The Shogun, the Tang Dynasty, and the Japanese Aristocracy
The term “shogun” is an abbreviation of the official title Sei-i Taishōgun (“Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians”) which was given to military leaders enlisted by the imperial government to fight the Ezo tribes of northern Japan during the 8th and 9th centuries. The tribal group did not recognise the central Japanese government and did not see themselves as the emperor’s subjects. Some members of the tribe submitted to the government and were resettled throughout the empire, assimilating into the Japanese population.
Japan learned from and emulated the practices of the prosperous Tang dynasty of China, with which it had a robust trade and diplomatic relationship. Among customs studied and copied were the Chinese conventions of court etiquette, formal address and titles, tea drinking , and eating habits.
Japanese aesthetics also followed Chinese models. Japanese artists travelled or studied in China and brought back ideas, modelling their literature and music after Chinese canon. Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, as well as the thousand-year capital Kyoto were modelled on the Tang dynasty capital, Ch’ang-an (located near modern-day Xian), as Mark Cartwright (2017) describes, with “most buildings for public administration having crimson columns supporting green tiled roofs. Heiankyo [Kyoto] was laid out on a regular grid plan with right angled streets creating regular-sized blocks…The royal palace followed Chinese ideas, and the city even had an Academy of Chinese Learning (Daigaku-ryo).”
Japanese Buddhism during the Nara period (710-784) copied the Buddhism of Tang China (which in turn was modified from its Indian origins), but this evolved with the establishment of the Tendai and Shingon monastic sects, which developed Japanese characteristics. Buddhist deities were later adopted into Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan that was created to distinguish it from Buddhism.
Since the 7th century, the Japanese followed the Ritsuryō system, a legal system based on Confucianism and Chinese legal philosophy that reached its peak during the Heian Period (794-1185). From the Chinese Legalist standpoint, “moral institutions are not a good guide for society, and good government should be based entirely on a fixed code of law and practices.”
Ritsuryō defined the government hierarchy and contained criminal and administrative codes that governed land usage, religious rituals, and criminal punishment.
In the 10th century, the imperial court modified Ritsuryō in two ways: it calculated taxes on the basis of land units instead of individuals, and it left local matters and provincial affairs to local officials. These sowed the seeds for the feudal system and the shogunate that would later undermine the central government.
The Fujiwara Clan
Government posts were also created outside the Ritsuryō codes. Two of these posts–the sessho (regent) and kampaku (chief councillor), with the collective name sekkan (regency)–further weakened the direct rule of the emperor.
The regency positions were monopolised by the Fujiwara clan, who gained political ascendancy by marrying Fujiwara daughters to Japanese emperors. The sessho office was created in the 9th century by Fujiwara Yoshifusa, maternal grandfather of Emperor Seiwa, in an effort to help the emperor who ascended the throne at only nine years of age.
Yoshifusa’s son, Mototsune, became sessho to succeeding emperor Yozei, and created the office of kampaku for the reign of Emperor Uda, who ascended the throne as an adult at age 21.
During this period, Chinese culture continued to be dominant, with scholars writing in Chinese prose and verse, and Chinese customs followed by the Japanese aristocracy. By the end of the 9th century, however, the Tang dynasty began to decline, and Japan cut off formal relations with China. The Japanese court, now with no court to emulate, slowly began to form its own traditions.
Private Land Ownership and the Samurai Class
The Ritsuryō system dictated public ownership of land but did not incentivise the reclamation of wasteland and development of new fields. Population was growing and shortage of developed land proved to be a growing social and economic problem. To solve this, in 723 the central government promulgated a law that allowed people to cultivate land they reclaimed, further strengthened 20 years later with a law which made the right to cultivate reclaimed fields in perpetuity hereditary. This resulted in massive land reclamation by wealthy families, with large swathes of public land passing into private hands.
These privately owned lands were known as shōen or “manors”. Private lands were taxable, but in the 10th century during the Heian period, shōen owners found ways to circumvent tax laws, making their now nontaxable estates independent of the civil administrative system.
The Japanese aristocracy grew even wealthier from their estates. Younger members of the imperial clan and lower-ranking aristocrats who were displeased with the Fujiwaras’ full control of upper government settled in the provinces, acquired their own lands, and amassed power. These officials, who had practised martial skills for centuries, developed their own armed forces, giving rise to the samurai or warrior class.
Japan Develops the Kana Scripts
While the samurai gained land and power in the provinces and the Fujiwara clan continued to grow wealthier in the imperial capital, Japanese culture continued to flourish, especially with the emergence of the kana scripts, hiragana and katakana, in the 10th century. Until then, Japan had no written language of its own as the Japanese used Chinese ideographs to guide meaning and pronunciation. However, the Chinese script was inadequate in capturing Japanese grammar. Hiragana simplified a number of Chinese characters, while katakana abbreviated them.
Hiragana, based on the cursive script style of Chinese calligraphy, was not accepted by everyone, especially by men, who continued to write official documents using Chinese script. Hiragana became popular among women of the Fujiwara court, who used the script in personal communications (such as letters) and in writing literature. The Tale of Genji, a novel by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, was written in the early 11th century using hiragana.
Now with their own writing system, the Japanese began perfecting new poetic forms. One of these is the waka, consisting of 31 syllables, or five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic units, slowly supplanting the kanshi or poetry written in Classical Chinese that the imperial court originally favoured.
The Rise of the Shogun: Kamakura Shogunate
The more powerful of the samurai class slowly gathered in or near the capital, serving the military needs of the state or as private bodyguards of aristocrats. In the late Heian period (year 1068), Emperor Go-Sanjo ascended the throne, the first emperor in a hundred years not born of a daughter of a Fujiwara. The Fujiwara monopoly of the regency had come to an end.
Two warrior clans rose in power, the Minamoto and the Taira, who were enlisted by the aristocrats. Infighting within the imperial family and the Fujiwara clan led to the Hogen Disturbance in 1156 and the Heiji Disturbance in 1159, where the Minamoto and the Taira warrior clans were pitted by their employers against each other. The Taira emerged victorious, and they amassed power in the capital. The Minamoto built up strength in the provinces, until they rose in insurrection against the Taira in 1180.
The war against Taira ended in 1185 but the war continued within the Minamoto clan itself. In 1192, the victorious Minamoto Yoritomo travelled to Kyoto and was appointed shogun by the emperor of Japan. This meant the shogun still answered to the emperor, but bestowing the title of shogun gave the military leader control over a piece of land, establishing a feudal order and limiting the power of the emperor over the country. The emperor remained in the imperial capital of Kyoto, nominally the nation’s ruler but reduced to a ceremonial head of state with no real control over his people.
Minamoto Yoritomo seized the estate of the defeated Taira family and established the first shogunate (bakufu) in the 12th century in the village of Kamakura, far from the imperial court of Kyoto. Yoritomo appointed his military governors (shugo) to head each province, a national power structure that would influence Japan for the next five centuries.
The Kamakura shogunate managed to repel invasions by the Mongols in the 13th century, but its weakened command led to its collapse in 1333.
The forces of the new emperor Go-Daigo, joined by local warriors, brought down the shogunate in Kamakura. However, Go-Daigo’s reforms of centralising bureaucracy did not sit well with the local warriors. Ashikaga Takauji turned against the emperor and established the second shogunate which ruled the country from 1338 to 1573.
The Ashikaga clan moved the capital from the village to Kyoto, residing in the same city as the emperor. The period was also called the Muromachi Shogunate after the district in Kyoto where Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (Takauji’s grandson) moved the bakufu during his reign as shogun. He constructed the famed Kinkakuji as his retirement villa.
Now a Zen Buddhist temple, it is also known as the Golden Pavilion as the structure’s top two floors were completely covered in gold leaf. It is one of the 17 locations making up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, which are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
The Golden Pavilion’s first two floors were built in the Japanese shinden style, which was a style of mansion construction developed in the Heian period, while the topmost floor was built in the Chinese style of the Zen school. Travellers can visit the temple, which overlooks a magnificent pond and is surrounded by a strolling garden.
In order to raise more funds for the shogunate, the Ashikaga clan ordered each provincial shugo to levy monetary taxes on either every unit of land or every household, and extracted taxes from pawnbrokers and sake brewers. Yoshimitsu also re-established trade and diplomatic relations with China through the Ming Dynasty and with Korea’s Choson dynasty.
The shogunate supported scholarship and the arts, and during this period the Nō (Japanese word meaning “talent”; also spelled Noh) theatrical form of drama flourished. Nō was a form that developed from agricultural festival dances and ancient dance dramas, and focused more on visualising metaphors than narrative. Travellers can visit the Nagoya Noh Theatre and the Tokyo National Noh Theatre to watch performances of one of the oldest theatrical forms in the world.
The waka verse continued to be composed, but popular forms were also developed such as the renga (linked verse) and the free-style and less formal haikai no renga, which would later give birth to the modern haiku.
Tea drinking, introduced from China, developed into the refined tea ceremony, which in turn stimulated the aesthetics for tearoom architecture, flower arrangement, pottery, and ceramics. Travellers today can participate in an authentic tea ceremony, offered by various tea houses in Kyoto.
Europeans began to arrive in Japanese shores at this time as well. Several Portuguese were shipwrecked in 1543, and taught the Japanese musket construction, which shaped Japanese local warfare. From 1549, Jesuit missionaries began arriving in Japan to propagate Christianity. They came with Portuguese merchant ships, and the daimyo (feudal lords), looking to profit from trade, protected the religion, with some of them even converting to Christianity.
Though uniquely Japanese art developed under the Ashikaga clan, their rule was also characterised by years of power struggles, warfare among local lords, and famine. Ashikaga Yoshimasa later secluded himself in the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji), a sombre structure compared to its model, the lavish Golden Pavilion, further weakening the shogunate.
Like the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion (not covered in silver, though this was the original plan) is now a Zen temple that can be visited by travellers.
Tokugawa Ieyasu Comes to Power
Japan was splintered by local warfare. Daimyo Oda Nobunaga rose through the ranks in the provinces and entered Kyoto in 1568 in an attempt to unify the country. He defeated rival warlords and deposed the Ashikaga shogunate. However, his military exploits were cut short in 1582 after a betrayal by one of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide rebelled against him, and Nobunaga was wounded during the attack. He reportedly committed suicide by seppuku (the Japanese ritual suicide of disembowelment) to avoid being captured.
Nobunaga had already consolidated control of 30 out of 68 provinces by the time of his death. His deputy, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, avenged him and continued his work of unification.
Neither Nobunaga nor Hideyoshi took the title of shogun. Hideyoshi died in 1598, leaving behind a five-year-old son Hideyori and a brewing conflict because of the sudden power vacuum.
The factions vying for power fought at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victorious, and he was named shogun by the emperor in 1603.
Japan’s Tokugawa Period, also known as the Edo Period, lasted nearly 300 years from 1603 to 1868 and was characterised by a rigid social order, isolationist economic policies, and the weakening of the long-ruling shogunate that led to the Meiji Restoration and the return of imperial power.
Ieyasu moved the seat of the shogunate from Kyoto to the marshes of Edo, a small fishing village that would later become the neon-lit metropolis of Tokyo. He mobilised workers from all over Japan to build the Edo Castle, which became the centre of Japanese politics for the duration of his clan’s reign.
Edo Castle now houses the Emperor and his family and is now called the Imperial Palace. The inner grounds of the palace are generally not open to the public, but can be entered on January 2 (New Year’s Greeting) and December 23 (Emperor’s Birthday), during which members of the Imperial Family make several public appearances on a balcony. Guided tours of the palace grounds (but not the buildings, which remain off-limits) are also offered during the rest of the year.
In 1603, Ieyasu began construction of the Nijo castle in Kyoto to serve as his Kyoto residence and office. It is now open to the public as a World Heritage Site (listed in 1994), one of the few surviving examples of palace architecture during Japan’s feudal era.
Ieyasu only officially served as shogun for two years, although he ruled from behind the scenes from 1605 until his death in 1616. Ieyasu, through his son, the new shogun Hidetada, began a series of reforms in an effort to bring social and political order to Japan after centuries of endless infighting and warfare.
The Four-Tiered Society
The shogunate adopted the Confucian scheme of social stratification, but altered it to favour the warrior class.
In the Confucian theory of an ideal society, scholars were at the highest level, followed by farmers, artisans, and merchants and soldiers. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate:
- The samurai or warrior class, which made up 10% of the Japanese population at the time, were at the highest level of society. As it was a time of peace, many samurai joined the bureaucracy. They were forbidden from owning land, and were expected to maintain military preparedness.
- Majority (80%) of the population belonged to the second tier, the farmers or peasants, who were allotted small plots to cultivate and were prohibited from engaging in non-agricultural work.
- Artisans and craft workers formed the next class, followed by
- the merchants or shop-keepers, who were seen as parasites leeching off the labours of other people.
There were people above and below this four-tiered system. The shogun, the emperor, and the Buddhist and Shinto priests and monks were above the system, while the burakumin (“the village people”; outcasts) were below the system. The burakumin included those engaged in occupations tainted with death and/or were considered taboo–butchers, undertakers, and prostitutes (including oiran, or courtesans), among others.
Movement within regions were regulated and the classes were not allowed to mingle, except in business transactions and in the licensed “pleasure quarters” in the city outskirts.
Isolation and Further Control
While lines were being drawn within Japanese society, the shogunate also drew hard demarcations between Japan and the rest of the world. According to Tashiro Kazui and Susan Downing Videen (1982), Japan before the Tokugawa shogunate controlled trade had trade relationships with several groups:
- in Nagasaki, the central government traded with the Chinese, the Ryūkyū Kingdom, and the Dutch East India Company. Ryūkyū, a semi-independent vassal state of China, was also controlled by the Shimazu clan daimyō of Satsuma Domain.
- in Ezo (now Hokkaidō), the Matsumae clan traded with the Ainu
- in Tsushima, the So clan traded with the Joseon Dynasty of Korea
The shogunate continued to be wary of the daimyo and feared the clans’ profitable trades would lead to them rising up against the government. In order to exercise complete control, the shogunate (under Ieyasu’s grandson, shogun Iemitsu) limited trade to Nagasaki by 1635, and limited the trading partners to the Dutch and the Chinese by 1641.
Also in 1635, the shogunate established the sankin-kōtai (“alternate attendance”) system, forcing the daimyo and their family to reside every other year in Edo as an expression of loyalty to the shogun.
The shogunate also took on an anti-Christian stance due to the religion’s growing power in Japan. Following a bloody Christian peasant rebellion in 1637 on the Shimabara Peninsula, Christianity was outlawed and Japanese Christians were driven underground. (Today, Christianity in Japan is a minority religion, with only one percent of the population saying they are Christian.)