The shoguns of medieval Japan were military dictators who ruled the country via a feudal system where a vassal’s military service and loyalty was given in return for a lord’s patronage. Established as an institution by the first shogun proper, Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1192 CE, the shoguns would rule for seven centuries until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 CE. The position of shogun was held by members of certain families which gave their names to two of the three successive shogunate governments (bakufu): the Ashikaga Shogunate (r. 1338-1573 CE) and Tokugawa Shogunate (r. 1603-1868 CE). In the case of the first shogunate, the capital gave its name to the government: the Kamakura Shogunate (r. 1192-1333 CE). The other shogunates may also be referred to by their capitals: Muromachi (Ashikaga Shogunate), an area of Heiankyo/Kyoto, and Edo (Tokugawa Shogunate), the original name of Tokyo.
Between 1203 and 1333 CE regents ruled on behalf of shoguns who were still minors or who acted merely as puppet figureheads. A final component in this dense political web was the Japanese emperor, largely powerless and restricted to ceremonial duties in the medieval period but still able to give legitimacy to shoguns by formally bestowing them their coveted title.
The First Shogun: Minamoto no Yoritomo
The Genpei War (1180-1185 CE) saw the victory of the Minamoto clan over the Taira, and the leader of the former was Minamoto no Yoritomo, who thus became the most powerful military leader in Japan. Yoritomo made himself the first shogun, in effect military dictator, of Japan, a position he would hold from 1192 CE to 1199 CE. He would, therefore, be the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate.
The position of shogun was the first to offer an alternative system of government to that of the Japanese imperial court. The title of shogun or ‘military protector’ had been used before (seii tai shogun) but had only been a temporary title for military commanders on campaign against the Ezo/Emishi (Ainu) in the still-disputed territory in the north of Japan during the 8th century CE. In that context, the title shogun translated as ‘barbarian-subduing generalissimo.’ The title of shogun was actually first resurrected by Yoritomo’s cousin, Minamoto Yoshinaka (1154-1184 CE), who commanded the clan’s forces in Heiankyo in 1183 CE, although he did not receive it from the emperor, as was the tradition.
Yoritomo was able to hold the title of shogun with its new wider meaning thanks to his agreement with the young Emperor Go-Toba (r. 1183-1198 CE) who bestowed it in return for Yoritomo’s military protection. Technically, the emperor was above the shogun, but in practice, it was the reverse as whoever had control of the army also controlled the state. The emperors did maintain a ceremonial function, and their endorsement was still sought by shoguns to give a veneer of legitimacy to their own rule. Indeed, the fact that the emperor gave the title bestowed upon the shogun his status as ‘protector of the nation’, a very useful idea which meant he could use anyone and any means for any purpose he saw fit. Emperors could delay a shogun's appointment but not indefinitely. It was also the case that the title of shogun at this stage in Japan’s history was not as prestigious as it would become in the 13th century CE, a fact illustrated by Yoritomo’s desire to acquire many other traditional court ranks besides, notably udaisho (Captain of the Right Division of the Inner Palace Guards).
Yoritomo was succeeded as shogun by his eldest son Minamoto no Yorie (r. 1202-1203 CE), but only after a power struggle. When Yoritomo died, his wife, Hojo Masako (1157-1225 CE), and her father, Hojo Tokimasa, had decided to rule themselves, and so they created the position of shogunal regent (shikken) and promoted the interests of the Hojo clan. In this arrangement, much copied throughout the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE), the regent shogun had the real power and the shogun was a mere puppet, each one picked by the Hojo. It also allowed a regent to bypass the requirement that a shogun had to come from the warrior class and so achieve a position of power otherwise unavailable to them.
The lack of any written description concerning the precise role of the shogun and the absence of any legal definition now meant that the role was easily manipulated by a long line of regents - 16 from 1203 to 1333 CE - to fit their own purposes; it was not the shogun who ruled Japan but the shogunate government. This situation would not change until the establishment of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1338 CE when regents became a thing of the past and the shogun once more was the real leader of the country. Even then, though, a government apparatus was in place which shared out power to prominent members of Japan’s military class.
The shogunate government, also known as bakufu, which means ‘tent government’ in reference to its origins as a title held by a commander in the field, was based on the feudal relationship between lord and vassal. At the top of the social and political pile was the shogun or regent shogun who distributed land to loyal followers in return for their military service (both personal and of their individual private armies of samurai).
The shogun was assisted in the practicalities of government by various ministers, officials, and institutions. Many of these were added to the government apparatus over time as it became ever more complex. Foremost amongst these was the deputy shogun (kanrei), usually a position held on a rotation basis by a member of one of three families: the Shiba, Hosokawa, and Hatakeyama. The role was created from 1333 CE, and a key function was to act as a liaison between the shogun and regional military governors and their deputies.
In 1180 CE the Samurai-dokor (Board of Retainers) was formed, which supervised vassal warriors (gokenin) and dished out disciplinary measures for any misdemeanours. Later, it would also supervise government agents in the provinces, the shogunate’s own property, and the security of Heiankyo. The imperial court at the capital was supervised by the Kyoto shugo or military governor, a position replaced by the Rokuhara deputy from 1221 CE. Potential trouble spots far from the capital and government headquarters such as Kyushu and Oshu each had their own special commissioners.
In 1184 CE the Kumonjo (Public Documents Office) was established. This was then renamed and widened in function as the Mandokoro (Administrative Board) in 1191 CE as it became the main executive and administration centre of the government. Later still, it would be given charge of the state treasury. Also in 1184 CE, the Monchujo (Board of Inquiry) was set up which looked after all legal matters including lawsuits, appeals, disputes over land rights and loans.
A new position, a vice-regent to the shogun (rensho) was created in 1225 CE, and official documents then required both his and the regent shogun’s signature. Also in 1225 CE, the Hyojoshu (Council of State) was formed, which had as its members the top officials, warriors, and scholars of the moment. They voted on issues with a simple majority winning the day. In 1232 CE a new law code was established, the Joei Code (Joei shikimoku), which had 51 articles and established who owned what land, defined the relationship between lords, vassals, and samurai, limited the role of the emperor, and established the taking of legal decisions based on precedence. Finally, in 1249 CE a High Court, the Hikitsukeshu, was formed which was especially concerned with any disputes related to land and taxes.
To ensure the shogunate’s rule extended to all territories, two important local offices were created: shugo and jito. A shugo was a military governor of a province with policing duties (hence he is often called a constable) while a jito was responsible for collecting taxes from private estates (and so is sometimes called a steward). Over time both positions would evolve and become hereditary; many of the daimyo, the powerful feudal lords of medieval Japan, had ancestors who had performed these duties. Some daimyo would control such vast estates that they were, in effect, princedoms, and these men would seriously challenge the power of the shogunate government.
Patrons of the Arts
While the imperial court was based at Heiankyo during the medieval period, the shogun’s government changed location depending on his choice of city. Kamakura was the seat of the shogunate from 1192 to 1333 CE, while the Ashikaga Shogunate was based in the Muromachi area of Heiankyo, and the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo. These moves brought cultural as well as political consequences because shoguns wished to beautify their new capital. Consequently, fine palaces, temples, and new art schools sprang up. Many shoguns, especially when they retired from public office, became great patrons of the arts, commissioning painters and sculptors, sponsoring performances of Noh theatre, and perpetuating the aristocratic fashion for the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (r. 1368-1394/5 CE) built the famous Kinkakuji or ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’ in 1397 CE, originally as his rather gaudy retirement home, but it was later converted to a Zen Buddhist temple. Another addition to Kyoto’s palaces that followed the same pattern of use was made by Ashikaga Yoshimasa (r. 1449-1474 CE) who built the Ginkakuji or ‘The Serene Temple of the Silver Pavilion’, completed in 1483 CE. Another surviving architectural gem from Japan’s medieval past is Kyoto’s Nijo castle, built by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu from 1603 CE. Shoguns were not averse to a bit of restoration work either, frequently ploughing money into temple sites, especially after the many fires that burnt so many down over the centuries. Tokugawa Iemitsu (r. 1623-1651 CE), for example, fully restored Kyoto’s celebrated Buddhist temple Kiyomizu-dera in 1633 CE and even added a new pagoda for good measure.
Challenges & Decline
There were occasional challenges to the shoguns such as the attempted coup by Emperor Go-Toba in 1221 CE - the so-called Jokyu Disturbance which ended in the emperor’s exile. Another unsuccessful imperial challenge was the Kemmu Restoration (1333-1336 CE) of Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318-1339 CE) which only replaced one shogunate with another. There were threats from abroad, too. The Mongol leader Kublai Khan (r. 1260-1294 CE) decided to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281 CE, but both times Japanese resistance and typhoon storms combined to save the country.
The next major challenge to shogunate authority was again internal. The Onin War (1467-1477 CE) was a civil war between rival warlords and it brought much death and destruction, especially at Heiankyo. There then followed a century of bitter fighting and unrest, the so-called Sengoku Period or Warring States Period (1467-1568 CE). This turmoil finally ended with the rise of the warlord Oda Nobunaga (l. 1534-1582 CE). Oda Nobunaga had expanded his territory gradually through the 1550/60s CE from his base at Nagoya Castle as he defeated all comers. He finally seized Heiankyo in 1568 CE and then exiled the last Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, in 1573 CE.
Nobunaga’s takeover heralded the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568/73 - 1600 CE) and his two immediate successors, also powerful warlords, would likewise sideline the shoguns to the very backseat of Japanese politics. These successors were Toyotomi Hideyoshi (r. 1582-1598 CE) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (r. 1603-1605 CE) and the trio are considered the great unifiers of Japan, finally forging the single state that entered the pre-modern era. The Tokugawa Shogunate based at Edo would rule from 1603 CE and continue until January 1868 CE. Then, after years of ineffectual government and failure to meet the threat of foreign powers like Great Britain and the United States, the Meiji Restoration finally abolished the position of shogun and restored full powers to the emperors.
This content was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.