Written by Beston Toh, Jiayi Fan, Sindie Gavira
Japan, known as the Land of the Rising Sun, was not always sunshine and rainbows. With the establishment of feudalism and the appointment of the first shogun (military dictator) in Japan, the Kamakura period is known to be one of the most significant time in Japanese history, and also one of the darkest.
It all started with a feud between the largest two dominating clans, the Minamoto Clan and the Taira Clan, which eventually led to the epic Genpei War. The victorious clan ultimately marked the start of feudalism in Japan.
Let us turn back the clock to the beginning.
Back to Japan, before the sun rose.
The start of feudalism in Japan:
- The Heian period (794-1185 CE) - the Taira clan dominates towards the end.
- Genpei War (1180-1185 CE) - between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan.
- The Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE) - the Minamoto clan dominates.
The end of feudalism:
- The Edo period (1603–1868 CE) - the Tokugawa clan (the last shogunate) dominates.
THE START OF FEUDALISM IN JAPAN
Feudalism in Japan did not happen in a specific point of time in history, it was the accumulation of multiple events and situations that eventually led to its birth. Two significant factors that brought about feudalism in Japan was the loss of power from the central government, and the rise of support for the shogunate (military government).
“To shoot yourself in the foot” is an idiom that can summarize what happened to the centralized bureaucratic state of Japan after 645 CE, prior to the Heian period. They decided to adopt the characteristics of Chinese institutions as reformation, which was to produce a peasant-conscript army similar to that of the Tang dynasty in China.
the Heian period (794-1185 CE)
However, during the early Heian period, the Chinese-style institution was fundamentally too elaborate for Japan to adopt, which eventually lead to the disintegration of the tax and military systems, and local administrations. (Collcutt, 1996)
Warfare and regional rebellion at the time also further deteriorated the administration. Thus, needing to protect themselves, provincial families militarised to safeguard their private interests. This would eventually lead to the rise of dominant clans that wanted to increase their power by reclaiming tracts of land. Two clans rose in prominence as allies, the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan, (Collcutt, 1996, p. 152)
THE GENPEI WAR (1180-1185 CE)
The Taira and Minamoto clans were ultimately consumed by rivalry which would culminate in The Genpei War, at the end of the Heian period. The feud between the two clans went beyond more than just mere rivalry. Both clans differ in their preferred political ideology. The Taira clan wanted to stick with the previous system which revolved around life of the court. The Minamoto clan in contrast demanded serious “tax and agrarian” reforms, and had great support from the public. (Oppenheimer, 1945, p. 118)
Taira no Kiyomori, the head of the Taira clan who established the first samurai-dominated administrative government in Japan, initiated the first battle of Uji in 1180 CE, which would ultimately be known as the battle that started the Genpei War. The Taira clan emerged victorious in the first battle of Uji, but their victory does not last them till the end of the war. Kiyomori died from sickness a mere year after the start of the Genpei War from a frenetic, raging fever.
the kamakura period (1185-1333 CE)
The year 1185 CE then marks the end of the Heian era, and the beginning of the Kamakura era. Yoritomo would then proceed to establish the supremacy of the samurai class and the Kamakura bafuku (Kamakura Shogunate - military government). Many Japanese scholars consider the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate as the official beginning of feudalism in Japan. (Collcutt, 1996)
The first shogun (military dictator) appointed in 1192 CE was Minamoto no Yoritomo himself.
SOCIAL STRUCTURE IN FEUDAL JAPAN
The Kamakura period was an era in Japan lasting almost 150 years, from 1185 CE to 1333 CE. The period was characterised by the decentralisation of power from emperors to regional warlords (the shoguns). In this new order, a lasting feudal caste system emerged, led by the Kamakura bafuku (shogunate) military government.
The emperor, nominally a religious leader, had no political influence under this feudal system. The real power rested in the shoguns and the shogunate (military government).
Under this feudal system, Confucian values were exhorted, emphasizing the importance of relatively more productive members of society. The four social classes (1, 2, 3) that eventually formed outside the ruling class were the:
- Samurais & Daimyos: As was necessary at the time, the various military clashes between warring factions made samurais (warriors) highly crucial, and so both samurais and the daimyos (lords) they served were accorded with the highest level of respect.
- Farmers/Peasants: Down the social ladder, the farmers were held in high regard for their production of food and resources, although heavy taxes imposed upon them often meant that they were not particularly well-off.
- Craftsmen: Artisans and craftsmen then, were considered less important because they merely put the resources produced to alternative uses.
- Merchants: At the bottom of the hierarchy were the merchants, which were deemed as parasitic to societal functions, profiteering off the hard work of other members of society. However, many of these merchants were able to amass significant wealth, and eventually gained political influence and power.
THE END OF FEUDAL JAPAN
The Edo period (1603–1868 CE)
With the relative peace brokered during this period making trade and economic activities more crucial as compared to the samurais' military activities, the increasingly isolationist policies undertaken by the Tokugawa shogunate was undermined. (Sanderson, 1994)
Officially, when the role of the shogun was abolished by the Meiji emperor in 1866-69 CE (commonly known as the Meiji Restoration), the tiered structure collapsed, and Japanese society gradually pivoted towards a more progressive Western outlook, leading to the modern Japan that we see today.
IMPACTS OF THE FEUDAL RULE
SOCIAL IMPACTS during the feudal rule
During late-Heian era, where feudalism started to gain ground, peasants and farmers put in every effort to meet the local officials’ desired goal of mansaku jotai (full cultivation). The local officials compiled a document called kanno cho which contained records of the variety of crops, the farmers responsible for each parcel of land, appropriate tax rates, and drought and flood liabilities (Farris, 2006). This led to effective use of agricultural land to meet the demands of the local officials.
In the subsequent Kamakura era, around 1250 CE to 1300 CE, there were “small, incremental technological innovations” in the agricultural sector under the Kamakura era (Farris, 2006, p. 71). There were advancements in iron-smelting techniques, where “rectangular box ovens standing 1.5-2 metres tall” were constructed in place of old furnaces. Iron casters were also given the freedom to move around to peddle their wares, and were taxed only lightly. Increased distribution of iron tools and better quality iron further propelled agricultural growth, as farmers and peasants were able to work with better tools. (Farris, 2006, p. 72)
It was also the beginning of surpluses in agricultural yields, where the double-cropping farming technique (growing two different crops in the same land parcel) led to more efficient land use. This also gradually resulted in freedom from taxation for peasants and farmers, where the shogunate decreed the following order in 1264 CE:
After peasants [hyakusei] of the various provinces have harvested rice from their paddies, they sow wheat form the site and called it “paddy wheat”. Proprietors collect tax [shoto] from the aforementioned wheat. How can the land tax law be used this way? Hereafter do not tax from paddy wheat. To the great joy of peasants, be aware of this point…
However, there were still intermittent periods of famine, and numerous rebellions resulted in uneven distribution of land which brought about great social discontent.
The growth of commerce was also prominent during the second half of the Kawamura period, where “merchant specialists, moneylenders, and the use of bills of exchange” (Farris, 2006, p. 85) catapulted trade and commerce.
long-term impacts of the feudal rule
The colours of modern Japan would eventually be established by the results of the Genpei war. The two colours of red and white, from the colours of Taira and Minamoto clans respectively, are now the colours of the Japan Flag.
The shogunate system also spearheaded Japan's foreign trade activities in the 1600s. Although the Tokigawa clan's isolationist policies eventually drove anti-Shogun sentiments which ultimately led to their coup d'etat during the Meiji Restoration, it gave structural organization to foreign trade at the time, and was the spark that lighted up the fires of industrialisation.
Feudal Japan also brought us the distinct elements of Japan's history that we have always associated Japan with. The samurais and the shoguns possess significant military and economic power during feudal Japan, and are now arguably one of the few signature figures we associate with Japan's history.
Several elements of feudal Japan's culture also influenced Japanese culture in general. They brought the tea ceremony, monochrome ink painting, rock gardens and poetry into Japanese culture as we know it.
It is often argued that feudalism in Japan brought about more instability than revolutionary changes. The narrative of feudal Japan still remains one that is riddled with constant battles between the ruling clans and social struggle for the people. There is a significant lack of cumulative literature about feudal Japan, and existing ones focus on the bloody battles that took place rather than the long-lasting impacts they have.
Before the Rising Sun were the darkest of nights, and behind the glossy windows of modernisation lie the cries of those oppressed in the construction of it. And their narratives should not be buried under.
Collcutt, M. (1996). The "Emergence of the Samurai" and The Military History of Early Japan (Book Review). Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 56(1), 151-164.
Farris, W. W. (2006;2005). Japan's medieval population: Famine, fertility, and warfare in a transformative age. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
Oppenheimer, F. (1945). Japan and Western Europe, IV. American Journal Of Economics & Sociology, 5(1), 111-128.
Sanderson, S. (1994). The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism: The Theoretical Significance of the Japanese Case. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 17(1), 15-55. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40241281