Feudalism in Japan

You’re nothing but a back alley Shinto priest and probably don’t know any better. I rebuked you yesterday because you were unspeakably rude to me—an honorable bannerman of the shogun,”1

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    reads a memoir of a bannerman samurai from the late Edo period. Military governors called the shogun, samurai, and Shinto priests were all part of the class-based social structure in feudal Japan (1192–1868). During the feudalism period, Japan was an agricultural country with relatively limited contact with the rest of the world. At the same time, its culture, literature, and the arts flourished.

    Feudalism in Japan, Fig. 1 - Kabuki theater actor Ebizō Ichikawa, woodblock print, by Kunimasa Utagawa, 1796, StudySmarter.

    Fig. 1 - Kabuki theater actor Ebizō Ichikawa, woodblock print, by Kunimasa Utagawa, 1796.

    Feudal Period in Japan

    The feudal period in Japan lasted for nearly seven centuries until 1868 and the imperial Meiji Restoration. Feudal Japan had the following features:

    1. Hereditary social structure with little social mobility.
    2. Unequal socio-economic relationship between the feudal lords and the vassals subordinate to the lords based on obligation.
    3. Military government (shogunate) led by governors (shogun, or generals).
    4. Generally closed off to the rest of the world due to geographic isolation but periodically communicated and traded with China and Europe.

    In a feudal system, a lord is usually a person of higher social status, such as a landowner, who requires some type of service in exchange for access to his land and other types of benefits.

    A vassal is a person of lower social status in relation to the lord who provides a certain type of service, e.g. military service, to the lord.

    Feudalism in Japan: Periodization

    For the purposes of periodization, historians usually divide Japanese feudalism into four main eras based on the changes in government. These eras are:

    • Kamakura Shogunate (1185–1333)
    • Ashikaga (Muromachi) Shogunate (1336–1573)
    • Azuchi-Momoyama Shogunate (1568-1600)
    • Tokugawa (Edo) Shogunate (1603 – 1868)

    They are named after the ruling shogun family or Japan's capital at that time.

    For example, the Tokugawa Shogunate is named after its founder, Ieyasu Tokugawa. However, this period is also often called the Edo Period named after Japan's capital Edo (Tokyo).

    Kamakura Shogunate

    The Kamakura Shogunate (1185–1333) is named after Japan's shogunate capital, Kamakura, at that time. The shogunate was founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo (Yoritomo Minamoto). This Shogunate initiated the feudal period in Japan even though the country still featured symbolic imperial rule. In the preceding decades, the Emperor gradually lost his political power, while the military clans gained it, resulting in feudalism. Japan also faced invasions from the Mongol leader Kublai Khan.

    Ashikaga Shogunate

    Historians consider the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336–1573), founded by Takauji Ashikaga, to be weak because it was:

    • very decentralized
    • faced a long period of civil war

    This era is also called the Muromachi Period named after an area of Heian-kyō (Kyoto), the shogunate capital at that time. The military governors' weakness resulted in a long power struggle, the Sengoku Period (1467–1615).

    Sengoku means "warring states" or "civil war."

    However, Japan was also culturally advanced at this time. The country made its first contact with Europeans when the Portuguese arrived in 1543, and it continued to trade with Ming-era China.

    Azuchi-Momoyama Shogunate

    Azuchi-Momoyama Shogunate (15681600) was a short transitionary time between the end of Sengoku and the Edo Periods. Feudal lord Nobunaga Oda was one of the key leaders to unify the country at this time. After making contact with the Europeans, Japan continued to trade with them, and merchant status grew.

    Tokugawa Shogunate

    Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868) is also called the Edo Period because the shogunate's headquarters were located in Edo (Tokyo). Unlike Sengoku, Edo-era Japan was peaceful: so much so that many samurai had to take up jobs in the shogunate's complex administration. During most of the Edo period, Japan remained closed to the outside world again until an American naval commander Matthew Perry arrived in 1853. At gunpoint, the Americans established the Convention of Kanagawa (1854) allowing foreign trade. Finally, in 1868, during the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor regained political power. As a result, the shogunate was dissolved, and prefectures replaced feudal domains.

    Feudalism in Japan: Social Structure

    The social hierarchy in feudal Japan was strict. The ruling class included the imperial court and the shogun.

    Social StatusDescription
    EmperorThe Emperor was at the top of the social hierarchy in Japan. However, during the feudal period, he only had symbolic power.
    Imperial courtThe nobility of the imperial court enjoyed elevated social status but did not have much political power.
    ShogunMilitary governors, the shogun, controlled Japan politically during the feudal period.


    The daimyō were the feudal lords of the shogunate. They had vassals like the samurai or the farmers. The most powerful daimyō could become a shogun.

    PriestsThe priests practicing Shinto and Buddhism did not hold political power but were above (outside) the class-based hierarchy in feudal Japan.

    The four classes comprised the lower part of the social pyramid:

    1. Samurai
    2. Farmers
    3. Craftsmen
    4. Merchants
    Social StatusDescription
    SamuraiThe warriors in feudal Japan were called the samurai (or bushi). They served as daimyō's vassals performing different tasks and were referred to as retainers. Many samurai worked in the shogunate's administration when there was no war, such as in the peaceful Edo Period. Samurai had different ranks like the bannerman (hatamoto).
    Farmers and serfsUnlike in Medieval Europe, farmers were not at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Japanese viewed them as crucial to the fabric of society because they fed everyone. However, the farming class owed high taxes to the government. Sometimes, they were even forced to give up all their rice crops with the feudal lord returning some of it if he saw fit.
    CraftsmenThe artisanal class created many essential items for feudal Japan. Yet despite their skills, they were below the farmers.
    MerchantsThe merchants were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in feudal Japan. They sold many important goods and some of them amassed fortunes. Eventually, some merchants were able to affect politics.
    OutcastsThe outcasts were below or outside the social hierarchy in feudal Japan. Some were the hinin, "non-people," like the homeless. Others were criminals. The courtesans were also outside the hierarchy.

    Japanese Serfdom

    The farmers were important to feudal Japanese society because they provided food for everyone: from the castles of the shogun to the townsfolk. Many farmers were serfs that were tied to the lord's land providing him with some of the crops (mainly, rice) that they grew. The farming class lived in villages that featured its own local hierarchy:

    • Nanushi, the elders, controlled the village
    • Daikan, the administrator, inspected the area

    The farmers paid nengu, a tax, to the feudal lords. Lords also took a portion of their crop yield. In some cases, the farmers had no remaining rice left for themselves and were forced to eat other types of crops.

    • Koku was the measure of rice estimated to be about 180 liters (48 U.S. gallons). Rice fields were measured in koku output. Farmers provided stipends measured in koku of rice to the lords. The amount depended on their social status. For example, an Edo-era daimyō had domains that produced approximately 10,000 koku. In contrast, a low-ranking hatamoto samurai could receive as little as just over 100 koku.

    Feudalism in Japan, Fig. 2 - Reflections of the Moon in the Rice Fields of Sarashina in Shinshu, by Hiroshige Utagawa, ca. 1832, StudySmarter.

    Fig. 2 - Reflections of the Moon in the Rice Fields of Sarashina in Shinshu, by Hiroshige Utagawa, ca. 1832.

    Men in Feudal Japan: Gender and Social Hierarchy

    Like its strict social hierarchy, feudal Japan featured a gender hierarchy too. Exceptions notwithstanding, Japan was a patriarchal society. Men were in positions of power and represented every social class: from the emperor and the shogun at the top of the hierarchy to the merchants at the bottom thereof. Women usually had secondary roles, and gender divisions began from birth. Of course, women of higher social status were better off.

    For example, during the late Edo period, boys learned martial arts and literacy, whereas girls were taught how to perform domestic tasks and even how to properly cut a samurai's hair (chonmage). Some families that only had a daughter adopted a boy from another family so that he could eventually marry their girl and take over their household.

    Feudalism in Japan, Fig. 3 - A kabuki actor, a courtesan, and her apprentice, by Harunobu Suzuki, 1768, StudySmarter.

    Fig. 3 - A kabuki actor, a courtesan, and her apprentice, by Harunobu Suzuki, 1768.

    In addition to being a wife, women could be concubines and courtesans.

    During the Edo period, the Yoshiwara pleasure district was known for its sex workers (courtesans). Some courtesans were famous and possessed numerous skills such as performing tea ceremonies and writing poetry. However, they were often sold into this line of work as young girls by their impoverished parents. They remained in debt because they had daily quotas and expenses to maintain their looks.

    Samurai in Feudal Japan

    Samurai were the warrior class in Japan. The samurai were at the top of the social hierarchy below the feudal lords.

    They were the vassals of the daimyō, but also had vassals themselves. Some samurai had fiefs (an estate of land). When the samurai worked for the feudal lords, they were called retainers. During the periods of war, their service was of military nature. However, the Edo Period was a time of peace. Consequently, many samurai served in the shogunate's administration.

    Feudalism in Japan, Fig. 4 - Japanese military commander Santaro Koboto in traditional armor, by Felice Beato, ca. 1868, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, StudySmarter.

    Fig. 4 - Japanese military commander Santaro Koboto in traditional armor, by Felice Beato, ca. 1868, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

    Compare and Contrast: Feudalism in Europe and Japan

    Both Medieval Europe and Japan shared agrarian, farming economies that subscribed to feudalism. Generally speaking, feudalism meant an unequal relationship between the lord and the vassal, in which the latter owed service or loyalty to the former. However, in the case of Europe, the relationship between the lord, such as the landed nobility, and the vassal was generally contractual and underpinned by legal obligations. In contrast, the relationship between the Japanese lord, such as the daimyō, and the vassal was more personal. Some historians even described it as having at one point been:

    paternalistic and almost familial nature, and some of the terms for lord and vassal used 'parent'.”2

    Feudalism in Japan - Key Takeaways

    • Feudalism in Japan lasted from the 12th to the 19th century featuring a strict hereditary social hierarchy and military rule by the shogun.
    • Japanese feudalism comprises four main periods: Kamakura, Ashikaga, Azuchi-Momoyama, and Tokugawa Shogunates.
    • Japanese society at this time comprised four social classes below the ruling class: samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.
    • The year 1868 marked the end of the feudal period in Japan with the start of the imperial Meiji Restoration.


    1. Katsu, Kokichi. Musui’s Story, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991, p. 77.
    2. Henshall, Kenneth, Historical Dictionary of Japan to 1945, Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013, p. 110.
    3. Fig. 4 - Japanese military commander Santaro Koboto in traditional armor, ca. 1868 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koboto_Santaro,_a_Japanese_military_commander_Wellcome_V0037661.jpg), photographed by Felice Beato (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felice_Beato), licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Feudalism in Japan

    What is feudalism in Japan?

    The feudal period in Japan lasted between 1192 and 1868. At this time, the country was agrarian and was controlled by military governors called the shogun. Feudal Japan featured a strict social and gender-based hierarchy. Feudalism featured an unequal relationship between an upper-class lord and a lower-class vassal, which performed some type of service for the lord.

    How did feudalism develop in Japan?

    Feudalism in Japan developed for a number of reasons. For example, the Emperor gradually lost his political power, while military clans gradually gained control of the country. These developments led to the fact that for about 700 years, the Emperor's power remained symbolic, while the shogunate, a military government, ruled Japan.

    What ended feudalism in Japan?

    In 1868, the Emperor regained political power under the Meiji Restoration. In practice, this meant that the Emperor abolished feudal domains and converted the administration of the country into prefectures. Japan also began to modernize and industrialize and gradually moved away from being a strictly agricultural country.

    What is a shogun in feudal Japan?

    A shogun is a military governor of feudal Japan. Japan had four main shogunates (military governments): Kamakura, Ashikaga, Azuchi-Momoyama, and Tokugawa Shogunates.

    Who held the real power in Japan's feudal society?

    During Japan's 700-year-long feudal period, the shogun (military governors) held the real power in Japan. The imperial succession continued, but the Emperor's power remained symbolic at this time.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did the Europeans first make contact with feudal Japan?

    When did the Emperor regain political power in Japan?

    Which is believed to be the weakest period in feudal Japan?


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