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Japanese Feudalism

Feudalism first developed in Japan during the late Heian period, with the increasing power and wealth of the warrior clans. The Hogen disturbance in 1155 had to be put down by the warriors of the Taira and Minamoto clans, highlighting the increasing dependence of the Imperial Court on the provincial armies. The Gempei War, which led to the foundation of the Kamakura Bakufu, showed that the Imperial system of government was becoming redundant.

The bakufu was a military government, notionally complementing the civil government of the Imperial court, but in practice dominating it. The form of the bakufu was feudal, with a central power supported by local authorities. The only direct control over the provinces was through increasingly ineffectual civil administrators, and the backbone of the military government was an emergent ideology of loyalty, which held the largely independent regional lords and clans to the service of the Shogun through sworn allegiance.

With the fall of the Hojo and the Kamakura bakufu in the 1330s, an attempt to restore full Imperial authority reiterated the civil government's dependence on the warrior clans. The former Hojo general Ashikaga established a new bakufu, with himself as Shogun, which was even more rigidly feudal than its predecessor. The Ashikaga Shogunate exercised control of the country through the jigo (civil governors and administrators) as well as the shugo (military constables). The land-owning daimyo were still held only by ties of loyalty, but with the shugo they were more closely watched and their independence curtailed. Over time, many of the shugo became daimyo in their own right, and their power grew in comparison to the declining jigo.

With the Onin War and the Sengoku Jidai, the power of the daimyo and their samurai was on the ascendant, and so when the country was unified under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the feudal model had to be revised. In place of the shugo, the daimyo became the vassals and peacekeepers of the Shogun, along with a powerful Shogunal retinue. The Tokugawa government supervised the whole nation through local administrators under the authority of the Council of Elders, and the daimyo were divided according to loyalties. With the daimyo forced to attend the Shogunal court and to leave hostages in their absence, the Shogun's control became more direct than ever before. Also under the Tokugawa, the classes were legally defined - warrior, peasant, merchant, artisan - leading to a more formal feudal state.

Class and the Role of the Samurai

Throughout the feudal period, the samurai were at the top of the social hierarchy. The Shogun ruled the country, and the Shogun was samurai, and so the warrior clans formed the ruling class of Japan. As noted elsewhere, from the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate onwards, this meant that they were expected to provide a good example to the lower classes, as well as protection from enemies and brigands, but it also meant that they were extremely privileged. They did not toil in the fields as the peasants did, and as the burden of taxation on the daimyo rose, it was not they, but the peasants who bore the brunt of that increase. It was in part a response to this harsh treatment that gave birth to the ninja.

Between the samurai and the peasants were the middle classes: the ronin, the merchants and the artisans. The ronin were masterless samurai, and hence of lower status than those who lived by bushido, and are dealt with in some detail below. Artisans were a vital part of society and, being skilled labourers, were a cut above the peasantry. The artisan class mostly consisted of construction workers: roofers, carpenters, plasterers and builders. More refined and artistic skills, such as swordsmithing, were considered above mere artisans, and would have fallen to craftsmen of the samurai class.

Merchants were probably seen as an unpleasant necessity by the samurai class. They dealt in commerce - a disreputable sector in most feudal societies - and as the Edo period progressed, and as the samurai role shifted from feudal warrior to urbanised administrator, they became more and more indispensable. They did not fit neatly into the feudal hierarchy, which was based on land-ownership and locations. Merchants had to travel to trade, and so did not clearly fall into the service of a particular daimyo. Moreover, the merchants made their own rules of trade and social conduct, giving further pause to the samurai. Despite this antagonistic attitude towards them, throughout the Edo period, the merchant class grew richer, and the samurai class grew poorer.

After the Meiji Restoration, the fall of the Shogunate and the abolition of the samurai privileges brought about the collapse of the class structure, and the end of the feudal system. After the loss of their privileges, the word shizoku (a Chinese pronunciation of samurai) was used extensively to distinguish the old samurai families until 1945. Even today, in some rural areas of Japan, the descendants of the feudal samurai lords are treated with a special respect, perhaps akin to that shown to the latter-day generations of country gentry in some parts of rural England.


The ronin were samurai without masters. Traditionally, it was a dishonour to find oneself in such a position, as it implied a failure in some facet of the samurai's duty: a failure to protect the master; a failure to commit sepuku on his death; or an abandonment of your loyalty. Some ronin however were specifically dispatched by their lords to wander for a year, and others dedicated themselves to the art of swordsmanship. Miyamoto Musashi had no master for most of his musha-shugyo (a 'warrior pilgrimage focusing on self-development), yet is remembered as one of the greatest of all samurai.

The ronin were a paradox in terms of the feudal system, much as the merchants were. Being masterless wanderers, they did not fit into the neat feudal hierarchy. They had no obligation to a lord to keep them in line, yet they were trained in bujutsu, and this made them exceptionally dangerous. Some took religious orders, becoming preachers of emptiness and isolation called komuso, but others retained their warrior status, and could become a thorn in the side of authority. During the Edo period in particular, the ronin were for a time the principal social adversaries of the status quo, an honour inherited from the ninja and later passed to the merchants. The ronin, alone or in groups, were hard to control, and by defiance might weaken the grip of the bakufu on the middle classes and peasants. They could also cause considerable disruption in the role of bandits and brigands.

Women in Samurai Japan

In early Japanese history, women play an important role. As well as the Queen Himika referred to in Chinese sources, there are other accounts of Queens and Empresses, historical or legendary, ruling unaided and in their own right as sovereigns and war leaders of Japan. These accounts continue up to the 8th Century, when the Empress Shotoku is said to have fallen so far under the control of a certain Buddhist priest, a Rasputinesque figure called Dokyo, that he was almost made her successor before the ascendant Fujiwara clan had him removed from the country. At that point, the Fujiwara took steps to make it impossible for a woman to rule alone in Japan, and there are no later accounts of strong or effective Empresses1.

But while there are no more great Empresses, this is not the end of women's role in the history of the Samurai. There are a number of great historical wives and mothers to Emperors, and until the 13th Century at least, women retained equal inheritance rights, even if they could not hold the Imperial throne. In the 12th Century it was Hojo Masako, widow of Minamoto Yoritomo who brought the Hojo regents to power. Masako - like many samurai widows - became a Buddhist nun on her husband's death, but her influence remained so strong that she became known as the general in the nun's habit. It was also a Minamoto's wife, Tomoe Gozen, who was one of Japan's most celebrated female warriors.

Through the course of Japanese history, the lot of women declined considerably from these heady days. During the Sengoku Jidai, the chief importance of women was in political marriages. Once in their husband's household however, it would be a woman's duty to spy on him for her family, placing her in an awkward and potentially dangerous position. Samurai wives would be responsible for raising children in the traditions of their class and family. They would also have control of the household finances, but this was primarily because commerce was considered beneath a samurai himself. A samurai woman would also learn to fight, but only in defence of her home.

By this time, equal rights were a thing of the past. Only men inherited, and adultery was defined as a wife sleeping with another man; a husband could only commit adultery with another man's wife. A samurai wife was expected to show the same loyalty to her husband as he did to his daimyo; as phrased in Nitobe Inazo's 1905 study of Bushido, she would annihilate herself for him, that he might annihilate himself for the daimyo. The shorthand was that the wife should act as though nothing but duty to her husband mattered to her.

Still, a wife's lot was better than that of a concubine, who would be held to the same degree of loyalty, but treated little better than a servant; an unmarried daughter might expect little less. In the event of a samurai's death, the women of his household might also be expected to commit ojigi, a form of Sepuku ritual suicide for a woman, in which she would thrust a knife through her throat.

From the 17th Century, women seem to have been regarded as essential for the production of children, but precious little else. Many writers of the time held that a man can never truly love a woman, and based on this principle a growing cult of homosexuality (as an institutionalised, rather than a personal sexuality) arose in the period, despite official condemnation. In particular, sexual relationships between a master and pupil seem to have become commonplace among the samurai class, and the importance of women in the life of men to have been further sidelined as a mere distraction.

Tales of women of courage and power continue up to the Meiji Restoration, but are far more scattered than in early history. Most common are women dying bravely in defence of their home, or sacrificing life, honour or dignity for the sake of her husband. A late example is Nakano Takeko, who distinguished herself in combat, wielding a naginata (a bladed polearm) in defence of a beleaguered Shogunist stronghold during the Meiji Restoration. She was finally shot in the chest, and asked her sister to decapitate her to avoid the disgrace of capture.

1This is currently a matter of great debate in Japan as the child of the Crown Prince is a female.

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