<Standard WHI.24.......................................................................................................................Standard WHI.26>

Summarize the major economic, political, and religious developments in Japanese history to 1800

Arrow maker "Ya-shi" (late 15th - early 16th century) (
Arrow maker "Ya-shi" (late 15th - early 16th century) (

Topics on the Page

Periods in Japanese History

Shinto, Japanese Buddhism and Japanese Confucianism

Development of Feudalism

Shoguns, Daimyo and Samurai

Women Warriors and Emperors

Focus Question: What were the major economic, political and religious developments in Japanese history?

Periods in Japanese History
timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for a timeline of Japanese history which includes a sidebar with events from Western history for comparison.
-300 BC
300 BC-300
1603 - 1867

I. The Evolution of Shinto, Japanese Buddhism, and Japanese Confucianism

  • Sea_of_Japan_Map.png
    Map of Japan
    There are two principal religions in Japan
    • Shintosim: 54% of the population
      • More of a set of traditions and customs than religion
      • Not bound by a formal set of rules, like the Bible in Christianity or Koran in Islam
      • Classified as an animist religion
        • People believe in the spirits of nature (kami)
        • Can be found in a tree, rock, waterfall, etc.
    • Buddhism: 40% of the population
    • greatest part of the population only visiting temples for the New Year.
    • many people would be at a loss to say which element belongs to which religion.
    • History of Shintoism
    • Multimedia.pngVisit here for the companion site to the PBS film "The Buddha" which provides useful resources, games, timelines and multimedia tools to help students learn about Buddhism.

  • Confucianism was brought over to Japan in the 3rd century from Korea
  • the elites of Japan studied Confucianism for its teachings about divination over ethics and politics.
    • Confucianism emphasized merit over birthright which went against Japanese culture
      • Because of this, Confucianism was remodeled in the 1100's and it became more widely accepted
      • Confucianism in Japan

    • There is a Christian minority in Japan that dates back from the contact with Portuguese and Spanish missionaries in the 16th century Christians only make up 1% of the population.
        • population most are to be found on the southern island of Kyushu and especially in the city of Nagasaki.
          There are only a few thousand Muslims residing in Japan. All of them are immigrants from Muslim countries mostly Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, or recent Japanese converts who married them.

  • The 20th century has seen the emergence of new cults
    • Many of which are based on Shinto and/or Buddhist beliefs.
    • The most influential of them is Soka Gakkai
      • Form of the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin founded in 1930.
      • It has several million followers in Japan
      • Related to the political party Komeito ("Clean Government Party").
    • New religious groups have not always cohabtited peacefully with the rest of the population
      • also showed the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground, perpetrated by members of the religious group Aum Shinrikyo.

II. The Development of Feudalism

Feudalism was a political system in place in Europe, Japan, and China for many centuries. It is useful to reflect on the way this political system works to maintain social order. In many respects it is similar to the chiefdom political organization of the Celts or Africa.

European Feudalism

  • Feudalism was a medieval contractual relationship among the upper classes, by which a lord granted land to his men in return for military service.
    • These men had vassals who served them who were usually peasants or serfs.
  • Feudalism was further characterized by the localization of political and economic power in the hands of lords and their vassals and by the exercise of that power from the base of castles, each of which dominated the district in which it was situated.
    • This formed a pyramidal type of hierarchy. The term feudalism thus involves a division of governmental power spreading over various castle-dominated districts downward through lesser nobles.
      • Feudalism does not infer social and economic relationships between the peasants and their lords. This is better defined as manorialism.

Diagrammatic feudalism resembles a pyramid, with the lowest vassals at its base and the lines of authority flowing up to the peak of the structure, the king.

Feudal institutions varied greatly from region to region, and few feudal contracts had all the features described here.
  • Common to all, however, was the process by which one nobleman (the vassal) became the man of another (the lord) by swearing homage and fealty. This was originally done simply to establish a mutually protective relationship, but by 1000 A.D. vassalage brought with it a fief--land held in return for military service. With the vassal's holding of a fief went rights of governance and of jurisdiction over those who lived there.

  • Lord and vassal were interlocked in a web of mutual rights and obligations, to the advantage of both.
  • Whereas the lord owed his vassal protection, the vassal owed his lord a specified number of days annually in offensive military service and in garrisoning his castle.
  • The lord was expected to provide a court for his vassals, who, in turn, were to provide the lord with counsel before he undertook any initiative of importance to the feudal community as a whole--for example, arranging his own or his children's marriages or planning a crusade.

Screen Shot 2016-11-05 at 1.55.53 PM.png
Image from Global History Regents Review, Boise State

rotating gif.gifSee World History I.7 for background on feudalism in medieval Europe. See more on European Feudalism at the bottom of this page

Japanese Feudalism

Japanese Feudalism from Boise State University

Click here for a break down of hierarchies in feudal Japan as well as a timeline of Japanese Feudalism.

To learn more about Feudal Japan and the "Age of the Warrior", click here

Check out this video on Japan in the Heian period from Crash Course World History with author, John Green.

Check out this page on Japanese life during the Edo period.

III. The rise of the Shoguns and the role of the Samurai

external image 51Ucz6tewAL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg


War played a central part in the history of Japan.
  • Warring clans controlled much of the country. A chief headed each clan that was made up of related families. The chiefs were the ancestors of Japan's imperial family. The wars were usually about land since only 20% of the land was fit for farming. The struggle for control of that land eventually gave rise to the Samurai.
  • Legend says that Emperor Keiko was the first person with the title of "Shogun."
    • The word meant "Barbarian-subduing General." Legend continues that Keiko had a son named "Prince Yamato." He was cunning, fearless, strong and a great martial artist.
      • Many believe that Yamato was a role model for future Samurai.

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 4.39.15 PM.pngClick here for a biography of Tokugawa leyasu, the most famous Shogun from Japan's feudal period.


external image daimyo1.jpg

See PBS: Memories of a Secret Empire for a brief description of Daimyos

Multimedia.pngDaimyo: The Arts of Feudal Japan
  • This a 27-minute film from 1988, explores the “dual way” of the feudal lords (Daimyo) in Japan, in which skill in the warrior arts was balanced by time and attention to the peaceful arts, including calligraphy, poetry and the tea ceremony

The Samurai rose out of the continuing battles for land among three main clans: the Minamoto, the Fujiwara and the Taira.
  • The Samurai eventually became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D. They were called by two names: Samurai (knights-retainers) and Bushi (warriors).
    • Some of them were related to the ruling class. Others were hired men.
      • They gave complete loyalty to their Daimyo (feudal landowners) and received land and position in return. Each Daimyo used his Samurai to protect his land and to expand his power and rights to more land.

The Samurai became experts fighting from horseback and on the ground. They practiced armed and unarmed combat. The early Samurai emphasized fighting with the bow and arrow. They used swords for close fighting and for beheading their enemies.

Traditional Samurai Armor

Multimedia.pngMultimedia Resources

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngThis is a Lesson Plan for Japanese History focusing on the feudal system. This webpage simply explains the social structure of Japan during this time period. Feudal System

game_icon.svg.pngClick here to view an overview by the Met Museum of the Japanese Empire in the 1800s, beautifully summing up events that led to social, political and economic change.
  • This link also provides details on the art history of Japan during that time period, and displays a timeline covering the Edo period and the Meiji Restoration.

womens history.jpg

Japanese Women Warriors and Emperors

Image to the left is Ishi-jo, wife of Oboshi Yoshio, one of the "47 loyal ronin." Print by Kuniyoshi, 1848
Empress Kōgyoku (Saimei)
Empress Kōgyoku (Saimei)

A Long History - Japanese Women Warriors

Nakano Takeko (1847-1868) YouTube video Nakana Takeko
Samurai Women from PBS

Japan's Female Emperors from BBC News (May, 2001)
Click here to read a chapter on Japan's Early Female Emperors.
Empress Kōgyoku (Saimei)--594–661, reigned 642–45 and 655–61

Supplemental Learning

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 11.01.04 AM.pngSee Influential Literature Page on Haiku Poetry

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.16.22 AM.pngJapanese Music- Tears of the Samurai

primary_sources.PNGScrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan

game_icon.svg.pngWelcome to Edo, a virtual tour of ancient Toyko, the center of government, economic, and social life under the Shogun


Maciamo, 2004. Japan's Political System. Retrieved February 22, 2007, From Japan Reference Web Site: http://www.jref.com/society/japan_political_system.shtml
Japanese Buddhism. Retrieved February 22, 2007, from Japan Reference Site: http://www.jref.com/culture/japanese_buddhism.shtml

McGee, 1998. Samurai - a brief history. Retrieved February 22, 2007, from http://members.tripod.com/~MickMc/samurai.html.

Japanese Periods, http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2126.html