Japan under the Shoguns 1185-1853

Text and Web-site by James Bowen, Convener, Pacific War Historical Society. Web-site established May 2002 and last updated 14 May 2010.

In the year 784 the emperor of Japan moved his court from Nara to Kyoto. For the next four hundred years, art and literature flourished at the new capital Kyoto while control of Japan by the central government withered away.

Although the emperor ruled in name at Kyoto, the real power in Japan during this time was increasingly exercised by provincial samurai clan lords or daimyo who were intent upon increasing their land holdings and their independence from control by the emperor.

Samurai clan lords, or Daimyo, ruled their domains from castles like this one

Feuding between samurai warrior clans finally led to collapse of the nominal central government at Kyoto, and for the purpose of restoring order, the emperor appointed the leader of the victorious samurai faction, Minamoto Yoritomo, Japan's first shogun or military commander in 1185. While a form of civil government continued under the emperor at Kyoto, it exercised no real authority, and the shogun was in reality the military dictator of Japan supported in power by his samurai warrior vassals. The title of shogun became hereditary, and this form of military dictatorship endured in Japan until 1867 when the last shogun resigned and the emperor was restored to power.

The Kamakura Shogunate 1185-1336

The first shogun set up his military government at the seaside village of Kamakura, and the era from 1185 to 1336 is known as the Kamakura Shogunate. During this era, Japan was twice invaded by China's Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. These invasions were repelled, but the effort weakened the Kamakura Shogunate, and it was replaced in 1336 by a samurai general named Ashigawa Takauji who set up his military government at Kyoto.

The Ashikaga Shogunate 1336-1568

The Ashikaga Shogunate was an era of great cultural development as the military-feudal samurai of the shogun's government associated with the cultured civilians of the emperor's court at Kyoto. Zen culture dominated this era, and produced major cultural developments, including masterpieces of literature and art, and Japan's unique landscape gardening, the art of flower arrangement (ikebana), and the tea ceremony.

While cultural pursuits flourished under the Ashigawa shoguns at Kyoto, effective central control from Kyoto began to break down during the fifteenth century, and civil disorder increased as the provincial samurai clan lords or daimyo contended for land and power.

The Tokugawa Shogunate 1603-1867

These civil disorders tended to concentrate power in the hands of a few daimyo of unrivalled strength who ultimately fought for control of Japan itself. A general named Tokugawa Iyeyasu won this battle for control of Japan. He was appointed shogun by the emperor and established his military government at Yedo (now Tokyo).

The powerful Tokugawa clan, with the support of its branch families and allied clans, would provide shoguns to rule Japan from 1603 to 1867. It needs to be mentioned that there were other clans which had submitted to Tokugawa rule only after being defeated by them in battle. They were mostly in western Japan, and included the powerful Satsuma and Choshu clans. These defeated western

clans would patiently bide their time to seek revenge against the Tokugawa until the middle of the 19th century, when they would play vital roles in the overthrow of rule by shogun, restoration of the emperor as sole ruler, and the modernisation of Japan.

Tokugawa Japan: a society based on class elitism and rigid conformity

The aggressive, restless Japan of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was heavily influenced by the attitudes of the Tokugawa shoguns and the samurai warrior class. The Tokugawa shoguns saw no merit in Western culture, and they isolated Japan from it for just over two centuries. They sought to produce social stability by imposing on the Japanese people a social order based on clearly defined and rigidly maintained class lines. At the top of this social pyramid was the nominal ruler of Japan, the emperor, and his court nobles. Second in rank, but first in power and privilege, was the ruling samurai warrior class whose leader was the shogun. In a total population of roughly thirty million, about two million Japanese belonged to the elite samurai class. A person was born a member of a samurai family; no one could climb socially to that rank. Below the samurai were the common people who comprised, in descending order of status, rice farmers, craftsmen, artisans, fishermen, and finally, merchants, who were despised as parasites by the samurai. At the very bottom of the social barrel were the entertainers, leather workers, beggars and executioners. Social mobility was excluded, because this was a society of status in which each person occupied his or her allotted place and was expected to stay in it.

To further bolster social stability, the Tokugawa shoguns demanded rigid conformity to orthodox values and habits of behaviour. Life was not seen by the Tokugawa shoguns as being concerned with self-fulfilment, but with the performance of obligation. There was no place for freedom of thought, because duty called for unqualified loyalty and obedience. The samurai warrior demanded obedience and total respect from the common people who supported his privileged life-style. Failure to show that respect could bring instant and very harsh punishment.

The Samurai

Something more needs to be said at this point about the character of the samurai warrior class which dominated the government and cultural life of Japan during seven centuries of military dictatorship, because samurai values and attitudes continued to influence Japanese thinking, especially in government and the military, until Japan was defeated at the end of World War II.

Most Westerners are familiar with the image of a samurai warrior in kimono or armour, on foot or on horseback, and equipped with his characteristic two swords. The samurai belonged to clans which held and ruled their lands in a manner very similar to the early Scottish clans. The samurai warriors honed their fighting skills in almost continual feuding with neighbouring clans until this civil disorder was largely suppressed by the Tokugawa shoguns. If we wish to understand why members of the Japanese military in World War II preferred to commit suicide rather than be captured alive by an enemy, then we need to know something of the code of ethics by which the samurai warriors lived.

This Japanese samurai warrior is armed with sword and bow

Bushido: The Samurai warrior's code

The virtues esteemed by the samurai warrior included unquestioning loyalty to his feudal lord, fearlessness in battle, self-discipline, rejection of soft living, development of military skills, indifference to suffering and discomfort, and disregard of material wealth. In addition to these military virtues, the samurai were also encouraged to honour their parents, and to be honourable, honest, compassionate, generous, polite, self-controlled, and disdainful of money. These are some of the values and attitudes that were aspects of the samurai warrior's code called bushido.

To the samurai warrior, personal loyalty, obedience, courage, and honour were esteemed above life itself. It was dishonourable for a samurai to surrender to, or be taken alive by, an enemy. When faced with such a situation, or any serious dishonour, a samurai warrior was expected to commit suicide by ritual self-disembowelment. Westerners tend to describe this form of suicide as hara-kiri, but Japanese prefer to describe it as seppuku. Sometimes, samurai performed seppuku to demonstrate loyalty to a superior by following him in death, to make amends for serious failure of duty, or to protest against some action or attitude of a superior that was viewed as producing serious dishonour. Being an extremely painful form of suicide, it was favoured by the samurai as a demonstration of courage, resolve, and self-control.

The Japanese military purported to follow the samurai code of bushido after the restoration of the emperor as supreme ruler in 1868 and prior to Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, but there were darker aspects to its practice after 1868. For the imperial Japanese military, bushido meant dedication of their lives to the emperor; defeat was viewed as shameful; surrender was dishonourable; compassion for defeated enemies, male or female, was weakness; and those who surrendered were worthy only of contempt.

Battle-hardened Japanese soldiers who purported to follow the code of bushido would prove to be tough opponents for Australian soldiers, many just out of secondary school, in the harsh jungles of New Guinea.