Medieval Japan: Religion, Government & Economy

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  • 0:04 Medieval Japan
  • 0:52 Government
  • 2:52 The Medieval Economy
  • 3:35 Religion
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Japan's medieval period was similar to Europe's in many ways, with a powerful warrior class, codes of chivalry, and a rise in religion. In this lesson, we'll explore Japan's medieval era and see how it impacted Japanese history.

Medieval Japan

Most people have a basic picture in their minds of Medieval Europe. Knights in shining armor fought in holy crusades, jousted for sport, and wooed ladies fair with their code of chivalry. But have you ever heard these ideas applied to Japan?

Over in Japan, many of the concepts we associate with medieval Europe were also occurring. There was a strong warrior class that worked its way into the nobility, a decentralized government that bowed to warlords in their castles, a surge in religious fervor, and a strict code of honor. The Japanese even had their own dragons. Considering all these similarities, we call the era from roughly 1180-1600 CE Japan's medieval period. They say history can repeat itself, but in this case, history was mirroring itself a continent away.


To understand medieval Japan, we need to understand three things: government, economics, and religion. Sorry, no dragons this time. Let's start by looking at medieval government.

At the head of Japan's government was the emperor, a hereditary monarch with unchecked authority, at least in theory. In reality, the emperor was a figurehead throughout the medieval period, someone with great cultural authority but no real political power. That rested with the shogun, the most powerful warlord in Japan. The shogun was appointed by the emperor and the supreme military commander, but this warlord ultimately surpassed the emperor's authority and ruled Japan.

This arrangement was solidified around 1185 CE when the Minamoto clan defeated the rival Taira clan and became the most powerful warring family in Japan. The Minamoto established the first shogunate, or bakufu, which means ''tent government,'' or one ruled by the military. The Minamoto bakufu was known as the Kamakura shogunate, which dominated Japan from 1185-1333 CE. They were later replaced by the Ashikaga clan, who started the Muromachi shogunate (1336-1573 CE). These were the families that defined medieval Japan.

The power of the shogun rested on territorial warlords called daimyo. The daimyo pledged their allegiance to the shogun, but many ruled over their domains like princes, with little oversight or regulation. The shogun could rally the daimyo to fight for him but also had to keep them appeased, to prevent them from rebelling and inserting a new shogun.

Under the daimyo, were a set of vassals and lesser lords, and most notably an entire class of noble warriors called the bushi. The modern term for this class is samurai. Samurai lived in the daimyo's castle and vowed to serve him for life. Their behavior was regulated by a strict code of conduct known as bushido. If we look at all of this in parallels to Europe, the daimyo are the lords and the samurai are the chivalrous knights.

The Medieval Economy

Daimyo, with their armies of samurai, battled for control throughout the medieval period, so this was an era of perpetual warfare. Despite that, Japan's economy actually grew at this time. New innovations in agriculture and technology allowed for more productive farms, merchants traded more with China and Korea, and artisans found plenty of daimyo to support their crafts.

That being said, medieval Japan still existed within a feudal structure. There was a strong social hierarchy, with only those of the aristocratic classes being able to own property. Each daimyo controlled a specific territory and gave fiefs, or parcels of land, to his vassals. So, either you owned land as a noble or you worked the land as a peasant.

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