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Feudalism in Japan Essay

Introduction

Feudalism that existed in Japan in the period spanning the period between the 8th and 15th centuries A.D. left a lasting imprint on the national culture and development. The political, social and cultural life of the nation continues to bear the imprint of the samurai philosophy and code of ethics that continues to stir the imagination of people around the world, with the “Last Samurai” being the latest major example. Complex bureaucracy, division of society into classes, acceptance of death, and glorification of the warrior stem from that period and continue to impact modern-day Japan.

Source Commentary

The roots of Japanese culture. 14 February 2006 <http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Towers/9151/culthist.html>.
The source provides an overview of the Japanese cultural trends and historical influences on them. It helps to understand how the Samurai culture and other developments of the feudal period influenced modern Japan.

Norman, E. H. “People Under Feudalism.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 9.2 (1977): 57+.
This text provides an interesting investigation into the life of people under feudalism in Japan and government policies. It allows the readers to see how the political makeup under feudalism helped create a totally peculiar atmosphere that penetrated all corners of the Japanese society.
Blomberg, Catharina. The Heart of the Warrior: Origins and Religious Background of the Samurai System in Feudal Japan. Sandgate: Japan Library, 1994.

Catharina Blomberg’s book describes the formation and development of the samurai system that formed the backbone of the feudal governance. Samurai’s code of ethics, religious influences, Tokugawa Bakufu, Bushido and other realia of the period are explored in depth.

Development

Feudalism in Japan, as noted above, crystallized in the 8th century with the formation of the aristocratic rule in the Heian Period (794-1185) (The roots of Japanese culture). In the middle of the 12th century, the nation witnesses the rise of the new warrior class – samurai, representing servants to feudal lords. The power of the Emperor experienced rises and declines, and the real power was often in the hands of the military leader called Shogun, a title first earned by Yarimoto in the 12th century. Under the leadership of Shogun Tokugawa in the late 16th century, Japanese feudalism reached its heyday as the powers of the Bakufu, the central government were expanded over a significant territory (Blomberg 1994:149).

The samurai, the backbone of the Japanese feudal system, preached a specific philosophy reflected in Bushido, or the Way of the Samurai that was codified in Tokugawa’s times. The samurai were to be first of all loyal to their master and efficient warriors: “Bun and Bu, learning and the military arts, were to form the guiding principle in the lives of all samurai” (Blomberg 1994:149). They had to be fearless, and death in combat was considered an honor rather than misfortune. This conviction is reflected in the final episode of the “Last Samurai” where the characters go to sure death. This explains tolerance and greater respect for death in the Japanese society of today in comparison to Western cultures.

Feudalism is also responsible for the creation of a strict caste system. In particular the Tokugawa rule promoted “the strict separation of classes, or rather the freezing of classes; the binding of peasants to the soil through the prohibition of the right of free movement” (Norman1977: 57). This created sensitivity to social distinction that still persists in modern-day Japan. One must also remember that while in Europe class distinctions were blurred with every century, in Japan this caste system remained in place until the 19th century. Thus, during the Edo Era (1600-1868), a woman faced imprisonment because of wearing “clothes deemed to be “above her station” (The roots of Japanese culture). Under feudalism, social differences were visible in all spheres of life: thus only the privileged classes could carry arms, and peasants were disarmed by force (Norman1977: 57).

The strict regulations established under feudalism and the persistence of the system over time entrenched in the Japanese submission and respect for authority. Under Tokugawa, the government went as far as prohibit any public meetings and withhold from ordinary citizens the legal codes lest they should find ways to circumvent them (Norman1977: 57). The government policies also fostered collectivism visible, for instance, in the goningumi (five families) law that “organized local families into groups of two to ten families, making all responsible for the behaviour of each individual member of the group” and punishing all for the offence of one (The roots of Japanese culture).

Thus, the feudal period is the key to understanding of modern Japan. Persisting for eight centuries, feudalism resulted in the creation of a very specific culture that accounts for many features of contemporary Japan. Deference for authority, adoration of warriors, importance of status, and collectivism are only a few of the features that can be traced to feudal Japan.