Central Themes and Key Points
Medieval Japan (1185-1600)
  • Medieval Japan (1185-1600) with its feudal structures offers a striking contrast to the earlier classical period of Japanese history: warfare and destruction characterize the medieval era in which samurai warriors became the rulers of the land.
  • The similarities as well as the differences in historical patterns of medieval Japan and medieval Europe are of interest to historians. Feudal political organization, bonds between warriors, and the prominence of religion are characteristic of the medieval periods in both societies.
  • In Japan, Buddhism reached all levels of society during the medieval period; the influence of Buddhism is evident in works of Japanese literature written at this time, Essays in Idleness, An Account of My Hut, and the plays of the Noh drama.
  • Medieval Japan is often well covered in textbooks because of its similarities to "medieval Europe," with warriors, castles, and feudal structures. Students gain a more balanced view of the breadth of Japanese history and its culture if teachers first introduce Japan's classical period (topic 5), c. 600 - 1185, which has quite different characteristics than those of the medieval period.
  • In medieval Japan, the rise of the samurai occurs as political power devolves from court nobles to warrior families; military leaders rule the land while the emperor and his court remain in place but hold no power. The supreme military leader is called the "Shogun," and his government is called the "bakufu," or "tent government."
  • There is constant warfare in medieval Japan; the society is torn apart by warfare and people seek solace in religion. Buddhism, which had up until now been primarily the religion of scholars and monks, becomes the religion of ordinary people and popular, salvationist sects of Buddhism spread throughout the country.
  • By the 1500s, a class of territorial military lords, or daimyo, emerges; the daimyo establish and maintain their domains (called "han"), build castles, and establish towns around their castles where their samurai retainers reside and serve in their armies.
  • Samurai values of service to a lord and personal loyalty become central to Japanese cultural tradition over the centuries.
  • Zen Buddhism spreads among the samurai, emphasizing personal enlightenment through discipline and meditation. Gardens of raked sand (representing water) and rocks (representing mountains) are used as places of meditation within temples. The ceremony of serving tea becomes a formalized Zen ritual. The tea room or tea house, built for this purpose, has tatami or rush mats for flooring, shoji, or sliding paper and wood screens for room dividers, and a tokonoma, or ceremonial alcove, to place scrolls of calligraphy and flower arrangements. All of these features become central to Japanese architecture and room furnishing.
  • The warfare in this period is so intense and the society so torn apart that the major goal of the daimyo who reunify Japan in 1600 is the establishment of order. The Tokugawa period, 1600 -1868, is thus distinguished from the medieval period by the cessation of warfare and the evolution of a pre-modern society marked by commercial development and urbanization, as discussed in Topic 8: China, Japan and Korea: the Ming, the Qing, Tokugawa, and Chosun.
  • Literature in medieval Japan reflects the Buddhist notion of the impermanence of life and the need to renounce worldly attachments to gain release from the sufferings of human existence is reflected in the literature of the period: An Account of My Hut, Essays in Idleness, Noh drama.

Mongol Invasions

  • The Mongol forces attempt to invade Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281. They are forced to turn back during both attempts by typhoons at sea. These typhoons are called kamikaze, or "divine winds," by the Japanese and are understood as winds sent by Shinto gods, or kami. The Mongols never occupy Japan.

| back to top |

© 2019 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu