Japan's Feudal period was a time of war, unrest and conflict and was at its core a battle for land and power. Since the beginning of Japan as a civilisation it was ruled strongly by the emperors, however, at the beginning of the feudal period in 1185 this changed. A critical war known as the Genpei war ended with the Taira Clan being beaten by the Minamoto Clan and this marked the end of the Heian period. This battle was critical because shortly after Minamoto Yoritomo of the Minamoto Clan declared Kamakura shogunate in Japan, a radical departure from the normal operations of Japan. This change was essentially the beginning of the Feudal period and meant a government rule under shogun. The first shogun were from the Minamoto and Fujiwara clans, and the rest were imperial princes.
These changes with a military rule, meant the already dwindling power of the emperor was all but gone. The powerful land owners of Japan, the daimyos now reported directly the shoguns, even though in many ways they were more powerful, and together these two commanded great influence over Japan.
The feudal periods focus on military meant the strong survived and the mighty samurai were some of the strongest. These warriors were hired by daimyos as their bodyguards, soldiers and enforcers. The more samurai a daimyo had under their control was a good correlation to how powerful they were in society in general.
All the power held by the land owners in feudal Japan meant the once mighty family were severely lessened. Even though the royal family had very little power, they still commanded a high social ranking, but in reality had very little power over the events occurring during this period.
The timeline of this period lasted until around 1868 when the emperor regained power, marking the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period. In total the feudal period of Japan lasted for around 800 years and played a huge role in the history of not only Japan, but the world as a whole.
The children of Japan lived similar to how we would live now, of course in feudal Japan times things might have been more violent. Read more about the Children in Feudal Japan >>
The daimyo were lords in feudal Japan, either owning or given land by the shoguns and expected to protect and help them in return. Read more about the Daimyo >>
The emperors of feudal Japan were the highest ranking officials as such and sat at the top of the hierarchy. Read more about the Emperors of Feudal Japan >>
The hierarchy in feudal Japan. started at the royal family with the emperor, down through the nobles and then to the lower classes. Read more about the Feudal Japan Hierarchy >>
In feudal Japan there were three primary periods, the Kamakura period, Muromachi period and Azuchi-Momoyama period. Read more about the Feudal Japan Periods >>
The government in feudal Japan was not really run by the emperor but the noble classes led by the shogun. Read more about the Governments of Feudal Japan >>
To be a man in feudal Japan was a nice position to be in, and depending on your status many things were available to you. Read more about the Men in Feudal Japan >>
Merchants and traders in feudal Japan were consider lower class, and placed at the bottom of society's ladder. Read more about the Merchants of Feudal Japan >>
The term ronin translates as 'wandering man' and was used to describe a samurai who had no master to answer to. Read more about the Ronin >>
The might samurai were the most powerful warriors in all of feudal Japan, helping protect land owners day and night. Read more about the Samurai >>
The shoguns were the real rulers of feudal Japan, part of the noble military and their highest ranking officers. Read more about the Shogun >>
The timeline of feudal Japan started around 1185 and through many periods and emperors came to an end in 1868. Read more about the Timeline of Feudal Japan >>
The rules of early feudal Japan, the Tokugawa clan were extremely powerful and established the Edo shogunate. Read more about the Tokugawa Clan >>
As a woman in feudal Japan meant you had less privileges than your male counterpart, but there were still options available. Read more about the Women in Feudal Japan >>
The emperors of Feudal Japan
Sitting atop the hierarchy of feudal Japan was the once mighty emperor, however this was purely superficial as the emperor in reality held very little power. As part of the royal class, the emperor was more of a figurehead rather than a ruler, with the shoguns and daimyos holding the real power in this era.
Even though these figureheads held very little real power they still lived a first class lifestyle. The royal family were incredibly wealthy and lived a life that the working class of Japan could only dream of.
Ruling for the emperors and empress if held by a female were typically fairly short terms. Typically an emperor only held power for around 10 to 15 years, with it often being shorter in many cases.
The real power in feudal Japan fell on the shoulders of the shoguns. These military leaders were the highest ranked in the class and were typically like modern presidents or prime ministers, responsible for many of the day to day decisions and the overarching themes.
The shoguns gained power as we earlier mentioned just after the Genpei war, leading to the founding of the Kamakura shogunate. The shogunate was essentially the government of the time and consisted of a selection of shoguns who were responsible for the major decisions in the organisation and running of Japan.
Daimyo the land owners
Another key component in feudal Japan were the daimyos, the land owners of the time. The daimyos were often lords or powerful men who held land and therefore were considered important by the emperor and the shoguns. Under the shogunate, the daimyos worked closely with the shoguns and this was a crucial relationship in maintaining power and control.
The daimyo made their living claiming taxes for land uses, including farmers, residents and all the workers that lived off their land.
The samurai were military soldiers and employees of the daimyo. They were honorable and lived by a very rigid code known as Bushido that made them excellent employees and loyal to their superiors.
The samurai were excellent warriors and skilled in many forms of combat, making them great enforcers, bodyguards and fighters for their daimyo. They were also granted many privileges in everyday life, allowing them to have suitable power over the lower classes should they need to exhibit it.
The ronin were essentially a samurai that had no master, or daimyo. The ronin lived by a slightly different code and their name translated literally means ‘wandering man’, and they were essentially wandering samurai for hire.
Due to the nature of their transience, the ronin would often take more unsavoury jobs, bodyguards, assassins, mercenary work, whatever was required and would keep them paid was fair game. These nomadic samurai were just as skilled and powerful but without the real code that the other samurai maintained.
Men and women in Feudal Japan
For men and women living in feudal Japan life could be very different as it was in many civilisations at the time. It was common for men in Japan to have more power, rights and authority over women, especially since women had very little rights at this time in history.
For men in feudal Japan, they had opportunities to obtain high ranking positions, become warriors and re-marry should their wife die. Women however could not re-marry but they were able to become warriors, although it was not common. There are female samurai known from this era, and even female empress, but it was not a common occurrence.
Overall the feudal period smiled kindly on men, with some opportunities for women too, but not as the same level as their male counterparts.
The periods of feudal Japan
During the feudal part of Japanese history the period was split in three, and while sharing some similarities, these three periods all had individual characteristics. The three periods were the Kamakura period, Muromachi period and Azuchi-Momoyama period.
The Kamakura was the first and most important, where military rule was brought in with the shoguns taking command instead of the emperor. The Muromachi period, also referred to as the Ashikaga period was actually when the Kamakura shogunate was destroyed, and saw Ashikage Takuji take over as the first shogun. Finally we saw the Azuchi-Momoyama period where the interests of Japan became more involved with the outside world and the country shifted to more modern approaches to life.