When we talk about feudal Japan, we often think about samurais. These extraordinary warriors, known for putting honor above all else, have shaped Japanese history in many ways. But what really happened in Japan during the era of these valiant soldiers fighting with the art of the katana? What should we really remember about medieval Japan? Let’s discover together the background of this exciting period of Japanese history!
Outline of Medieval Japan
Feudal Japan (or Chûsei) begins in the 12th century and ends in the 19th century. This period encompasses 6 of the 14 traditional subdivisions of Japanese history, namely:
- Kamakura era (1185-1333)
- the restoration period of Kenmu (1333-1336)
- the Muromachi part (1336-1447)
- the Sengoku phase (1477-1573)
- Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603)
- the Edo era (1603-1868)
In short, this medieval period begins in 1185 and ends in 1868. A rather long interval that has many specificities. Nevertheless, three of them can be highlighted:
- The predominance of the hierarchy with the maintenance of the hoken-seido or Japanese feudal system. It is a system where class and rank play a major role.
- The emergence of the samurai:these legendary warriors have undoubtedly shaped the world’s vision of feudal Japan.
- The Edo era: it is characterized by the cultural and economic development of the archipelago after its closure to the world.
The Japanese feudal system: which organization?
The Chûsei is identified by a particular political system. Feudal Japan was organized in fiefs and seigneuries, as in the West, but with its own specificities.
The class hierarchy of feudal Japan
Medieval Japanese society, like Western society, was also hierarchical. However, the classes were not divided into three, but into four. Feudal Japan admitted the following classes, in hierarchical order:
- the warriors
- the craftsmen
- the merchants
To note: the imperial family and religious were excluded from this hierarchical classification.
Feudal Japan: between title and power
Feudal Japan is characterized, as in the Western medieval period, by a central power and local powers. The central power was represented by the duality of :
- Tenno (or Emperor), celestial ruler
Shogunor “great military commander for the subjugation of barbarians”, head of the military government (or shogunate)
The two powers coexist at the head of the empire. The imperial court, located in Kyoto, was the guardian of traditions. The Shogun, on the other hand, was the head of the Bakufu (or tent government). Its seat changed according to the family that took the office and succeeded in imposing itself on the others.
As for local powers, the empire was under the power of several clans, headed by a Daimyo, i.e. a local lord. In the Bakufu, the following hierarchy was accepted:
- The Shogun, the head of the government. He therefore represents the central power.
- The Daimyo or local lords. They were most often the leaders of the clans that made up the empire with territories in their possession. They held the power to manage their territory, but answered to the orders of the Shogun.
- The Shugo or provincial governors. They were in the service of the Daimyo and had limited skills, namely maintaining order and controlling the warriors of their province.
- The Shugodaï or the vassals of the shugo. Often settled in Kyoto, the shugo sent the shugodai for the missions in province.
Note: Gradually, the shugodai claimed land rights in the provinces to which they had been sent. They will then become shugo-daimyo.
The samurai of medieval Japan: between myth and reality
The history of the samurai in feudal Japan has long been mythologized. Between epic battles and legendary characters, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate myth from reality. Who were these revered warriors really? Let’s dive into the world of these fascinating armored soldiers.
Bushido: the way of the Japanese warrior
If we want to demystify the samurai, we should already understand the principles that animated them. Indeed, every good samurai had to follow certain codes which will be later included in the bushido. But what is bushido?
Bushido embodies the way to follow for the warrior of feudal Japan. And when we say warrior of feudal Japan, we don’t just mean samurai, but also bushi. Not only a technical training, bushido shaped the philosophy of the soldiers of Japan during this period. His training took a lifetime and every good samurai had to apply it. But what was really studied in this bushido?
In addition to the training in the handling of the katana, the bushido admits 7 precepts:
Gi, the rightness
Yu, the courage
Jin, the benevolence
Makoto, the sincerity
Meyo, the honor-
Shugi, the loyaltyé
Every practitioner had to follow these values that govern their life, not only in combat, but also outside. Any deviation from these principles was very costly to them.
Important: Bushido was only codified in a strict way during the Edo era, under Tokugawa Ieyasu. The philosopher Yamaga Soko plays an important role. But Nitobe Inazo’s book, “Bushido, the soul of Japan” (1900), is undoubtedly the best known work that relates this philosophy.
The samurai and honor
Ah, the samurai and their famous sense of honor… Between their legendary submission to their master and the ritual of seppuku, these warriors of medieval Japan seem to symbolize honor. But is this really the case? What did these warriors really have to do with honor?
Contrary to the vision that most people have of the samurai, they were not the incarnation of honor. Samurais were above all warriors, but above all humans. And as such, honor was not often forthcoming, whether on the battlefield or in daily life. Indeed, despite what we may hear, samurais were above all warriors! The goal was therefore to shoot down the enemy, no matter what method was used. And when the struggle for power was present, history tells of many samurai who betrayed their master or changed sides.
To wit: it is because of the not very virtuous practices of the samurai and their deviations that the bushido was strictly codified. At the same time, the practice of hara-kiri and seppuku was introduced. For yes, contrary to what one might believe, this practice of suicide to keep one’s honor intact was rarely voluntary.
The onna bugueisha: the warrior women of feudal Japan
Contrary to popular belief, women in feudal Japan could also attain the status of samurai. If their story is less told than men’s, Japanese stories describe the existence of onna bugeisha or warrior women.
The most famous of them is probably Tomoe Gozen or Lady Tomoe. Described as a formidable horsewoman of the Kamakura era, she is said to have led her husband’s army into an epic battle. It is therefore very difficult to identify fiction from reality. But one thing remains certain: she was an admired and respected fighter.
Interesting factAt the risk of surprising you even more, the Japanese natives were not the only samurai in medieval Japan! We know today that there was also a samurai of African origin: Yasuke or Kuro-san. Former slave of Portuguese, Yasuke had been noticed by the daimyo Oda Nobunaga. He later freed him and raised him to the rank of samurai.
The Edo era: the golden age of feudal Japan?
Undoubtedly the most famous era in Japanese history, theEdo era is synonymous with peace and prosperity for the archipelago. But what should we remember about this period of feudal Japan?
The Tokugawa shogunate: an alternative to instability?
On the political level, the medieval period of Japan is characterized by the dominance of instability. The empire is plagued by civil wars. It will be the Tokugawa clan which, after the reunification of the archipelago, will bring peace there. After this clan took power, the Tokugawa shogunate managed to establish a certain stability. He rules the country with an iron fist to make peace reign. And they are doing quite well since the warrior class, already revered before the Edo era, is at the peak of its glory.
The title of Shogun became hereditary under the Tokugawa, avoiding conflicts between clans and rebellions. Feudal Japan is, for once, experiencing a period of prosperity with samurai more respected and feared than ever.
Sakoku or the closure of feudal Japan to the world
During this Edo period, the Japanese empire also closed itself to the world. Wanting to limit any contact of the people with foreigners, the Tokugawa shogunate allows the Japanese culture to be singular. This is the emergence of Japanese art as we know it today. At the same time, the period of peace allowed the empire to develop. The merchant class is becoming more and more important, and entertainment is becoming an important sector.