The History of the Bakufu and Japanese Feudalism



The history of all Feudal Societies lies in the political developments in the control of land and labor. In Europe, feudalism developed in the Holy Roman Empire coincidently around the same time period as it was developing in Japan. Also coincidently, the two emerged from weakened Empires, and even more bizarrely coincidental, because of increased food production. The Bakufu, the Japanese central government in its years as a Feudal Society, has its origins in the Chusei Period, what can be referred to as the Middle Ages in Japan, which lasted from 967 until the founding of the Edo Era in 1603. Prior to the Chüsei, Japan was controlled on and off by its Emperors. As the complex bureaucracy toppled over itself, wealthy land owners and nobles with out a position in the court began to wield a great deal of power. Changing social and political conditions made it possible for these land owners to take advantage of the government, and eventually rule it themselves. It was also changing social and political pressures that toppled the bakufu nearly 700 years after its creation.

The Japanese feudal system began when large plots (shoen) of land were set aside for storage and development of crops. The large plots of lands owned by Ryoshu eventually became tax exempt, and the Ryoshu became very wealthy and powerful. Naturally a system that allows tax exemption, wealth, and power would become very unstable and would get out of hand. Despite the system for legally becoming a Ryoshu being tightly controlled, illegal shöen began to spring up because of the government’s lack of strength. As time went on, the Ryoshu can to have absolute control over every aspect of their shoen from land, labor, law, and self-governance. Wealthy families increased their wealth and power by using any number of techniques; war, purchasing of land, marriage, and others. Out of the marriages and warfare arose a warrior class called Bushi. The Bushi were organized much like a feudal society themselves, and pledged allegiance to the Ryoshu in exchange for land and money.

Out of all the mess of allegiances and loyalties, two prominent families came to control the vast majority of Japan, as the Emperor and the central government were all but inconsequential, and mostly dependant upon these two families. However powerful, neither was as powerful as they wished. The Taira family had traditional ties within the central government, and therefore theoretically wielded more power and influence, while the Minamoto clan’s leader, Minamoto Yoritomo, had been exiled by the Taira in the Hogen Incident. In 1183, Yoritomo again tried to expel the Tairas and in 1185, he won the Gempei War and expelled the Taira clan from the central government and created his own government called bakufu, or "tent (or warrior) government".


The Kamakura Bakufu and the Establishment of Feudalism

Yoritomo quickly gained control of all the Bushi and used his signifigantly overwhelming power to receive the right to defend and police the entirety of Japan. With all of Japan’s military under his control, Yorimoto worked to secure more rights and privileges, eventually receiving the title of Shogun. Despite this, for a time, the imperial court still had a good deal of power, especially judicial authority and civil litigation. Yoritomo continued to develop his government in the hierarchy style that came from the shoen system. Because the shoen system is fundamentally weak in the center, Yoritomo created the position of jito in 1186, which was a sort of administrator over a number of shöen. More steps were taken to centralize the bakufu’s power after the Jokyu War that ended in 1221. In the war, a retired Emperor attempted to overthrow the bakufu but failed. A second jito was appointed over newly seized lands, and some judicial powers were granted to the bakufu.

The bakufu expanded its power in every branch of the government. It soon controlled finances and legislative through the mandokoro, judicial affairs were handled by the monchujo, and then gokenin, essentially the military families directly controlled by the bakufu, were the responsibility of the samurai-dokoro. The bakufu also limited the power of the Ryoshu in their own lands by establishing local posts and institutions, including more jitö posts. One of these posts, the shugo, was responsible for coordinating the local gokenin into a cohersive military and policing unit. Overseeing the shugo was the tandai office. The tandai was responsible for overseeing policing and military functions, as well as having judicial authority.


The Muromachi Bakufu and Decentralization of Feudalism

After the Kenmu Restoration in 1333, the Kamakura bakufu fell and for a brief time, the Emperor was in direct control of Japan again. But in 1336 the imperial forces once again lost to a bushi house and in 1338 the Muromachi Bakufu was created by Ashikaga Takauji. Under the Muromachi bakufu system, power and influence was more or less derieved from military strength, which was centrally weakened during this time despite measures taken to dislodge the Ryöshu. These measures included both legalized seizing of shöen by bakufu-supported warriors and legislative measures including one that forced Ryoshu to forfeit half their income from their shöen to the bakufu and another that required the inheritance of land to the first born son only. The later measure dislodged the family-style structure the Shöen structure and the Kamakura Bakufu were based on.

As said before, despite these developments in the dislodging of non-nationalized local control, the bakufu weakened in power and influence. This was because of a schism was created in the imperial court, and two separate courts, one in Northern Japan, and one in the Southern portion, were at odds with each other, and Ashikaga Takauji had to focus on protecting the weaker, Northern court that supported him , from the stronger Southern court. This conflict created a void in the local political arena because of the lack of Ryöshu strength and lack of concern from the bakufu. Eager to extend their authority (for they had none), bakufu officials called Shugo began to exert authority over the jitös and poorly controlled shoen. As the Shugos became more influential, they began to collect taxes for themselves and built up a personal military. Some Shugos were so powerful as to simply ignore the bakufu and delegate their own territory as the bakufu had once delegated Japan. As Shugos gained power and the bakufu’s own power declined, Japan entered a short time period in which warlordism was rampant and war was commonplace. To counter this, peasants moved away from poorly defended Shöen and formed villages and towns for common defense. As Villages and towns built up military, daimyo arouse and took control of multiple villages’ defense.

As battles and wars dragged on, a minor daimyo by the name of Oda Nobunaga attempted to unite, with the Emperor’s support, Japan and claim the title of Shogun. Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, after bringing most of central Japan under his control. His successor was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was able to unite Japan and redistribute the land to daimyo on the basis of military strength and loyalty.


The Tokugawa Bakufu and the Bakufu-han Feudalism

The redistribution of land used the koku as the basis of the distribution. A koku is a Japanese unit of measure for volume, but is usually referred to directly for rice. A Daimyo was anyone in control of enough land to produce 10,000 koku of rice. The bakufu was compromised of the most powerful and influential daimyo. After Hideyoshi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu took control, and was appointed Shogun by the Emperor (Nobunaga had abolished the position in 1573). Under Tokugawa, the bakufu was able to extend its control over Japan and further limit control over the non-bakufu daimyo. This was done by imposing mandatory obligations on all daimyo. First, the daimyo were divided into three classes, the fudai, which were Tokugawa’s most trusted and loyal daimyos, often directly controlled by the shogun and the bakufu; the shinpan, members of the Tokugawa family; and the tozama, those daimyo that fell into neither of the other categories and sometimes opposed the shogunate and bakufu. To prevent potential uprisings and provide a buffer in the case of uprisings, fudai and shinpan were given han, or parcels of land, nearest to Edo and in strategic locations across the country. In addition to the land limitations, many financial limitations were placed on the daimyo. The primary limitations were that every other year, the daimyo were required to live in Edo, and they had to help fund public works projects. The required residency in Edo also had the added benefit of limiting the daimyos’, especially the tozama daimyos’, influence in their han. The funding of public works drained a large amount funds from the daimyo, and increased the power of the bakufu by improving communications, trade networks, and the defense of Edo, as the shogun’s castle was included in the public works projects. To keep the feudal system of the bakufu-han government intact, the bakufu discouraged the use of monetary currency and promoted the use of koku of rice as payments and bartering. To further stretch the funds of the daimyo, despite not having to pay taxes, the daimyo were expected to supply a certain number of arms, horses, and men in times of war proportional to the size of their han. The entire system of the bakufu-han feudalism was designed to discourage social change within the han, so as to keep the system maintained for as long as possible.


The Fall of the Bakufu and Feudalism in Japan

Social institutions are destined to change, however, and anti-bakufu sentiments began to arise in the mid 18th century. Those who supported the Emperor openly were put to death, but the movement was not silenced. The movement also gained popularity because of the “national learning” intellectual movement that encouraged and promoted everything Japanese, including history; Japan had once been dominated and ruled over by the Emperor. The lack of wartime also brought about the fall of the bakufu because of unimportance of military service, which was the glue of the feudalistic bonds. As mercantilism and the merchant class became more important in Japan, because of the collapse of the village as a self-sufficient micro-economy, the samurai and even smaller daimyos found that their incomes and stipends were being severely diminished. The disgruntled samurai were especially dangerous to the bakufu, as they were capable of organizing highly capable armies. Because of these various factors, also including the fact that Japan’s national population was growing while its food supply remained stagnant, created the problem of impoverishment amongst the poverty and many daimyo felt the pinch as well. This problem was partially alleviated by the practices of abortion and infanticide, as well as semi-constant famines and epidemics.

As the feudal system continued to decline within itself, the onset of Western powers in Japan only hastened the bakufu’s demise. In 1858, Japan was open to any Western power that wished to have influence within it. While the bakufu and northern, loyal daimyo enjoyed a monopoly of ports open to the West. Financial burdens on the daimyo had created such a void in the bakufu, that two han, Satsuma and Choshu were able to successfully reorganize and reform their han into potent economic and military powers while still retaining the feudalistic local government. This is probably because Choshu and Satsuma are located in southern Japan, where European ships could not dock nor sell goods directly. Choshu and Satsuma began to discuss national policy with the Emperor’s court, and Satsuma was so bold as to send an ambassador to France to represent its interests. Choshu soon began to call for the overthrow of the bakufu and the reinstatement of the Emperor as the center of the Japanese Government. After brief succession wars in 1866, and despite the French support for the shogunate, Choshu and Satsuma were able to topple the bakufu in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration. During the Meiji Era, the traditional Japanese Feudal system took several blows as land reform (as in taking it away from the Daimyo) and the uselessness of the samurai class became apparent. In 1877, feudalism had one last stand. A large revolt occured in Satsuma, with 42,000 rebels; most were desperate samurai. The rebeliion was crushed after half a year, and feudalism was expelled from Japan.



While none of the Bakufu-Feudalism systems were modeled similarly to the European sense, it was because of the familiar government system that the Western influence became so great in the ending stages of the Tokugawa Bakufu. This western influence diminished when Japan modeled its constitutional monarchy after Germany’s, which was a very centralized and strong government. The Bakufu-Feudalistic system was a very powerful system when it was centralized, most notably under the Tokugawa and Kamakura Bakufus, but the downfalls and problems created by feudalism were too great for any system to over come with out major upheavals of power. The system was essential for the shaping of Japanese history and causing it to become the great power it is now.





Shoen Feudalism, Japan, 1185 - 1333:

       Emperor                  Sei-I-Tai-Shogun
         ||                            ||
   Kuge<-'|                            ||
          |                          Bakufu
           \                           ||
            `------------>            /  \
                        Gokenin/Ryoshu    Gokenin/Ryoshu
                              ||               ||
                             /  \             /  \
             /-->      Shujin    Shujin Shujin    Shujin
            /             |         |      |         |
   Bushi<----->    Ie-No-Ko  Ie-No-Ko      Ie-No-Ko  Ie-No-Ko
            \         |         |              |         |   
             \-->   Roto      Roto            Roto      Roto
                    ||         ||              ||         ||
                   /  \       /  \            /  \       /  \
             Shomin     Shomin       Shomin       Shomin     Shomin



Muromachi Feudalism, Japan, 1333-1487:

   Emperor                                      Shogun 
      |                                           |||
     Kuge                  Shugo <--------------Bakufu
                             ||                    ||
                            / |                    | \
                       Bushi  |                    |  Bushi
                              |                    |
                            Daimyo               Daimyo
                              ||                   |
                             /  \                  | 
                     Yori-oya   Yori-oya       Yori-oya
                        ||        ||               |
                       /  \      /  \              |
                Yori-Ko   Yori-Ko    Yori-Ko    Yori-Ko
                   |           |         |         |
              Peasants Peasants Peasants Peasants Peasants





Feudalism in Japan during the Tokugawa Era, 1487 - 1868:

       Emperor <-------------Shogun
          |                     |
        Kuge         ___________|___________
                    |           |           |
             Hatamoto<--------Bakufu------->Daimyo
                   ||           ||          |______________
              Gokenin           ||          |     |       | 
                   ||           ||    Shinpan  Fudai  Tozama
                   ||           ||         ||____/_______/
                   ||           ||         ||
                  /  \         /  \       /  \
           Samurai     Samurai     Samurai    Samurai
              ||          ||          ||         ||
             /  \        /  \        /  \       /  \
     Peasant     Peasant      Peasant    Peasant    Peasant
                          \\     ||     //
                           Merchant Class



Update: After a good course in Modern Japan, I have to comment that the ASCII tree of the Tokugawa Feudalism is a bit idealistic. In the late Tokugawa, from the 1850's on, Merchants were actually higher on the scale than they were listed as. Buddhist influence puts them at the bottom but economic influence puts them much higher. Many merchants became samurai and many samurai became merchants during the late Tokugawa and early Meiji before the samurai class was abolished outright.


Hauser, William and Mass, Jeffrey; eds. The Bakufu in Japanese History. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1985
Ishii, Ryosuke. A History of Political Institutions In Japan. Tokyo. University of Tokyo Press, 1972.
Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations. 2nd edition. New York, Thomas Learning, inc. 1989

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