Daimyo Kanamori Shigeyoshi

From the 12th century to the 17th century, Japan was dominated by a delicately-balanced, feudal-military system led by daimyos who controlled competing semi-autonomous domains. Daimyos were essentially warlords whose power was based on the strength of their private armies. They rose from a class of rural military chieftains and lived like rich feudal lords. There were about 260 daimyo at the peak of their power.

If a daimyo was powerful enough to dominate all the other daimyo he was declared “sii-tai-shogun” ("military leader who quells the Barbarians"), or “shogun” ("military leader") for short. The governments of the shoguns were essentially military dictatorships. During times of the peace, daimyo were noblemen under the shogun. During times of war they fought among themselves and formed alliances in efforts to become shogun or support the eventual shogun

A shogun's office or administration was the shogunate, known in Japanese as the bakufu ( , "tent office/government"), which originally referred to the house of the general and later also suggested a private government under a shogun. The tent symbolized the field commander but also denoted that such an office was meant to be temporary. The shogun's officials were collectively the bakufu, and were those who carried out the actual duties of administration, while the imperial court retained only nominal authority. In this context, the office of the shogun had a status equivalent to that of a viceroy or governor-general, but in reality shoguns dictated orders to everyone including the reigning Emperor. [Source: Wikipedia]

Early shogun, Ashikaga Takauji

Websites and Sources on the Samurai Era in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; Artelino Article on Samurai artelino.com ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; Samurai Women on About.com asianhistory.about.com ; Samurai Armor, Weapons, Swords and Castles Japanese Swords Blade Diagrams ksky.ne.jp ; Making the Blades www.metmuseum.org ; Wikipedia article wikipedia.org ; Putting on Armor chiba-muse.or.jp ; Castles of Japan pages.ca.inter.net ; Enthusiasts for Visiting Japanese Castles (good photos but a lot of text in Japanese shirofan.com ; Good Photos of Thousand Warrior Procession at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Seppuku Wikipedia article on Seppuku Wikipedia ; Tale of 47 Loyal Samurai High School Student Project eonet.ne.jp/~chushingura and Columbia University site columbia.edu/~hds2/chushinguranew : Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts sacred-texts.com ; Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp/eindex; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com

Rise of the Military Class in Japan

Daimyo, Sengoku Hidehisa

Under the early courts, when military conscription had been centrally controlled, military affairs had been taken out of the hands of the provincial aristocracy. But as the system broke down after 792, local power holders again became the primary source of military strength. Shoen holders had access to manpower and, as they obtained improved military technology (such as new training methods, more powerful bows, armor, horses, and superior swords) and faced worsening local conditions in the ninth century, military service became part of shoen life. Not only the shoen but also civil and religious institutions formed private guard units to protect themselves. Gradually, the provincial upper class was transformed into a new military elite based on the ideals of the bushi (warrior) or samurai (literally, one who serves). [Source: Library of Congress *]

“Bushi interests were diverse, cutting across old power structures to form new associations in the tenth century. Mutual interests, family connections, and kinship were consolidated in military groups that became part of family administration. In time, large regional military families formed around members of the court aristocracy who had become prominent provincial figures. These military families gained prestige from connections to the imperial court and court-granted military titles and access to manpower. The Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto were among the most prominent families supported by the new military class. *

Some have called long period from the middle 11th century to about the middle 16th century — the late the Heian period through most of the Muromachi period, when samurai were dominant — the "Age of Anxiety" in Japanese history. According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “There were several factors contributing to a high degree of anxiety during this time, but none was more important than the Buddhist theory of cycles. The specific fear was that society had entered, or was about to enter mappo, the final, degenerate phase of a cosmic cycle. This anxiety over mappo shaped many aspects of medieval Japanese culture, including two new forms of Buddhism: Zen and Pure Land.[Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Life Under the Daimyos

Japanese kingdoms were often in valleys or sections of coastline divided up by Japan's rough topography. Wealth was measured in koku of rice. One koku was equal to five bushels, 39.7 gallons or 180.4 liters. and was regarded as the amount of rice needed to feed one person for one year. A large fiefdom yielded about 1.2 million koku of rice, with the annual salary of an important lord being around 500,000 koku. Heads of families kept diaries as a record of their life and various ceremonies to serve as references for their descendants.

In times of peace, the daimyo elite lived a life of luxury and devoted their time to administering their estates and enjoying poetry, painting, architecture, No theater, calligraphy, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony. They and their families were transported from place to place in elaborate sedan chairs with a single 15-foot-long beam carried by six bearers. Noble brides were carried in sedan chairs with gold-leaf paper paintings, gilt-copper fittings and a lacquered surface worked with gold powder.

In Imperial times nobles were varied around in palanquin with passenger compartments that were often beautifully decorated but alarming small and cramped. One made for the bride of last of the last Tokugawa shogun was adorned with lovely paintings made with gold lacquer bit was only 95.7 centimeters wide, 134.4 centimeters long and 136 centimeters high — about the size fo a coffin chopped from half and with the two pieces stacked on top of each other.

Ordinary people in feudal times had few rights and were subject to the whims and wishes of the ruling samurai and their lords. Even so Japanese peasants were better off than European serfs. They retained some rights to their land and for the most were spared excessive taxation.


samurai armor
The samurai were roughly the equivalent of feudal knights. Employed by the shogun or daimyo, they were members of hereditary warrior class that followed a strict "code" that defined their clothes, armor and behavior on the battlefield. But unlike most medieval knights, samurai warriors could read and they were well verse”Japanese art, literature and poetry. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, December 2003]

Samurai endured for almost 700 years, from 1185 to 1867. Samurai families were considered the elite. They made up only about six percent of the population and included daimyo and the loyal soldiers who fought under them. Samurai means “one who serves.”

Samurai were expected to be both fierce warriors and lovers of art, a dichotomy summed up by the Japanese concepts of “bu” (“the way of life of the w”bun” (“the artistic, intellectual and spiritual side of the samurai”). Originally conceived as away of dignifying raw military power, the two concepts were synthesized in feudal Japan and later became a key feature of Japanese culture and morality.The quintessential samurai was Miyamoto Musashi, a legendary early Edo-period swordsman who reportedly killed 60 men before his 30th birthday and was also a painting master.

Books: A good book on sam”Miyamoto Murashi”, a novel by about a legendary swordsman by Eiji Yoshikawa”Last Samurai” was based on”Bushido-The Soul of Japan”, written by Inazo Nitobe in 1899.

“Seven S”Throne of Blood” by Akira Kurosawa”The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise; “Twilight of a Samurai”, nominated for an Academy Award in 2004.

Samurai scholar: Karl Friday at the University of Georgia.

Types of Daimyo

19th century daimyo Yamauchi Toyonori

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: In the Tokugawa period, there were over two hundred daimyo throughout Japan, whose domains varied in size from tiny (10,000 units of rice productivity) to vast (over half a million units of rice productivity). There were three categories of daimyo. Fudai were those daimyo personally allied with Tokugawa Ieyasu at the time of the Battle of Sekigarhara in 1600. Tozama were those daimyo not allied with Tokugawa Ieyasu at the time of the battle, including those who fought against him and those who did not. Shinpan daimyo were Tokugawa family relatives. In its early period, the bakufu designated three branches of the Tokugawa family (descending from Ieyasu) as daimyo lineages and potential heirs to the office of shogun should the main line fail to produce a suitable male heir. Later, three more branches assumed shinpan status, making a total of six. Some but not all of these branches had the Tokugawa surname. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“As we have seen, some daimyo not only administered their own domains but also worked as high-ranking bakufu officials. For bakufu offices requiring daimyo status, normally, only fudai were eligible to for appointment. Shinpan daimyo occasionally served as bakufu officials, typically as regents for a boy shogun. Tozama were ineligible to become bakufu officials. The fudai domains were small and often clustered around the larger tozama domains. The first three shoguns worked to create a geographic balance by surrounding tozama domains with the presumably more trustworthy fudai, with the fudai located in positions of strategic importance. Maintaining a balance of power, geographically and otherwise, between all potentially conflicting interests and groups was a conscious policy of the early shoguns. ~

“After Ieyasu’s victory, all the daimyo throughout Japan swore allegiance to the Tokugawa house. Such oaths would hardly have been worth the paper on which they were written had not the shogun and his government (which, of course, included some daimyo--an incentive for these daimyo to preserve the bakufu) held the preponderance of military and economic power. The bakufu directly controlled one-fifth of Japan’s agricultural land, making it the largest single land holder by far. It was taxes from this land that provided most of the bakufu’s income. The bakufu also controlled all major cities and ports, even if they would otherwise be part of another daimyo’s domain. It owned all the gold and silver mines throughout Japan. In theory at least, the daimyo ruled at the pleasure of the shogun, who formally reappointed the daimyo from time to time and had the authority to confiscate or reduce any domain. The first three shoguns often did confiscate domains of daimyo they suspected of disloyalty or other problems. As time when on and the domains became well established, confiscations by the bakufu took place only under highly unusual circumstances.” ~

Bakufu Bureaucracy

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The Bakufu (shogunate) was a large bureaucracy. In theory, and sometimes in practice, the shogun ruled as absolute dictator. In fact, some shoguns were weak-willed, incompetent, or simply lazy. The bakufu machinery functioned reasonably well with or without strong shogunal leadership.The two most important agencies within the bakufu were the Senior Councilors (roju, literally "elders within") and the Junior Councilors (wakadoshiyori, literally, "younger elders"). The Senior Councilors usually consisted of four or five daimyo of a certain type. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“Each individual councilor served as overall bakufu administrator on a monthly rotational basis. The whole group met in council to decide important matters of state, such as the selection of a new shogun should the previous one die without naming a successor. The Senior Councilors also supervised several high-ranking officials such as the commissioners that administered the major cities (e.g., Osaka and Nagasaki, both bakufu-administered), those that oversaw shrines and temples, those in charge of revenue and finance, and others. The Senior Councilors were a powerful group. Some shoguns gave them wide latitude; others tried to rein them in.~

“The Junior Councilors, all of whom were daimyo, were like the Senior Councilors but with slightly lower status. They supervised inspectors, who kept watch over bakufu retainers of sub-daimyo rank. The Junior Councilors also supervised the bakufu’s corps of intendants. These intendants administered parcels of the bakufu’s extensive land holdings throughout Japan. Another important task of the Junior Councilors was supervision of the day-to-day operation of the shogun’s castle in Edo.” ~

Kamakura Bakufu Documents

Document 14 of the Kamakura Bakufu — Yoritomo Settles a Dispute over the Possession of a Jitō Shiki, ordered: to Taira Michitaka, 3d year of Bunji [1187], 5th month, 9th day — reads: “That the false claim of Bingo Provisional Governor [“gon no kami”] Takatsune is denied; and that the “jitō shiki “of Sonezaki and Sakai Befu’s Yukitake Myō, within Kii District, Hizen Province, is confirmed. Because of the dispute between Takatsune and Michitaka over the aforesaid places, the relative merits of the two parties have been investigated and judged, and Michitaka’s case has been found justified. He shall forthwith be confirmed as “jitō”. However, as concerns the stipulated taxes [“shotō”] and the annual rice levey [“nengu”], [the “jitō”’s] authority, following precedent, shall be subject to the orders of the priprietor [“honjo no gechi”]. It is recorded in Michitaka’s documentary evidence [“shōmon”] that originally these places were Heike lands. Therefore, in the pattern of confiscated holdings [“mokkan”], management should proceed accordingly. It is commanded thus. Residents shall know this and abide by it. Wherefore, this order.” [Source: “The Kamakura Bakufu: A Study in Documents,” by Jeffrey P. Mass (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), 40, 49 158 /~]

Document 24 of the Kamakura Bakufu — The Bakufu Confirms a Woman as Jitō, 3d year of Kempō [1215], 3d month, 22d day — reads: “The chancellery of the shogun’s house orders: to the residents of three “gō “within Nitta Estate, Kōzuke Province; Iwamatsu, Shimo Imai, Tanaka. In accord with the last will [“yuzurijō”] of the husband, Yoshikane, his widow shall forthwith be “jitō”. The aforesaid person, in accordance with the will, is appointed to this “shiki”. As to the fixed annual tax and other services, these shall be paid in accordance with precedent. It is commanded thus. Wherefore, this order.” /~\

Document 138 of the Kamakura Bakufu — the Shugo’s Authority Is Described, 1199 29th day — reads: Koyama “saemon no jō”Tomomasa has been appointed t”post of Harima Province. The housemen of this province are to obey Tomomasa, perform the imperial guard service, and in general show their loyalty. Tomomasa’s authority is limited to rebels and murderers; he is not to interfere in provincial administration [“kokumu”] or judge the suites of the people. And he is not, under any pretext, to cause difficulties for the notables of this province. He has been apprised of these instructions.” /~\

Relations Between Daimyo and the Bakufu

daimyo paying a state visit

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Bakufu relations with the daimyo were complex. In some respects, the shogun was simply a very large and powerful daimyo. In other respects, such as when dealing with foreign countries, the shogun was the singular leader of all of Japan. The bakufu imposed numerous restrictions on daimyo, the most important of which are included in the excerpts from Laws for Warrior Households above. Daimyo were limited to a single castle and had to obtain bakufu permission to make any repairs on it. Daimyo were forbidden to act in concert with each other on any matters of policy. Their relationships, in other words, were to be with the shogun and the people of their domains, not each other. Even marriages were subject to shogunal approval. Should a daimyo appear to have accumulated a major surplus of wealth, the shogun might require him to build a bridge or do some other sort of work for the public good outside his own domain--in part as a way of draining off some of that wealth. Alternate attendance also kept daimyo expenses up. Bakufu inspectors visited each domain from time to time. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“The bakufu clearly held more power than any daimyo. The daimyo nevertheless governed with a high degree of autonomy within their domains. Daimyo, for example, paid no regular taxes to the bakufu. As long as they fulfilled their duties to the shogun, abided by the restrictions mentioned above, and caused no major problems, daimyo were free to govern as they saw fit. Some domains issued their own currency, good only within its borders, and laws sometimes varied from one domain to the next. In the early decades of the Tokugawa period, the daimyo were a culturally diverse group. By the second and third generations, however, all daimyo spent their formative years in Edo, which resulted in a high degree of cultural homogeneity among them. ~

“As the years went by, both the bakufu and the various daimyo domains encountered fiscal problems and accumulated ever larger debts to the leading business establishments in Osaka and Edo. Indeed, the samurai class as a whole--which depended on fixed incomes, the value of which steadily shrank owing to inflation--tended to sink into poverty throughout the eighteenth century. In the long run, it was the merchants who prospered during the Tokugawa period. Mainly for this reason, Tokugawa-era culture tended to celebrate merchant values and material wealth. We examine certain aspects of Tokugawa-period culture in the next two chapters. Here, we jump to the end of the Tokugawa period to see how it fell and to sketch the outlines of the modern state that replaced it.” ~

Seventeen-Article Injunction of Asakura Toshikage: A Guide for Daimyo

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Asakura Toshikage (1428-1481) was the daimyō of Echizen, a province on the Japan Sea coastline. Like many of the lords of the “sengoku “(warring states) period, Asakura endeavored to strengthen his domain administratively as well as militarily. Toward this end, he wrote a seventeen-article house law (a nod, no doubt, to the Constitution of Prince Shōtoku) for the benefit of his successor. This document, produced around 1480, suggests the extent to which the systematization of governmental structures was progressing on the level of the domain, even as the nation lacked any form of effective central authority. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Daimyo Nagai Naokiyo

Excerpts from The Seventeen- Article Injunction of Asakura Toshikage: 2) Do not give a command post or an administrative position to anyone who lacks ability, even if his family has served the Asakura family for generations. 3) Post intelligence agents (“metsuke”) in both near and distant provinces, even if the world may be at peace. In so doing you can spy on the conditions of these domains without interruption. 4) Do not excessively covet swords and daggers made by famous masters. Even if you can own a sword or dagger worth 10,000 pieces (“hiki”, equivalent of 10 “mon”), it can be overcome by 100 spears each worth 100 pieces. Therefore, use the 10,000 pieces to procure 100 spears, and arm 100 men with them. You can in this manner defend yourself in time of war. 5) Refrain from frequently bringing from Kyoto actors of the four schools of “Nō “(Komparu, Kanze, Hōshō, and Kita) for performances. Instead use the money needed for that purpose to select talented local actors of “sarugaku”, and train them in the basic elements of “Nō “(“shimai”) for theperpetual enjoyment of this province.” [Source: “Japan: A Documentary History: The Dawn of History to the Late Tokugawa Period”, edited by David J. Lu (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), 175-178]

13) Regrettable is the practice of selecting an auspicious day or considering a lucky direction in order to win a battle or take a castle, and even shift the time and date accordingly. No matter how auspicious the day may be, if you set sail your boat in a storm or confront a great host alone, your effort will come to naught. No matter how inauspicious the day may be, if you can discern between truth and falsehood, prepare for orthodox and surprise attacks secretly, be flexible in all situations, and depend on a good stratagem, then your victory is assured. “14) Three times a year, select men of ability and honesty, and send them on inspection tours of the province. They must listen to the views of the common people and farmers, and collect information concerning incidences of misgovernment. It will also be advisable for you yourself to go on an inspection tour, provided you wear a light disguise.

“15) Do not permit any castle other than that of the Asakura to be built in this province. Move all high.ranking retainers without exception to Ichijōgatani (the Asakura castle). Permit their deputies (“daikan”) and lower offi”or “shitazukasa”) to remain in their districts and villages [to measure their estates].

“17) When a suit is brought to you for your direct decision, do not bend an iota between reason and unreason. If you hear that an official has acted arbitrarily [for private gain], and that fact is well established, you must impose the same penalty on the offending official which was originally meted out to the losing party by him. If you can govern your own domain judiciously and compassionately, there is no need to fear whatever mischief may be committed by the lawless bands of warriors from other domains. If a rumor is spread that there exists in your domain favoritism and unfair discrimination and that rules and behavior codes are violated, other domains may intervene in your affairs.”

Image Sources: armor and sword, Tokyo National Museume and samurai blogs and websites; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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