The 9th Tokugawa Japanese shogun visiting a newly built home in Edo.         Source: Kobayashi Toshimitsu / Public domain

The Amazing Ascent of the Japanese Shoguns from 1192 to 1867


The shoguns were the military rulers of Japan during the country’s feudal period . Although Japan had emperors, they were mere figureheads for centuries. Actual power was held by the shogun, who ruled in the name of the emperor. The shogunate that most people would have heard of is the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was founded at the beginning of the 17 th century, and lasted until the 19 th century. The rule of the shoguns in Japan, however, had already started during the 12 th century, long before the rise of the Tokugawas. Moreover, there were two other shogunates that preceded them.

Tribal Origins of the Shogun Title

The title ‘shogun’ dates all the way back to the Heian period , which lasted from 794 AD to 1185 AD, and had military connotations from the very beginning. The title is a combination of two words, ‘sho’, which means ‘commander’, and ‘gun’, which means ‘troops’. Therefore, one translation of this word would be ‘commander of the troops’. It has been pointed out that ‘shogun’ is the abbreviation of sei-i taishogun, which roughly translates to mean ‘barbarian-quelling generalissimo’.

During the early Heian period, some Emishi tribes (who inhabited the north-eastern part of Honshu, Japan’s largest island) resisted the authority of the imperial court in Kyoto. Therefore, during the 8 th and 9 th centuries AD, the emperor had to send armies to subjugate the Emishi. As these tribes were considered to be barbarians, the generals who defeated them were given the title ‘shogun’.

During the late Heian period, however, the Emishi were either subjugated, or driven to Hokkaido, so the title fell out of use. This period also saw the rise of the samurai class, who soon concentrated political power in their hands. Prior to this, Japan was ruled by the emperor and the aristocrats.

Three of the most important samurai clans during the late Heian period were the Taira, the Fujiwara, and the Minamoto. In 1185, the Genpei War , which had started five years earlier, ended with the defeat of the Taira by the Minamoto at the Battle of Dan-no-ura . Consequently, the leader of the Minamoto, Minamoto no Yoritomo, became the de facto ruler of Japan.

Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first Kamakura shogun (Fujiwara no Takanobu / Public domain)

Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first Kamakura shogun (Fujiwara no Takanobu / Public domain )

Unlike the aristocrats, who valued material wealth, the principles of the samurai class were based on simplicity, fortitude, and fairness. The new system of governance established by Yoritomo was based on these ideals. At the same time, Zen Buddhism also began to flourish, as its teachings resonated with the samurai class. Although Yoritomo was able to rule independently of the imperial court in Kyoto, he still had to curb the power of the aristocrats. Therefore, he appointed feudal lords from amongst the samurai to serve as a kind of counterbalance to the aristocratic class. At the same time, these appointments served as rewards to the samurai retainers who served Yoritomo loyally.

The Rise of Japan’s First Shogun and the Kamakura Shogunate

Although Yoritomo’s shogunate began in 1185, it was only officially recognized in 1192. In that year, Yoritomo adopted the title ‘shogun’. Since Yoritomo ruled Japan from Kamakura, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) southwest of Tokyo, his shogunate became known as the Kamakura Shogunate . Although Japan was now ruled by shoguns, those who succeeded Yoritomo were in fact puppets.

When Yoritomo died in 1199, the shogunate was inherited by his son, Minamoto no Yoriie. Hojo Tokimasa, the maternal grandfather of Yoriie, claimed the position of regent. This position eventually became the hereditary right of the Hojo clan, who were in fact the real rulers of Japan during the period.

The death of the third Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Sanetomo, in 1219, marked the end of Minamoto rule in Kamakura. The shogunate itself, however, was still intact, as a new shogun was chosen from the Kujo family, one of the branches of the Fujiwara clan. Incidentally, the wife of this shogun, Kujo Yoritsune, was Yoritomo’s granddaughter.

Two years later, the retired emperor Go-Toba rebelled against the Kamakura Shogunate in an attempt to reclaim power for the imperial court. The rebellion, known as the Jokyu War, was not successful, and the emperor was unable to seize power from the shogunate. As a matter of fact, the biggest winners of the war were the Hojo, who tightened their grip on the shogunate. The Hojo’s hold on the shogunate was so complete that they even had the power to choose the next shogun. The Hojo retained their power over the Kamakura Shogunate until the shogunate’s demise.

Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo's procession to Kyoto at the founding of the Kamakura Shogunate -- woodblock print by Utagawa Sadahide, circa 1860. (Public Domain)

Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo's procession to Kyoto at the founding of the Kamakura Shogunate -- woodblock print by Utagawa Sadahide, circa 1860. ( Public Domain )

The Kamakura Shogunate ended in 1333. Two years before that, an attempt was made by another Japanese emperor, Go-Daigo, to topple the shogunate. Like his predecessor, Go-Daigo’s rebellion was easily crushed. Consequently, the emperor was exiled. In 1333, however, Go-Daigo escaped from exile, and launched another uprising. As the imperial forces prepared to march on Kyoto, the Kamakura Shogunate sent Ashikaga Takauji, one of its leading samurai retainers, to reinforce Kyoto’s defense.

Takauji, however, chose to throw his support behind the emperor when he considered the strength of the imperial forces. At the same time, he was aware that the shogunate’s control of Japan outside Kamakura had declined sharply. Therefore, Takauji returned to his home province, Tamba, and subsequently raised an army against the shogunate. Several supporters of the shogunate also switched sides, and as a result the Kamakura Shogunate and the Hojo clan were destroyed.

The Transition from the Kamakura to the Ashikaga Shogunate

Although the emperor was once again the ruler of Japan, this situation did not last for long. Go-Daigo was unable to appease the samurai who had supported him, and the provinces were still controlled by regional feudal lords. Therefore, the emperor did not have a strong enough hold on power. In 1335, a surviving member of the Hojo clan, Hojo Tokiyuki, raised an army, and managed to capture Kamakura.

Takauji requested Go-Daigo to appoint him shogun, and to allow him to lead the imperial army against the rebels. Although the emperor refused Takauji’s request, he went ahead anyways. He marched to Kamakura, defeated Tokiyuki, and retook the city. This strained relations between Takauji and the imperial court, as the latter charged the former of murdering Prince Morinaga, the emperor’s son, who had been held in Kamakura. In addition, Takauji was accused of rewarding his retainers without receiving prior approval from the imperial court.

The Japanese shogun shogun Ashikaga Takauji. (Public Domain)

The Japanese shogun shogun Ashikaga Takauji. ( Public Domain )

As a result, war broke out between Takauji and Go-Daigo. Takauji defeated the emperor’s army and captured Kyoto but the imperial forces were able to regroup and retook the city. Less than three months after his defeat, however, Takauji returned, and captured Kyoto once again. Takauji then announced that Go-Daigo had forfeited his right to rule, appointed another member of the imperial family as the new emperor, and had the title ‘shogun’ bestowed on himself. Thus, in 1336, the Ashikaga Shogunate was established. Incidentally, the period between 1333 and 1336, when Go-Daigo was restored to power, is known as the Kenmu Restoration.

The Power Problems and Weakness of the Ashikaga Shogunate

Of the three shogunates that ruled Japan, the Ashikaga Shogunate is considered to have been the weakest. This is partly because the Ashikaga shoguns were sharing more power with the imperial court than their Kamakura predecessors had. Additionally, the Ashikagas ruled from Kyoto, unlike the Kamakura shoguns, whose base was outside Kyoto. The third Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, established his residence in Kyoto’s Muromachi area, hence the Ashikaga Shogunate is also known as the Muromachi Shogunate.

More importantly, the power of the Ashikaga shoguns was limited as they were unable to impose their will on the regional feudal lords (known also as daimyos during this period). Thus, the shogunate’s control over Japan depended heavily on the loyalty of these daimyos. As time went by, the daimyos came into conflict with one another, as each sought to increase his own power. As a result, the Ashikaga Shogunate’s power shrank and the shogun, like the emperor, became yet another nominal ruler.

In 1467, a succession dispute resulted in the Onin War, which was fought between two samurai families who were close to the shogunate. Although the war ended a decade later, by that time the conflict had spilled over into the provinces. Thus, the Onin War is considered to be the precursor of the Sengoku period, known also as the Warring States period. Although the country was in a state of civil war, the Ashikagas were still able to maintain their shogunate for another century. The Ashikaga Shogunate ended in 1573, when the last Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, was driven out of Kyoto by the daimyo Oda Nobunaga .

Although the Ashikaga Shogunate had been destroyed, the Sengoku period continued, and only ended several decades later. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a daimyo who was originally a vassal of the Oda clan, emerged victorious from the Battle of Sekigahara. This marks the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate, though Ieyasu only adopted the title ‘shogun’ in 1603. The Tokugawa Shogunate brought peace and stability back to Japan, after more than a century of warfare and chaos. In time, however, this peace degenerated into stagnation.

Ieyasu Tokugawa is victorious in the Battle of Sekigahara and becomes the first Tokugawa shogun (Public domain)

Ieyasu Tokugawa is victorious in the Battle of Sekigahara and becomes the first Tokugawa shogun ( Public domain )

How the Tokugawa Shoguns Maintained Peace and Kept Power

The Tokugawa Shogunate took various steps to ensure Japan’s peace and stability. One of these was to enforce the country’s social hierarchy more strictly than ever before. A four-tier class structure was imposed, which divided most of Japanese society into four classes. At the top of this hierarchy were the samurai. They were followed by the farmers and peasants. The third class was occupied by the artisans, whist the merchants were on the bottom of this social ladder.

There were also those above and below this structure. The emperor, his family, and the aristocrats, for instance, were above the four-tier class structure. The shogun, Shinto priests, and Buddhist monks were also above the structure. Those below the structure included actors, convicted criminals, courtesans, ethnic minorities, and those working in taboo industries.

Although the four-tier class structure initially served to stabilize Japanese society, people eventually became stifled by it, and became increasingly discontented. The merchant class, for instance, gained great wealth, but were dissatisfied with the fact that they occupied the lowest level of society. As for the samurai, their skills as warriors were not required during this period of peace. Although they enjoyed privileges under the shogunate, they gradually lost their importance, and their existence became meaningless. While some went on to serve the shogunate as bureaucrats, others turned into troublemakers.

The Tokugawa shoguns also maintained the country’s peace and stability by closing Japan to foreign influence. For this reason, Christianity, introduced by Portuguese traders and missionaries, was viewed as a threat to Japan’s social structure by the Tokugawas. Around the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it is estimated that there were as many as 300,000 Christians in Japan. In 1637, a Christian uprising, known as the Shimabara Rebellion, broke out. The uprising was brutally crushed by the shogunate, and Christianity went underground. Around the same time, the shogun issued a decree that stopped the entry of foreign, especially Western, influence into Japan. The shogunate succeeded in maintaining this closed-door policy for the next two centuries.

Yorimoto, the last Tokugawa shogun (Frederick Sutton Studio / Public domain)

Yorimoto, the last Tokugawa shogun (Frederick Sutton Studio / Public domain )

Whilst peace and stability were ensured, the actions of the Tokugawa Shogunate also caused Japan to lag behind the Western nations that were banned from the country. In 1853, an American fleet under Commodore Perry entered Edo Bay (known today as Tokyo Bay). Since the Americans had superior military might, they were able to force the shogun to sign a treaty with them. Thus, in the following year, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed. This effectively ended Japan’s isolationist policy and was also the beginning of the end for the Tokugawa Shogunate. The shogunate was accused of failing to protect Japan from foreigners and some daimyos rebelled against the shogun. The rebels, who rallied behind the emperor, were ultimately victorious, and the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end in 1867. The last Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned that year, and handed over power to the Meiji Emperor.

The Legacy of Japan’s Shoguns on Japanese Art and Culture

Partly because they ruled the country for almost 700 years, the shoguns of Japan left a huge impact on Japanese history. The shoguns not only shaped the politics and social structure of Japan, but also its arts and culture. During the Ashikaga Shogunate, for example, Zen Buddhism, Noh theatre, and sumi-e (Chinese style ink wash painting) flourished. Still, the three shogunates of Japan are perhaps best remembered for giving rise to the samurai class. The significance of these warriors and the values they stood for is evident in the fact that they are regarded not only as a symbol of the shogunates but also of Japan as a country.

Top image: The 9th Tokugawa Japanese shogun visiting a newly built home in Edo.         Source: Kobayashi Toshimitsu / Public domain    

By Wu Mingren

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