Japan

Rise of the Warrior Class: 1180-1185

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Decline – How each ruler lost strength and regional influence.

The Heian Emperor Loses Power Outside the Upper Class

Up until the late 1100s, Japan’s Golden Age was in full swing. The nobles enjoyed all types of culture and art, most living in their vast city-palace Heian, while the common people struggled through their land labor everywhere else. This division created unrest and put the Emperor out of touch with his people. Soon, peasants began to thieve from landowners in order to survive,  and turf wars broke out between religious groups. The frivolity of the upper classes left Japanese government without the funds or power to raise an army or police their people. Clan leaders vied for influence in the government and landowners, called daimyo, decided to take things into their own hands by hiring protection in the form of professional warriors called samurai.

In 1185,  Minamoto Yoritomo and his military family took advantage of the civil war and seized the government of Japan. He dubbed himself the Shogun, or commander-in-chief, and set up a new military-influenced government in Kamakura. Despite his total control, he allowed the emperor and his imperial court to remain at Heian and be a figurehead (in charge but with limited or no authority) for Japan.

 

 

Kamakura Shogunate: 1185 - 1333

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Decline – How each kingdom lost strength and regional influence.

Japan Becomes a Military-Led Country

With the takeover of a military clan, lead by Minamoto Yoritomo from Kamakura, Japan’s history changed in a far-reaching way. The upper class no longer consisted of a culture-embracing nobility, but rather a warrior class. Daimyo (noble landowners via the Emperor) traded land grants, food stores, and positions of power for the skills and protection of professional warriors. These samurai became the ruling class, flexing their power and wealth for more than 700 years and for several Shogunates (time periods ran by a certain shogun). Samurai, meaning “one who serves” were famed for their courage and loyalty, particularly to the lord who hired them, and by extension, the emperor.

As time passed, a strict samurai code was created and adhered to by the ruling class,  and mental and spiritual exercises that they participated in for their training greatly influenced Japanese culture. (You’ll learn more about them at other stations.) The tea ceremony, martial arts, such as Judo and bamboo sword competitions, and the loyalty to family and respect for rank are all still embedded in modern Japan culture.

Early in the Kamakura Period, both girls and boys were allowed to become apprentice samurai, though girls were trained to protect their families rather than to ride into battle. Emphasis was on hand-to-hand combat and bow shooting from horseback initially, with swordsmanship becoming more popular later. Guns were eventually outlawed because the nobility feared the peasant class would use them to throw Japan into anarchy.

Ashikaga Shogunate 1333 - 1573

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Decline – How each kingdom lost strength and regional influence.

Invasion Turns Japanese on One Another

The Mongolian ruler of China attempted an invasion of Japan by sea twice, once in 1274 and once in 1281. Between the viciousness of the sea storms and the samurai awaiting them on the shore, they were defeated. But the battles left shoguns and nobles at odds with one another. The Shoguns didn’t acknowledge the wealthy for their help with the enemy, and the nobles began to resent the shogun’s political power. The figurehead Emperor took advantage of this and egged on the noble families to overthrow shogun rule.

The second shogun of Japan was a son of the first. The third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, set up his government in his flower palace in Kyoto in 1333. The previous shogun family (Minamoto) called for Ashikaga to respond to the threat and stop the rebellion that was mounting against them. For reasons still unclear to historians, the Ashikaga switched sides to fight for the imperial court.

Once peace seemed to settle, Emperor Go-Daigo made a bold move in an attempt to regain power during the Kenmu Restoration. It failed miserably, and the Ashikaga Shogun re-established his power. However, it gradually allowed the once-centralized government to become less so. This put daimyos in more control. They used sneaky tactics to kill members of other clans and seize additional land and prestige. Some even took advantage of Shogun trust.

The 15th shogun was assassinated and a powerful daimyo, Oda Nobunaga, placed another Ashikaga shogun he could influence in power in 1565. The Ashikaga Shogunate finally ended in 1573 when Nobunaga banished Ashikaga Yoshiaki out of Kyoto.

Tokugawa Shogunate 1573 - 1868

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Decline – How each kingdom lost strength and regional influence.

The Last Shogunate: An Open Then Closed Door Policy!

By the 1400s, Japan had no central ruling entity. Local daimyos seized power over smaller chunks of land, collecting taxes and making  decisions as they saw fit. As time went on, strong leaders rose up to try and unify Japan once again. The first was Oda Nobunaga.

Oda Nobunaga used guns he acquired from Portuguese traders and came into power as a samurai daimyo in the late 16th century. He worked as a fearless and savage warlord to eventually conquer over one-third of the clans and their land in Japan.

When he died in 1582, his conquest helped his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi to completely unify all of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and generations of the Tokugawa family continued to rule. These great men allowed Christian missionaries into Japan and expanded Japan’s trade with Europe and the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, not all the Tokugawa Shoguns liked all the European influence from traders and missionaries. Some rulers feared that guns would give the lower classes means to rebel. The rulers also were concerned that Japan would become too much like Europe. Around the 1630s, Japan became Sakoku, or “country locked.” Trade with the outside world was cut off to protect the interests of the shogun and daimyos.  This limited technology and isolation made the samurai culture last through the 1830s, much longer then it might have otherwise.

In Japan today, there is still a respect for the courage, honor, and loyalty that samurai were idolized for during the 700 years they dominated Japan.

 

 

 

 

 

Samurai in Society

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

The Benefits of Being a Samurai

Being a samurai in feudal Japan was a powerful and respected position. The common people couldn’t disrespect a samurai or they’d face strict charges, even death. Early in the era of shogun rule, Japan began to look more and more like feudal Europe, with a lord and vassal society. Samurai were hired to protect a lord’s lands and people in return for land of their own, food or wealth, or a position in government.  The peasants of the lands the samurai protected also paid them taxes each year. Samurai armies rose up to battle for their lords,  causing many brutal battles in the name of honor.

Things Samurai Couldn’t Participate In

Though Samurai were idolized and put in places of power, there were a few things that they couldn’t take part in. They were forbidden to attend or keep the company of those heavily involved in certain entertainment forms, such as theater, because it made them focus on something other than their eventual death. They also couldn’t be involved in trade or commerce of any kind. This meant that they had to bind themselves to a lord to maintain their wealth and position.

Samurai Code #1: Mental & Spiritual Training

Mastering the Mind of a Warrior

Living honorably did not come naturally to a samurai, so a code was created called bushido. Along with their warrior training in the arts of horseback bow shooting, sword fighting, and hand-to-hand combat, the warrior was encouraged to do other ceremonies and practices to help with mental and spiritual readiness to battle and die if necessary.

In addition to battle training, a samurai had to learn self-control to master his emotions and face death honorably. This was accomplished by going days without eating, hiking barefooted in the snow for hours to harden oneself to pain, and even holding stiff postures for long periods of time without complaining.

Cultural involvement also aided the Samurai with their mental readiness to fight for their lords. They were encouraged to write poetry and learn calligraphy, the art of writing beautifully. The Haiku of modern poetry originated from the samurai culture. They also learned and participated in the famed tea ceremony, in which they meticulously prepared, served, and drank tea with honored guests before discussing important political matters. All of these practices offered the samurai disciplined and focused minds.

Religion Helped The Samurai Prepare

Buddhism was a popular religious practice for most samurai. The meditation and calm that were part of the religion’s call to reach enlightenment helped  the samurai concentrate and prepare for death. Puzzling over  complex questions further aided these goals. Many samurai took up meticulous gardening so they had a place to meditate, as well as focusing on the intricate tasks involved. Elaborate gardens were formed, both with rocks and plants, with artistic placements or arrangements that signified nature.

 

Samurai Code #2: Physical Training and Battle

Types of Samurai Training

The earliest samurai learned to fight by “the way of the horse and bow,” meaning marksmanship with a bow and arrow while astride a horse. Spears, swordsmanship later came into play. It was just as difficult as bow and horse. Samurai learned to allow their enemy to be strike first, how to stay out of sword’s range, and how to fight in tight spaces, using the objects around them as weapons. They also learned how to fight without using any weapons at all. We now call this training martial arts, and they are very prominent in modern times as a sport.

Perhaps the most interesting code they learned was how they must commit seppuku, a ceremonial suicide of stabbing oneself with their own sword. This was done in times of great defeat, when they shamed their family or lord, or as punishment for a crime. If women were to perform seppuku, they were to cut their throats rather then stab their midsection, like men were trained to do. Lords or masters would sometimes perform it for the samurai.

The Samurai in Combat

Unlike most other battles in the world, the samurai took a very honorable and almost ceremonial approach to battling. First, two messengers would meet and decide a specific time and place for the battle. Then the two armies to battle would meet at that designated place about two hundred yards apart. The samurais would take turns yelling out their names, great warrior deeds, ancestry, and the reason they chose to fight their enemy. When at last all this was done, the samurai would charge, but each would find an opponent who matched him in rank, and they would battle to the death. The winning side would collect the heads of their enemies and attach them to boards for inspection by their lords to confirm the enemy was indeed dead.

 

Samurai Armor and Weaponry

The Armor and Weapons of a Samurai

Japanese warriors of Feudal Japan had a unique and elaborate armor that they wore with honor. Each was unique to the warrior, and many helped create a “brand” for that warrior. However, each part that made up the suit of armor was the same. Samurai armor was made up of lacquer coated ceramic discs layered by silk cords. This made movement easy, but still defended the samurai from enemy weapons. They also had helmets often adorned with horns or facial features, as well as a metal mask meant to intimidate his enemies. Cloth or leather shin guards were worn over robes called kimonos and baggy pants. Box-like panels protected a samurai’s chest, back, sides, and thighs, and metal cuffs covered his arms.

The finishing touch was the set of swords that each samurai had.  Their sword was a prized piece of weaponry that was often handed down to the next generation. Japanese sword makers were masters, creating thin, flexible blades that were so hard they almost never broke. A shorter sword was used to behead their enemy, while a longer, curved blade was used in fencing and battle. Even as samurai culture faded away in the later centuries, samurai and shogun were there to remind all of there rank and rights.