What Led to the End of the Japanese Feudal System?

By Blair Ewalt (3/2014)

During the Edo period in the exceptional history of Japan, the Tokugawa shoguns, a group of military leaders appointed by the reigning emperor, took full control over culture, the economy, taxation, and laws. Originally these were tasks of the emperor, however, at this point the emperor served only as a figurehead to a system taken over by those who were supposed to fight for it. Despite the influences of the West on the Tokugawa, it was the domestic struggle by the shoguns in Japan that caused the downfall of Japan’s feudalist era, as they had poor control of the central government, which lead to the collapse of the social classes, and since they were firmly isolationists, there were rising diplomatic tensions between the West and Japan.

At the beginning of the 7th century, Japan saw a major change in a functioning system of government that they had been accustomed to for nearly five centuries. According to the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest chronicle of Japan written in the Edo Period, Emperor Jimmu was the first recorded emperor of Japan (Brown). Emperor Jimmu is claimed to be a direct descendent of the Japanese sun goddess, and he served as a priest-king to his disciples. After pacifying the surrounding tribes, Jimmu ended up in Yamato, which was where he truly solidified his power (Britannica). The main job of the emperor for this lengthy period was to be a true enforcer of power, a military leader, and large armies of skilled warriors often backed them. This all changed with the introduction of the Kamakura shogunate.

Up until this point, family clans who served as an aristocratic political class had rule over Japan. There were five notable clans: the Imperial Clan, which was and still is comprised of Japan’s royalty, the Tachibana clan, the Fujiwari Clan, the Taira clan, a class of samurai skilled in judo, and the Minamoto Clan, who were imperial members who had been demoted to nobility. Originally, the shogunate was supposed to be a personal army to the emperor. The shogunate began in 1185 when the Minamoto Clan rebelled against the Taira Clan over their support of a candidate to be ruler of the Imperial court. The Taira and Minamoto had been in a struggle for power for centuries, and the Minamoto had tried to rebel previously and lost both times (Seal). In 1177, the Taira tried to form a coup to take out the prime minister, which created strong negative feelings towards the noble clan. Minamoto Yorimoto, a Minamoto commander, fledged a rebellion against the Taira in the Genpei war The Minamoto army was comprised of samurai who were matched in skill to the Taira, and the Minamoto claimed victory five years later. The Samurai were rewarded with land and money. In 1185 Minamoto Yorimoto was appointed as Seiidaishogun by the Imperial court, a term of honor for a great general (Cunningham, 8, 9).

Originally, the shogunate was supposed to be the emperor’s personal army.

However, it did not take long for the Minamoto to turn against the emperors and serve as their own protective base. The emperor now became nothing more than a pawn to the shoguns. Clans all across the land fought each other and the social problems that occurred because of them were long lasting.

When the Minamoto collapsed in 1338, the Ashikaga Clan succeeded them. The time the Ashikaga reigned is known as the Muromachi Period. The Ashikaga practiced a bakufu governmental system, meaning that the appointed daimyo, which were land owning noblemen, would raise Samurai to police and protect the shogunates land, while the shogun became the lawmakers (Somervill 13). The daimyo fought against the shogun for over a century in attempt to balance the power between the court leaders, and those who were risking their lives for the shogun. The Daimyo lords were unpredictable and not to be trusted. Every time the Imperial court tried to make any political referendum, conflict would break out. Daimyos would fight even fight other daimyo to acquire more land, wealth, and power. These battles started as a few uprisings and spiraled into the unparalleled chaos that was the Ōnin War. This period was known as the “warring states” period. Samurai waged war through deception and fierce attacks, and the disparate samurai faced fierce hostility. After the Ōnin War, Japan had problems with domestic contention for over a century (Seal).

Throughout this period, trade increased, and piracy rates rose. Relationships with China had recently been misconstrued, but with amassed trade, relationships were renewed. Japan started to thrive for a short while in the 15th century as Osaka, Japan’s central city population grew immensely (Cunningham 10, 12).

In 1542, the Japanese civil wars ended. This marked the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or Edo Period. Dynamic shogunates started to form to protect no longer against the other enemy Daimyo and shogun, but instead to protect against the Portuguese and other influences from the West, as Japan saw the forces as impeding foes whose Christian influence would lead to revolution and the decay of culture. The Tokugawa were strict isolationists, and refused to have any relations with the foreigners.

At this same time, the political system was extremely corrupt. Nobles and high standing individuals were barely taxed, but peasants, who made up 80% of the population, could be taxed up to 50% of their entire harvest. Money was flowing right into the pockets of the army lord shoguns and the emperor. The samurai, who were forbidden to pursue entrepreneurial activities, could only borrow money and go into debt. The nation’s protectorates consumed more than the treasury could support, and even after multiple tries to increase taxes, get rid of luxuries and force business growth, the entire Tokugawa reign was in jeopardy (Salisbury).

The lack of contact with the Western world for such a long period of time left Japan in the dust in terms of culture and warfare. The rest of the world had been deeply divulged into the world of artillery, but Japan was still stuck stubbornly in their old ways of sword-to-sword, code-based warfare. Even the ceremonial suicide of seppuku, in which the soldier would disembowel himself when shamed, was still widely practiced by the samurai (Emmons).

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy arrived with four heavily armed ships and demanded that the Tokugawa reprimand their secluded nature and sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity, and the Harris Treaty. This treaty gave the U.S the right to the nation’s tariffs on imports. The dynamic shogunate Tokugawa ended in 1868, after Japan emerged finally as a centralized state with a constitutional monarchy (Convention).

The lack of unity and civil unrest brought on by the shogun system internally weakened the political power of Japan. It created a weak, malleable system that could easily implode when provoked. There were few laws in place, and the closest thing to a constitution was the samurai honor code. After seeing the chaos the shogunate and daimyo brought in from the civil war, shoguns were hungry for a reform. They worked for a better government, but they still had preexisting problems that could only be solved by having a centralized government.  A centralized government provides a strong unitary system that can enforce laws, policies, and there are fewer conflicts between local government and national government. This was exactly the problem for the shogunate, and it took almost 2400 years for them to catch on, all the way from the first Emperor Jimmu to the arrival of Matthew Perry.

The taxation of the Tokugawa peasants with little to no wealth shows the strength, and weakness of feudal system of Japan at the time.

The pitiable peasants were basically being used as slaves, and as can be learned from all of history, slavery never ends well. At some point, someone catches on realizing the whole system is flawed, and it all can fall apart that easily. A good example of this is slavery in the U.S., slaves were repressed for so long, but when they got the opportunity they revolted which resulted in a long battle for equal rights, which eventually came. This lack of civility, caused by the tensions between conflicting shoguns and enemy clans never truly allowed Japan to settle into the feudal role it was playing.

The shogunate clans were the ones with the authority instead of the emperor since the dawn of the shogunate system. The empire in Japan had no control over the shoguns. They were rouge forces in the system. With the imperial court holding no ground, the constant civil unrest could not be solved. This lead to the downfall of the feudal system because there was absolutely no safeguards to protect the system in the long run.

With the Daimyo fighting the shogun for political and wartime power, no political system could effectively settle. The clear example is the bakufu system of the Ashikaga Clan. The system collapsed in a mere hundred years, even though the political leaders had nothing but confidence in the supremacy of their empire. However, the lack of outside opportunities, economically and with trade, leads to a population spur. The increasing population could not consistently pump out enough resources to support the internal community. This would mean that those who were truly slaving would have been famished and in no good physical condition to work, making them less effective workers, thus further weakening the system.

Because the Japanese and the Tokugawa completely resistant of West, financial disruptions would occur frequently. The warring states period lead people to not trust anything about the system. Financial and social disruptions occurred frequently. With how often clans would fight each other there was no room for any sort of constitution. The shogun also never showed any interest in taking any advice from westerners and they were often discouraged from coming anywhere near the hostile land. This lead to a general fear among westerners that Japan was completely violent to foreigners, and Americans started a public disapproval for the mysterious culture.

However there are other things that could have lead to the downfall of the system, other than the decentralized government, lack of civil unity, such as the taxes in the period. The feudal system never inherently works because it relies on basic slavery and the ignorance of the people. However, over time people start to doubt the system and be less productive in it, often devoting all their time to finding oppositions and rebelling. Some also may say it was the sudden arrival of the west that brought the downfall of the feudal system. As true as this may seem, the arrival of the West was not the cause of the end of the feudal system, it was the catalyst that sparked the swift downfall of a governmental system that had been so unstable that in a mere 500 years it had seen numerous rebellions, multiple wars, several leading clans, no trade to stimulate the economy, a collapsing social structure, massive debt, and not one central enforcer of the law.

Looking over all the facts, it is apparent that the shogun wars against the daimyo were so detrimental to the system it kept failing. The structure could not handle the lack of a centralized government. Not one system over the entire period could survive, and the lack of an imperial court that could enforce made it so. There was no trade or treaties made to allow for the consistence of culture. Obviously the influence of the shoguns in the entire system caused irreparable damage. Losing a battle was seen as dishonoring the clan, and sometimes the samurai themselves would take their own lives in shame. The nation was tearing itself down from the inside.


Works Cited

“Ashikaga Shogunate.” World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

Brown, Delmer, Dr. “Nihon Shoki.” JHTI – Nihon Shoki. University of California at Berkley, 22 Aug. 2006. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

“Convention of Kanagawa.” Princeton University. Princeton University, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

Cunningham, Mark E., and Lawrence J. Zwier. The End of the Shoguns and the Birth of Modern Japan. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century, 2009. Print.

Department of Asian Art. “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Samurai. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Jimmu (legendary Emperor of Japan).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

Emmons, Jim Tschen. “Japan.” World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

Salisbury, Joyce E. and Peter Seelig. “Tokugawa Japan: Overview.” Daily Life through History. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

Seal, F. W. “Heian Period.” Heian Period. Samurai Archives, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

Somervill, Barbara A. Samurai, Shoguns, and Soldiers: The Rise of the Japanese Military. Detroit: Lucent, 2008. Print.

“Tokugawa Shogunate.” World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.


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