The History of The Land of The Rising Sun: Medieval to Pre-Modern Japan
Picking up from our last article we will continue with the story of Minamoto no Yoritomo and how he chose to consolidate power during his reign after winning the bloody Genpei war with the help of his half-brother.
Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333)
To help consolidate his power and strengthen his rule, Minamoto no Yoritomo chose the Imperial Court in Kyoto to rule from (though Yoritomo also set up his own government in Kamakura in the Kanto region of East Japan, with its power being legally authorised by the Imperial Court in Kyoto on multiple occasions). In 1192, the Emperor of Japan officially declared that Yoritomo has become the Shogun. It was later in the Edo period that ‘bakufu, literally translated to ‘tent government’ came to be used to describe a government headed by a Shogun. This signalled the start of a long military rule for Japan.
While legitimacy was conferred onto the bakufu by the Imperial Court, the bakufu were the de facto rulers of the nation. The court maintained all bureaucratic and religious functions, and the bakufu welcomed participation by members of the aristocratic class. Many of the older institutions remained intact but were left in a weaker form, and Kyoto still remained as the official capital even it there were governments operating elsewhere. This system has been contrasted multiple times with the ‘simple warrior rule’ of the later Muromachi period.
Many of the Taira branches which had fought against Yoritomo in the Genpei war were extinguished at this point, such as the Ise branch. However, some of the other branches such as the Hojo, Chiba and Hatakeyama were thriving in eastern Japan, even with some achieving high ranking positions within the Kamakura bakufu.
It was during this time that with the authorization of the imperial court that Minamoto no Yoshitsune opposed his half brother Minamoto no Yoritomo for rule of the bakufu. Incurring the Shogun’s wrath, Yoshitsune fled for the northern realms of Honshu. Here he was harboured by an old ally who he had lived with in his youth, Fujiwara no Hidehira of the Fujiwara clan. Hidehira’s son Fujiwara no Yasuhira promised that upon Hidehira’s death he would honour the wishes of his father and continue to give shelter to Yoshitsune. However, pressure from Yoritomo caused Yasuhira to give in and betray Yoshitsune. Surrounding Yoshitsune’s residence and killing his retainers, including the famous warrior monk Benkei, Yasuhira forced Yoshitsune to commit seppuku. Yasuhira hoped to use this event to try and curry favour with the Shogun to protect his lands, however Yoritomo still invaded and conquered the Northern Fujiwara territories. This event has caused Yoshistune to be portrayed in countless Japanese literary classics as an idealised tragic hero.
Yoritomo’s death in 1199 weakened the office of the Shogun. Hojo Masako, Yoritomo’s wife became the true power behind the scenes. Her father, Hojo Tokimasa, was appointed regent to the Shogun in 1203. The new shogun being Yoritomo’s son Minamoto no Sanetomo. Leading to a long reign of Minamoto Shoguns being puppets to the secretly ruling Hojo regents.
The regime that Yoritomo had established and kept in place by his successors was very decentralised and feudalistic in structure when compared to his predecessors ritsuryo state. Yoritomo had selected the provincial governors to rule from among his close vassals. The Kamakura Bakufu allowed its vassals to maintain their own armies and to administer law & order in their provinces under their own terms.
In 1221, the retires Emperor Go-Toba instigated a rebellion known as the Jokyu war against the Shogunate in an attempt to try and restore power to the imperial court. The rebellion ended as a failure and led to the retired emperor being exiled along with the current emperor and his predecessor. This prompted the shogunate to further strengthen its political power relative to the Kyoto aristocracy.
In 1274 and 1281 the southern island of Kyushu was the centrepiece of two full-scale invasions by the hands of the Mongol empire led by Kublai Khan. Outnumbered by an enemy equipped with superior weaponry, the samurai armies of Japan fought them to a standstill on both occasions, until the Mongol fleet was destroyed by typhoons called kamikaze, divine wind.
Despite the Kamakura bakufu’s complete defensive victory, the defense depleted its finances so badly that it was unable to provide compensation to their vassals and samurai armies for the role in their victory. Creating permanent fraction in the relationship between the samurai class and the bafuku.
This discontent proved decisive as in 1333 Emperor Go-Daigo launched a rebellion in the hope of restoring full power to the imperial court. The bakufu sent their samurai armies to quell the revolt however the armies instead betrayed the bakufu and joined the rebellion in overthrowing the bakufu.
Nevertheless, despite all this war and strife, Japan had entered a period of prosperity around 1250. In the rural areas, the greater use of iron tools and fertilizer improved irrigation techniques, and the use of the double-cropping technique helped increase village productivity and made rural villages grow quicker. This meant that fewer famines and epidemics let cities grow and economies boom. Plus Buddhism which had once been a religion of the elite was now starting to spread amongst the populace, especially the samurai class.
Muromachi Period (1333 – 1568)
Takauji, one of the Kamakura’s Bakufu rebellious samurai generals that had joined Emperor Go-Daigo, became dissatisfied with the Emperors of Kenmu Resoration, especially after he was denied of his wishes to be appointed as Shogun. Rebelling against the emperor, Takauji captured Kyoto and installed a rival member of the imperial family to the throne, Emperor Komyo, who end up appoint him as shogun.
Go-Daigo fled to the southern city of Yoshino and set up his own rival government, which ushered in a prolonged period of conflict between the Northern and Southern Court.
The Muromachi Bakufu had multiple issues in its hands at the time, dealing with the Southern Court is one but also internally, as it struggles to maintain a strong authority over its own Governors. Like the Kamakura Shogunate, the Muromachi Shogunate appointed their own allies to rule in the different provinces, but increasingly these men styled themselves as feudal lords, called daimyos, of their domains and refused to listen to the Shogun. Takauji’s grandson, Asikaga Yoshimitsu found the most success at bringing the country together in 1368 when he came to power and remained there until his death in 1408. Yoshimitsu expanded the power of the Shogunate and in 1392 brokered a deal to bring the Northern and Southern courts together to end the civil war. This helped the Shogunate keep the Emperor and his court under tight control.
During the final century of the Ashikaga bakufu the country once more descended into violent civil war. This started in 1467 when the Onin War broke out over who would succeed the ruling shogun. All the daimyos chose their sides and burned Kyoto to the ground while battling for their preferred candidate.
By the time succession was settled in 1477, the Shogun had lost all of their ruling power to the daimyos who now controlled hundreds of independent states throughout Japan. This became known as the warring states period of Sengoku. Some of the most famous daimyos of this time include, Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and Date Masamune.
In 1543 three European traders aboard a Chinese merchant ship were blown of course and landed in Kyushu. The three Portuguese men on board are the first Europeans to step foot upon the lands of Japan, and soon brought many new items and technologies with them as trade routes were established as well as the introduction of Christianity to Japan.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 – 1600)
Japan gradually reunified under two powerful warlords in the second half of the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The periods’ name is taken from their respective headquarters, Azuchi Castle and Momoyama Castle.
Being the daimyo of the small province of Owari, Nobunga burst onto the scene in 1560 during the Battle of Okehazama as his small army defeated a force several times its size led by the respected daimyo Imagawa Yoshimoto.
Nobunaga was renowned for his strategic leadership and his ruthlessness. He encouraged Christianity to help incite hatred towards his Buddhist enemies and to forge strong relationships with the European arms merchants. The arms he then bought in bulk from the Europeans he used to arm his armies, muskets especially. He used innovative tactics and promoted talented men regardless of their social status, including his peasant servant Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became one of his best generals despite only being a foot soldier.
This period began in 1568 when Nobunaga seized Kyoto and effectively brought an end to the Ashikaga bakufu. For the next 14 years he was well on his way to uniting all of Japan, until one day in 1582 he was betrayed by one of his own aides, Akechi Mitsuhide, who killed him during an abrupt attack on his encampment.
Hideyoshi swiftly avenged Nobunaga by crushing Akechi’s uprising and emerged as a successor to Nobunaga. Completing the work Nobunaga started, Hideyoshi reunified Japan by conquering the lands of Shikoku, Kyushu and the Hojo family lands in eastern Japan.
From here he began sweeping changes to the Japanese society, including the confiscation of swords from peasantry, new restrictions on daimyos, persecution of Christians, a land survey, and a new law that forbid peasants and samurai from changing their social class.
As Hideyoshi’s power expanded, he dreamed of conquering China and Korea, launching two massive invasions that started with Korea in 1592. Hideyoshi ultimately failed to defeat both the Chinese and Korean armies in the Korean Peninsula but the war only ended after his death in 1598.
In hopes of founding a new dynasty, Hideyoshi asked his most trusted subordinates to pledge loyalty to his infant son Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Despite these pledges, almist immediately after his death, war broke out between those loyal to Hideyoshi and those loyal to Tokugawa Ieyasu, a daimyo that was a part of the Nobunaga – Toyotomi – Tokugawa trifecta and old ally of Hideyoshi’s. Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which ushered in 268 uninterrupted years of rule by the Tokugawa clan.
Edo Period (1600 – 1868)
This period was mainly characterised by relative peace and stability under the tight control of the Tokugawa bakufu, who ruled from the eastern city of Edo (modern Tokyo). Ieyasu was declared shogun by the Emperor Go-Yozei in 1603 which helped to cement his rule. Two years later Ieyasu abdicated his throne in order to groom his son for the position of Shogun in what became the start of a long dynasty (however, it still took time for the Tokugawa bakufu to consolidate their power and rule).
In 1609, the Shogun gave the daimyo of the Satsuma domain permission to invade the Ryukyu kingdom because of some perceived insults that were thrown towards the bakufu. The Satsuma victory in this war began 266 years of Ryuku’s dual subordination to Satsuma and China.
Ieyasu led the Siege of Osaka that ended with the destruction of the Toyotomi clan in 1615. It was soon after, that the bakafu introduced the Laws for the Military Houses, which imposed much stricter rules upon the daimyos, and the alternate attendance system which required each daimyo to spend every other year in Edo. However, even with this, many daimyos still managed to retain a certain degree of autonomy in their domains.
Edo quickly became the most populous city in the world, and with the central government now based there, the city developed with a lightning pace. The bakufu took counsel from a group of senior advisors and employed samurai as bureaucrats. The Emperor still living in Kyoto was funded lavishly by the government but was allowed no political power.
The Tokugawa bakufu went to great lengths to try and suppress social unrest. The teachings of Christianity was also now seen as a giant threat. Which led to it becoming outlawed, subdued and punished until the Christian-led rebellion of 1638. A key idea of the bakufu at the time was the suppression of foreign ideas and ideals that could sow dissent and uproar amongst the people of Japan. The main policy that was implemented was called Sakoku, closed country, by the third shogun Iemitsu. This was an isolationist policy under which Japanese people could not travel abroad, return from overseas or build ocean-faring vessels.
No travels or explorers from Europe were allowed to trade or set foot on the archipelago. Only the Dutch were granted passage and even then, it was only on a single trading post on the island of Dejima. China and Korea were the only other countries permitted to trade, and many foreign books were banned from import.
Despite these strict restrictions and rules, Japan flourished under the Tokugawa bakufu and kept many of its ancient traditions and customs intact where they might not be today due to outside influences. During the first century of the Tokugawa rule, Japan’s population doubled to thirty million due to a large part in agricultural growth; with the population staying stable for the rest of the period. The bakufu introduced many infrastructional changes and policies which helped the expansion of Japan, such as the construction of roads, elimination of road and bridge tolls. The standardisation of coinage promoted commercial expansion that also benefitted the merchants and artisans of the cities
While city populations did grow, almost 90% of the population still lived in rural areas, however all citizens could benefit from some initiatives such as ones that increase literacy and numeracy. With the number of schools greatly expanded, particularly those near temples, the literacy rate rose to 30%. Possibly the world’s highest rate at the time. At this time Japan was very comparable to north-west European countries based on their development index.
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the long lasting Tokugawa bakufu showed major signs of weakening. The exponential growth of agriculture that had characterised the early Edo period had ended, and the government handled the devastating Tenpo famines poorly. Causing peasant unrest to grow and government revenues to fall. The bakufu started to cut the pay of the already financially displaced samurai caste, many of whom worked second jobs already to pay for their living. It was these discontented samurai who soon played a major role in engineering the downfall of the Tokugawa bakufu.
At the same time, the people of the land started to draw inspiration from Dutch books, and brought in new ideas and fields of study, in a style of western learning they called rangaku or Dutch Learning. For example the physician Sugita Genpaku used concepts of western medicine to help revolutionising Japanese human anatomy.
In 1853 a fleet of American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry threw Japan into turmoil. They arrived in the bay of Edo with the aim of ending Japan’s isolationist policies. The bakufu could not defend against Perry’s gunboats and had to agree to his demands that American ships be permitted to acquire provisions at Japanese ports.
The US, Great Britain, Russia and other Western powers became the arbiters of what was known as the ‘unequal treaty’ within Japan. As it stipulated that Japan must allow the citizens of these countries they’ve never met to visit/reside on their land without any tariffs or judgement in court.
The Tokugawa bakufu’s failure to oppose the western powers now imposing on their lands angered many Japanese, especially those of the southern domains such as Choshu and Satsuma. Many Samurai in those lands adopted the slogan of sonno joi, ‘revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians’. Together the two domains went on to form an alliance.
Tokugawa Yoshinobu rose to shogun in August 1866, and as soon as his reign began, he struggled to maintain his power as the civil unrest grew. November of 1867 came around and Yoshinobu officially tendered his resignation to the Emperor and he formally stepped down not ten days later.
The Choshu and Satsuma alliance convinced the young Emperor Meiji and his advisors to issue a rescript calling for an end to the Tokugawa bakufu in 1868. With further growing resentment from outside daimyos, the successors of lords who fought against the Tokugawa forces at the battle of Sekigahara whom were excluded from having powerful positions within the bakufu.
It seemed it was all coming to head in the year of 1867, even with the Shogun’s resignation and the Emperors decree, the Choshu – Satsuma alliance along with their other han leaders and radicals rebelled causing the Boshin war which lead to the fall of the bakufu. They took control of the imperial palace in Kyoto and stated that their own restoration. Beginning with the restoration of the nominal throne to the Emperor with their own centrepiece in Emperor Meiji at the front.
The Story Continues?
From this point in history we reach the modern era of Japan, which starts with the Meiji period in 1868 and eventually leads into the modern Reiwa Period of today that started in 2019.
Japan’s history is incredibly bloodied and turbulent, with assassinations, betrayal, revolution and large-scale war at nearly every turn of a decade. We have only gone over the most important events in these past two articles. There is still so much more to know about the colourful and vast history of the Land of the Rising Sun. There are so many more characters and stories to tell within the pages of Japan’s history and I sincerely hope you have been intrigued enough so far to find out more by yourself.