The Age of the Samurai: 1185-1868

In 1185, Japan began to be governed by warriors or samurai. Until this time the government had been bureaucratic in theory, but was actually aristocratic (i.e., people held certain positions because they were born to families entitled to hold those jobs). Even after 1185, civil government at the Emperors court continued and the law and the state were not changed, but a new samurai class came to power and increasingly became the real rulers of the country. Some form of military leadership remained the form of government in Japan until 1868, when a centralized bureaucratic government came into being with the Meiji Restoration. The following reading describes the various warrior governments from 1185 to 1868, outlining the specific characteristics of each.

A Guide to Samurai Governments, 1185-1868

1185-1333 — Kamakura Government

The most important feature of the medieval period is that the samurai (warrior-administrators) replaced the court government in managing local government.

Because the court government had no police force, bands of samurai gained power when the Heian government neglected the administration of the provinces. Samurai strength rested on strong group loyalty and discipline. These bands managed large areas of rice land in eastern Japan, around modern Tôkyô.

In 1185 a new government was founded by the Minamoto family in Kamakura, south of modern Tôkyô. In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo was given the title 'shôgun' to signify his military control over the country. While it followed the laws of the Heian government, the Kamakura government was run by a network of samurai throughout the country, pledged to keep the peace. Since they exercised real power on the spot, they were able to take over land from rich aristocratic land proprietors and thus caused the Heian government in Kyôto to become even weaker. Gradually the samurai took the lead in developing the law of the nation.

The Mongol invasions, the only military invasion of Japan before World War II, occurred during this period. Khubilai, Great Khan of the Mongols, invaded China and in 1263 became Emperor of China. He pressed his conquest on to Japan. In 1274 and 1281 Mongols and Chinese led great expeditions across the seas to southwest Japan. Samurai in Kyûshû were greatly outnumbered and technically disadvantaged. In 1274, a great storm arose that destroyed or set to sea the whole invasion fleet. In 1281, after 50 days of fierce struggle, the Japanese were again saved by a great storm. These storms became known as kamikaze, divine winds. (More than 650 years later, during the second invasion of Japan, by America, the suicide pilots protecting the islands were called kamikaze, too). The Mongolian attempts to invade Japan united the Japanese against an outside force for the first time in history. Shintô priests, involving the country's deities for protection, were richly rewarded.

1336-1573 — Ashikaga Government

In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate lost control of the country to a rival samurai family, the Ashikaga family. The Ashikaga shogunate moved the capital back to Kyôto, but was not able to assert as much control over the various provinces as the Kamakura government had. In the surrounding countryside, daimyô (provincial barons) ruled the people, and often fought against one other over territorial claims. The daimyô built bureaucratic governments in each province and attempted to bring all elements of society under their military rule. Local rule was more developed that before, but the central government represented by the shôgun was weak.

1600-1868 — Tokugawa Government

In 1600, one of the powerful military families, the Tokugawa, was able to gain military control over all the local daimyô. The Tokugawa created a much stronger bureaucratic military government in Edo, now named Tôkyô. It controlled — either directly or indirectly — all elements of society, such as the agrarian and commercial sectors.

The government legally differentiated four classes of society — samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. Since it was concerned with a possible samurai rebellion (it had taken away the weapons of all other classes), the Tokugawa government made the daimyô live part of the time in Edo, the new military capital, and leave their families in Edo as hostages whenever they returned to their domains. Edo became a giant urban center because so many people came to make a living by supplying the huge samurai population. By 1700 there were about one million people living in Edo. In time, the Edo merchants supplying the military became richer than the samurai, many of whom lived in poverty. When Commodore Perry came to Japan from the United States in 1853 seeking commercial relations, many groups in society were ready for changes in the old legal and economic systems. Japan's feudal period ended shortly thereafter with the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Discussion Questions

  1. Draw a rough map of Japan's main island, Honshu, and then label the locations of the cities of Kyôto, Kamakura and Edo/Tôkyô (Kamakura is just south of Edo). Next to these cities write the years these cities acted as Japan's capital, and write the name of the military family that was the ruling family during those years.
  2. Why do you think the various ruling families chose to rule from different locations?
  3. What major even occurred during the Kamakura shôgun's rule? What does the term kamikaze mean?
  4. In terms of central government, which of these three governments had the weakest control? The strongest?
© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu