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‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II




The Third Shogunate


Shogun: Military Dictator or Barbarian Killing Generalassimo.


For centuries before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (When power was restored to Emperor Meiji) real power lay with the Shogun. The emperor had his way only when it coincided with that of the Shogun; otherwise the emperor was simply overruled.


Around the time of the Heian period (794-1185 CE) the Samurai were originally attendants to the Japanese Noblemen. The term comes from the word ‘saburau’ which means to serve as an attendant. The samurai exercised real control over property and policy in the name of the landlords who were absentee owners. Their hands-on control gave them a vice-like grip over the nation and this enabled them to get power and money. The decentralised power of samurai (government officials) contributed to the downfall of the central government (absentee owners/noblemen), which was simply starved of tax revenues.


Subsequently the samurai’s parallel government called the Bakufu (or Tent Government) took control of Japan. A military dictatorship or Shogunate was established in this manner. The emperor became a nominal figurehead but remained an important symbol.


Though Japan was dominated by the Shogun, the entire nation was still not united. One reason for this enduring nature of fragmented power was geography. As an island Japan was at the time immune to foreign invasion, therefore there never was the need for a national army which might have united the numerous power factions. Only clans on the frontier districts assumed responsibility for defence against the recalcitrant Ainu people in the north-east, and these clans’ experience in defence gave them the martial experience that was soon in demand by landowners and other clans. Loyalties shifted towards the powerful clans.


The first Shogunate (1333 CE) takes its name from its capital city Kamakura and its government was controlled by noblemen with martial experience. By the time the second Shogunate was established in 1573 most of the noblemen were replaced with a warrior class that had little to do with the old guard aristocracy. This Shogunate was dominated by the Ashikaga clan and moved its capital to the imperial city of Kyoto in the Muromachi district.


Towards the end of the Ashikaga era, Japan was slipping deeper into civil war and an arms race began. This to the established social order falling apart and power being usurped in favour of the strongest faction. Civil warfare and unrest was the order of the day. Power was decentralised and fragmented, and loyalties were up open to negotiation. Bloodshed and conflict had been a way of life for centuries, and this environment contributed to the development of Japan’s martial philosophies.


Three hegemons emerged from this chaos.


The first - Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582 CE), captured Kyoto in 1568 and replaced the Ashikaga Shogunte and set up his very own Shogun. English historian George Samson describes Nobunaga as ‘a cruel and callous brute’. Nobunaga punished a would-be assassin by having him buried to the neck and assaulted by passersby. He allowed Jesuit missionary priests to build a church in Kyoto but his interest in Christianity was purely political. Jesuits were allowed to preach in order to balance the influence of the militant Tendai Buddhist monks. Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582.


Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536/37 - 1598), one of Nobunaga’s generals took over Japan claiming the right after avenging Nobunaga’s death. Hideyoshi was of humble birth, but rose to power and became known as the soldier-dictator. He prohibited the customs of political marriages, political hostage taking and established a class system adopted on the lines of the ancient Chinese. Swords and other weaponry were confiscated from all but the warrior class 


It is important to note that despite the nominal power of the emperor, only he can bestow the title of Shogun, and despite the enormous influence and military prowess wielded by Hideyoshi, he was denied the title because of his humble birth. He came to be known by his highest title of ‘Taiko’ and was also appointed ‘Kampaku’ or Chancellor to the Emperor. Hideyoshi was an exceptional general and statesman, distinguishing himself in martial and civilian spheres. However his attempted invasions of Korea (1592, 1597) failed.


Till late in life Hideyoshi had no male heir and his son – Hideyori was five at the time of his death in 1598. Hideyoshi had established a council of elders to rule in the name of his young son until he came of age.


The political system in Japan was getting more complicated. There was a nominal Emperor, an underage heir to a dictatorship, a council of regents to rule in the name of the dictator and several regional powers.


As a young boy Ieyasu Tokugawa was kept as political hostage in the court of Oda Nobunaga’s father. He studied cultural and martial arts in the court of his ‘patron captor’ and after years serving as a retainer he was finally independent, becoming daimyo of his own fief.


He allied himself with Oda Nobunaga later and then with Hideyoshi. However after Hideyoshi’s death Ieyasu came to the forefront of Japanese politics. His personal territories were expanding rapidly and an alliance of daimyos was set up to limit his influence. The council of regents was still ruling the land in the name of Hideyoshi’s son but they were torn among themselves and lacked unity. This presented an opportunity for Ieyasu. First he went to war against the faction of daimyos hostile towards him and defeated them in 1600 CE at the Battle of Sekigahara. This established him as the most powerful warlord in Japan.


Secondly he went and got himself appointed Shogun by the Emperor. Ieyasu was a bonafide candidate not only because of his birth, power and strategically sound position, but because he could put an end to the civil war that was ravaging Japan. The promise of financial support for the imperial court didn’t hurt his chances.


Thirdly he waited for a chance to remove his only threat to power – Hideyori, who was soon coming of age. As soon as a small opportunity was provided by Hideyoshi’s widow – Yodo, Ieyasu exaggerated the threat and laid siege to Hideyori’s residence at the Osaka Castle which lasted until 1615. The Taiko’s line was exterminated.


The third Shogunate or the Tokugawa Shogunate was established after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1603 by Ieyasu Tokugawa. Ieyasu reestablished the practice of taking political hostages and forging alliances through marriage many years before. These methods were refined and skillfully executed to keep the Tokugawa clan in power.


Ieyasu’s keen observation of what worked in the past and understanding of the volatility of times enabled him to establish in his Shogunate a system of checks and counter-checks against coups and other threats. Indeed he put into place systems that ensured that means he himself used to come into power were not available to would-be usurpers/upstarts; and this ensured that the Shogunate remained in power for over two and a half centuries. The Tokugawa period became known as the ‘great peace’.


This peace was maintained by keeping the daimyos or feudal lords in control. In the Tokugawa shogunate, family ties were given importance and those linked to the shogun by blood were placed at the top of the government and social order. They were followed by those linked to the Tokugawa by marriage or business. Others who had to be made to submit formed the outer circle. All lords had to permanently keep their families as ‘hostage’ in the capital city of Edo. The feudal lords would visit the capital once a year and stay for six months. Their finances were kept in check by encouraging them to show their wealth in competition with other daimyos, each succeeding generation of daimyo was more easily convinced to spend. Europeans, especially missionaries, were banished; only the Dutch were permitted one trading station in Nagasaki.


However this peace didn’t come cheap. The Japanese’ brilliant application of guns in battle was lost because of the lack of necessity. And their military skill stagnated and eventually declined. Another loss for the government was revenue - despite rapid economic growth during the Tokugawa era, wealth remained as savings in the hands of the general population.


Inspiration for Fictional Characters


James Clavell’s Asian Saga features the lives, loves, adventures and exploits of Shogun Toranaga and his progeny. The author modeled his Shogun Toranaga on the Ieyasu Tokugawa, and followed the real life events of members of the third Shogunate. ‘Shogun’ traces the ascendancy of Toranaga to power, it narrates fictionalized events leading up to the battle of Sekigahara. ‘Gai-Jin’ is about the final years of the Shogunate following Admiral Mathew Perry’s Black Ships but before the Meiji Restoration. It shows the spreading decay within the Shogunate and demonstrates how the then direct descendant of Shogun Toranaga maintained power in a most Machiavellian manner. Finally ‘Noble House’ stitches together the main threads of the Asian Saga, but the Toranagas only play a minor role.


Also at is the biography of Hattori Hanzo who was a fearsome ninja in the service of Ieyasu Tokugawa before his ascendancy to the Shogunate. Hanzo extracted Tokugawa from the clutches of doom when the future Shogun’s master was assassinated and the subsequent political turmoil threatened the existence of all possible successors. For Hanzo’s exploit a gate at Edo castle was named after him.




Heian period (794-1185 CE) dominated by the Fujiwara clan, who allied themselves with the emperor through marriage.


Minamoto/Kamakura era (1185-1333 CE) established by Minamoto no Yoritomo who became the first Shogun. War entered literature and painting as a subject. Virtues of the samurai warrior recognised.


Ashikaga/Muromachi era (1333-1573 CE) The Shogun’s grip began to loosen and the balance of power kept alternating between the emperor and dictator. Portugese explorers from China land in Japan.


Azuchi-Momoyama era (1573-1603 CE)


Tokugawa/Edo era (1693-1868 CE) The emperor and his court was further sidelined and the military leadership was cemented.


Meiji Restoration (1868 CE)


Sources and further reading

1. The Art of the Samurai: Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure Translated by Barry D. Steben

2. Learning from Shogun: Japanese History & Western Fantasy edited by Henry Smith

3. The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi translated by Thomas Cleary

4. Family Traditions on the Art of War by Yagyu Munenori translated by Thomas Cleary

5. The New Penguin History of the World by J.M Roberts

6. Learning from Shogun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy edited by Henry Smith

7. Britannica Ready Reference Encyclopedia




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