The Shōguns of Japan

Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

While researching for a forthcoming series of articles on the despots of the 20th century, I accumulated many interesting extraneous materials that presented themselves as subject-matter for some interesting articles. Herein, I have attempted to throw some light in a nutshell on the establishment of the shogunate (or bakufu) in Japan and its rule from the end of the twelfth century until the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the nineteenth century.


Feudal Japan (Source:
Feudal Japan (Source:


After the 8th century, the system of public-land domain in Japan broke down, and various types of private landholdings consolidated into estates (shōen) came into being. These holdings, organized under the authority of the civil nobility and religious establishments, remained within the framework of the imperial government.

The Kamakura period

In Japanese, the term “shōgun” meaning “barbarian-quelling generalissimo” or a military ruler was first used during the Heian period. The title “shōgun” was occasionally conferred on a general after a successful campaign.


Minamoto no Y.oritomo (May 9, 1147 – February 9, 1199), the 1st Kamakura shōgun
Minamoto no Y.oritomo (May 9, 1147 – February 9, 1199), the 1st Kamakura shōgun


In 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo (May 9, 1147 – February 9, 1199), gained military control of Japan after his decisive victory over the rival Taira family at the battle of Dannoura. Yoritomo created his own military administration to serve beside the imperial court. In 1192, the imperial court sanctioned his authority and granted him the official rank of shōgun. His military administration was the first bakufu, or shogunate, commonly known as the Kamakura shogunate.

The years 1192 to 1333, during which the basis of feudalism was firmly established in Japan is known as the Kamakura period, named after the city where Minamoto Yoritomo set up the headquarters of his military government.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, the military class – the buke or samurai, increased in numbers and prominence. The Kamakura culture was largely defined by the rise of the warrior class, which held martial skills and the ideals of duty, loyalty, and bravery in the highest regard. The cult of the sword and the practice of ritual suicide by disembowelment (seppuku) both emerged during this period.

The daimyō

At this time, the term “daimyō“(大名) came to be applied to those military lords who began exercising territorial control, and later proprietary rights, over the various private estates and hereditary land holdings into which the country had become divided. They were subordinate only to the shōgun. Usually, though not exclusively, a shōgun arose or a regent was chosen from the daimyō warlords.

Following the daimyō was the warrior-caste of samurai, with the farmers, artisans, and traders ranking below.

Often, the daimyō hired the samurai to guard their land and paid them in land or food. A few daimyō paid the samurai in money.

In some smaller regions of Japan, the daimyō and the samurai were almost identical since a daimyō might be trained as a samurai, and a samurai might act as local ruler.

After Yoritomo died on February 9, 1199, the Kamakura shōguns lost real power to the Hōjō family while remaining titular rulers.

In 1274 and 1281, the Japanese warriors thwarted the invasion attempts by the Mongolian fleets under Kublai Khan with the aid of kamikaze (神風) or the “divine wind” of typhoons that decimated the enemy fleet.

The term Kamikaze was later used for the suicide attacks by military aviators officially known as Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (特別攻撃隊 literally: “Special attack unit”) abbreviated as Tokkō Tai (特攻隊) from the Empire of Japan. The Kamikaze attacks by the Tokkō Tai against Allied naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign of World War II destroyed warships more effectively than was possible with conventional attacks.

The financial strain imposed by the defence efforts against the Mongol attacks, however, aggravated the internal weaknesses in the regime. In 1331, Emperor Go-daigo Tennō tried to overthrow the shogunate and restore the monarchy. His efforts led to civil war and divided the imperial family into two rival factions and subsequent collapse of the bakufu in 1333.


Ashikaga Takauji (1305 – June 7, 1358), 1st Ashikaga shōgun.
Ashikaga Takauji (1305 – June 7, 1358), 1st Ashikaga shōgun.


Ashikaga Takauji received the title of shōgun in 1338 and established the Ashikaga shogunate. However, his successors enjoyed even less control over Japan than the Kamakura shōguns. Gradually, the country succumbed to civil war.

The Tokugawa period

Though the shōguns were nominally appointed by the emperor, between 1600 and 1868 they were the de facto rulers of Japan. Each shōgun during this period was a member of the Tokugawa clan.


Tokugawa Ieyasu (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616), 1st Tokugawa shogun.
Tokugawa Ieyasu (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616), 1st Tokugawa shōgun.


Tokugawa Ieyasu (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616) was the founder and the first shōgun of the Tokugawa, which ruled from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and was the last feudal Japanese military regime.

The years of rule by the Tokugawa shogunate, also known as the Tokugawa bakufu, are recognized as the Tokugawa period or pre-modern period. Since they ruled from the Edo (now Tokyo) Castle they were also known as the Edo bakufu and the years of shogunate rule was likewise called the Edo period.

The Japanese society in the Tokugawa period, unlike the shogunates before it, was supposedly based on the strict class hierarchy.

The Tokugawa shogunate brought Japan the longest period of peace, constancy, and stability lasting well over 200 years.

The Meiji restoration

The Japanese proclivity for titular rulers prevailed, and in time a council of elders from the main branches of the Tokugawa clan ruled the country from behind the scenes. Since the title of shogun ultimately came from the emperor, he became a rallying point for those who sought to bring down the shogunate.

The 1866 alliance between Saigō Takamori, the leader of the Satsuma domain, and Kido Takayoshi, the leader of the Chōshū domain, formed the foundation of the Meiji restoration also known as the Meiji Ishin. These two leaders supported the titular Emperor Kōmei and challenged the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate.


Tokugawa Yoshinobu (October 28, 1837 – November 22, 1913) also known as Keiki was the 15th and last shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan.
Tokugawa Yoshinobu (October 28, 1837 – November 22, 1913) also known as Keiki was the 15th and last shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan.


The 15th Tokugawa shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned and the Tokugawa shogunate came to an official end.

Emperor Kōmei died on January 30, 1867.


Meiji the Great, the 122nd Emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession, reigning from February 3, 1867 until his death on July 30, 1912
Meiji the Great, the 122nd Emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession, reigning from February 3, 1867, until his death on July 30, 1912


On February 3, 1867, the Meiji emperor, the 122nd Emperor of Japan, according to the traditional order of succession, ascended the throne. He reigned from February 3, 1867, until his death on July 30, 1912. During his lifetime, the emperor was known by his personal name Mutsuhito. But after his death, he was given the reign name, “Meiji“. His personal name “Mutsuhito” is never used in Japan in any official context.

On the night of December 9, 1867, the Kogosho Conference was held at the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the restoration of imperial rule (osei fukko) was declared.

Japan changed from being a feudal society to having a market economy. During this period the Western countries influenced the lifestyle of the Japanese.

In 1871, Japan adopted the prefecture system.

Click on this link for the shōgun timeline:



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