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Explore the origins and actions of the Japanese military leaders called shoguns, and test your understanding of Japanese history, politics, culture, and military.

Show Me the Shogun

Akira Kurosawa became famous in the 1950s for his amazing films, including many about Japan’s warrior-heroes, the samurai. His most famous film, Seven Samurai, takes places during a time of war when several military leaders fought each other to become Japan’s shogun.A shogun was a powerful general in Japan, from 1192 to 1867. Shoguns controlled great armies, and although they were technically appointed by the Emperor of Japan, the most powerful shogun was essentially the ruler of Japan.

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The era during which a particular shogun and his family were in power was called a shogunate, which also is the word for a military dictatorship where lesser lords pledged allegiance to the shogun. During this period, shoguns constantly competed against each other for power and control of Japan.

The shogun Ashikaga Takauji
Japanese painting of war

Kamakura Shogunate

The first true shogunate was the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333), during which the Minamoto family from the city of Kamakura essentially ruled Japan. Land-owning lords called daimyo, protected by armies of highly elite warriors called samurais, had dominated Japanese politics in the 11th century.

Two powerful families of daimyo, the Taira and Minamoto, fought each other to take control of the weakened imperial government.Minamoto no Yoritomo was able to seize power and establish the feudal system of allegiance to a powerful lord, called the shogunate system. While the Emperor and his advisors officially ruled Japan, the real power was Minamoto and his armies. Minamoto no Yoritomo was officially awarded the title of Sei-i Taishogun by the Emperor in 1192.

In 1331, the emperor attempted and failed to restore his true power, but managed to weaken the shogunate. The city of Kamakura fell in 1333 and other families immediately began fighting for power.

Statue of Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo

Ashikaga Shogunate

As the families all fought over land, the emperor lost control and was banished by the daimyo Ashikaga Takauji. The Ashikaga family pronounced the emperor’s nephew as the new emperor and killed the emperor’s son, who had been declared the new shogun. Ashikaga Takauji was awarded the title of Sie-i Taishogun and started the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573).

The Ashikaga shoguns had less land, and therefore less real power, than the Minamoto. The other daimyo lords were less loyal to the Ashikaga shoguns, but the extremely weak imperial family was much easier for the shoguns to control. The Ashikaga moved their headquarters to Kyoto, and after a while had no real power outside of the region. The power of the daimyo grew until war broke out around 1467. The powerful families raged brutal war, and in 1565 the shogun was assassinated.

The daimyo responsible, Oda Nobunaga, took full power from the Ashikaga in 1573.

The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa takes place at the end of the Ashikaga era
7 Samurai

Tokugawa Shogunate

Oda Nobunaga managed to unify Japan under his control, but was defeated in 1600 by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa forged a family tree to make the emperor think he was of Minamoto descent, and in 1603 was awarded the title Sei-i Taishogun. The new shogun moved the capital to Edo and the started the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), which unlike the Ashigawa, was very strong and powerful. The Tokugawa imposed a very strict social hierarchy on Japanese society, with daimyo on top, then samurai, and famers and artisans near the bottom.

This system made some people upset and occasionally led to peasant rebellions.Nevertheless, the Tokugawa shogunate was the longest period of peace and stability in hundreds of years. Due to this peace, many samurais lost work as soldiers for warring daimyo and travelled Japan as mercenaries or became government officials. The romantic view of the samurai really began during the Tokugawa as their swords turned from weapons to status symbols that never saw battle. Around 1866, powerful daimyo allied with the emperor to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate. The shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned in 1868 and the emperor regained real power.

The return of Emperor Meiji to actual power was called the Meiji Restoration, and indicated the end of shogun power.

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi

Lesson Summary

A shogun was a powerful Japanese military leader and land-owner, or daimyo, who became strong enough to essentially rule Japan. The emperor had no real power, although he was officially in charge.

The era during which a shogun and his family were in power was called a shogunate. This term also referred to the system of government in which lesser daimyo, land-owning lords, had to pledge their loyalty to the shogun. The period of shogun power laster from 1192-1867, and ended when Emperor Meiji rallied the forces to regain true power, a moment called the Meiji Restoration. The shoguns of Japanese history developed many the traditional aspects of Japanese culture, including the warriors known as samurai.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Akira Kurosawa.

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