SHOGUNS FOR DUMMIES
& THE SO-CALLED
WARRING STATES OF JAPAN

 

CLICK HERE IF YOU'RE WONDERING WHY THE REST OF THE JAPANESE ACCEPTED THE HEGEMONY OF THE WARRIOR CLASS   CLICK HERE FOR "BUSHIDO" OR THE SAMURAI CODES

 

Click here for detailed and complete maps of Japan, all the provinces, locations of battles, and warlords' domains.

Click here for the basic family crests of Japanese samurai clans, their meanings, and their origins.

 

Minamoto Yoritomo
Great General
MINAMOTO

(just that)

Yoritomo

Taira Nobunaga
Imperial Minister
TAIRA

(Oda)
Nobunaga *

Minamoto Ieyasu
Great General
MINAMOTO

(Tokugawa)
Ieyasu
Shibata Katsuie
Lord
TAIRA

(Shibata)
Katsuie
Hojo Ujimasa
Lord
TAIRA

(Hojo)
Ujimasa

* Oda Nobunaga constantly never got interested in acquiring Imperial titles at all. But he did accept, reluctantly, the title of 'Minister' in 1578. He handed down a letter of resignation 3 weeks later. He accepted the title just for courtesy's sake. "It isn't worth a dime in battle anyway," he said. So Oda was the only de facto and de jure ruler of Japan who was 'untitled'. There had been many who exercised governance without any title before, but those did it illegitimately -- without a public recognition by the Emperor. Oda's case was the only one in the history of Japan. Emperor Ogimachi clearly let it be known that Oda was the equivalent of a Shogun at the time, yet Oda himself never took up any title.

CLICK HERE FOR THE COMPLETE JAPANESE POLITICAL STRUCTURE & ALL RULERS OF JAPAN SINCE 660 B.C.E

 

That 'S' word actually meant no such a thing as 'dictator', 'supreme ruler', or such, even if some viewpoints might render certain shogunates as embodiments of things like those. The term 'bakufu' means 'curtain' governmental agency, in this case not of a bamboo but iron curtain (click here for origins of this term); obviously a derogatory term originated in the circles where the shogunate was the butt of every private joke. So it can't be applied to call the Japanese shogunates unless you mean exactly what it was meant to mean.

Let's get down to the brass tacks.

The Empire of Japan was initially ruled by, of course, its Emperor (or occasional Empress).

Since the Emperor or Empress was unworldly -- the unbroken single lineage of the Japanese Imperial Family from the Goddess of the Sun renders stuff like warring and politicking kind of unbecoming -- he or she got to appoint sheer mortals to political posts to do the governance for real. Hence Ministers were given a certain (good) amount of delegated authority. The most critical jobs in Medieval Japan were, as a matter of course, Minister of War, Minister of Domestic Biz (I mean internal management of the country), and Minister of the Imperial House (which means he was in charge with the Emperor and his family in persons). The latter was no part-time gig, because any power-hungry warlord who was able to get the Emperor and symbolic imperial paraphernalia was automatically gaining control over Japan.

So it was up to this Minister to bless the most powerful warlord of the time, by releasing an Imperial Decree (that's how Emperors spoke to anyone outside his Palace, those days) stating that Lord So-and-so has thereby been named as this-or-that high imperial officer. This was based on the most sensible and practical consideration, namely that you better not risk pissing off a man with a hundred thousand soldiers solidly behind him (click here for story and pictures of how Japanese warlords got their armies, and what they did with them).

In 1336, the Hojo (of Taira descent) clan fought against the Ashikaga (Minamoto) clan over whose candidate it was that was to be Emperor -- and none relented. The war went on until 1392, when the Hojo 'Emperor' handed over all the insignia to the one backed up by Ashikaga.

 

Emperor
Emperor Kuammu,
the most-often fictionalized of his line until this minute.
Empress
Empress Jingu. Unlike China,
Japan never had too many female warriors and rulers. But this one was.
Emperor
Emperor Hirohito was another whose reign shook Japan up just like his foreperson Mutsuhito's.

 

CLICK HERE FOR THE COMPLETE JAPANESE POLITICAL STRUCTURE &
ALL EMPERORS, EMPRESSES, SHOGUNS, AND RULERS OF JAPAN SINCE 660 B.C. UNTIL TODAY

click here

 

By the year 800, the Imperial family had gotten itself enlarged beyond the main tree's capacity to house them all, so naturally princes and such dispersed and made family branches under other names their imagination was capable of conjuring up (mostly names of places).

The strongest and largest of these families became clans. Clans craved territories, so they waged war against each other. The chief of every clan became a warlord.

How did Japan slip into the 'Warring States' period ('sengoku' in Japanese) then?

It all started with the Hojo-Ashikaga war over political brokerage that I've just mentioned, and reached its boiling point in 1467 with the Onin war when Japan was supposed to be under the rule of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490, a Minamoto descendant), after which the ruler of the tiny islands was in actuality Chaos.

People fortified their houses, and before you knew it all of them had been transformed into fortresses. They still would fight for the Emperor (to 'chastise the barbarians', for example), but they also snatched every chance to enlarge their rice-producing territories, gulping their weaker neighbors'.

But you have to halt here for a sec for reality check.

None of the warlords in 'Warring States' period declared his territory as an independent country, and none of them claimed to be an Emperor of the domain under his rule. What has been referred to as 'states' in this warring period were none of such things if you take the term in its commonest sense. There were Provinces, there were Governors, and all those were official. In one province, there were usually more than a couple of warlords, and over several provinces an overlord. And yet they didn't kill Governors -- who were appointed by the Shogun and confirmed by the Emperor -- for fun. (Click here for story and pictures of relations among warlords, overlords, emperors and shoguns in this powergame).

The picture of the Japanese Empire was nonetheless scary when wars had been in everybody's daily schedules. Though it left the empire itsef uncut, there were no less than 260 independent domains all over the little islands we call 'Japan' today; not to mention the number of localized petty rural warlords and mobile organized groups of bandits.

 

Onin war Kyoto alley Kyoto street

The Onin War between 1467-1477 flung Kyoto into unspeakable horrors;
warriors once fell all around the streets and alleyways that we still have today.
When the blood in those streets got all flushed down, fighting started all over the country.
Hence the 'Warring States' period of the Japanese history began.
Click here for another nationwide civil war of 1868.

 

 

THE FEUDAL PYRAMID OF JAPAN
(the names attached there are only examples; they are from different eras)

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE POLITICAL STRUCTURE
AND ALL RULERS OF JAPAN SINCE 660 B.C.

 

 

T E N N O--------------------M I K A D O-------------------- E M P E R O R

Meiji

     
     

K U G E
P R I N C E

Takakura

     
  T A I K O
C H A N C E L L O R

Toyotomi Hideyoshi
    K U A M P A K U
C H I E F---M I N I S T E R

Toyotomi Hideyori
     
     

S H O G U N
GREAT GENERAL
PRIME MINISTER


Tokugawa Ieyasu

   
         
     

D A I J I N
M I N I S T E R

Oda Nobunaga

   
         
     

D A I M Y O
L O R D

Takeda Shingen

   
         
      S A M U R A I
K N I G H T

Yagyu Jubei
   
         

R O N I N
MASTERLESS KNIGHT

All the world-famous 47 ronins


Yes, I know, those people don't belong together like that. I only put in the most popular Japanese historical persons -- only the ones you can find elsewhere at this site -- to illustrate their places in the feudal status-ascribing (and those names are clickable, by the way). There were other hard-to-pronounce titles sandwiched between those on the above; I don't think it is necessary to confuse you even further, so I got rid of them -- they didn't have anything to do with most of the people presented at these pages anyway. Except perhaps the title 'Sessho', which means somewhere around 'Regent' -- the Hojo clan held this post once, and held it so tight it broke down to debris. Titles like 'Taisho' that was equal to 'General' didn't really mean a thing if your supposed subordinates had more guns. And there were several emperors at once in early medieval Japan, because of the crafty premature retirement program some of those monarchs always thought of as swell; 'Ho-o' means 'Cloistered Emperor', 'Shin-in' means 'Retired Emperor'. In the days of the Taira and Minamoto clans, this even got more meaningless for the one exercizing control over the goverment wasn't always the present Emperor but his dad, his uncle, or even his grandpa.

Click here for history and pictures of Japanese social classes since 1185 until 1868

The Emperor, for instance Meiji, perched above everybody else. Courtiers and princes of the blood, like Takakura, were a few sociomiles lower than him on the feudal pyramid. There has never been any other Chancellor ('Taiko') ever besides Toyotomi Hideyoshi; the title was exclusively made-up and customized just for him by the Imperial House. When Oda Nobunaga was around, his status was lower than Tokugawa Ieyasu after the death of Toyotomi Hideyori (Hideyoshi's son). A warlord like Takeda Shingen is lower than those people in prestige, although this didn't have anything to do with actual powergaming. And a masterless samurai ('ronin') is lower than a samurai; 'samurai' in feudalism meant someone serving a Lord. A swordsman whose sole occupation was to roam around looking for a fight, like Miyamoto Musashi, wasn't usually called 'samurai' in this sense. While Yagyu Jubei of Tajima, the son of Musashi's toughest opponent (your favorite Musashi literally ran for his life from the House of Yagyu when nearly defeated by Jubei's dad, whom he had challenged to fight) was a samurai through and through, even though he specialized in ninja gigs. A ninja's status was lower than a sword-drawing-in-broad-daylight samurai (click here for more about this); Amakasu Sanpei, for example, one of the most famous ninjas, was Takeda Shingen's relative -- but he didn't get the status as a junior lord in the clan, simply because he excelled in ninjutsu and decided to make it his career. The same happened in the bio of Oda's ninja Watanabe Ken. A familiar name, aye?

For stories and pictures, click the names:
Emperor Meiji | Prince Arisugawa | Toyotomi Hideyoshi | Tokugawa Ieyasu | Oda Nobunaga | Takeda Shingen | Miyamoto Musashi | Yagyu Jubei | Watanabe Ken | Prince Takakura | Ranks and Status of Japanese Samurai

 

Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki who took up the title after his brother Yoshiteru was murdered in 1568 was a homeless nomad, seeking temporary sanctuary with friendly warlords whom he never lost a chance to agitate to start another war for the seriously ailing shogunate. The list of candidates the Shogun would try to talk over to war included the warrior-monks of Mt. Hiei, Nara, and such (click here for story and pictures of these Buddhist warrior-monks). Then in 1573 Oda Nobunaga (a Taira) ended the Ashikaga shogunate's era for good, and started to unite the provinces he could subdue, until his death in 1582. In 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ruled over most of the conquerable areas of Japan. In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu (Minamoto) established his clan's shogunate. In 1868 Emperor Meiji abolished the feudal system and the last Shogun retired to oblivion. But all this took a long time; when Shoguns were still around there was feudalism in its best of health.

 

Oda Nobunaga
DAI JO DAI JIN Oda Nobunaga

Toyotomi Hideyoshi
TAIKO Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Tokugawa Ieyasu
SHOGUN Tokugawa Ieyasu

So, here are the most important persons in the 'Warring States' period of Japan, with their titles in Japanese; Tokugawa was the only Shogun among them.

Even in these semi-classical paintings, through the way they are depicted -- notice how their horses are dressed and behaving -- you can see how different the personalities of the three most famous Japanese warlords are. Though they shared nothing in common when it comes to attitudes, they are inseparable from each other as far as history goes. In wars, politics, and interpersonal matters, their biographies intertwined. Toyotomi married Oda's niece, and Tokugawa's kids married Oda's and Toyotomi's offsprings. This is the most exciting period in the history of Japan.

First, in 1542, came the real manowar Oda, a 'fast and furious' kind of guy, warlord of a small area. He dreamt of uniting Japan. To achieve that end he entered an alliance with Tokugawa, a super-cautious and scrupulous warlord of a neighboring province, who was the best in administerial stuff. He also took up Toyotomi, whose chief mastery was in diplomacy, as his best General. The trio had been successful in conquering the greatest part of Japan when Oda died. Toyotomi avenged the death, and ruled by himself. When Toyotomi died, Tokugawa took over. His clan ruled since 1603 until 1868.

CLICK THE PICTURE ABOVE FOR STORY & PICTURES OF EACH.

FOR MORE ABOUT THIS

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TO SEE MOVIE SCENES

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The most powerful warlord of the day, then, would be offered certain long titles which would test the nerves of the court's master of ceremony during imperial sessions.

My personal hero Oda Nobunaga from the Taira family-tree was never given the title with the word 'Shogun' anywhere. What was given to him was the title that means 'Minister of the Interior', and so on (one person usually got several titles tailing his name, if he was powerful enough and/or staying so long enough). As Minister, Oda had the right to appoint people to lesser posts, the most important of which was the Governor of Kyoto -- because the Emperor stayed in this city and you by now know why someone had to look after him.

All other warlords who were beaten by Oda, and all of those who were not but didn't catch the Emperor's (or his Ministers') eye, were just called 'Lords' -- which means each and every one of them was a ruler and possessor of a province (a 'daimyo', in Japanese), which, as is always the case in feudalism, included the denizens within (that's the difference between today's term 'citizen' from the ancient word 'subject').

A Japanese warlord could be just any of your nextdoor chum, provided he was able to muster enough arsenal and men to use them and has snatched some territory for himself (more precisely, for this is a country where family is above all, for his clan). Even if His Lordship happened to be a descendant of some deceased Emperors or Princes of the Blood, so in other countries he would have been addressed to as a Duke, it didn't automatically mean a domain was available for him. He would have wished that he were belonging to England. (Click here for story and pictures of what you'd need to be a Japanese warlord.)

 

Japanese rural people
Japanese peasants of 1580 --
Shogun or no Shogun, wouldn't change the drought or monsoon.
Whoever ruled needed and trampled them all the same.

Appointments to lucrative political jobs were managed by the Emperor's decrees. The most powerful Lord of the day, like Oda in 1570's, had the right to write a petition addressed to the Emperor, asking for a title for someone he knew. Oda wrote such memorials in favor of Tokugawa Ieyasu, his ally at the time, who was a descendant of the Minamoto clan, traditional rival of Oda's own Taira clan.

When Oda was Minister, the Shogun was from the Ashikaga clan, an absolutely headaching crybaby named Yoshiaki. The Ashikagas were descendants of the Minamotos. De facto, Oda was the power to reckon with. But the law said even Oda had to answer to the Shogun, because as Minister (for 3 weeks) and as an overlord (for the rest of his life) he had two superiors -- the Emperor and the Great General, even though the latter only got the awesome title via his DNA alone (it was a title conferred to people for their real deeds and merits, but unfortunately it was also hereditary). Ashikaga Yoshiaki was the last Shogun of his clan. As usual, the brilliant history of a clan ended with a wholesomely incompetent weakling.

Oda Nobunaga, as far as historical records go, didn't crave imperial titles and never coveted the address of 'Shogun'. If he did, maybe he couldn't get it anyway, because he came from the Taira stock. Only those with the blood of Minamoto and Fujiwara could aspire to become Shogun, whatever the reason was (just intriques around the court, the Taira's utter defeat at Dan no Ura, the Hojo clan's stuff, and so on -- see the previous page).

In other words, the usual rap of 21st century videogamers that tell of "the three Shoguns" of 16th century Japan has its foundation laid in absolute neverland. Any mention of more than one Shogun on any single date on the Japanese calendar is, I'm so sorry to say, bull.

All through the 'Warring States' or 'sengoku' period of Japanese history, there was only one Shogun each time around, and they all came from the Ashikaga clan.

The Ashikagas were the ones who started the so-called 'Warring States' period. The end of the 'Warring States', according to most historians, was when Oda Nobunaga kicked Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki out of the Nijo Palace of Kyoto and didn't bother to put someone else on the seat and didn't take the seat himself either. This was 1573.

But the real-life war wasn't over just because historians say it was. Wars kept raging on in Japan until the Osaka castle was turned into debris by the Tokugawas in 1615.

 

Click here for story and pictures of how the Ashikagas came to be a dynasty of Shoguns in Japan, starting in 1336.

Click here for story and pictures of why and how Oda Nobunaga ended the Ashikaga shogunate for good.

Click here for the real last war of the so-called 'Warring States period' of Japanese history.

Click here for story and pictures of what you'd need to be a Japanese warlord.

 

NEXT PAGE:
How come the title 'Shogun' turned exclusive, why it was impossible to draw a map of warlords, and how a major anomaly in the business of title-giving happened in 16th century Japan.

 

Next: "Shoguns for Dummies" continued

 

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AS AN EXAMPLE OF THE POWERGAME FROM THE LORDSHIP DOWN

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Sources I tapped for this page: Nihon Shakai no Kazoku teki Kosei (Tokyo: 1948); Kono Shozo, Kokumin Dotoku Yoron (Tokyo: 1935); Anesaki Masaharu, Nichiren, the Buddhist Prophet (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1916); Robert Cornell Armstrong, Light from the East, Studies of Japanese Confucianism (University of Toronto, Canada, 1914); Sasama Yoshihiko, Nihon kassen zuten (Yuzankaku, 1997); William Aston, Shinto: The Way of the Gods (London: Longmans, Green, 1905); Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946); Charles Eliot, Japanese Buddhism (London, 1935); Futaki Kenichi, Chuusei buke no saho (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1999); Kiyooka Eichii, The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi (Tokyo, Hokuseido Press, 1934); Konno Nobuo, Kamakura bushi monogatari (Kawade shobo shinsha, 1997); Nukariya Kaiten, The Religion of the Samurai (London: Luzac, 1913); A.L. Sadler, The Beginner's Book of Bushido by Daidoji Yuzan (Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, 1941); Satomi Kishio, Nichirenism and the Japanese National Principles (NY: Dutton, 1924); Suzuki D.T., Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (Kyoto: The Eastern Buddhist Society, 1938); Henri Van Straelen, Yoshida Shoin (Leiden: Brill, 1952); Robert Bellah, Tokugawa Religion; Masaaki Takahashi, Bushi no seiritsu: Bushizo no soshutsu (Tokyo: Tokyo daigaku, 1999); Paul Akamatsu, Meiji 1868, Revolution and Counter-Revolution (Allen & Unwin, 1972); Nitobe Inazo, Bushido, The Soul of Japan (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1970); Paul Varley and Ivan Morris, The Samurai (Weidenfeld, 1970); Nakane Chie, Japanese Society (Tokyo, Tuttle, 1973); Inoguchi and Nakajima, The Divine Wind: Japanese Kamikaze Force in World War II (Hutchinson, 1959), Seki Yukihiko, Bushi no tanjo (Tokyo: NHK, 2000); Amino Yoshihiko, ed. Edojidai no mikataga kawaruho (Tokyo: Yosensha, 1998).

 

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