Japanese Feudalism – What it is, definition and concept

The Japanese feudalism of the Middle Ages refers to the way in which Japanese society was organized, with lords who allowed the exploitation of the land in exchange for their serfs loyalty to them.

While it is true that Japanese feudalism is considered to begin at the end of the 12th century, certain feudal elements previously existed in Japanese society.

Taking the Kamakura period as a starting point, we find that the shoguns, who were warlords, seized power, replacing the authority of the Japanese emperor himself. In this way, the shoguns determined the way in which the ownership and exploitation of the land was distributed. For their part, jito and the shoenAs civil servants, they were in charge of control tasks.

However, numerous elements of medieval feudalism endured in Japanese society for a long time. Proof of this were the samurai, who even after the Middle Ages offered their military services to a lord.

Early medieval feudalism in Japan

The Kamakura period consolidated feudalism in Japan, marking the relations between vassals and lords. Thus, the shoguns demanded loyalty and military services from their subjects in exchange for the ownership and exploitation of the land. All this came from the hand of the shogun Yoritomo, who replaced the power of the emperor.

The relationship between lord and vassal in Japan was much more paternal in character than can be found in the Christian kingdoms of Europe. In fact, vassalage relations passed from father to son. However, in the shoguns, the loyalties of the vassals could change due to the absence of an administration that had effective control.

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How was a shogunate administered?

The Japanese military dictators, the shoguns could not personally control all of their territories. To take care of the administrative tasks, they used the services of the jito.

Among the competences attributed to the Jito were the collection of taxes and the management of the land. The Jito services were remunerated with about 10% of agricultural production.

Despite the fact that the Jito had to comply with a series of norms established by the shoguns, they enjoyed a high level of autonomy in their management, which gave them great power and high influence in society. Some even became owners of large tracts of land.

Any dispute related to land could be brought to the attention of the Monchujo or Investigative Court, whose origin dates back to 1184. This court dealt with aspects such as land ownership, loans, and appeals. However, around the year 1249 the Hikitsukeshu, a court specialized in legal questions related to the land, emerged.

Military government and security in a shogunate

Responsibility for security and military matters rested with the Shugo. While the jito was in charge of the administration of a territory, the shugo was the military leader of the entire territory.

The shugo also collected taxes, keeping a portion of it for their own benefit. The taxes collected by the shugo were mainly used for events of great importance, the building of temples and the construction of roads and highways.

As military governors, the shugo they had to take care of recruiting troops and maintaining security, so, among other things, they also fought pirates and punished treason. The growing power of the shugo would lead them towards the fourteenth century to incorporate powers of the jito.

Relations between shogunate administrators and vassals

In Japanese feudalism, control of a shogunate was not always effective by the military dictator. The vassals established their own relationships with the administrators of the shogun, reaching private agreements as happened when deferring the payment of tributes.

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On the other hand, issues such as land ownership could become a real headache. In this way, a small property could be in the hands of different owners: peasants, the monarchy, religious and administrators.

Another issue that caused major problems in medieval Japan was that the children of the jito they inherited the right to receive a part of the taxes. However, this division of rights could prove insufficient. There were many Jito who mortgaged their tax rights on their lands.

Similarly, wars between private armies are part of an important period of Japanese feudalism. We are facing a stage called the Sengoku period or the States at War (1467-1568). Thus, the landowners, converted into warlords, would gradually gain properties, which meant that the ownership of the land was increasingly concentrated in fewer lords.

It would take until the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) to see the power of the landowners reduced. Thus, landowners were prohibited from signing alliances independently, while they were prevented from moving armies out of their territories and building excessive fortifications.

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