The Lord-Vassal System During Japan's Kamakura Period

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In a feudal system, vassals are subordinates who pledge their loyalty to powerful lords. Learn about the lord-vassal system during Japan's Kamakura period. Explore the Kamakura Shogunate, and review land and loyalty in the Kamakura Shogunate to understand feudalism in Japan, including the beginning of the Samurai class. Updated: 10/31/2021

The Kamakura Shogunate

The Japanese warrior culture is pretty well-known to us. Most of us have heard of the samurai, elite warriors that lived by a code of honor. But where did these warriors come from? They were part of an intricate system of lords and subjects in a period of wars and loyalties.

The name for the beginning of this era was the Kamakura Shogunate, which lasted from 1192-1333. A shogunate is a system where a military leader, called the 'shogun', ruled Japan. Japan still had an emperor, but the shogun was so powerful that he was the real power and directed the politics of the empire. The shogun was the leader of a powerful family. The Kamakura Shogunate was dominated by the Minamoto clan, who based their capital in the city of Kamakura.

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  • 0:02 The Kamakura Shogunate
  • 0:47 Land and Loyalty
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Land and Loyalty in the Kamakura Shogunate

When the Minamoto Shogun rose to prominence, he began reorganizing Japanese society. For the Minamoto to stay in power, they relied on a series of very loyal subjects called vassals. The vassals gave the shoguns soldiers or supplies and fought to control local territories in the name of the shogun. The vassals were rewarded for their service by being appointed as lesser lords and were given land that could be used for farming.

The vassals did not work the land; they simply owned it and hired peasants to do the hard labor, but owning agricultural land gave them the opportunity to increase their wealth and build their armies. These lands were called fiefs. The system in which a lord receives his power from owning land that is worked by peasants is called a feudal system.

The feudal system was introduced to Japan by the first shogun, named Minamoto no Yoritomo. In order to rise to power, Minamoto had created several alliances. Once he had consolidated Japan under his authority, he moved the capital to Kamakura and began confiscating land from former officials and gave that land to his vassals.

This was the first time that a military governor had taken control of the empire, and although the emperor was still officially in charge, Minamoto was the real power in Japan. His vassals controlled the lands that he gave them and formed the basis of a loyalty system that kept Minamoto in power.

The introduction of the feudal system to Japan changed their society. By owning land, the lesser lords could start building up their wealth and create their own armies. This created a society that highly valued both business and war. The lords surrounded themselves with a new class of highly-elite warriors called the samurai.

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