Historians have throughout the many courses of history created terms to categorize events and time periods for the purpose of analysis and compartmentalization. However, not all of these terms are used appropriately when examining the past; such is the case with feudalism.
While most historians use the word feudalism to categorize Europe post-Roman Empire, feudalism can also be applied to 15th and 16th century Japan. Though Japanese feudalism is not an exact replica of European feudalism we can use the characteristics of feudal Europe to make comparisons.
These characteristics of feudalism evidenced in Europe and Japan comprise of in-brief the following: lack of a central government, strong presence of a warrior class, relationships based on vassalage and fiefdoms, and lastly an agrarian based economy. Based on aforementioned definition of feudalism and what comparisons can be drawn from feudal Europe, I will argue that the Ashikaga period of Japanese history from 1477-1560 was the most feudal.
The Ashikaga period from 1477-1560, which is also known as the Warring States period, is the most feudal period in Japanese history because the Kamakura and Kyoto central government collapsed leaving the hundreds of landlords to form their own local governments. Even though the Kamakura and Political Unification era contain some elements of feudalism they are not the best representations considering we are using the European model as a basis of comparison.
To better understand the Ashikaga period, but more specifically the Warring States period, a working definition of feudalism will help explain why this period of Japanese history was the most feudal. Firstly, feudalism does not contain a central government or any unifying political institution that would collect revenue, enforce laws, or maintain a military.
While it may seem there is a lack of government in a feudal society there is a degree of authority, although at the local level where the lords acted as the government. Secondly, there is the presence of a warrior class.
The warrior class is essential to the structure of feudalism because it provides for the lord-vassal relationship. Vassal relationships can be defined as a warrior’s personal allegiance to his lord in return for protection and fiefs.
If vassals remained loyal to their lord they were usually granted fiefs, or plots of land, that could produce income and allow a warrior to increase his wealth and status. Vassals, as well as lords, were able to increase their wealth through the amount of farmland they owned because feudal societies were based on agrarian economics.
Agrarian economics allowed lords to collect surplus harvest from their peasantry who farmed the land. This surplus of food was the means by which the warrior class could be supported by the lord.
The relationships between lords, warriors, and the peasants in conjunction the lack of a central government and an agrarian based economy gave way to the system of feudalism. Now that a better understanding of feudalism has been established I will now argue why the Warring States period during the Ashikaga shogunate was the most feudal.
According to the definition of feudalism there must be the lack of a central government or supreme political authority. The Onin War is a crucial event in Japanese history because it pervaded the capital city of Kyoto.
Kyoto was caught in the crossfire between the two fighting forces and as a result was sacked and burned to the ground. The fall of Kyoto, Japan’s national capital, is symbolic of the fall of the central government as well as the fall of order and peace. Without a supreme political power to unite Japan the island nation devolved by 1500 in a divided nation of 200-300 Japanese landlords, also known as daimyos.
Without a central government the daimyo were left to govern themselves and exercise their jurisdiction throughout their territory. The daimyo did not submit to the ruins of the Kyoto government or the faux power of the imperial family.
In order to protect their estates the daimyo amassed bands of samurai warriors and armored horsemen. Unlike earlier times when warriors gave their allegiance, during the Warring States period warriors signed contracts and gave loyalty oaths.
This is significant because it reflects the decline of personal or kinship relationships between lord and vassal, and instead a more formal and contractual agreement. The warrior class served three purposes; to defend the estate from encroaching rival daimyos, to seize other daimyo’s property as to increase the power of their lord, and to maintain some form of local government within the estate since the presence of a central government was absent.
With the conquest of other lands the daimyo were able to reward their loyal warriors and vassals by distributing land to them. Like feudal Europe, the daimyo granted the landholding rights to their vassals, known as chigyo. This differs from the income rights to the land, or shiki, characteristic of the Kamakura period.
By grant the landholding rights to the vassal the daimyo were then able to demand military service from their warriors in proportion to the amount of land they granted. This ensured that the daimyo would remain protected against their enemies, but in addition benefited the vassal by increasing his wealth and prestige.
Furthermore, it demonstrated the contractual relationship between lord and vassal, a difference than earlier times when the relationship was less formal. Without the trust involved between lord and warrior kinsmen the daimyo had suspicions of their samurai being disloyal or even too ambitious. If warriors were disloyal or did not provide military service as expected in their contractual obligation, they were punished by their daimyo; or, if a daimyo neglected to protect his vassals he risked betrayal.
An interesting side note to the development of feudalism is Japan is the castle-building that occurred during the period. As seen in feudal Europe, castles were erected to provide serious defensive strongholds against warring daimyos.
The erection of castles in Japan helps illustrate the need for defense in a land without a central government. Without central government to maintain order and keep the peace this responsibility was shouldered by the daimyo. The daimyo issued their own private laws and became the governor and legislator of his domain. Even though the daimyo had increased their political power, they also sought to increase their economic power.
Economic power in agrarian Japan was measured through the amount of land one owned. Once an estate was established, the daimyo would seek to extract taxes from the peasantry in the form of rice and harvest, labor, or military service; money was rarely collected as a tax.
With the formation of villages, peasants became easier to administer, control, and collect taxes from. This gave the daimyo greater power in managing his estate, carrying out large-scale projects, and preparing for war. But the formation of the village also helped in igniting trade within an estate.
Intra-estate trade shifted the focus of the daimyos away from war and security and instead towards revenue collection from non-vassal sources. Since the daimyos no longer raised monies from their vassals this helped to end the need for a warrior class and thus brought about peace within Japan.
The Warring States period, began to fade with the emergence of Nobunaga Hideyoshi as a new political figure that would begin the unification process in Japan. The quest for political and national unity had persisted throughout Japanese history with roots in Chinese influences, but was genuinely sought for until the middle of the 16th century. With Nobunaga beginning to unify daimyo estates under one authority, Japanese feudalism exits off the stage of history.