The Age of the Samurai
Created | Updated Jul 19, 2007
The Kamakura Bakufu (1192 - 1333)
With the Kamakura Bakufu in command of Japan, the samurai had reached the top of the social hierarchy. Along with their new system of government, the samurai class also embraced a new religion, Zen Buddhism, introduced from China at the beginning of the Kamakura period. The Bakufu also oversaw the introduction, in 1232, of a Confucianist legal code, stressing the importance of the samurai's principal virtue - and the principal means of feudal control - loyalty.
The unchallenged dominance of the Bakufu failed to outlive its founder. After Shogun Minamoto Yorimoto's death in 1199, his widow oversaw the ascendance of her own clan, the Hojo. While the Minamotos retained the title of Shogun, the Hojo became the real power in the Bakufu, a fact which attracted much resentment from their enemies. The Imperial Court at Kyoto also began to challenge the Kamakura Bakufu once more. This conflict continued for over 20 years, until the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221 saw the Kamakura forces victorious over the Imperial Army on their own territory at Kyoto. Following the Disturbance, the Hojo regents stripped Kyoto of its remaining power, leaving the Emperor a purely symbolic ruler.
The Mongol Invasions
The Mongols conquered China in 1259, after which their eyes turned to Japan. The first invasion of Japan by the Mongols came in 1274, on the southern island of Kyushu. The samurai were outnumbered by the Mongols, but the Japanese were protected by their weather. Like Britain, Japan's greatest defence against attack was and is the simple fact that it is an island nation, and when severe storms forced the Mongol invasion fleet back, they had no other avenue of attack. The landings that were made were small enough to be driven off. A second attack in 1281 also failed, although this time there were several weeks of fierce fighting before the weather again forced the invaders to withdraw1.
The impact of these invasions on the samurai were two-fold. Firstly, the battles against the Mongols brought about a revolution in warfare. Against new enemies, stale methods had to be rethought, and the Japanese developed a new style of formation combat. The period of the invasions also marks the ascendancy of the sword as a primary battle weapon for the samurai. Secondly, the Mongol invasions precipitated the collapse of the Kamakura Bakufu, and the downfall of the Hojo regents.
While the Japanese were victorious against the Mongols, the Hojo regents proved unable to pay the warriors who fought for those victories. (Coupled with the importance of the weather in defence, this brings up a striking parallel between the Mongol invasion and the Spanish Armada launched against Elizabethan England.) Now resented by the samurai who were the source of their influence, the Bakufu's power declined, until in 1333, Go-Daigo, 96th Emperor of Japan, was able to overthrow the Hojo and restore power to the Imperial Court. This was the beginning of the Muromachi period.
The Muromachi Period (1392 - 1573)
The Kemmu Restoration of 1334 removed the Kamakura Bakufu's system of government, and restored the Heian Insei administrative system. Unfortunately for Emperor Go-Daigo, this system was centuries old, and hopelessly outdated. Furthermore, the officials put in charge of running the state were often incompetent, and only three years after the downfall of the Hojo, the Imperial Court's ability to rule was challenged by Ashikaga Takauji, a former Imperial commander, who defeated the Emperor's forces to take Kyoto. Go-Daigo fled and established a separate southern court, while Ashikaga Takauji exploited a long-running succession dispute to place a new emperor on the throne in Kyoto. In 1338, Takauji appointed himself Shogun and established a new Bakufu government.
The government relocated to the Muromachi district - for which the period is known - in 1378, becoming known as the Muromachi Bakufu. The southern court continued to exist as a separate entity, until its final surrender to the north in 1392. Even at that time, however - in fact from around 1368, under the rule of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu - the Bakufu was already losing influence over the outer regions of Japan. Despite a strong economy, commercial ties with Ming China, and the surrender of the southern court, the power of the Ashikaga Shoguns dwindled away in the 15th and 16th Centuries, and power shifted to the provincial control of the ji-samurai; military, land-owning dynasties.
Through this period, the warrior arts were refined, and the 15th Century saw the emergence of the first schools of swordsmanship, as master swordsmen established dojos in which to teach kenjutsu.
Sengoku Jidai - The Age of Civil Wars
Throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries, the ji-samurai clashed in an endless series of civil conflicts, resulting - naturally - in a further increase in the power of the warriors. The Onin War of 1467-1477 resulted in the further decline of the failing Ashikaga Shogunate, and the beginning of the Sengoku Jidai, or Age of the Country at War. The Sengoku Jidai lasted 150 years, as the ji-samurai lords battled amongst themselves for supremacy.
The Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 - 1603)
The Sengoku Jidai finally came to a close with the unification of Japan, a process which continued throughout the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The period of unification began when Oda Nobunaga seized Kyoto in 1568. In 1573 Nobunaga overthrew the Muromachi Bakufu, expelled the last of the Ashikaga shoguns, and thus ended the Muromachi period. Nobunaga continued his drive to unify the country through a combination of successful campaigning and good luck. Nobunaga defeated the rival Takeda clan in the Battle of Nagashino, but his most dangerous rivals in East Japan both died before they even had a chance to oppose him in battle. In 1582 Nobunaga's luck ran out, when he was assassinated by General Akechi, but Akechi's triumph was short-lived: he was defeated in the same year by one of Nobunaga's generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who took control of Japan.
Hideyoshi continued with Nobunaga's campaign of unification. In the process, he destroyed many of the castles which were the keystones of local ji-samurai power. He also confiscated all weapons from farmers and religious institutions in the Sword Hunt of 1588, leaving the samurai class as the only trained and equipped warriors in Japan, and his samurai as the strongest and best fortified of all. Hideyoshi later turned his attention - and that of his samurai - outward, launching two invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597. He captured Seoul in 1592, but in 1598 was forced to concede defeat and withdraw from Korea, shortly before his own death.
Following Hideyoshi's rule, another Nobunaga lieutenant, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took over, in opposition to Hideyoshi's chosen successor, Hideyori. Ieyasu asserted control of Japan, establishing a military hegemony, sealed by a victory over Hideyori loyalists at Sekigahara in 1600. By 1603, his position was secure enough that he was named Shogun by the Emperor. Ieyasu's accession brought the transitional Azuchi-Momoyama period to an end, ushering in the relative peace of the Edo period under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Threats to Samurai Power - Jesus and Guns
From the first arrival of a Portuguese ship on the shores of Japan in 1542, guns and Christianity began to threaten the dominance of the samurai. Guns were a direct threat in battle, invalidating much of the samurai's skill at arms, and Christianity was - as ever - a threat to any non-Christian ruling class, preaching of devotion to a higher power than the Emperor and the Shogun. Hideyoshi expelled all foreign missionaries in 1587, but in 1593 his decree was challenged by the arrival of Franciscan missionaries. In 1597, the persecution of Christians was intensified. Further conversions were forbidden, and 26 Franciscans were executed, but missionary activity continued into the Edo period, leading to a total ban on the religion - and a further expulsion of missionaries - from 1612.
The Edo Period (1603 - 1867) - Peace and the Pursuit of Excellence
The Edo Period is named after the city of Edo (now Tokyo), where the Shoguns of the Tokugawa Bakufu had their capital. The beginning of the period was marked by the strengthening of Tokgawa's position and the final strokes of the battle for the unification of Japan. With his accession as Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to grant strategically important estates to those daimyo - the lords of the ji-samurai - he knew to be loyal to him.
Ieyasu required a man to have an annual income of 10,000 koku (one koku was enough rice to feed a man for a year) before he could even be called a daimyo. He then divided those who qualified into three groups: the daimyo who were relatives of the Tokugawa were called the shinpan ('related') daimyo; those who had been loyal to him before his takeover were the fudai ('hereditary') daimyo; and those who had joined him during the takeover became the tozama ('outer') daimyo.
Under the new administration, the Shogun controlled about a quarter of the farming land in Japan. The lands nearest to the Shogun's domain then went to the shinpan daimyo, the next layer to the fudai, and the remainder to the tozama. He also required that all daimyo spend every second year in Edo, allowing him to keep a close eye on them, and weakening their ability to gather force against him. When they were not in Edo, they had to leave a member of their family at the Shogun's court as a hostage against their good behaviour.
In 1615, Shogun Ieyasu captured the mighty Osaka Castle from the remaining Hideyori loyalists, and destroyed the Toyotomi Clan in the last major battles of the Edo Period. The siege of Osaka caused Ieyasu considerable trouble, and so he declared the law known as Ikkoku Ichijoo ('One land, one castle'), prohibiting daimyo from raising more than a single castle in a province. Thereafter, the period was one of relative peace, with the attendant problems which that created for a warrior aristocracy. In part to prepare for such difficulties, Ieyasu produced the Buke Sho Hatto, or Rules for Martial Families, shortly before his death later in 1615.
The Genroku Era
At first, foreign trade was promoted by the Shogunate, although Christians continued to be persecuted. In 1633 however, Shogun Iemitsu forbade all foreign travel. The eyes of Japan turned inwards, and aside from extremely limited trade with China and the Dutch, through the port of Nagasaki, the country became almost entirely isolated. With foreign influences removed, the late 17th Century became the Genroku era, a flowering of insular Japanese culture. With no major battles, the samurai class also began to show much greater interest in the development of art, literature, philosophy and ritual, and the Edo period produced innovations such as the tea ceremony.
The art of sword-making is generally considered to have remained in decline in the Edo period, but the art of the tsuba flowered. The tsuba was the sword-guard, a metal disk which slotted between the base of the main blade and the fittings of the sword hilt to protect the hand. In the Edo period, the decoration of these guards became an art form all its own, with fabulous designs worked into the metal and inlaid. Some tsuba were even manufactured which would have been utterly useless as sword-guards, being ridiculously oversized, and featuring three-dimensional vignettes.
With the military role of the samurai clans no longer present as a surety of their continued prominence, the Shogunate created and enforced a rigid, four-tiered society based on Neo-Confucianist principles, with the samurai of course at the top of the hierarchy. Below them were peasants, artisans and merchants, and the eta, a class of untouchables considered beneath society proper. Unfortunately for the Tokugawa Shoguns, this was simply not sufficient to hide the fact that the unification had rendered a large part of the samurai role obsolete. Indeed, the presence of a highly-skilled warrior caste in a land with no wars caused some problems for the government itself, especially in the case of masterless samurai, known as ronin ('wave men'), who at times acted as no more than brigands and thugs.
The Decline of the Shogunate
In 1720 a ban on foreign literature was imposed, presumably to try and fight the tide of dissatisfaction with the rule of the Tokugawa. It did not work. The power of the government continued to decline, and dissent grew. Taxation was a major issue, but dissent was heightened by a series of natural disasters and famines which increased the pressure on the peasant classes. There was also resentment over the declining morals and increasing levels of corruption and incompetence in the Shogunate. As in the West, the fall of feudalism was also catalysed by the ascension of the middle classes, and in particular the merchants, who began to have money equal to or greater than the wealth of the daimyos, and to desire a status to match. Coupled with ever-increasing external pressure for trade, the increasing influence of the merchants on the corrupt government began to tell through the 18th and 19th Centuries.
The end for the Tokugawa Shogunate - the last samurai government - began when Commodore Perry forced the government to restore international trade in 1853-4. The isolation of Japan was ended, and the collapse of a governmental system effectively frozen in time could only be hastened by the fact that it had been forced to back down by foreigners. Sure enough, the Shogunate lost all of its remaining political power in the Meiji Restoration of 1867-8, less than 15 years after the reopening of Japan's ports.