Introduction to Medieval Japan I.

By Kate Grove

Japan’s ancient times were spearheaded by aristocrats; on the contrary, the Middle Ages were the times of the samurai. I’d like to give you a brief political and military overview so you can better understand how the country worked. It’s a very exciting age!

Medieval times started with the Kamakura period. Either in 1185 or 1192, because Japanese history is like Japanese language: often ambiguous. The Genpei war ended in 1185, signifying the start of a new area, however, the victor, Minamoto Yorimoto was appointed shōgun in only 1192, thus the start of the time period is open to interpretation.

Minamoto was the first shōgun, the military leader of Japan and many followed him in this position, until the Meiji restoration began in 1868. During this time, the influence of the nobles, including the emperor, dwindled and the samurai generals, who have been part of the military serving them since before, emerged and took hold of the power as feudal lords.

Fun fact: the Japanese imperial family is the only one in the world which doesn’t have dynasties. More accurately, Emperor Reiwa, who has ascended the throne on 1st May 2019, is still part of the first dynasty, which was established around 3rd century AD.

My main topic is the Sengoku period, so let’s fast forward a few hundred years! Can you guess what started it? Yes, you’re right, another war ended. Economic hardship and dispute over the shōgunal succession caused a civil war to break out in 1467. This lasted 10 years, and by then, the leaders of the two factions had already died. The Ōnin war collapsed the central authority and new, local forces emerged.

This was the start of the Warring States area, where feudal lords (daimyō) fought each other. These samurai warlords became more powerful and exercised authority over their own territories. Actually, in Japanese language, these are referred to as “kuni” or “country”. You could say Japan had hundreds of countries in its territory at this time.

Finally, the need to unite the country – economically, administratively, politically and in terms of military – arose, especially when Europeans appeared in the mid-16th century. I’ll tell you more about the three great generals who aimed to unite the country next time. Even if you don’t know any names from Japanese history, you ought to remember at least these three: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.


Any questions? And what would you like to read more of, regarding medieval Japan? 🙂

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