The Annotated Bushido


Bushi: A brief history

Note: This short history consolidates information found in a number of standard reference works and is not being presented as original research, although I cannot recall having seen a similar summary elsewhere in English. The source most heavily relied on was the relevant entry by historian Yoshie Akio in Shōgakukan's Nihon daihyakka zensho Nipponika (Encyclopedia Nipponica). The following words are treated as standard English words here and are not italicized after their initial appearance, although the macrons are retained: bushi, shōgun, daimyō, samurai.


The longstanding received view of the rise of bushi (武士) was that, first of all, powerful families (gōzoku) and major landowners in the provinces during the Heian period (794-1185) sought to expand their holdings while defending themselves against encroachment by others. Meanwhile, provincial governors (kokushi), supposedly representing the central government, increasingly exploited their positions for personal gain. As a result, the political structure became increasingly unstable, prompting these provincial agents to implement programs of military training among family members (ie no ko) and household retainers (kashin). The provincial bushi were the skilled fighters produced by such training -- roughly from the 10th century onward -- and cadres of such bushi grew to substantial size. These provincial bushi were also employed in the capital to provide protection to aristocrats and their property, and the aristocrats came to depend heavily on that protection. An expanding network of connections thus allowed bushi to insinuate themselves ever deeper into the central power structure.

The trouble with the received view is that no historical records exist documenting such military training among wealthy farmers and landholders in the provinces during the Heian period. Moreover, the clan histories of post-Heian bushi themselves trace clan origins to specific, named aristocrats. Because of these inconvenient truths, historians now seem to be working toward a consensus that several different types of armed fighters existed in the first half of the 10th century and that, by the time of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), they were subsumed under the generic term "bushi."

The first type of armed fighter was the professional soldier or warrior (tsuwamono; 兵). In the early stages, this included the motley assortment of hunters, murderers, arsonists, and other reprobates who provided the manpower for the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense of the North (chinjufu shōgun) or served under court officials in the imperial guards (konoe) and imperial police (kebiishi). These armed ruffians were frequently employed as mercenaries to resolve disputes between aristocrats, disputes between provincial landowners, and disputes between owners of private estates and regional government officials. As Heian society developed and the political structure diversified, more highly developed skills proved useful to the growing number of autonomous institutions with their own organs of government (kenmon; "gates of power"), resulting in what might be called a trained class of professional soldiers.

At the same time, individual aristocrats and aristocratic households were involved in establishing patron-client relationships with men who had either administrative talents or military skills. Both civilian and military retainers who served aristocrats privately were known as saburai (侍; the original form of "samurai," which literally means "one who serves"). Under this less strictly institutional arrangement, tsuwamono assumed the mantle of saburai /samurai, providing aristocrats with protection of person and property.

Likewise, the imperial court itself -- against a background of competition with other aristocratic families -- established patronage relationships with bushi who could then, for example, be dispatched to protect provincial officials, thus serving a public function. But these armed imperial retainers were also expected to look out for the private interests of emperors and retired emperors, so a certain ambivalence attended their service. The name given to these quasi-official bushi was mononofu (武者, although typically written in hiragana).

The ambiguity surrounding these three types of warrior can be observed, for example, in the rebellions that broke out in 935 under Taira no Masakado (? – 940) in the east and in 939 under Fujiwara no Sumitomo (? – 941) in the west. The tsuwamono who fought for the rebel leaders were for the most part spontaneously organized local groups of fighters, although they also included a number of former saburai and mononofu. Both rebel leaders had themselves served as saburai and mononofu. Meanwhile, the forces sent against them by the court, being sanctioned by the emperor, were mononofu, despite the fact that they owed their primary allegiance to the Minamoto (or Genji; 源氏) and Taira (or Heishi; 平氏) military clans.

By the early 11th century, the distinctions among the three terms had become increasingly vague, and when the Earlier Nine-Years’ War (1051-1062) and the Latter Three-Years’ War (1083-1087) were fought, fairly extensive military hierarchies were in place under the control of such dominant clans as the Minamoto and Taira, who were referred to as tōryō (棟梁; originally a reference to the ridgepole and crossbeams supporting the roof of a building). The Minamoto and Taira engaged in overt competition to provide services to the imperial court, in effect establishing themselves as political forces with public authority, and this competition led to the great military conflicts of the 12th century: the Hōgen Disturbance of 1156, the Heiji Disturbance of 1159, and the Genpei War of 1180-1185.

The apex of bushi influence within the confines of the court itself came in 1167, when Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181)  -- having eliminated his chief Minamoto rival -- assumed the position of Minister of State (daijōdaijin; sometimes referred to as "prime minister"). This year is therefore often taken to mark the start of bushi political dominance in Japan. However, it was Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) who, seven years after defeating the Taira in the Genpei War, assumed the title of seiitaishōgun (Great Barbarian-Subduing General; shōgun is a shortened form of this title, which was first used by the imperial court in 720) and established an independent military seat of government in Kamakura. This was the start of the Kamakura bakufu ("tent government"), and it is the Kamakura period that marks the start of Japan’s feudal period. (Note that the Kamakura period itself is variously said to start in 1180, 1183, 1184, 1185, 1192, or even 1221, with 1185 being the date taught in Japanese schools, since that was when Yoritomo established the military-governor and land-steward [shugo jitō] system of land control.)

Beginning with Yoritomo, bakufu rule -- if not individual lines of shōgun -- continued in Japan for around 680 years. Yoritomo’s third son was assassinated, bringing a fairly rapid end to the Minamoto line, and the Hōjō relatives of Yoritomo’s wife, Masako, assumed control. The Hōjō installed a series of compliant nobles as shōgun while exercising de facto control as regents until they were turned out in 1333 by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), in league with Nitta Yoshisada (1301-1338) and supported by other disgruntled Hōjō vassals.

A short hiatus ensued in which Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339), who had legitimized the overthrow of the Hōjō, attempted to reassert direct imperial rule, including the abolishment of the positions of regent (sesshō for regents of children and kanpaku for regents of adults). This attempt was frustrated by Ashikaga Takauji, who after a series of battles took full military control of Kyoto in 1336, when he promulgated the Kenmu shikimoku (Kenmu Code or Kenmu Formulary), officially establishing the political policy to be followed by a new shogunate. This year is therefore usually taken to mark the start of the Muromachi period (1336-1573). (Takauji was actually appointed shōgun in 1338, so that year is sometimes used instead as the period's starting point.) Unfortunately for Takauji, Go-Daigo himself fled south to Yoshino, where he established a rival court to the one in Kyoto under Ashikaga control. Although Go-Daigo died in 1339, the Southern Court in Yoshino was not reunited with the Northern Court in Kyoto until 1392. Thus, the period between 1336 and 1392 is often treated separately as the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Nanbokuchō jidai), with 1392 marking the true start of the Muromachi period.

During the period of the Northern and Southern Courts, the Ashikaga attempted to enlist the support of military governors (shugo were initially appointed by Minamoto no Yoritomo only to enforce military discipline and carry out policing activities) by investing them with the right to collect half of the local rice tax, which, together with the tax-collecting authority they obtained from owners of private estates, made it possible for them to draw local samurai more securely into their orbit. These military governors eventually asserted personal control over the provinces for which they were responsible, becoming shugo daimyō. Some families held multiple shugo posts: the Yamana, for instance, dominant on the Japan Sea side of western Honshu, held a total of 11 of the 66 provincial shugo posts available throughout the country.

As the shugo daimyō expanded their influence through the middle of the 16th century, the strength of the Ashikaga shogunate weakened, and in 1467 a conflict between the Hosokawa and Yamana families coincided with a shogunal succession dispute, giving rise to the 11-year Ōnin War. The war itself, which involved perhaps 270,000 bushi, reached an inconclusive outcome, but the city of Kyoto was largely laid to waste. The succeeding century or so -- known as the Warring States period (sengoku jidai) -- was a violent one in which the Ashikaga proved unable to contain the fighting among and within the various domanial groupings of bushi, many of whom overthrew the provincial shugo to claim daimyō status (the daimyō of this period are called sengoku daimyō). It was a time when social status proved to be no barrier to achieving one’s military and political ambitions, a time of ge-koku-jō ("low overthrowing high"). Domains in which former retainers wrested control from their superiors included Akita, Mogami, Uesugi, Oda, and Mōri. Domains in which shugo daimyō were themselves powerful enough to evolve into sengoku daimyō included Satake, Takeda, Imagawa, Yamana, and Shimazu. Domains in which regional gōzoku or local bushi emerged as sengoku daimyō included Nanbu, Date, Hōjō, and Ryōzōji. The sengoku daimyō often issued household codes (bunkoku-hō or kahō) applicable to those residing in their domains, bushi and commoner alike.

The last Ashikaga shogun was driven from power in 1573 by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), sengoku daimyō of Owari (in the western part of modern-day Aichi Prefecture). Nobunaga set out to unify the country by force and was doing a pretty good job of it until one of his retainers betrayed him, forcing Nobunaga to commit suicide. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a talented general who served under Nobunaga, swept aside all opposition and completed the task of unification in 1590. Two ill-advised incursions into Korea followed, during the second of which Hideyoshi fell ill and died (in Japan). Neither Nobunaga nor Hideyoshi acquired the title of seiitaishōgun (the former because of his abrupt death, the second because he preferred court rank). Instead, it was Hideyoshi’s ally Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) -- sengoku daimyō of the province of Mikawa (in what is now eastern Aichi Prefecture) -- who eliminated his rivals, led by Ishida Mitsunari (1560-1600), in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and assumed the title of shōgun in 1603. The interim between 1573, when Nobunaga acquired dominance, and 1598, when Hideyoshi died, is referred to as the Azuchi-Momoyama period, on the basis of the castles built by Nobunaga (at Azuchi) and Hideyoshi (at Momoyama). Again, it should be noted that beginnings and endings of historical periods are subject to disagreement. For example, to keep the dating tidy, the Azuchi-Momoyama period is frequently extended past Hideyoshi’s death to 1600, when Ieyasu won his decisive victory, or to 1603, when the Tokugawa bakufu was officially established.

The Tokugawa bakufu maintained its headquarters in Edo, and a total of 15 members of the Tokugawa family served as shōgun until imperial rule was officially restored in 1867. This was the final period of feudalism in Japan, the Edo (or Tokugawa) period. During that time, an impressively fashioned system of what has been termed decentralized feudalism was established, centering on three classes of daimyō (the categories were somewhat fluid in practice): shinpan daimyō (descended from Ieyasu’s sons), fudai daimyō (vassals of the Tokugawa before the Battle of Sekigahara), and tozama daimyō (those who became Tokugawa vassals only after the Battle of Sekigahara). The key domains of Owari, Kii, and Mito, initially headed by three of Ieyasu’s 11 biological sons, enjoyed the highest status among the shinpan daimyō. The total number of daimyō at any one time during the Edo period was about 260.

The Code for the Military Houses (Buke shohatto) -- promulgated in 1615 under the name of the second shōgun, Hidetada, and fully implemented by the third shōgun, Iemitsu -- proved effective in regulating the behavior of the daimyō, stipulating such duties as kōtai sankin (alternate attendance, requiring daimyō to spend alternate years in Edo) and such punishments for misconduct as kaieki (domain confiscation) and ryōchi-gae (domain transfer). Vendettas and succession disputes occurred, of course, but by and large the Edo period is known as a period of "great peace" (taihei), at least in institutional terms. Bushi themselves, while ostensibly maintaining military readiness, also took up domanial administrative posts and devoted themselves to scholarship, sometimes with subversive implications. Economic and intellectual trends through the 19th century did eventually lead to growing domestic political instability, and the encroachment of foreign powers in the 19th century -- culminating with the visits of Commodore Matthew Perry’s "black ships" in 1853 and 1854 -- proved to be the catalyst that finally provoked regime change. Toward the end of 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), the last shōgun, officially returned the reins of government to the emperor, ending bakufu control and ushering in the modern period.

A new government composed largely of those opposed to Tokugawa rule renamed Edo as Tokyo and transferred the emperor there (from Kyoto) in 1868, even as it went about eliminating supporters of the Tokugawa in the Boshin War of 1868-1869. "Meiji" was adopted as the new era name, and reforms were instituted that rapidly deprived the bushi of their traditional social role. In 1871, domains were abolished and replaced with prefectures, with bushi officially being classified as shizoku ("bushi-kind"), a category that was made the social equal of kazoku (court nobles and daimyō) and heimin ("common people," referring to townsmen and farmers); only members of the imperial family (kōzoku) retained privileged status. Conscription was instituted in 1873, meaning that combat was no longer the special prerogative of bushi; the wearing of swords was restricted to certain specific purposes in 1876; and in 1877 the Satsuma Rebellion put an end to all overt armed resistance to the new civilian political system. Although the administrative and leadership skills many bushi had cultivated continued to stand them in good stead individually throughout the Meiji period (1868-1912), their status as a privileged class of professional warriors had come to an end.