The Political Systems, Social Hierarchies, and Cultures of Feudal Japan

The feudal era of Japan is probably the most popular and most discussed among all the ages that make up Japanese history. This was the time of the shogun and samurai class, who ultimately had control over the Japanese government.

The Social Pyramid of Feudal Japan

Before diving into the different events that occurred during the feudal era of Japan, the social pyramid observed for the majority of that time should first be understood:


The tenno or emperor served as the supreme ruler of Japan. However, the emperors of Feudal Japan mostly acted as figureheads.


The shogun served as the head of the military class and was appointed by the emperor. Throughout Japan’s feudal era, national affairs were ultimately controlled by the shogun.


The daimyo served as the warlord for a particular territory within Japan. His strength was often equated to the tax implemented on the rice produced from his land.


The kerai or gokenin served as the vassal of the daimyo. Rice allowances were often given to the kerai by the daimyo for his loyalty and service.


The bugyo served as the magistrate which was responsible for overseeing the operations of a certain government post or region. The shogun was in charge of appointing bugyos.


The daikan served as the intendant which was responsible for collecting taxes and overseeing regional administrations. These were appointed by either the shogun or a daimyo.


The shoya served as the head of a village and was appointed by the shogun or a daimyo. This position was often filled by a commoner and was meant to represent the shogunate on a lower societal level.


The samurai served as a warrior under the control of a daimyo but was not necessarily loyal to the warlord.

The lower classes of Feudal Japan’s social hierarchy consisted of farmers, peasants, artisans, craftsmen, merchants, and hinin (a term used to refer to a person considered to be an outcast), in that order.

Feudal Japan – Map and Important Events

The timeline of Feudal Japan begins in 1185 and is divided into four periods known as the Kamakura Period, Muromachi Period, Azuchi Momoyama Period, and Edo Period. Given the military approach used to run the country, a long list of civil wars, attempted invasions, and notable events occurred during this era.

Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333) 

The start of the Kamakura Period was marked by the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192. This new government system was founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo, who referred to it as the bakufu, a Japanese term that translates to mean “tent government” in English. Minamoto was given the title of Seii Tai-shogun by the Emperor.

The bakufu consisted of two different sections, one of which was dedicated to handling legal suits, while the other was responsible for supervising the samurai class. On the surface, Japan was ruled by the Imperial Court and Emperor, but, in truth, all affairs were being controlled by the shogun.

Later on, the Hojo clan reduced the shogun to a powerless official, similar to how the shogun undermined the emperor.

Notable events during the Kamakura Period include:

  • Mongol Invasion/Attack

During the 1200s, Kublai Khan, the new Mongol leader at the time, demanded Japan to pay proper tribute and honor to his nation. Given that the shogunate did not have any interest in establishing foreign relations, Kublai Khan’s demands went unnoticed.

As expected by the Japanese government, a Mongol invasion eventually occurred in 1274. This attack was supported by Korean and Chinese troops, which added up to a total of 23,000 soldiers. About six hundred ships equipped with archers, crude missiles, and catapults were used for the invasion.

The foreign invaders first stepped foot in the northern area of Kyushu, particularly on Hakata. Having been prepared for the attack, these forces were faced with Japan’s own troops upon arrival.

A day after the fighting commenced, a typhoon took care of the invading groups. As Kublai Khan heard of how his soldiers had been wiped out by nature and not by Japan’s military class, he chose to put the invasion on halt.

In 1281, the Mongol invasion was put into action and had foreign invaders landing on northern Kyushu, once again. This time, the Japanese troops fought with the Mongol forces for about seven weeks before another typhoon came and defeated them.

The victories from both invasions helped establish the shogunate in Japan and gave them great accomplishments to be proud of. For Shinto priests, the typhoons served as divine interventions meant for the protection of the whole country.

  • Kenmu Restoration

Towards the latter part of the Kamakura Period, Emperor Go-Daigo was briefly able to regain control of the country from the system of the shogunate. A sixty-year war was fought as a means to restore the power of the Imperial Court but ended with Emperor Go-Daigo being driven out of Kyoto. The shogunate was re-established, soon after.

Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573)

In 1336, the Ashikaga Shogunate was established when Ashikaga Takauji was able to get support from the samurai class in overthrowing Emperor Go-Daigo. Takauji appointed himself as the new shogun, which marked the start of the Muromachi Period.

Emperor Go-Daigo made Nara city his new headquarters while Takauji ruled from Kyoto city. The early stages (1336 – 1392) of this period were referred to as Nanboku-cho, which means “North and South court” in English. The name Muromachi comes from a district in Kyoto where Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the period, established his center of command.

Notable events during the Muromachi Period include:

  • Trade Between China and Japan

Trade with the Ming Dynasty of China started when the shogunate agreed that Japanese piracy should be suppressed. The relationship was seen by the Chinese government as Japan’s way of paying tribute to their empire, while it was regarded as a profitable arrangement by the other.

The main items exported by Japan were copper and gold. Books and silk were some of the most common imports received from China. This trade industry grew quite rapidly which the shogunate used as a source of income by putting taxes on imported goods.

Regional wars were common during this time, as the control over trade routes were constantly being fought over

  • Onin War

In the early years of the Muromachi Period, order was carefully maintained by the shogunate. However, the daimyo started fighting for power against the shogunate which eventually led to the Onin War.

This war went on from 1467 to 1477 and resulted in the end of the shogunate system. Japan experienced anarchy and different provinces waged war against one another, fighting for the complete rule of the country.

The samurai class and commoners rose through the ranks, respectively overthrowing their overlords and landlords. The Imperial Court’s nobles were dispossessed and Japan’s aristocracy followed military principles.

Provincial wars continued to be fought for a century, until the whole country was subject to one rule in the latter years of the 16th century by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 – 1603)

The Azuchi-Momoyama Period is aptly named after the fortresses of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

One of Oda Nobunaga’s fortresses was the Azuchi Castle in the province of Omi. This was conveniently located far enough from Kyoto to protect him from possible conflicts outside capital affairs but close enough to command guards of approaching armies.

The Momoyama Castle, on the other hand, was established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1594. This was built to serve as his retirement home and features a gold-leaf covered tearoom.

As of today, only the stone bases of both castles remain standing. Notable Events during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period mainly revolved around the death of Oda Nobunaga and how Toyotomi Hideyoshi came into power.

Edo Period (1603 – 1868)

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory at the Battle of Sekigahara gave him nationwide recognition as a powerful leader. He was able to rapidly defeat several daimyo groups, excluding those in the west. On March of 1603, he established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo. For ten years since 1605, Ieyasu dedicated his time to defeating Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s troops.

The system that Ieyasu created was referred to as bakuhan, which combines the two words “bakufu” and “han” (domains). This new government structure gave national authority to the shogun, while regional authority to the daimyos. Furthermore, a set of laws was created to keep the daimyos in order which included strict codes for clothing, weapons, private conduct, marriage, and number of soldiers.

In general, the bakuhan system blessed Japan with 250 years of peace and stability. As such, the Edo Period is often described to have been a time of appreciation for arts and culture, strict social order, and economic growth.

How Religion and Military Principles Shaped Feudal Japan’s Art, Literature, and Clothing

Much of Japan’s culture and style of living during its feudal era was greatly influenced by principles from Buddhism, Shinto, and the military system:

Art, Painting, and Architecture

A big percentage of Feudal Japan’s art and architecture was based on Chinese and Korean designs. These borrowed ideas were developed to represent the importance of simplicity and natural beauty to the Japanese artist.

Some popular works from this era include Lacquerware, landscape paintings, silk or paper scroll paintings, origami, torii (Shinto shrine gates), and Zen gardens.

Literature and Theatre

Japanese literature during the feudal times mostly consisted of exciting tales about samurai warriors and battles. The Tale of Heike serves as one of Japan’s greatest collections that discuss the wars between the clans of Minamoto and Taira.

Theater performances also cultivated in Feudal Japan, particularly Noh, which serves as the oldest form of plays in the country. Buddhist concepts were often used for these performances, which required actors to wear intricate costumes and masks.


By the feudal era of Japan, kimonos were already a popular form of clothing. In fact, almost every member of the local community was dressed in a kimono. The material used for this garment served as an indicator of the wearer’s social standing.

The kimonos of artisans, merchants, and farmers were made from hemp or cotton, while those of the ruling class were made of silk.

Samurais, on the other hand, wore skirt-like clothing (known as hakama) and baggy pants for their daily activities. In battle, they made use of elaborate armors made from metal and leather materials.

Feudal Japan vs Feudal Europe

In nearly every university in the world, it is taught that the roots of feudalism can be traced back to Medieval Europe. It is believed that the concept resulted from the Roman Empire’s waning power.

Feudal Europe came to existence prior to Feudal Japan, which has led many to believe that the latter made use of the same principles and concepts as the former.

Contrary to popular belief, only two things make up the similarities between the feudal eras of Japan and Europe, that is the social hierarchy and pyramidal government system. Major differences between the two include:

  • The power of the emperor was reduced to almost nothing during the feudal era of Japan, while the opposite can be said for the monarch of Europe.

  • Japan’s aristocracy did not have a deep sense of respect for the emperor, given that he did not have significant control of the country. On the other hand, the monarch of Europe was greatly feared and revered by local nobles.

  • The military class of Feudal Japan and Feudal Europe consisted of samurai warriors and knights, respectively. Samurais were paid with money or rice for their services, while knights were given lands of their own.

  • Feudalism in Europe was based on the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, while Japan’s was based on Buddhist principles.

A Timeline of Feudal Japan’s Highlights

  • 1185 – the Taira Clan is defeated by the Minamoto Clan

  • 1192 – the official start of the Kamakura Period; Minamoto is appointed as shogun and Kamakura is recognized as the political capital

  • 1199 – Minamoto dies

  • 1274 – the first Mongol invasion

  • 1281 – the second Mongol invasion

  • 1333 – the Kamakura shogunate is put to an end by Nitta Yoshisada

  • 1334 – the Kenmu Restoration

  • 1336 – the start of the Muromachi Period; Takauji is appointed as shogun

  • 1392 – the North and South courts reunite

  • 1467 – 1477 – the Onin War

  • 1542 – Firearms are introduced to Japan by the Portuguese

  • 1549 – Christianity is introduced to Japan by Jesuit missionaries

  • 1555 – the Battle of Miyajima

  • 1560 – the Battle of Okehazama

  • 1568 – the start of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period

  • 1570 – the Battle of Anegawa

  • 1575 – the Battle of Nagashino

  • 1582 – Oda Nobunaga dies and Toyotomi Hideyoshi takes over as ruler of Japan

  • 1584 – the Battle of Nagakute and Komaki

  • 1592 – Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s troops invade Korea

  • 1598 – Toyotomi Hideyoshi dies which prompts his troops in Korea to withdraw

  • 1600 – the Battle of Sekigahara

  • 1603 – the start of the Edo Period; Tokugawa Ieyasu is appointed as shogun

  • 1614 – Ieyasu prohibits the practice of Christianity, resulting in the destruction of churches and imprisonment of missionaries

  • 1616 – Tokugawa Ieyasu dies

  • 1623 – Tokugawa Iemitsu is appointed as shogun

  • 1663 – Japan undergoes isolation

  • 1701 – the 47 Ronin incident

  • 1860 – a Japanese embassy is built in the United States

  • 1865 – the start of the Meiji Period

  • 1868 – the Tokugawa shogunate is put to an end, restoring the power of the Imperial Court

Anime Samurai Shows Set in the Time Period of Feudal Japan

Although samurais may no longer exist in modern Japan, they continue to live on in various mediums including anime series. Some of the highly recommended shows include:

  • Rurouni Kenshin

  • Gintama

  • Samurai Champloo

  • Hyouge Mono

  • Samurai Kings

  • Shigurui

  • Blade of the Immortal

  • Samurai Seven

  • Mushibugyou

  • Brave 10

  • House of Five Leaves

  • Hakuouki

  • Peacemaker Kurogane

  • Shura no Toki

  • Ninja Scroll

  • Basilisk

  • The Last Kunoichi