HISTORY: A Primer on The Shōgunate and The Samurai of Feudal Japan

HISTORY: A Primer on The Shōgunate and The Samurai of Feudal Japan

Read time: 18 minutes


Between 1192 and 1867 (of the Gregorian calendar) Japan ceased to be governed by the Emperor following the Genpei war where it was overthrown by the powerful Minamoto family and The Shōgunate was formed. This became the governing political body and comprised hierarchically of the 1. ‘Shōgun’ leader, 2. ‘Daimyo’ warlords, 3. the ‘Samurai’ warrior class:


  • The ruler of The Shōgunate
  • The term “Shōgun” 将軍 (Army Commander) was used by military leaders prior to The Shōgunate’s inception and the English term “Shōgunate” is derived from the naming of it’s leader “Shōgun”
  • A quasi-hereditary position, each initial Shōgun of the three Shōgunate periods was to be a descendant of the Minamoto family – subsequent Shōguns in the Kamakura Shōgunate were a mixture of clan descendants but all Ashikaga and Tokugawa Shōguns were from their respective clans which from the outset descended from the Minamoto bloodline


  • Sat below the Shōgun as military governors (Shugo) and later warlords (Daimyo) over Shōgunate allocated provinces and domains
  • As Shugo they acted as go-betweens between the Shōgun and the Samurai but Daimyo wielded immense power over their domains taking much of the control away from the Shōgun
  • The ‘Shugo’ became the more empowered ‘Daimyo’ in the 16th century during the Ashikaga Bakufu and as part of the establishment of the subsequent Tokugawa Bakufu


  • Warriors making up the military and who were sworn to protect domains for their Daimyo
  • Before the Tokugawa period each Samurai had their own level of standing, such as some having high standing working directly with their Daimyo and others working as ordinary folk on farms and in handcrafts. However the Tokugawa Bakufu enforced Samurai to choose between being a warrior and being a farmer.
  • All Samurai went through the same rigorous swordsmanship training as well as cultural and historical schooling from childhood

Bakufu 幕府

“The Shōgunate” and “Bakufu” are used interchangeably in English as “Bakufu” means “tent government” and The Shōgunate was in essence a series of military dictatorship governments.

The Minamoto family

The Shōgunate was supposed to be a hereditary system, passing the title of Shōgun from father to the next of kin male ‘heir’, much like royalty. This meant that in it’s almost 700 year history, all Shōguns were of Minamoto family lineage.

Why the Minamoto family? Prior to The Shōgunate’s formation, they and the equally powerful Taira family had fought over the imperial court, with Minamoto succeeding.

However in the first Shōgunate, the Kamakura, the passing of the Shōgun title often occurred by way of usurping other clan members into the position through the cunning of Shōgunate ‘regents’ and thus was not always a father to son inheritance.


Families were loyal to their own clan within a clan system. The aforementioned Minamoto family was a clan comprised of families in the Imperial family, hence their important status. The clan system predates the Shōgunate by some 800 years and their significance and complexity can be seen in all times of Japan’s civil wars.

Feudal system

The Shōgunate structure worked in tandem with the Japan’s feudal system. The feudal system maintained the hierarchical society in which farmers, artisans and traders created and sold food, clothing and other livelihood products in order to support the Samurai of the domain, who in turn paid the earned the money in the form of taxes to their Daimyo. Everyone played their role within their own clan and clans would trade products as well battle with one another for land (and thus power), effectively fighting for their respective families.

Right: Diagram illustrating the hierarchy within Japan’s Feudal system – source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_society

Diagram illustrating the hierarchy within Japan's Feudal system - source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_society


A Shōgunate referred to the government and was named after it’s ruler or where the government’s base was situated. There were 3 Shōgunates over the span of the 675 years with ‘hereditary’ Shōguns at the head of each:

KAMAKURA Shōgunate 鎌倉幕府

Headed by Shōgun Minamoto no Yoritomo of the Minamoto family from 1192 after having defeated the Taira family in the Genpei war in 1185. It was named Kamakura after the Kamakura district it was based in.

As part of the Genpei war, Shōgun Minamoto no Yoritomo had strived to overpower the Emperor and succeeded, hence The Shōgunate being a military dictatorship.

The Kamakura Shōgunate was governed by the Hōjō clan who were actually loyal to the Taira family!

In 1333 Imperial rule was re-introduced during the Kenmu Restoration by the Emperor and thus The Shōgunate was overthrown by this uprising for a short period.

Establishment of the Kamakura Shōgunate

Leader of the Minamoto clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo lead his clan to victory against the Taira clan in the ‘Genpei War’ (1180-1185). Furthermore, the defeat of the Taira clan resulted in a power grab from the Imperial family, effectively taking away any real power from the Emperor and court figureheads. It is on this foundation that Minamoto no Yoritomo seized control of the country via military means and established the Kamakura Shōgunate (1192).

However having followed on from the ruling framework of the previous ‘Heian’ period, the Kamakura Shōgunate continued it’s system of Imperial rule.

Right: Depiction of the Genpei War

The Kamakura Shōguns

A mixture of clans

  1. Minamoto no Yoritomo, Minamoto clan, ruled. 1192–1199
  2. Minamoto no Yoriie, Minamoto clan, r. 1202–1203
  3. Minamoto no Sanetomo, Minamoto clan, r. 1203–1219
  4. Fujiwara no Yoritsune, Fujiwara clan, r. 1226–1244
  5. Fujiwara no Yoritsugu, Fujiwara clan, r. 1244–1252
  6. Prince Munetaka, Imperial family/Hōjō clan, r. 1252–1266
  7. Prince Koreyasu, Imperial family/Hōjō clan, r. 1266–1289
  8. Prince Hisaaki, Imperial family/Hōjō clan, r. 1289–1308
  9. Prince Morikuni, Imperial family/Hōjō clan, r. 1308–1333

Characteristics of the Kamakura Shōgunate

As the system underpinning the Kamakura Shōgunate was that of the Heian period’s Imperial rule, the Imperial family (Hojo) continually made power plays to usurp their way into positions within the Shōgunate.

Indeed from the period of the second Shōgun, Yoritomo’s son Minamoto no Yoriee, the Hojo family was able to insert themselves in to powerful positions as ‘Shikken‘ regents, puppeteers of the figurehead Shōguns. The political manoeuvrings of the Hojo family and betrayals within their own family, supporting different would-be Shōguns to gain power dominated how the Kamakura Shōgunate existed over it’s 135 year rule. This would be the only Shōgunate in which Imperial rule overtly took place with 6 Shōguns being descendants of the Imperial family.

That being said, the Shōgunate establised the Shugo (later to become Daimyo) system in which power was handed down to military leaders, governing their own domains in a shift away from total noble power. This would be a significant path refined in the future Shōgunates.

The Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281 put the Shōgunate’s military prowess to the test. In the 1241 invasion, the Shōgunate’s military significantly outnumbered that of Kublai Khan’s 40,000. Again in 1281, the Shōgunate went far beyond the Mongol’s 150,000 strong army. Both invasions are said to have taken place during strong typhoons destroying a third of the seaborne Mongol army. The Shōgunate dubbed these typhoons ‘Kamikaze‘, or Winds of the Gods/Divine Winds.

Right: Woodblock print of the Mongol Invasions

Fall of the Kamakura Shōgunate with the Kenmu Restoration

When the Emperor Go-Daigo took to the throne in 1318 he wanted to sieze power from the Kamakura Shōgunate and by proxy, the Hojo clan (the regents of the Shōgun and thus indirect rulers) and in 1331 began a rebellion with his Samurai, known as the ‘Genko War‘, but having been betrayed by a close ally he was forced to flee the Imperial home in Kyoto. He was eventually captured by the Kamakura lead by the chief general of the Hojo and future Shōgun, Ashikaga Takauji and exiled to the Oki Islands.

However following a surreptitious rescue of the Go-Daigo by the warlord Nawa no Nagashige, Go-Daigo instigated another rebellion and succeeded in gaining the trust of many warlords to rise up against the Hojo in doing so (1333).

This prompted the Hojo family to attack Kyoto lead by Ashikaga Takauji but due to Takauji’s disillusionment of his working for the Taira clan based Hojo family when he was the leader of the rival Minamoto clan, he defected to fight for Go-Daigo’s cause. Eventually Go-Daigo and Takauji stormed the Kamakura forcing the Hojo to commit suicide and ending the Kamakura Shōgunate.

Go-Daigo had succeeded in collapsing the Kamakura Shōgunate and returning the country to Imperial rule which became known as the ‘Kenmu Restoration‘.

However due to Go-Daigo’s inability to implement policies and failing to address issues he had promised commoners he would resolve, Ashikaga Takauji once again defected to rise up against the Emperor and succeeded in naming himself Shōgun of his new Ashikaga Shōgunate (1336)

Right: Woodblock print depicting the Emperor Go-Daigo being rescued from exile on Oki Island

ASHIKAGA Shōgunate 足利幕府 (aka Muromachi)

Headed by Shōgun Ashikaga Takauji of the Minamoto family from 1336 who had previously turned against the Kamakura Shōgunate during the 1333 Kenmu Restoration. There are theories this was due to his disagreement with the Taira family largely governing The Shōgunate.

However, displeased by the Emperor’s policies during the Kenmu Restoration, Ashikaga overthrew the Kenmu Restoration and formed the Ashikaga Shōgunate.

The Ashikaga Shōgunate is also referred to as the Muromachi Shōgunate 室町幕府 after Ashikaga Takauji’s successor, Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu named it after the Muromachi district in 1379.

In 1565, the Daimyo Oda Nobunaga plotted to take control of the Ashikaga Shogunate by installing a puppet Shogun until Oda forced the Shōgun out and the Ashikaga Shōgunate collapsed in 1573.

Establishment of the Ashikaga Shōgunate

During the ‘Kenmu Restoration’ campaign by the Imperial court, a vassal once loyal to the Kamakura Shōgunate, Ashikaga Takauji defected to support the Emperor Go-Daigo’s cause. Having collapsed the Kamakura Shōgunate with the Emperor and restored Imperial rule (1333), Ashikaga Takauji was dissatisfied with the Emperor’s policies and in 1336 overthrew the Imperial court and established the Ashikaga Shōgunate. In essence, Ashikaga Takauji fought for the Shōgunate, then defected to the Imperial court to overthrow the Shōgunate, and finally overthrew the Imperial court to create his own Shōgunate.

Right: Depiction of the Ashikaga Takauji defeating the Kamakura Shōgunate in the Kenmu Restoration

The Ashikaga Shōguns

Entirely Ashikaga clan members

  1. Ashikaga Takauji, ruled 1338–1357
  2. Ashikaga Yoshiakira, Ashikaga/Hōjō clan, r. 1359–1368
  3. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Ashikaga clan, r. 1368–1394
  4. Ashikaga Yoshimochi, Ashikaga clan, r. 1395–1423
  5. Ashikaga Yoshikazu, Ashikaga clan, r. 1423–1425
  6. Ashikaga Yoshinori, Ashikaga clan, r. 1428–1441
  7. Ashikaga Yoshikatsu, Ashikaga clan, r. 1442–1443
  8. Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Ashikaga clan, r. 1449–1473
  9. Ashikaga Yoshihisa, Ashikaga clan, r. 1474–1489
  10. Ashikaga Yoshitane, Ashikaga clan, r. 1490–1493, 1508–1521
  11. Ashikaga Yoshizumi, Ashikaga clan, r. 1494–1508
  12. Ashikaga Yoshiharu, Ashikaga clan, r. 1521–1546
  13. Ashikaga Yoshiteru, Ashikaga clan, r. 1546–1565
  14. Ashikaga Yoshihide, Ashikaga clan, r. 1568
  15. Ashikaga Yoshiaki, Ashikaga clan, r. 1568–1573

Characteristics of the Ashikaga Shōgunate

Although the Ashikaga Takauji established the Ashikaga Shōgunate and declared himself Ashikaga Shōgun in 1336 after overthrowing Emperor Go-Daigo’s Imperial rule, a time of unrest continued for almost 60 years during the Shōgunate’s formative years until 1392. Known as the Nanboku-chō period, it saw Takauji forcing Emperor Go-Daigo off the throne and out of Kyoto, to the southern Yoshino and engaging in a North (Kyoto) – South (Yoshino) power struggle until Go-Daigo surrendered in 1392.

The Kenmu Restoration in which the Imperial Hojo family committed suicide, followed by the overthrowing of Emperor Go-Daigo’s Imperial rule meant the Imperial court was significantly weakened. This allowed the Ashikaga Shōgunate to be unthreatened by the risk of Imperial court meddlings, unlike during the Kamakura Shōgunate where the majority of Shōguns were members of the Imperial family.

Shugos (military governors) were tranformed into Daimyo (warlords) with greater power and autonomy over their provinces than they already previously had as Shugos.

Right: depiction of the Ashikaga Shōgunate‘s ‘Muromachi Palace’

Fall of the Ashikaga Shōgunate with the Sengoku ‘warring states’ period

After the Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshinori died in 1441, the Shōgunate’s authority had reduced all but nothing and in 1467 Daimyo fought a civil war against each other, known as the ‘Onin War‘ which lasted until 1477.

However the end of the Onin War did not spell the end of civil warfare, indeed it’s said that it sparked the long ‘Sengoku Period‘ or ‘Warring States Period‘ with Daimyo engaging in multiple power struggles with one another. The length of Sengoku period of civil warfare is widely debated however it is agreed that it continued at least up until the great Daimyo Oda Nobunaga was in the throes of his ‘Great Unification’ campaign in 1568.

Finally in 1573, Oda Nobunaga overthrew the Ashikaga Shōgunate by driving the last Shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki out of Kyoto.

Right: Woodblock print depicting Oda Nobunaga fighting in the Sengoku ‘Warring States’ period

TOKUGAWA Shōgunate 徳川幕府

Headed by Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu from 1603 following his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

Although widely debated, this is considered to be a possible ending point of the Sengoku “Warring States” period which spanned the Ashikaga Shōgunate from 1477 to it’s fall in 1573 and continued through to 1600 when the Daimyo Oda Nobunaga embarked on a great unification campaign.

Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Shōgunate is noted as completing the unification of the country that Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi had begun, and brought about great advances in trade and cultural appreciation in society. The arts, especially “Ukiyo-e” woodblock printing, and the performing arts, Noh and Kabuki, flourished during this period.

Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and ‘The Council of Five Elders’

During further years of turmoil during the Sengoku period after the fall of the Ashikaga Shōgunate, the great Daimyo, Oda Nobunaga re-established a central government and sought to unify Japan using power he wielded by acting as puppeteer for would-be Shōguns.

His loyal retainer and Daimyo in his own right, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (aka ‘The Great Unifier’) continued and succeeded in the unification campaign following Nobunaga’s death (1582) making him the de facto leader of Japan and essentially establishing his own Shōgunate in all but name. Whilst leader, Hideyoshi established the class system which would later be adopted by the Tokugawa Shōgunate and he also constructed Osaka Castle within 5 years (1582-1587). Hideyoshi named himself Taikō, as Shogun was reserved for those in the Minamoto lineage, yet Taikō was actually a higher title than Shogun.

With Hideyoshi’s imminent death looming, he established ‘The Council of Five Elders’ (1598) – these 5 regents ruled on behalf of his young son. Tokugawa Ieyasu was one of those appointed and was the most powerful within the council with a great ambition to continue the unification and peace in Japan.

Following the unification path lead by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi laid the foundations for the Tokugawa Shōgunate with many of his administrations’ decrees being continued such as the abolition of swords from Samurai.

Not only politically influential, Hideyoshi also had a profound impact on the popularity of many aspects of Japanese culture such as the tea ceremony, ceramics and masters of art, which only continued to grow in popularity during the Edo/Tokugawa period.

Right: Woodblock print depicting Osaka Castle

Establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate

Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu had a tumultuous relationship and would fight against each other (the ‘Komaki and Nagakute Campaign’ of 1584) as well as along side each other (the ‘Siege of Odawara’ of 1590) in a series of power grabs for provinces

Following Hideyoshi’s death and his formation of ‘The Council of Five Elders’ a new power struggle emerged amongst the 5 regents and the ambitious Tokugawa Ieyasu invaded Osaka castle, a move fiercely opposed by one of Hideyoshi’s top administrators, Ishida Mitsunari.

It was with Mitsunari’s influence upon 3 of the other Elders to rise up against Tokugawa Ieyasu that lead to an ‘East army (Tokugawa Ieyasu)’ vs ‘West army (Ishida Mitsunari)’ power struggle.

This war reached boiling point when Tokugawa and Mitsunari fought at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) with Tokugawa sealing victory and receiving the Imperial edict to establish the new Tokugawa Shōgunate (1603).

Right: Depiction of the Battle of Sekigahara

The Tokugawa Shōguns

Entirely Tokugawa clan members

  1. Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa clan, ruled 1603–1605
  2. Tokugawa Hidetada, Tokugawa clan, r. 1605–1623
  3. Tokugawa Iemitsu, Tokugawa clan, r. 1623–1651
  4. Tokugawa Ietsuna, Tokugawa clan, r. 1651–1680
  5. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Tokugawa clan, r. 1680–1709
  6. Tokugawa Ienobu, Tokugawa clan, r. 1709–1712
  7. Tokugawa Ietsugu, Tokugawa clan, r. 1713–1716
  8. Tokugawa Yoshimune, Tokugawa clan, r. 1716–1745
  9. Tokugawa Ieshige, Tokugawa clan, r. 1745–1760
  10. Tokugawa Ieharu, Tokugawa clan, r. 1760–1786
  11. Tokugawa Ienari, Tokugawa clan, r. 1787–1837
  12. Tokugawa Ieyoshi, Tokugawa clan, r. 1837–1853
  13. Tokugawa Iesada, Tokugawa clan, r. 1853–1858
  14. Tokugawa Iemochi, Tokugawa clan, r. 1858–1866
  15. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Tokugawa clan, r. 1866–1867

Characteristics of the Tokugawa Shōgunate

As civil wars had all but ceased by the time of the Tokugawa Shōgunate’s inception, the Tokugawas sought to refine their political administration, inherited from the great Bakufu of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in a bid to centralise trade and agricultural activities. Indeed the Tokugawa Shōgunate were so successful in doing this that trade and industry experienced a welcome surge generating great wealth in civil society.

As a result of this new wealth, a great migration of the populace from rural areas in to urban areas emerged.

As with the Toyotomi Hideyoshi period, the Tokugawa Shōgunate experienced a flourishing of culture and arts once again during the ‘Genroku period (1688-1704)’, especially with ukiyo-e woodblock printing.

The Tokugawa Shōgunate hierarchy mobilised what were previously Shugo and were now Daimyo with much greater power over their ‘Han’ (domains). This didn’t come without it’s restrictions however as Daimyo were essentially held hostage by the Shōgunate with the decree that Daimyo must spend alternate years in Edo (the Shōgunate’s base) and their home domains. This was a calculated tactic by the Tokugawa Shōgunate, making it very difficult for a Daimyo to act upon any ambition to build an army against the Shōgunate.

Right: Depiction of the Tokugawa administration

The Sakoku 鎖国 “Locked Country” Policy

The third Tokugawa Shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu enacted the Sakoku or, “Locked Country” policy in 1633 and fully enforced it by 1639, effectively isolating Japan from foreigners and forbidding Japanese people from leaving the country. However the policy allowed some trade with to happen with China, Korea and the Netherlands, albeit restricted through the ports of Nagasaki in southern Japan.

The Tokugawa Shōgunate had several reasons for enacting Sakoku: since 1549 Spanish and Portuguese missionaries had been arriving in Japan to spread Catholicism but the Shōgunate saw this as a threat, expelling the Spanish and Portuguese through Sakoku; Daimyo, who were effectively ruling their domains with as much power as the Shōgunate, had long been using ease of foreign trade to build up their own military might, so by enforcing strict limitations on trade, the Shōgunate ensured no Daimyo could gain enough strength to rise up against it.

The significance of the Spanish and Portuguese religious campaign efforts is not to be underestimated – indeed, it’s said that the Shikoku was triggered by the ‘Shimabara Rebellion’ (1637-1638) in which 40,000 Japanese Christian converts rose up against the Shōgunate. Following their failed rebellion, Christianity was banned and any followers faced death unless they publicly rejected Christ.

Right: Woodblock print of a Dutch Trade Ship

Fall of the Tokugawa Shōgunate with the Meiji Restoration

In the era of the final three Tokugawa Shōguns, known as the ‘Bakumatsu Period’ (1853-1867), Sakoku was forcibly ended by the arrival of Matthew Perry’s U.S. Naval fleet. This period saw the splitting of Japan into supporters of Imperial rule and supporters of Shōgunate rule until a group of Daimyo joined forces with the Emperor, causing the final Shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu to resign and thereby allowing the Emperor Meiji to overthrow the Tokugawa Shōgunate, establishing the ‘Meiji Restoration’.

Despite efforts by those loyal to the Tokugawa Shōgunate to fight against those loyal to Imperial rule in what was known as the ‘Boshin War’ (1868-1869), they were unable to take back power from the Emperor and the Meiji Restoration and Imperial rule continued.

Right: Depiction of the Boshin War

The Meiji Restoration

In 1868 The Shōgunate officially ended when a group of Daimyo overthrew the final Shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and power was returned to the Emperor. This was known as The Meiji Restoration.

Although The Shōgunate had ended, many aspects of the way the government had worked were used as a blueprint for the Emperor’s new government.

The Meiji Restoration also ushered in the inevitable arrival of foreign trade which The Shōgunate had attempted to block out of Japan’s borders.

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