3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
A Confucianist Government Hansong-bu, Sorabol, So-ul, Seoul


Ch 8 - Choson

A Time of Transitions

Central Japan's fertile Kanto Plain, home of professional soldiers and agricultural community leaders, became a breeding ground for the classic samurai warrior. By the twelfth century, the samurai emerged from the great battles among Japan's three most powerful clans to become a distinct social class unto themselves.

Japan's heavily forested Hakone Mountains, rugged foothills to the crowning glory of Mount Fuji and the rugged terrain of Kanto Mountain Range stretching northward across the center of Honshu, presented an obstacle to east-west communications as secure and forbidding as anything built by man. To the west, the Nara Plain and the regions around the capital at Heian-kyo provided the breeding ground for Japan's native culture and civilization. To the east, the fertile Kanto Plain became a breeding ground for warriors.

The word Kanto means "east of the barrier," the ancient toll-barrier in the Hakone Mountains. Travel from the Kanto Plain east to the capital followed a number of roads that cut through various mountain passes. Official traffic over these roads carried not only communications between the imperial government and provincial capitals, but tax revenues from the provinces to Heian-kyo, taxes on such locally produced goods as mandarin oranges, rice, lumber, wheat, and barley. The town of Odawara, located along the Tokaido Road on the northwestern edge of Sagami Bay and the Ashigara Pass, earned its fame in early Japanese history through the banditry of a group of men known as the "horse borrowers." Gangs of enterprising men would steal horses from farmers, sometimes killing their victims, and use them as pack horses to meet the growing demand for freight and baggage moving between Kanto and the capital district Papers, please..

The Kanto Plain in central Honshu was ideal for both agriculture and raising horses. With ready access to the open sea, the inhabitants of this region developed a culture relatively unhindered by the political and military changes taking place in the more sophisticated western provinces. While the lives of court aristocrats became economically more constrained and culturally less creative, the provincial warriors of the Kanto emerged as leaders in a vigorous new culture dominated by agriculture, a culture quite different in some ways from its predecessor and even further removed from the Chinese norms of the imperial court.

The Kanto Plain in central Honshu was ideal ground for both hunting and open field engagements with the emishi of northern Honshu. Raiding parties by fast-riding guerilla bands of emishi horsemen became a pressing concern in central Japan and commanded a great deal of attention in Heian-kyo. The imperial government established a conscript army of peasants that trained for ten days every three months in the use of swords, spears, crossbows and catapults. All clan warriors were required to serve as conscripts for duty as border guards for periods of three years. In the eighth century, the imperial government began sending conscript troops, border guards and mounted warriors from the Kanto region north to bring the emishi tribes under court control. The conscript peasant armies proved ineffective and were often overwhelmed. The distant wars eventually overtaxed the financial limits of the government and the combined impact of crop failures and a population decline caused by smallpox eventually reduced these armies to smaller units of mounted archers.

By the end of the eighth century, the imperial government had come to depend on Kanto warriors to such an extent that courtiers no longer personally took up arms. Eventually, the border guards were almost exclusively Kanto warriors because of their greater skill. The term samurai, meaning "those who serve," came into common use around this period, although it was used in a derogatory sense by pretentious courtiers in the capital district. The Kanto warriors fighting in northern Honshu, long known as the fiercest fighters in Japan, exhibited the historical characteristics of the classic Japanese warrior.

The Kanto warriors were both professional soldiers and leaders of the agricultural communities in central Japan. Life for these men was simple and frugality was deemed a major virtue. Bravery and the stoical acceptance of physical hardship were fundamental to their way of life which contrasted sharply with the gentile, ostentatious aestheticism of Fujiwara courtiers and the Chinese-inspired civilian, bureaucratic spirit in Heian-kyo. They lived by a code of ethics known as kyuba no michi, "The Way of Horse and Bow," a chivalry based in part on Chinese concepts of virtuous warriors doing battle. In time, this code evolved into bushido, "Way of the Warrior." The basic philosophy of bushido is freedom from fear, the ability to transcend the fear of death. It gave a warrior not only the peace and power to serve his master faithfully and loyally, but to die well if necessary.

In a society where all status was inherited, living up to the honor and obligations of one's ancestry loomed particularly large and duty, fidelity to one's word, and personal honor were paramount concepts to the samurai. A vassal owed his lord complete, unquestioning loyalty, even to death. If need be, he was to sacrifice his own family for his lord, and sometimes he did so. Death was preferred to surrender or dishonor. After losing his honor, a samurai would rather kill himself by cutting his stomach with his sword, seppuku, than continue living in disgrace. The practice of suicide in defeat may have started to avoid torture, but by the twelfth century it had become institutionalized as a matter of honor.

Kyuba no michi and bushido required a great deal of self-discipline and character building, two concepts that became central to the whole warrior ethic and lay at the very heart of the samurai's beliefs and conduct. Martial arts became an all important aspect of the samurai's life;  horsemanship, archery and, above all else, swordsmanship The Japanese Sword.

When the crossbow became too expensive a weapon for arming conscript peasant armies, the samurai continued to fight from horseback using the bow and arrow as their primary weapon. They also became expert in fighting from horseback and on the ground with a newly designed sword, which they used for close-in fighting and beheading their enemies. The early Japanese sword, tachi, was a straight, single or double-edged blade with a two handed grip modeled after Chinese and Korean designs. Emishi warriors fought with long, curved swords that appeared to be much better suited to making slicing cuts from horseback against foot soldiers. Japanese swordsmiths revised their design and produced the long, gently curved, single edged sword with a two-handed grip that became the classic Japanese sword. The Japanese-style sword proved to be a very effective cutting weapon, even against armor, and its introduction soon gave rise to a distinct style of two-handed sword fighting.

The samurai emerged from the great battles among Japan's three most powerful clans - the Minamoto, the Fujiwara and the Taira - to become a distinct social class unto themselves by the twelfth century. Most samurai came from provincial estates in the Kanto region, where they were frequently employed to protect land holdings and to expand the landlord's power and rights to even more land. They gave unyielding loyalty to their feudal lord and received both land and position in return. Japan's entire feudal structure and the system of military government established in Kamakura by Minamoto Yoritomo, Japan's first shogun, rested on the concept of personal loyalty. The feudal lord, even the shogun himself, represented merely a symbol of group solidarity.

The Mongol invasions of Japan in the late thirteenth century severely challenged the samurai's sense of loyalty. The invasions also tested Japan's ability to defend itself against a foreign invasion and maintain unity in the face of a potential threat to its very existence. Th first invasion in 1274 came as a great shock to the Japanese. The Kamakura government supplied a large number of warriors and treasure to help build defensive systems to withstand the second invasion in 1281. The Japanese remained alert for a possible third invasion that never came. The years of war preparations and costly defense efforts employed against the Mongols was a serious financial drain on the Kamakura bakufu. Unlike earlier wars, the two Mongol invasions left only spending, not profits, a fact that meant there was no captured treasure or land to be divided among the victors to renew their loyalty to the system. As a result, many of the loyal samurai who fought for Kamakura ended up waiting for great rewards the government simply could not pay. This put a serious strain on the economic status and loyalty of Kamakura's samurai and accentuated internal weaknesses already appearing in the system.

As was the case with most ruling classes, Kamakura's warriors became more luxurious in their habits over the years, despite their declining economic position and repeated regulations issued by the shogunate to restrict expenses. This happened in part because while the full status and duties of a vassal might be inherited by all his sons, his landholdings and income, which did not increase, had to be divided among them. The rising samurai population caused an inevitable drop in per capita income, making it increasingly difficult for some to maintain the necessary weapons and armor of a warrior. Some became so impoverished that in 1297, the shogunate issued an order canceling the debts and mortgages of its retainers.

The bonds of personal loyalty on which the entire Kamakura system depended eroded over time. The geographic spread of emerging estates and dimming memories of the twelfth-century campaigns that forged the bonds of loyalty in the first place gradually undercut the very foundation of the shogunate. Shared interests among local warriors became more important than ties to distant Kamakura and its purely symbolic shogun. Loyalties shifted to personally known local leaders, prominent stewards, and provincial protectors. This new group of local strongmen gradually formed the base of a new class of feudal leadership, men who occupied an intermediary position between the shogunate and the samurai. The former nation-wide warrior "army" was slowly being replaced by a large number of powerful lords at the head of local, personally controlled armies.

For years, the Kamakura shogunate held a much stronger position than the imperial court, enabling it to interfere in matters of succession to the throne and to move emperors on and off the throne almost at will. Suffering from financial problems, decreased loyalty among the powerful lords, and an increasingly weakened feudal structure, the Kamakura shogunate finally fell victim to its divisive tendencies. The incident that triggered the final destruction of the system began in 1318, when the ambitious, thirty-year-old Go-Daigo, the 96th Japanese emperor, ascended the throne. Hojo Takatoki, an incompetent Kamakura regent, encouraged the new emperor to attempt a restoration of imperial power.

Emperor Go-Daigo was not content to remain a puppet of the Kamakura bakufu and began laying plans to keep the succession in his branch of the imperial family and to return actual political power from the shogun to the emperor. This situation prompted the shogunate to force Go-Daigo's abdication in 1331, and he was banished to Oki Island in the East Sea. The emperor's son, Prince Morinaga, continued to resist Kamakura with support from the great monasteries of the capital region and a number of military leaders such as Kusonoki Masashige, who turned traitor to Kamakura and espoused Go-Daigo's cause. The revolt against the Kamakura bakufu spread into the Kanto region, where local rivalries and ambitions motivated a variety of military groups to join the open civil war. General Ashikaga Takauji, a prominent provincial protector of the Kanto, saw the fighting as an opportunity to replace the Hojo regents in power, but events in 1333 sent him in a completely different direction.

Go-Daigo managed to escape his island confinement in 1333, and started back to Heian-kyo. The Kamakura bakufu sent General Ashikaga to recapture the former exile, but the bold Kanto warrior suddenly switched sides and threw his support behind the emperor, rode into the capital city and seized Heian-kyo in the emperor's name. While Ashikaga Takauji took over the functions and offices of the former Hojo garrison at Rokuhara in the capital, Go-Daigo moved immediately to restore the power of the throne. Reputedly a scholar, Go-Daigo lacked the wisdom to see the irrelevance of the old administration system, a system that was out of date, out of practice, and staffed with incompetent officials who failed to gain the support of the powerful landowners.

For the next three years, Go-Daigo recreated a number of the old civil government offices and assigned leading generals to governorships. Unfortunately, he could not turn back the clock to the age of Minamoto Yoritomo, and no one, least of all a nonmilitary man, could control the many lord-and-samurai groupings of Japan's rapidly dividing military class. Go-Daigo failed to understand or appreciate his dependence on military support to rule. His capricious behavior and failure to make the sort of rewards of land which his supporters thought were their due had alienated many powerful warriors. His treasury was empty, the office of awards was both inefficient and slow, and the officials controlling awards were inexperienced and corrupt. Although the emperor still commanded respect, loyalty and worship because of his divine descent, he held no political power and was looked upon as little more than a protector of learning, a guardian of ceremonial tradition that was wearing thin.

Ashikaga Takauji was the most powerful of Japan's warlords. Only the prestige and power of Prince Morinaga could challenge his position. Fearing an attack by the emperor's son, Takauji arranged for Morinaga's arrest and confinement in 1334. The prince was taken to Kamakura, where Ashikaga Tadayoshi, Takauji's brother, ordered his execution the following year. The emperor pretended to know nothing of plots against Takauji and did nothing to save his own son, focusing instead on his devious intrigues to restore imperial power in Heian-kyo. Takauji left Heian-kyo in 1335 without the emperor's permission to help his brother who had been driven out of Kamakura. After retaking control of the city, Takauji refused to return to Heian-kyo where he no longer felt safe. In November 1335, Go-Daigo ordered the destruction of the Ashikaga family and gave Nitta Yoshisada command of the imperial forces needed to do the job. After a number of bloody clashes, the final battle between Go-Daigo's supporters and the Ashikaga brothers came on July 5, 1336, at the Minato River. The great loyalist Kusonoki Masashige led a heroic fight that defeated Nitta Yoshisada's command. Go-Daigo was forced to surrender the Imperial Regalia to Emperor Komyo, who took the throne in September 1336 from a different branch of the imperial line.

Ashikaga Takauji ruled from Heian-kyo, which came to be known as the northern court. In January 1337, Go-Daigo escaped Heian-kyo and fled to the mountains of southern Nara, where he established a second imperial court at Yoshino known as the southern court. He was joined by a number of former court ministers and officials and had the support of warriors who felt no loyalty to the Ashikaga. The existence of Go-Daigo's rival southern court and his descendants at Yoshino opened the door for countless local wars and vendettas fought in the name of one or the other imperial line for estates and local power. Japan endured over fifty years of civil war in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts, Nambokucho, a time when neither court managed to achieve victory nor establish an irrefutable claim to greater legitimacy than the other.

Ashikaga Takauji took the title of shogun in 1338 and attempted to recreate a unified political system centered on Heian-kyo. A cruel and calculating man, Takauji became shogun not because of his stature as the unchallenged leader of a victorious, unified samurai army, but simply because he was the most successful of Japan's ambitious military leaders. Neither he nor his successors ever laid claim to the direct loyalty of the majority of the samurai class that Yoritomo had, but they all recognized that Japan's warriors were now divided among many separate groups of lords and their armed retainers. All they could hope to accomplish was to extend their control over these lords and even in that restricted effort, they failed. Since their power rested on a carefully managed balance of power among their leading vassals, the Ashikaga never achieved full military control over all Japan. Civil war remained endemic throughout most of the period.

The Ashikaga established the facade of a centralized government that, superficially at least, appeared much like the former Kamakura bakufu. Beneath the veneer however, this shogunate was very different. In fact, it represented a distinctly different stage in the development of Japanese feudalism. The Ashikaga depended on their own landholdings and such trade taxes as they were able to impose in the capital district for their income. The shogunate was at best an uncertain coalition of major military families, many of whom only grudgingly recognized the Ashikaga's overlordship. In theory these families derived their positions as protectors over one or more provinces, but in truth their power rested on the estates they controlled themselves and on the personal loyalty of the lesser warrior families in their regions. This led to a consolidation of family power. The near constant warfare of the Nambokucho period triggered a gradual shift away from the Kamakura practice of dividing a man's estate among all his sons to a system where a single heir could inherit all or most of a family's authority and land holdings. A man retained the right to choose any of his sons as his heir and, if need be, to adopt a son, commonly a son-in-law or a member of a collateral branch of the family.

The Ashikaga Shogun's rule in the provinces was passed down through men called the shugo, the military arm of the government, and the jito, the civil arm of local government. The Nambokucho civil wars between 1330 and 1392 weakened jito authority to the point that, by the end of the century, the shugo stood alone as the shogun's deputy and military governor. Because the Ashikaga Shogun needed men he could rely on, many appointees were blood-relatives. Others were appointed simply because they were the strongest samurai in the province and thus more likely to command respect. The gradual rise of the shugo's status led to their acquistion of more inherited powers over local affairs. In time, they so fully appropriated local political and military authority that the practice of appointing civil governors was dropped altogether. While these regional military leaders were not full territorial lords like the daimyo of later times, they were clearly their forerunners and have often been called "protector daimyo," shugo-daimyo.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu became the third Ashikaga shogun in 1368 at the age of ten following his brother's death. Guided by Hosokawa Yoriyuki, a stern and upright warrior who held the post of kanrei, shogun's deputy, until the young Yoshimitsu reached the age of twenty-one, the Northern Court began to achieve more of an upper hand in its war with the Southern Court. In 1391, Yoshimitsu defeated the powerful Yamana family, which posed a great threat to his regime. The following year, the Southern Emperor, Go-Kameyama, and the Northern Emperor, Go-Komatsu, finally reached an agreement to end sixty-two years of war. The understanding was that if the Southern Court returned to Heian-kyo, the two imperial lines would alternate on the throne - a promise that was never fulfilled. Meanwhile, Yoshimitsu continued to eliminate his most serious rivals. With the defeat of the powerful Ouchi family of western Japan in 1399, Yoshimitsu established himself as the unchallenged power in Japan. The next three decades represented the only period of real peace and stability during the whole Ashikaga shogunate.

The Kamakura shogunate was a feudal military government that lived within the shell of an old imperial government and landholding system. Go-Daigo's blind and determined bid for power in 1331 brought the samurai onto center stage in Heian-kyo and triggered a major rebellion that all but destroyed the brittle shell of Japan's civil government and stifled central authority in the provinces. Any central authority that emanated from Heian-kyo came from the shogunate, not the imperial government. Even before the final collapse of the Kamakura bakufu, estate managers had so expanded their rights to income produced on their estates that in many cases they were sending half the revenue to the original land owners in Heian-kyo and keeping half for themselves.

Under Ashikaga Takauji provincial protectors had the right to half the estate's total income for military purposes. This cut revenue to the imperial court and the aristocracy even further. The incessant wars of the Ashikaga shogunate provided local strong men with ample opportunity to further reduce the few remaining property rights of the Heian-kyo aristocracy. Literally "starved" of their sustenance, many old court families just withered away. The great main line of the Fujiwara family sank into political impotence, although it continued to occupy the chief civil positions around the throne until the nineteenth century. Even the imperial family, deprived of many of its estates because of Go-Daigo's unrealistic attempt to regain power, declined into political passivity.


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A Confucianist Government Hansong-bu, Sorabol, So-ul, Seoul