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The Shōgun, Not the Emperor, Ruled Japan for Almost 700 Years

My fascination with shōguns and samurais goes way back to my childhood. While my grandfather and father spent Saturday evenings watching the Japanese getting massacred by the Americans week after week in a show called Combat!, I patiently waited for my turn to watch The Samurai just as religiously.

Ninomaru Palace, Nijo Castle. Kyoto, Japan
At the Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle, the Shogun received visitors in various reception rooms that were designed either to awe or intimidate

Back then, I called every sword-wielding costumed Japanese a samurai. It would take a course called Asian Civilizations in my sophomore year in college, James Clavell and a whole lot of reading to realize my mistake.

For almost 700 years, from 1185 until 1868, the Emperor was a titular head. It was the Shōgun (military governor) that wielded real power.

Samurai was an elite class of highly-trained, highly-skilled and highly-disciplined warriors that served under a daimyo (powerful clan) — distinctly different from the non-warrior samurai class formed under Taihō Code some two centuries prior to the era of shōguns.

Ninjas were spies and mercenaries.

All that went through my mind fleetingly as I walked through the rooms of Ninomaru Palace, the Tokugawa shōguns’ residence in Kyoto.

Later… much later, I would try to recall everything I had ever read and learned about shōguns and their samurai. What gaps there were, I tried to fill in by reading just about everything I could find.

The first Shōgun

Emperor Kanmu, the 50th emperor of Japan, sought to expand his kingdom to the north. The Emishi (an ethnic people in Honshu) did not recognize the authority of imperial court so, to subdue them, Emperor Kanmu sent the powerful clans (daimyos protected by samurai) of the regions. And the first shōguns were appointed.

The title Sei-i Taishōgun (“Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians”), or shōgun, was given to the military commanders of powerful regional clans (daimyos; feudal lords). The title was not permanent, much less hereditary, but meant to last only for the duration of the campaigns against the Emishi. But, quite naturally, the daimyos became aware of their importance and how much the imperial court relied on them to stay in power and extend that power into territories that had always seemed out of reach. Eventually, the daimyos gained political power which they did not want to relinquish.

Toward the end of the Heian period, the power of the emperor was in decline as nobles struggled to upstage one another. Nobles married off their daughters to powerful daimyos. In time, the heads of the daimyos were related by blood either to the imperial family or to one of the noble clans, and they were all fighting for control of the imperial court.

Eventually, only two families were left feuding — the Taira and Minamoto clans. Although the Taira family initially had the upper hand, the emperor named Minamoto no Yoritomo shōgun. Unlike the shōguns of old whose power was limited to the battlefields, the appointment of Minamoto no Yoritomo rewrote the landscape of Japanese politics. The shōgun became the real ruler while the emperor and his family became titular heads with largely ceremonial and religious functions.

The Shōgunates

The era of shōguns began and would last for almost 700 years. While political power was centralized with the shōgunate (also called bakufu), the feuding among the daimyos did not cease. “Shōgun” became a highly coveted title and the head of every powerful clan wanted it or, in the alternative, to be influential enough to manipulate whoever held the title.

The Kamakura shōgunate (circa 1192–1333) saw the rise of the samurai class. Toward the end of this period, Emperor Go-Daigo sought to overthrow the military-backed shōgun and restore civilian rule. The emperor eventually lost. In 1336, Ashikaga Takauji seized power and became the first shōgun of the Ashikaga shōgunate.

The Golden Pavilion and its reflection on the water around it. Kyoto, Japan
The Golden Pavilion and its reflection on the water around it

It was during the Ashikaga shōgunate (circa 1336–1573), also known as the Muromachi period, that the construction of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion began. During the last 30 years of the Muromachi period, Europeans started to arrive — the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch… Christianity has landed on the shores of Japan.

The Japanese started trading with the Europeans. They bought muskets, canons and textile, among others, and paid for them in gold or silver. The “pragmatic” ones who saw little or no harm in prioritizing wealth and power over religion converted to Christianity to gain better trading relations with the foreigners. Over time, less significant daimyos amassed serious wealth — and power — and, with the introduction of firearms, the clan wars turned even deadlier.

The latter part of the Ashikaga shōgunate was known as the Sengoku period (Age of the Warring States). Three daimyos — Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu — rose to power and would eventually be considered as the men who unified Japan.

It is worth pointing out, however, that unification was not a peaceful and diplomatic process. On the contrary, it meant constant wars and invasions, the of killing daimyos who resisted and those loyal to them, and annexing their lands.

The men who unified Japan

The Ashikaga shōgunate came to an end with the assassination of shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru. In the aftermath, an ambitious daimyo, Oda Nobunaga, seized power. From 1573 to 1582, he campaigned to subdue rival daimyos, consolidate Japan and establish a central government. He committed seppuku after one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, betrayed him in an apparent coup.

Akechi Mitsuhide sought to replace Nobunaga and benefit from his gains but was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Like Oda Nobunaga, he was never named shōgun. But, as Imperial Regent, he wielded power that surpassed those of shōguns in the past.

It was under Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s rule that Japan started to shun the colonial posturing of European powers. Twenty-six Catholics were publicly executed by crucifixion to serve as an example to Japanese who wished to convert.

The construction of Osaka Castle began on the site where Ishiyama Hongan-ji used to stand. Ishiyama Hongan-ji was a fortress of warrior monks who defied the samurai. It was burned to the ground after a protracted siege when Oda Nobunaga was cementing his power.

Although no historical text points it out so blatantly, Osaka Castle was borne of envy. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was low-born and was a sandal-bearer to Oda Nobunaga. Then, there he was — the most powerful man in Japan and he wanted a lasting memorial and testament to his rise to power.

Meant to surpass the invincibility and grandeur of Azuchi Castle, the Lake Biwa fortress of Oda Nobunaga, Osaka Castle was completed in 1597. A year later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi died. His son, Toyotomi Hideyori, inherited it and, by most accounts, lived in it with his mother and, eventually, with his wife, concubines and children.

To prepare for his death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi formed the Council of Five Elders to rule the country until his five-year-old son, Toyotomi Hideyori, was of age. One of the Council members was Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Upon Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s death, the Council split into two factions. One faction wanted civil rule; the other, to which Tokugawa Ieyasu belonged, opted for continued military authority. When another Council member started to construct new forts and restore old ones, an activity that, by law, they were not allowed to do, open hostilities followed. It was the excuse that Tokugawa Ieyasu had been waiting for and he made his move. After the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the most powerful man in Japan.

Tokugawa: the last Shōgunate

In 1603, Emperor Go-Yōzei named Tokugawa Ieyasu shōgun and he became first shōgun and founder of the Tokugawa shōgunate.

A wily politician, Tokugawa Ieyasu stripped rival daimyos of their lands and redistributed them to allies.

What happened to Toyotomi Hideyori, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son, whom he was supposed to be guarding until he was old enough to rule? Tokugawa Ieyasu had one of his granddaughters marry him. Yet, he continued to see the boy as a threat. Toyotomi Hideyori was around 21 years old in 1614 when the Siege of Osaka took place.

What happened between 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu was named shōgun and 1614 when he first attacked Osaka Castle is not clear to me. In 1614, Toyotomi Hideyori was rebuilding Osaka Castle and a temple in Kyoto that his father had earlier rebuilt. For some reason, the rebuilding was interpreted by Tokugawa Ieyasu (who had already passed on his title to his son but retained power as “shadow shōgun”) as “reinforcing” and he decided to put an end to what he considered to be the rising political ambitions of Toyotomi Hideyori.

Osaka Castle and autumn leaves
Osaka Castle and autumn leaves

Between the winter of 1614 and the summer of 1615, Tokugawa Ieyasu attacked Osaka Castle. Because his corpse was never found, what happened to Toyotomi Hideyori is still being debated. His son, aged 7, was executed. His wife (Tokugawa Ieyasu’s granddaughter) as well as a daughter by a concubine is believed to have survived.

Tokugawa Ieyasu died at age 73 in 1616 (cancer? syphilis?). He had two wives, 20 concubines and 16 children.

If you’re a fan of James Clavell, recall the novel Shōgun. The character Yoshi Toranaga was based on Tokugawa Ieyasu.

There were 14 Tokugawa shōguns after Tokugawa Ieyasu. Until the end of the Tokugawa shōgunate, Japan became progressively sakoku, or “closed country”, a rather misleading term since trade and travel were strictly regulated but not altogether banned. The obvious policy was that trade and travel were allowed but only on terms dictated by the Tokugawa shōgunate.

Then, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry, U.S. Navy, sailed into Tokyo Bay with four warships. A year later, he came with seven warships. Within five years, Japan, through the shōgun, signed “friendly treaties” with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Netherlands and France which effectively gave these Western countries the most favorable trading conditions to the detriment of Japan. The terms of the lopsided treaties would remain in effect for almost 150 years.

The era of the shōguns and their samurai belonged to the past. If Japan were to survive and not be bullied with the presence of warships, it needed to modernize.

The end of the Tokugawa shōgunate was also the end of the shōgunate system in Japan. In 1868, Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned and paved the way for the Meiji Restoration when political power reverted to the emperor.

If you’ve seen The Last Samurai, the story was based on real events that took place during the years following the Meiji Restoration.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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