Much ink has been spilled and many a frame shot on the story of the samurai. Warriors with a sword for each hand and an extraordinary commitment to a strict ethical code make for great film. But what was the world in which the samurai lived? The answer, simply put, was the shogunate: roughly seven hundred years of hereditary military rule.
Even when bloody, history remains a subject most often served dry. It is with this knowledge, dear reader, that we introduce the topic of the shogun: military dictator, leader of samurai, and head of feudal (read: land-based) social system. Through this period wanders the ronin, the famed and cinematic warrior without a lord. With this road-weary metaphor for the slog of time’s passage, let us begin as the folktales do. Mukashi mukashi: a long, long time ago...though exactly how long ago depends on how much truck you put in titles.
While the shogun origin story is fairly straightforward, exactly who was the first shogun is rather a contested subject. This is because the title “shogun” derives from a more ornate, ad hoc military title from the 8th century: Seii Taishogun: "Great Appeasing General of the Barbarians.” Several Seii Taishogun were named prior to the first of the three great Shogunates. (“Shogun states” you might call them.) Though these “first shogun” received their honorifics battling in the north, the simpler “Shogun” was a title seized, not given. The first to take the name? Minamoto no Yoritomo.
Kamakura is now a popular tourist destination with handicraft shops and a hollow Buddha statue large enough for a human to enter. In the shogun origin story, Kamakura is also the seat and namesake of the very first shogunate. The beginning of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192 marked the waning of the emperor’s once-real power to a purely symbolic status. In its place rose the warrior class. The transition was the fall-out of a years-long war between two clans. Their respective colors, red and white, would take on a national significance for centuries to come.
The Kamakura Shogunate, as with the shogunate that would follow, was a hereditary dictatorship, and required of each official shogun Japanese emperor approval. When great power relies on an infant’s birth and a figurehead’s nod, intrigue, plots, and back-stabbing necessarily follow. (The reader is advised to look up these juicy stories, but for brevity’s sake, our shogun primer must go on!) If we come away from this period with one more fact, it should be this: With the help of Korean intelligence, the Kamakura Shogunate defended Japan against not one, but two Mongol attacks by Kublai Khan. The storms which aided Japanese defense were called the wind of God. Thus was born the term kami-no-kaze.
At its downfall, Kamakura Shogunate clocked almost 150 years of military rule. In the 1330s, a former general and shogun, Japanese Emperor Go-Daigo attempted to regain control of the country. Though the emperor was quickly defeated and exiled in his first attempt, his samurai supporters and former general Ashikaga Takauji succeeded two years later. When they didn’t like the emperor’s management style, they overthrew him once more. In just a few years, former-ally Ashikaga was the new shogun Japanese Emperor Go-Daigo and the rest of Japan would answer to. After a brief imperial interlude, the Ashikaga (aka Muromachi) Shogunate became the second of Japan’s three major periods of shogun rule.
With the Ashikaga Shogunate, we return to the story of the samurai. One of the regime’s major changes was its reliance on shugo daimyo, military appointees and landlords of large parcels of privatized land. Shugo daimyo did not yet rely heavily on samurai protection, but this localization of power laid the foundation for this dynamic. With the dissolution of the Ahikaga Shogunate came another interlude in seven centuries of shogun rule. This time the break was longer—150 years—and during this time, samurai and clans waged civil war. This was the Sengoku Period, or Period of Warring States. The end to the violence came with a still more violent campaign in the 16th century to unify Japan.
Thanks to the relative order of reunification, the 250-year reign of the third and final period of shogun rule could begin. The Tokugawa Shogunate closed the nation’s borders and strictly divided society into a complex hierarchy of ruling, citizen, and untouchable classes. This focus on stabilization came with a period of economic flourishing. It wasn’t until the time of the American Civil War that The regime’s end came. A U.S. naval invasion led the shogun to break with a resistant imperial court. Battles broke out among those loyal to the emperor and others to the shogun. By 1868, the era of the shogun was over, samurai were outlawed, and Japan had been pried open once more to the rest of the world.