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One day I went to the shogunate prison in Senju and tested my sword on the corpses of criminals who had been executed. After that I became a student of Asauemon and learned how to lop off the heads of corpses with a single stroke.”1
Wrote Kokichi Katsu. He was a low-ranking samurai from the Tokugawa Shogunate which came later than the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336–1573). Yet what unites these two distinct periods is the rule by a military government of a feudal society in Japan.
Fig. 1 - Takauji Ashikaga, the founder of the Ashikaga shogunate, 14th-15th century. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Between 1192–1868, Japan was a feudal society ruled by the shoguns.
The Shogunate (bakufu) was the military government of Japan for several centuries (1192-1868) when Japan was a feudal and agricultural society. The government was run by the shogun, the high-ranking military governors, usually appointed by the Emperor. At this time, the Emperor had a largely ceremonial role.
Feudalism described the unequal relationship between the feudal, landowning lords and their subordinate vassals.
Did you know?
Medieval Europe was also feudal and featured similarly unequal social relations between the land-owning nobility and the peasants. However, in Japan, this relationship was more personal rather than focused on a legal contract.
Often, vassals, who were farmers, gained access to the feudal land in exchange for military and other types of service.
The samurai was a military class in Japan. This class was divided into different ranks. For instance, a hatamoto (bannerman) was a low-ranking samurai.
There were four main periods in the history of feudal Japan.
|Kamakura Period (1185–1333)|
|Ashikaga (Muromachi) Period (1336–1573)|
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600)
|Tokugawa (Edo) Period (1603 – 1868)|
The Kamakura Period came to be replaced with three years called Kenmu Restoration. At this time, Go-Daigo (1288-1339), an Emperor, unsuccessfully tried to reclaim the throne. Historians consider the year 1336 to be the start of the Ashikaga Period.
Did you know?
An alternative name for this era is Muromachi Period because the shogunate’s headquarters were housed in Muromachi, an area of Kyoto, the capital of Japan,
At this time, Takauji Ashikaga, with the backing of other warriors, established a new shogunate in Japan.
Ashikaga was a powerful clan of the Kamakura Shogunate, with its capital in Kamakura. Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358) used the military conflict between the Kamakura Shogunate and the emperor Go-Daigo to his advantage to fight the Shogunate.
After the Battle of Minatogawa, he established his own, the Ashikaga Shogunate, and installed a pseudo-Emperor, Kōmyō. Japan's capital moved from Kamakura to Kyoto. Ashikaga's illegitimate court in the North opposed Go-Daigo's legitimate court in the South for decades—an era called Nanbokuchō.
Ashikaga Shogunate has two important periods:
Southern and Northern Courts Period (Nanbokuchō) (1336-1392)
|Sengoku Period (1467-1573)|
Did you know?
Despite the North’s victory against the South, the northern rulers are excluded from Japan’s imperial succession.
Other important developments include:
Fig. 3 - Emperor Go-Daigo, 1339. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Samurai were the warrior class in feudal Japan for close to 700 years. This class had different ranks, which were hereditary, as part of Japan's strict social structure. The samurai were vassals to daimyō, the feudal lords.
A vassal is a person of lower social status who has certain obligations, such as military service, to a person of higher social status, such as a lord.
Fig. 2 - Samurai of Ashikaga Shogunate. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
The Japanese society ruled by different shogunates was feudal and rigidly structured. It comprised an Emperor, who had a ceremonial role at this time. The shoguns were the military governors at the top of the social hierarchy. Under them were feudal lords, daimyō. Their vassals were the samurai who performed military service. There were also peasants (such as serfs tied to the land), merchants, and priests in both Buddhism and Shinto. Merchants were considered to be of low social status, unlike certain European societies.
Social mobility generally did not exist, except through military conflict and power struggles, and social status was hereditary. Similarly, men and women had strictly defined social roles, although there were some exceptions to women's agency in upper-class families.
Arts and culture flourished during the Ashikaga Shogunate's rule.
For example, Japanese rock (dry) gardens developed in Kyoto at this time in the form that we know them today. These gardens displayed rocks, water features, and perfectly groomed sand. Their purpose was meditative in the context of Zen Buddhism.
Indeed, Zen Buddhism was a focal point for Japanese culture at this time. Its influence included:
Some historians also divide this period into:
In part, because of Japan's remote island geography, the country did not come in contact with the Europeans until their Age of Discovery and Conquest, which began in the late 1400s. At this time, several European empires engaged in colonization abroad, including:
The Portuguese arrived in Kyushu, Japan's southern island, in 1543. As a result, Japan temporarily opened up to trade with Europe. This period became known as the Nanban trade (1543-1614).
Cultural exchange was also an important factor.
For example, the Spanish Jesuit St. Francis Xavier carried out Catholic missionary work in Japan.
The capital of Ashikaga Shogunate was in present-day Kyoto. The map of Japan generally coincided with the present-day counterpart, with some exceptions, such as the exclusion of parts of Hokkaido.
Fig 4 - Map of feudal Japan in a later period by Saisuke Yamamura. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Under Ashikaga Shogunate's rule, the country was embroiled in a protracted civil war called the Sengoku period (1467–1615).
Sengoku refers to a civil war or warring states. The word comprises two Japanese characters, meaning "war" and "country."
The Sengoku era began with the Ōnin War (1467-1477) in which a regional conflict between a deputy of the Shogun and a daimyō escalated into a countrywide civil war.
A century and a half of conflict involved in-fighting between different feudal lords challenging each other for power. In contrast, the Tokugawa Shogunate that arose in the early 1600s was known as one of peace.
Conflicts between the daimyō led to a prolonged period of warfare, Sengoku, which weakened the Ashikaga Shogunate:
In 1565, the hereditary shogun Yoshiteru Ashikaga was murdered. Nobunaga Oda, a daimyō, managed to get Ashikaga’s brother, Yoshiaki, into power. The latter, however, was weak, and Oda expelled him from the Shogunate’s capital, Kyoto. In 1573, the Ashikaga Shogunate dissolved.
Fig. 5 - Ukiyo-e of Oda Nobunaga, by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, 1830. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
The Ashikaga (Muromachi) Period was one of political weakness in Japanese history. The country remained decentralized with rivaling feudal lords, which eventually precipitated a long military conflict. Nonetheless, traditional Japanese culture, such as the arts and tea ceremonies, flourished. The country also opened up to the rest of the world with the Europeans' arrival—for a time.
Takauji Ashikaga was the first shogun—a military governor—of the Ashikaga Shogunate. He came to power in the first third of the 14th century.
The Ashikaga Shogunate was weak from the start because its founder, Takauji Ashikaga, did not possess much territory. Instead, he depended on the loyalty of his subordinate daimyō feudal lords and, in turn, their subordinate samurai. The Ashikaga Shogunate also gradually grew weaker as a result of the Ōnin War (1467-1477) and the broader context of the Sengoku period (civil war) of more than a century of conflict. The Ashikaga Shogunate came to an end with regime change in 1573.
The Ashikaga Period (1336–1573) was known for a number of features. First, this was a period of military rule in feudal Japan as was the case with the preceding and subsequent shogunate governments. Second, the final years of the shogunate coincided with decades of war called the Sengoku period (1467–1615). Third, Japan made its first contact with Europeans when the Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543. Fourth, this was a time when the arts inspired by Zen Buddhism flourished.
Japanese society was feudal and rigidly structured for almost 700 years, until the mid-19th century, and was ruled by a number of different shogunates. The Ashikaga Shogunate was a military government of Japan during the Muromachi period (1336–1573) named after a district in Kyoto, the country’s capital at that time. The military government, the shogunate, had its governors (shoguns) in different parts of the country. They relied on feudal lords, the daimyō, who were their vassals, to maintain order.
The Ashikaga Shogunate (1336–1573) was a military government of Japan at a time when the country was quite decentralized. The shoguns—its military governors—controlled the feudal, agricultural society that Japan was. Relying on the feudal lords, the daimyō, to manage the shogunate eventually led to a power struggle and a prolonged civil war, the Sengoku period, between them which weakened the country further.
What is a shogunate?
A shogunate is a military government of feudal Japan.
When was Japan ruled by the shoguns?
Which Europeans made the first contact with Japan?
What does "Sengoku" mean?
The daimyō were the shogun's what?
Where was the capital of the Ashikaga Shogunate?
Who was the Great Unifier of Japan?
Ashikaga-era Japan had great trade relations with which country?
Japan's arts and culture during the Ashikaga Shogunate's rule were inspired by what?
What is the other name for the Ashikaga Shogunate?
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