A Look into the Shogunate System of Feudal Japan

As with all countries, Japan would not be what it is today without the many conflicts and challenges it had to endure in ancient times. The development of the lifestyle and culture observed by the Japanese community today dates back thousands of years ago, particularly during the 8th century when the capital of Japan was moved from Nara City to Kyoto City.

From this period on, literature, art, and architecture continued to evolve according to the standards of ruling court and the different social classes. Although control over Japan officially belonged to the emperor, a much more complex administrative system dictated the fate of the country – the shogunate.

The Definition and Importance of the Shogunate Court Life in the Social Hierarchy System

By TheInfernoX (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Basically, the term shogunate refers to the military government system of Japan. This government also went by the name bakufu, which serves as a broader term for soldierly administrations.

This court life system played an important role during the feudal period of Japan and greatly dictated the social hierarchy of the country, which consisted of the following categories:

The Royal Class

At the very top of the social pyramid of feudal Japan is the royal class. Included in this social class were:

  • The Emperor – the most superior rank in the social hierarchy of Japan, seen as the supreme leader of the whole country.

  • The Imperial Family – familial members of the Emperor

  • The Imperial Advisers/Priests – in ancient times, the emperor often had a set of people that acted as his advisers. This group often consisted of trusted family members or Buddhist priests.

The Noble Class

Below the royal class sits the noble class – a supposedly middle-level social class but actually the one responsible for all decisions of Japan. This class basically made up the shogunate who used the royal class as a front to steer the country any which way they wanted to. Included in this social class were:

  • The Shogun – the official military leader of Japan in charge of the safety and protection of the country and its royal class from local and foreign attacks. This ruler secretly had control over the royal class, using the emperor as a puppet to gain control of Japan.

  • The Daimyo – the regional lords or warlords who answered to the demands of the shogun.

  • The Samurai – the warriors that closely lived with the daimyos, working for them in exchange for food or land.

The Lower Class

Feudal Japan’s lowest social class consisted of commoners who barely had any rights to begin with and often suffered the backlashes of the political matters between the upper classes. Included in this social class were:

  • The Farmers and Peasants – the people in charge of taking care of Japan’s agricultural lands but were rarely given respect. Ironically, a lot of people depended on their production.

  • The Artisans – individuals who referred to themselves as craftsmen. These people were incredibly skilled in creating practical items using wood and metal, among other materials.

  • The Merchants – refers to the traveling trade merchants or shopkeepers of feudal Japan.

  • The Ainu – descendants of Japan’s slaves who were able to escape suffering the same fate as their ancestors.

  • The Eta – the people who played the roles of tanners, butchers, and executioners in feudal Japan.

  • The Hinin – refers to people who were considered as outcasts, ranging from wandering bards to convicted criminals.

  • The Prostitutes – considered to be the lowest group of people in the social hierarchy of feudal Japan.

Given the ideal position of the shogunate in the middle of the social pyramid of Japan, shoguns were able to easily control the royal and lower classes. Furthermore, the presence of daimyos and samurais made it all the easier for these shoguns to spread their rule over the different areas of Japan.

Technically, the Emperor was in charge of appointing the shogun position to whichever individual he preferred. In truth, however, each shogun after the next acquired the title through thanks to their familial lineage.

AP World History: The Shogunate System of each of Japan’s Periods/Eras

As previously mentioned, three main shogunates ruled over Japan during its Feudal Period, which ran from the year 1185 to the year 1867. This era consisted of several sub-periods that foreigners should study as a means to prepare for AP World History, a prerequisite to getting into an esteemed university.

Without going into too much detail, the shogunates that led Japan during the Kamakura Period, Muromachi Period, and Edo Period are:

The Kamakura Shogunate

By Oren Rozen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Kamakura Shogunate ruled over Japan from 1185 to 1336, serving as the very first military government of the country. This administration is aptly named after its powerhouse which was established in a seaside village of the city of Kamakura.

During the reign of this shogunate, Japan experienced two Mongol invasions led by Kublai Khan, who demanded Japan to pay tribute to his country. Although greatly outnumbered by the combined forces of China and Korea, the troops of Japan were able to defeat them with a little help from above, or rather from typhoons.

Given the religiosity of Japan, the events that transpired during these invasions led the community to believe that the gods favored the actions of the shogunate. As such, the presence of a bafuku in the Japanese administration offered a promising future.

The Ashikaga Shogunate

The Ashikaga Shogunate served as the military government of Japan from 1336 to 1568. During this period, the Muromachi Period, significant developments in terms of culture strived quite rapidly, alongside Zen Buddhist beliefs.

Some iconic traditional Japanese arts that were produced from this period include ikebana (flower arrangement), chanoyu (tea ceremony), and the art of landscape gardening.

Although Japan was pleasantly growing in terms of culture, its political pursuits were becoming more and more ineffective as civil disorder increased in the 15th century. During this time, conflicts within the noble class failed to seize, as the daimyos and samurai warriors struggled over power and territories.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

By Bariston (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As the civil wars continued to occur throughout Japan during the 16th and 17th century, the central control from Kyoto proved to be ineffective in keeping peace and order within the country. Power over the lands was put in the hands of triumphant daimyos who incessantly waged war with one another to gain control of Japan in its entirety.

Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victorious overall and was soon appointed as shogun. This marked the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last shogunate in Japanese history which started from the Sekigahara Battle of 1600 to the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

The Three Individuals and the Shogunate that United Japan

The unification of Japan was not an easy thing to accomplish. In fact, it took three individuals from different backgrounds to put the country under just one rule.

Oda Nobunaga

The father of Oda Nobunaga served as a deputy under the daimyo of the province of Owari, which was among Japan’s most productive rice cultivators and consisted of 8 districts. Oda Nobunaga was able to inherit a portion of land in 1551 which he used as a starting point for his hegemony over the other areas of Owari.

In 1560, the daimyo of the neighboring province of Suruga came to Oda Nobunaga’s lands with a 40,000-soldier army in tow to put a halt to his growing power. Amidst having only two thousand samurai warriors of his own, Oda Nobunaga claimed victory in the battle.

Oda Nobunaga, having already secured the eastern flank and central Honshu, dived into the world of the imperial court in 1568 as a means to acquire greater legitimacy. He worked closely with the royal class and the bakufu, maneuvering their fates according to his own plans.

Throughout his time with the imperial court, Oda Nobunaga achieved a lot of changes that included the formation of the Ashikaga Shogunate, relative peace over Honshu, the start of Japan’s unification, and, ironically, the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate.

His admirable rise to power led him to create difficult choices along the way, which inevitably blessed him with more enemies than friends, some of which even belonged to his own troops.

In fact, Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his best generals, was responsible for his death. Although it is unclear how Oda Nobunaga died, the reason behind Akechi Mitsuhide’s actions can be traced back to the death of his mother which apparently Oda Nobunaga played a part in.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Oda Nobunaga had only started the process of unifying Japan. His death left a number of still independent provinces throughout Kyushu and Honshu. In addition, the lands that belonged to Oda Nobunaga created a new series of chaotic events revolving around who should take over these territories.

Amidst the impending dissolution of Oda Nobunaga’s accomplishments, an unexpected leader emerged from the deceased ruler’s ranks – Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was initially a low-level samurai warrior from the Owari Province. He entered Oda Nobunaga’s troops during his mid-teens and slowly climbed up the ladder by winning battles and showcasing an unswerving loyalty to his leader. Eventually, he found his way into the inner circle of Oda Nobunaga’s generals.

At the time of Oda Nobunaga’s death, the majority of these generals retreated to their respective home towns out of fear and confusion. However, Toyotomi Hideyoshi went straight to the city of Kyoto in search of Akechi Mitsuhide.

The troops of both generals crossed paths along the way and immediately engaged in a bloody battle. Toyotomi Hideyoshi claimed victory and brought back the body of Akechi Mitsuhide to Kyoto, where he then took over Oda Nobunaga’s seat.

Similar to Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was never appointed as shogun throughout his rule. Nonetheless, he continued the legacy of the former and was able to accomplish the following:

  • Control over Kii, Shikoku, Etchu, and Kyushu

  • Banishment of Christian missionaries

  • Confiscation of the commoners’ weapons which effectively seized revolts from the lower class

  • The submission of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s five provinces in exchange for the eight provinces in Kanto ruled by the Hojo clan

As Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s health began to falter, he set the rest of his life determined to accomplish another one of Oda Nobunaga’s wishes as a means to leave a greater legacy; his chosen quest was to invade China and Korea.

Unfortunately, he died on September 18, 1598 without seeing the invasions to their ends. His troops that were already in the two countries were told to withdraw which inevitably depleted Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s troops of their strength and spirit.

Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Tokugawa Shogunate

Before his death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had a group of his best generals take an oath that they would showcase the same loyalty to his son Hideyori as they did to him. He also made them swear to make sure Hideyori takes his rightful place as ruler of Japan when he reaches the appropriate age.

Among these generals was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was considered to be Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s most powerful ally. Unknown to all of them, Tokugawa Ieyasu (original name was Matsudaira Takechiyo) was eyeing a different course for the nearly unified country of Japan.

Using the military principles that Oda Nobunaga swore by and the political stands of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. What followed was nearly three hundred years of economic stability and peace all across Japan.

Overall, the unification of Japan took almost fifty years to accomplish. An amusing anecdote about a bird refusing to sing serves as a summary of the approaches used by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, which presents a narrative similar to the one below:

  • Oda Nobunaga: “If you do not sing, I will kill you.”

  • Toyotomi Hideyoshi: “I will be here to teach you how to sing.”

  • Tokugawa Ieyasu: “I will just wait for you to sing.”

Another story about baking a pie presents the progression of Japan’s unification through the rules of the three individuals:

  • Oda Nobunaga: “I will knead the dough for the pie.”

  • Toyotomi Hideyoshi: “I will bake the pie.”

  • Tokugawa Ieyasu: “I will eat the pie.”

List of Shoguns and Their Respective Period of Rule

Kamakura Shogunate

  • Minamoto no Yoritomo – Ruled from 1192 to 1199

  • Minamoto no Yoriie – Ruled from 1202 to 1203

  • Minamoto no Sanetomo – Ruled from 1203 to 1219

  • Kujo Yoritsune – Ruled from 1226 to 1244

  • Kujo Yoritsugu – Ruled from 1244 to 1252

  • Prince Munetaka – Ruled from 1252 to 1266

  • Prince Koreyasu – Ruled from 1266 to 1289

  • Prince Hisaaki – Ruled from 1289 to 1308

  • Prince Morikuni – Ruled from 1308 to 1333

Ashikaga Shogunate

  • Ashikaga Takauji – Ruled from 1338 to 1358

  • Ashikaga Yoshiakira – Ruled from 1358 to 1367

  • Ashikaga Yoshimitsu – Ruled from 1368 to 1394

  • Ashikaga Yoshimochi – Ruled from 1394 to 1423

  • Ashikaga Yoshikazu – Ruled from 1423 to 1425

  • Ashikaga Yoshinori – Ruled from 1429 to 1441

  • Ashikaga Yoshikatsu – Ruled from 1442 to 1443

  • Ashikaga Yoshimasa – Ruled from 1449 to 1473

  • Ashikaga Yoshihisa – Ruled from 1473 to 1489

  • Ashikaga Yoshitane – Ruled from 1490 to 1493

  • Ashikaga Yoshizumi – Ruled from 1494 to 1508

  • Ashikaga Yoshitane – Ruled from 1508 to 1521

  • Ashikaga Yoshiharu – Ruled from 1521 to 1546

  • Ashikaga Yoshiteru – Ruled from 1546 to 1565

  • Ashikaga Yoshihide – Ruled from 1568 to 1568

  • Ashikaga Yoshiaki – Ruled from 1568 to 1573

Tokugawa Shogunate


  • Tokugawa Ieyasu – Ruled from 1603 to 1605

  • Tokugawa Hidetada – Ruled from 1605 to 1623

  • Tokugawa Iemitsu – Ruled from 1623 to 1651

  • Tokugawa Ietsuna – Ruled from 1651 to 1680

  • Tokugawa Tsunayoshi – Ruled from 1680 to 1709

  • Tokugawa Ienobu – Ruled from 1709 to 1712

  • Tokugawa Ietsugu – Ruled from 1713 to 1716

  • Tokugawa Yoshimune – Ruled from 1716 to 1745

  • Tokugawa Ieshige – Ruled from 1745 to 1760

  • Tokugawa Ieharu – Ruled from 1760 to 1786

  • Tokugawa Ienari – Ruled from 1787 to 1837

  • Tokugawa Ieyoshi – Ruled from 1837 to 1853

  • Tokugawa Iesada – Ruled from 1853 to 1858

  • Tokugawa Iemochi – Ruled from 1858 to 1866

  • Tokugawa Yoshinobu – Ruled from 1866 to 1867