Minamoto Yoritomo
Public Domain, Link

For the country’s entire history, even its prehistory, the official supreme ruler of Japan has been the hereditary head of the Imperial Family, usually the Emperor (or rarely, Empress). But the men wielding actual political and military power in Japan were not royals. The most famous leaders of Japan were the shogun – a shortened version of the title Sei-i Taishogun, which translates as Commander in Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians.

The name first appeared sometime during the classical Heian period, 794–1185, when the Imperial Kyoto court was still attempting to assert control over the archipelago, some inhabitants of which were considered barbarians. But the first dominant shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo, who established the first bafaku (literally, “tent government,” based on the military nature of his leadership) in 1192. This bafaku also elevated the warrior, or samurai, class above all but the top nobility.

By Utagawa Sadahide – Public Domain, Link

As the “Commander in Chief” title indicates, this shogun was a military dictator with supreme power, and the basic governmental structure of the bafaku endured for an epic stretch of Japanese history, ultimately lasting nearly seven centuries, from 1192 to 1867, when the Emperor was restored to head of government in what is known as the Meiji Restoration. During this time, the Imperial Family served as a unifying, but impotent symbol; the real power was wielded by the shogun.

The first ruling shogunate arose with the 150-year Kamakura period, 1192-1333, followed by another during what is known as the Muromachi Period, from 1338-1573. Japan was not yet a truly unified country, thus this era was a feudal period during which competing warlords (or daimyo) fought for control of the archipelago.

Growing trade between the various regions of the country led many daimyo to rebel against centralized control (from Kyoto), and in 1467 the Onin War launched the period known to Japanese as the Sengoku, or the Warring States period. For the next 150 years there was nearly constant warfare between regional warlords, numerous clans fighting for control of the country over the decades, handing it back and forth amid much chaos and destruction.

Public Domain, Link

What history now shorthands as the shogunate arose when one clan, the Tokugawa, finally defeated the others, uniting the country under one government. The Tokugawa shoguns would rule a relatively peaceful Japan for more than 250 years, from 1603 to 1867. It was during this time that Japan became the country that we recognize today.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was begun by its victorious first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was named shogun by the Emperor Go-Yozei in 1603. But after only two years in power, he abdicated the throne, handing it to his son, Tokugawa Hidetada. Ieyasu maintained control until his death 11 years later, but this maneuver established the hereditary nature of the shogunate, which it would be maintained through 15 Tokugawa shoguns, until 1867.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was, by and large, a peaceful period, but it was not exactly easy. The intrigues of the Tokugawa clan down through the centuries were very much the match of the European dynasties of the same era in their betrayals and violence. And for most Japanese, living in one of the four classes the shoguns (and the nobility, or daimyo) ruled – the samurai, the farmers, the artisans and the merchants – life under the rigid hierarchy of the shogunate was hardly carefree.

Yokohama LMI 1865.jpg
By E. Roevens – Le Monde Illustré, Public Domain, Link

The shogunate was based in a new city far to the east of the longtime capital, Kyoto, called Edo – today’s Tokyo – which is why the shogunate is also called the Edo Period. This period was marked by stability, but that stability came at a cost. Minority Christians were persecuted as threats, social mobility was impossible, and the policy of isolationism known as sakoku meant that Japanese culture was a closed system. The laws enforcing that system were strict: Leaving the country was punishable by death, should one return; even receiving a letter from abroad could get an entire family killed.

Given these strict limits, it was perhaps inevitable that the Tokugawa shogunate would fall of its own weight, unable to respond to changing circumstances – particularly the encroachment of the rest of the world in the mid-19th century. The modern world was knocking on Japan’s door, and the isolated country the shoguns had created and maintained for nearly three centuries was unable to withstand the pressure.

Tokyo Tower_2
Photo by hans-johnson

When a rebel group of daimyo united to support the restoration of the Imperial Family to power, the brittle shogunate collapsed. In 1868, the Emperor Meiji became the country’s ruler, and immediately instituted a dizzying array of modernizations to what was suddenly no longer a feudal society. With a jolt, the Tokugawa shogunate was gone, and Japan had entered the modern world.

By David Watts Barton