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Japan: Seeds of the Empire


The 15th century saw the waning of the Ashikaga Shogunate, followed by a Warring States period whose violence dominated most of the 16th century. Japan finally emerged from this era of turmoil through the conquests and reforms of the three great unifiers. The Tokugawa period (1600 – 1868 CE) ushered in a lasting age of peace and development, but also isolation and the codification of a social system too inflexible to withstand the inevitable challenges posed by internal economic growth and, externally, by Western imperialism. The role of government, socio-cultural ideals, and economic/class interactions in Japanese society all evolved during this four-hundred year period; some into unexpected forms, while others, perhaps sentimentally, were restored after great intermediate transformations.

Political Change

The Shogunate system established by Minamoto Yoritomo after his victory in the Gempei War (1180-1185 CE) lasted well beyond the Minamoto lineage’s rule during the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE). In fact, with few interruptions, the Shogunate system persisted until the fall of Edo in 1868 CE and the Imperial restoration of the Meiji period. Though the basic model persisted for much of the 2nd millennium CE, its details shifted immensely.

The Ashikaga family mon.

The Ashikaga family moniker; Image via Wikipedia

Originally a military mirror-government established at Kamakura that was bankrupted by the persistent threat of Mongol invasion, the Kamakura Shogunate was overthrown by a coalition of southern samurai and replaced by the Ashikaga Shogunate, initiating the Muromachi period. The Muromachi period (1336-1573 CE), characterized by strong regional families (kenmon, headed by daimyo) that occupied the leadership roles within the three interdependent political institutions of the day – the court nobles, the warrior aristocracy, and the temple system (Mass 2002) – itself eventually collapsed during the Warring States period that followed the Onin War. Economic changes and the lack of regional autonomy had fueled dissatisfaction with the Ashikaga Shogunate at all levels of society, resulting in violent uprisings among peasant farmers, the militarization of merchants and temples, and most destructively, organized military campaigns to overthrow the Shogunate by powerful daimyo coalitions. A series of weak shoguns (exemplified by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, 1435-1490, who ruled as shogun between 1449-1490) consistently failed to maintain, and later restore, order and central authority, and with only an impotent, symbolic emperor, civil war consumed Japan for more than a century (Sengoku period, 1467-1573).

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu is the founder of Japan...

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu is the founder of Japan's last shogunate; Image via Wikipedia

The chaos finally subsided during the Asuchi-Momoyama period through the bloody conquests and shrewd political and economic reforms of the great unifiers – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Hideyoshi, leveraging Nobunaga’s successful consolidation of military power through economic reform, further stabilized Japan by enacting weapons confiscation and sumptuary laws. And by 1603, Ieyasa had established the Tokugawa Shogunate, perhaps the most successful – in terms of sustained stability, level of centralized control, and economic prosperity – of all periods preceding it. In the Baku-han political structure that characterized the Tokugawa period, the shogun held national authority while the daimyo held regional authority – including the rights to tax and create laws within their domains – with explicit conditions (sankinkotai) designed to ensure that the daimyos’ interests were bound to the shogun’s, and that their families were bound to the capital city of Edo. This “centralized feudal” system was highly successful, and, if isolated from the socio-economic and international challenges to which it eventually succumbed, may have persisted indefinitely.

But political systems don’t operate in isolation. In fact, socio-economic realities and class ideologies – the drivers of Japanese culture – had been ever-evolving during this thesis period, sometimes following and sometimes triggering the political revolutions so far discussed.

Socio-cultural and Economic Change

Portrait said to be of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (detail)

Portrait said to be of Ashikaga Yoshimasa; Image via Wikipedia

By Yoshimasa’s administration, the sovereign status of elegance and cultural refinement that so defined the Heian period aristocracy’s sensibilities had been long superseded by the practical martial and managerial skills of the samurai class. But in Yoshimasa, the former Japanese worldview found both a powerful patron and a brilliant innovator obsessed with the cultivation of what became known as the Higashiyama Bunka. Yoshimasa’s political failures, as great as they were, are overshadowed by his cultural legacy (Keene 2003), which, largely based on Zen Buddhism and promoting Wabi-sabi, remains the definition of traditional Japanese culture and aesthetic. This reinvented and reinvigorated high culture was disseminated by skilled artisans and educated courtiers fleeing the destruction of the capital during the Onin War and adopted by the rural elites, who granted them tutelage (protection, support) in exchange for theirs (guidance).

But the arts weren’t the only significant developments in Japanese society during this period: agricultural technology was advancing as well, which fueled the growth of rural wealth and power; an emerging merchant class was demanding social and political accommodation, and monetization, interconnected road systems, and a booming population were all drivers of the political instability that ultimately collapsed under the weight of the Warring States.

Hideyoshi, one of the great unifiers before the Edo period, initiated a series of calculated policies that significantly altered Japanese society. First, in 1588, he enacted the sword hunt, effectively disarming the peasantry; in 1589, he crystallized and codified the Confucian-inspired class hierarchy through sumptuary laws. These and later reforms by Ieyasu were designed to freeze Japanese society in time; to create a permanent stability upon which to rule. The Tokugawa Shogunate also wanted to monopolize foreign contact and trade (sakoku policy), directing all foreign contact through Shogun-controlled Nagasaki. But despite these top-down efforts, a kind of economics-driven social inversion of the Confucian ideal (shi, no, ko, sho) had begun and couldn’t be averted.

Samurai in old Japan. (L)Unknown (R)Umanosuke ...

Samurai in old Japan; Image via Wikipedia

Because of the unprecedented success of the Tokugawa Shogunate in political consolidation, peacetime forced the samurai class from warrior to administrator. Domain nationalism emerged among the samurai, whose loyalties had for centuries been based on a personal and conditional relationship with their daimyo, but, through legislation and new political realities, were now unconditionally tied to a particular place. Their military skills ritualized, literacy a professional requirement, and stipends frozen in a booming economy, the samurai – who ideologically occupied the highest social class, but for whom the Tokugawa system was insufficiently working – were slowly becoming disaffected. Musui’s Story was written toward the end of the Tokugawa period and reflects the growing incongruity between the legislated social hierarchy and the economically prosperous professional classes (Kokichi and Craig 1991).

The farmer, on the other hand, was prospering. As the “fertilizer of civilization”, the farmer had long been held in high regard in the Confucian system. Expansion of agricultural area, better irrigation techniques and fertilizers, and new rice strains from Southeast Asia during the Muromachi period had greatly increased their productivity; population growth expanded their workforce and food demand, and a national road system allowed farmers to amass wealth by selling their surplus, via merchants, to urban centers. By the Tokugawa period, many farmers had become gono, wealthy enough to themselves loan at interest.

Artisans, too, flourished. Whether in urban centers or rural villages, their products and skills were in high demand. But the greatest class beneficiary of Japan’s economic growth during the Muromachi and Edo periods was the merchant. The national road system had “paved the way” for the merchant class – the lowest social class in the Confucian system – to become the highest economic class. Originally rice traders, the emerging coin-based monetary system facilitated commerce at the point of exchange. Lending at interest, first in koku and later in currency, also increased merchant wealth and political influence. Osaka (a merchant city of 400,000 by 1800) had become Japan’s economic capital, and education became common, even among merchants. At one point, merchants had become so militarized and organized that they had taken control of the nation’s trade routes, which they leveraged into tax-exemption status.

End of an Era


Bakufu soldiers in Western uniform; Image via Wikipedia

The Japanese Empire ultimately emerged from the Edo period’s failures, which were largely due to the system’s inflexibility in the face of historic challenges both within and from without. The Tokugawa system had no national tax. The national governmental bureaucracy was supported entirely by contributions from the daimyo lords, who, already financially strained to the limit by san kinkotai, in turn pressured their samurai (who were themselves financially strained by unemployment, frozen or even cut stipends, and inflation) for revenue. These financially-defined political realities further disintegrated traditional class barriers, and by 1800 CE the Tokugawa system was economically, socially, and intellectually unstable. Some Japanese concluded that Confucianist ideology had been the offending ingredient and was incompatible with the true Japanese spirit, which they asserted to be properly grounded in Shinto religion. But this analysis is incomplete, as external pressures on the Tokugawa system were at least as extreme. Following China’s defeat by the British in the Opium War and subsequent exploitation by the Western imperial powers, Japan was forced to a decision whether to engage the West in trade and mimic it in imperialism, or to wage war against the West to maintain its own isolation. Japan, again finding itself under a weak shogun in a time of crisis, submitted to foreign pressure for treaties. This move, internalized as a national humiliation, set the stage for the Shogunate system’s definitive defeat, and the return, at least in name, of the Japanese Emperor to power.

Works Cited

  1. Keene, Donald. 2003. Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan. Columbia University Press.
  2. Kokichi, Katsu, and Teruko Craig. 1991. Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. University of Arizona Press.
  3. Mass, Jeffrey. 2002. The Origins of Japan’s Medieval World: Courtiers, Clerics, Warriors, and Peasants in the Fourteenth Century. 1st ed. Stanford University Press.

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