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Article - 'Culture of Japan – The Feudal Era' by KaosTenshi

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Aug 8, 2003


The first in a series of articles about Japan’s most bloody, lawless time, intended as a first step into researching culture to create Feudal Japanese RPGs and stories.


This is the first in a series of articles about Japan’s most bloody, lawless time, intended as a first step into researching culture to create Feudal Japanese RPGs and stories.

What Was the Sengoku Period?

‘Sengoku Jidai’ translates to ‘The Age of the Country at War’, which is a very accurate title for this time in Japan’s history. Japan’s imperial family had become a symbol of power instead of actually wielding it. Emperor Go-Daigo attempted to restore an imperial administrative system and rid Japan of its shogunate. The shogun was originally intended to relieve the emperor of the ‘day-to-day stresses of power’ by commanding the military, taxes, laws, and such. When Go-Daigo tried to take back the power of Japan for the imperial family, his shogunate, the Ashikaga Clan, rebelled against him.

The Ashikaga Clan drove Go-Daigo from the capitol of Kyoto and for over fifty-years fought him and his descendants, but in 1392, the Ashikaga Shogunate convinced Go-Daigo to give them the Crown Jewels and other imperial treasures, thus making the Ashikaga Clan the rulers of Japan. The Ashikaga Shogunate placed a more ‘easily controlled’ emperor over Japan and continued to control Japan as shoguns. This became known as the Ashikaga Period of Japan, marking a time in which the samurai became more than just warriors, and were refined into artists and writers as well. During this time, the imported Chinese religion of Buddhism became a political power in Japan as well.

It was Ashikaga Yoshimasa who eventually brought about the downfall of his clan after thirty years of their reign. He squandered the imperial fortunes on entertainment in the forms of tea ceremonies, poetry readings, and such. He couldn’t, or perhaps more accurately, he wouldn’t stop the decline of his family’s fortune and power, thus allowing power to slip into the hands of the large and influential feudal lords known as Daimyo. Finding himself unable to control these Daimyo, Ashikaga Yoshimasa could only watch as Japan slipped into the Sengoku Period.

The Daimyo were ambitious, the most powerful believing that they and their clan should replace the Ashikaga Shogunate. The Ashikaga Shogunate only continued to prove how worthless they were as leaders, and it’s even said that Ashikaga Yoshimasa tried to pawn his own armor to pay for his very expensive pastimes, such as flower-viewing parties! The Daimyo became increasingly belligerent, and saw this as a time to take action.

Not only were the powerful samurai clans becoming upset, but the usually peaceful peasants were fed up with it as well. They were usually considered safe from war; their biggest concern was getting fields trampled by the army, or sometimes even stolen by hungry soldiers. They didn’t even have to worry about being raped, killed, or drafted into military service. However, something else was threatening to destroy their lives… over-taxation. Ashikaga’s expensive pastimes were being taken out on the peasants, and they were forced to pay for his arts and parties. Peasants were considered the bottom of the social ladder, but even those above them were suffering.

There was a class known as the ‘ji-samurai’; while they were officially of samurai lineage, they were farmers, merchants, and artisans as well. They were the ‘rung of the ladder’ between the samurai who did nothing but serve their lords, and the peasants who were strictly farmers. However, they were also being strangled by taxes, and soon came to seek the protection of Daimyo. This came at a price though; they not only pledged themselves and their clan to their warlord, but they gave him their land as well. Much of this changed, though, when the ji-samurai and peasants alike formed groups called ‘ikki’, who were essentially independent defense corps. They lead a revolt in Kyoto, which triggered similar revolts all throughout Japan to get the attention of the Daimyo. Thirteen years later, they revolted again to stop taxes, besieging Kyoto with riots and arson. After a week of rioting, the Shogunate was forced to cancel all debts, thus relieving the people of their stress. This, however, was a two-edged sword.

In a span of fourteen years between 1447 and 1461, Kyoto would see four more revolts as the ikki followed in the footsteps of those who fought before them. The ikki were not to be underestimated as simple farmers, as they single-handedly slaughtered a force of eight hundred samurai that the shogun sent to quell the rebellion.

If one did not wish to join the ikki, a peasant was able to side with a Daimyo and become peasant warriors known as ‘ashigaru’. All that he would need was a suit of light armor and a weapon. These things were incredibly easy to obtain in this time. It was rare for a peasant to raise his clan’s rank above anything but peasantry by his battle prowess, but the small chance was always there. If a man couldn’t bring his family power, he could at least bring them money from the spoils of war.

Many recognize the Onin War in 1467 as being the true beginning of the Sengoku Period, even though the signs of the time had begun long before. This war was centralized in Kyoto, and there was little fighting anywhere else. The war was sparked when the powerless Shogun, Yoshimasa, drug his surprised brother Yoshimi from a Buddhist monastery to announce that his brother would be the heir to the shogunate. A year later, Yoshimasa had a son that he named Yoshihisa. When his son was born, he changed his mind and decided his son would be the heir to the Shogunate instead of his brother! This, needless to say, enraged Yoshimi. With the brothers Yoshimasa and Yoshimi at each other’s throats, they soon found allies… the Hosokawa Clan and the Yamana Clan, who had been rivals for years, naturally decided to take opposing sides in this new conflict. The Yamana Clan, lead by Yamana Sozen who was known for his horrible temper, decided to support the existing Shogun and his infant heir. Hosokawa Matsumoto decided to place his clan’s support behind the current Shogun’s brother.

As if this weren’t already a volatile enough situation, blood was involved… the leader of the Yamana Clan, Yamana Sozen, was Hosokawa Katsumoto’s father-in law!

The battles that ensued would destroy North Kyoto, while the Ashikaga Shogunate did nothing to stop them. His lack of response to the war was warped by the Daimyo into the Shogun’s sanctioning of private wars, which quickly spread through the peaceful country, now that there was no one to stop them.

By 1530, the wars of the Sengoku Period had been being fought for over two generations, and were still far from being over. The war was now in full swing, leaving nine major powers to war over Japan. The daimyo were the Mori Clan, the Shimazu Clan, the Oda Clan, the Takeda Clan, the Imagawa Clan, the Uesugi Clan, and the Hojo Clan. The ninth of the parties involved were the ‘unaligned’ samurai, known as rounin. The name rounin translates literally to ‘one who is cast upon the waves’, which is quite fitting for them. If a Daimyo were killed with no male heirs to take his place, then his forces would shatter and his samurai would have nowhere to go. The rounin were the samurai ‘cast to the winds of fate’ by loosing their Daimyo, or even by being dishonored and thrown out of their clans.

Now more than ever before the peasants were in danger as well. Crops would be trampled and stolen still, but now their own back yards had become battlefields, not just trails for samurai to walk along. They were in danger of being killed by samurai in their own streets, women were under the threat of being raped, and men were always in fear that a Daimyo seeking more power would start ordering entire towns and villages of men to join their forces or die dishonorably as cowards. These rounin were wanderers and even mercenaries, who would be hired by small village’s ikki to help defend them.

In the 1590s, ‘gaijin’, or outsiders, first arrived in Japan. These were the Portuguese, who offered to sell their weapons to Daimyo if that Daimyo would embrace Roman Catholicism. The ‘arquebus’ rifles that the Portuguese brought, using the same kind of gunpowder that the Japanese had seen in China long ago, were a great blessing to the Daimyo. However, Roman Catholicism brought about a greater threat. Even more dangerous than peasant revolts were religious revolts, when the once pacifist Buddhist ‘Ikko-Ikki’ would charge into battle without fear, fighting with the belief that paradise awaited them on the other side as rewards for them sacrificing their lives. The greater the army they fought against, the harder they would fight for their faith. It wasn’t until the Dutch arrived much later that a Daimyo could purchase arquebus without having to convert to Roman Catholicism, as the Dutch were only interested in their money, and couldn’t care less about their souls.

The Ashikaga Shogunate’s reign came to an end after two hundred years of ignoring their people when they proved they didn’t have the power to control Japan’s great clans. All of the Daimyo knew that one man, who must be a great warrior, strategist, and leader, could rule Japan.

Next Article: Culture of Japan – Armies, Arms, and Armor; a look at the militaries of the Sengoku Period, their weapons, and their armor.