A History Of Japan: From Stone Age To Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Sansom, George. A History Of Japan to 1334. Sanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974. Reischauer, Edwin O. Japan – The Story of a Nation. New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1974. Sansom, George. Japan – A Short Cultural History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1962.