Monday, December 14, 2009

Medieval Japan

Medieval Japan began in 1185. Before you begin today's blog post, I recommend that you check out the first part of the story, Japan: The Early Centuries. This includes a map, some basic statistics about modern Japan, and recounts the rise of Japanese culture from the dawn of civilization to the Fujiwara ascendancy. While today's post is perfectly enjoyable on its own, it might be a bit confusing without the back story.

Also please note that I am not Japanese, nor am I any sort of expert on Japanese culture. If you're more informed than I am, please feel free to comment.

Feudalism came to Japan the same way it did to Europe: local sources of authority grew in power as a central and distant emperor failed to maintain security and order. The peasants, no longer protected by imperial armies, paid taxes to the shogun, or general. The emperor himself was more helpless every day.

The resulting anarchy caused a series of conflicts between various clans struggling for dominance, collectively known as the Gempei War. Ultimate victory went to Minamoto Yoritomo, whose power was based on the new warrior class, which he established and maintained as a privileged order. Stressing the almost complete division between civil and military government, Yoritomo set up a separate military capital at Kamakura in 1185.

During the Kamakura Period, which lasted until 1333, Japanese art flourished, and feudalism developed until it was stronger than the imperial administration had ever been.

Through his military network, Yoritomo was already virtual ruler of Japan. The emperor and court were mostly powerless before the shogun. Kamakura became the true court and government, while Kyoto remained a titular capital, with no real power.

Originally the term samurai was applied to the whole military system of Japan, both nobles and vassals. By Yoritomo's time, it denoted the military retainers of the shogun, or military governor. The samurai was generally a mounted warrior, wearing two swords as a symbol of their position and following a rigid code of ethics known as the Bushido. They reorganized Japan as a police state, maintaining power on behalf of feudal barons, protecting the territory and ensuring the obedience of the peasants. This remained the dominant military force until feudalism was abolished in 1871, and the wearing of swords was forbidden.

The great Yoritomo died suddenly in 1198, thrown from his horse which panicked upon seeing the ghost of a brother whom Yoritomo had murdered. He was succeeded by his weakling sons.

In 1219, the rival Hojo family came to power by means of a series of conspiracies and assassinations that eliminated Minamoto heirs and their supporters. The Hojo regency lasted for 134 years. In 1274 and again in 1281 the Mongols, then in control of China and Korea, attempted to invade Japan, both times unsuccessfully. The invasions were a serious drain on Hojo resources, and they were soon unable to reward the vassals whom they relied on for support.

A talented emperor, Daigo II (1287-1339) led a rebellion to restore imperial administration which climaxed in 1333 with the capture of Kamakura and the downfall of the Hojo.

One of Daigo's supporters, Ashikaga Takauji, turned against the emperor and established a rival court. Daigo II was forced to flee from the capital, and for the next 56 years civil war between Daigo's and Ashikaga's supporters ravaged Japan. Finally, in 1392, an Ashikaga diplomat persuaded the true emperor to relinquish his throne. With their nominees acknowledged as rightful emperors, the Ashikaga were empowered to establish their own feudal control over the entire country.

To be continued...

There are a lot of great books on Japan, of course. One that's been especially helpful to me in writing these posts is Japan: Its History and Culture, by W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik. There's also a very enjoyable travel memoir called A Year in Japan, by Kate T. Williamson. Both are available in the Hansisgreat Bookstore, or online at Barnes & Noble.

For my posts on other Nations of the World, click here.


SnorzDBSK said...

I really enjoy reading your post, and (apologises) it's my first time I've ever commented !

Anyway, it was a very interesting post on Japan, and I read the previous post via the link provided as well.

I don't know if you have read this book, but I recommend it:
Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa (translated by William Scott Wilson). You can find a synopsis on
Anyway, Merry Christmas :)

raulito said...

I wish I had run across your blog before my visit to Japan. You are as always, so informative and so well prepared with the facts and the history.
I enjoy your blog tremendously for those reasons, I never leave your blog without having learned something.