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Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun (1192–1199) of the Kamakura shogunate

A shōgun (将軍 shōgun?) [ɕoːɡu͍ɴ] About this sound listen (literally, "military commander" or "general") was often one of the hereditary military governors of Japan from 1192 to 1867. In this period, the shōguns, or their shikken regents (1203–1333), were the de facto rulers of Japan though they were technically appointed by the emperor. When Portuguese explorers first came into contact with the Japanese (see Nanban trade), they described Japanese conditions in analogy, likening the emperor, with great symbolic authority but little political power, to the Pope, and the shōgun to secular European rulers, e.g. the King of Portugal. In keeping with the analogy, they even used the term "emperor" in reference to the shōgun/regent, e.g. in the case of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whom missionaries called "Emperor Taicosama" (from Taiko and the honorific sama).

The modern rank of shōgun is equivalent to a generalissimo. Although the original meaning of "shogun" is simply a "general", as a title, it is used as the short form of seii taishōgun (征夷大将軍), the governing individual at various times in the history of Japan, ending when Tokugawa Yoshinobu relinquished the office to the Meiji Emperor in 1867.

A shogun's office or administration is known in English as the "office". In Japanese it was known as bakufu (幕府?) which literally means "tent office", and originally meant "house of the general", and later also suggested a private government. Bakufu could also mean "tent government" and was the way the government was run under a shogun. The tent symbolized the field commander but also denoted that such an office was meant to be temporary. The shogun's officials were as a collective the bakufu, and were those who carried out the actual duties of administration while the Imperial court retained only nominal authority.

Heian period (794–1185)[]

Originally, the title of Sei-i Taishōgun (Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians) was given to military commanders during the early Heian Period for the duration of military campaigns against the Emishi who resisted the governance of the Imperial court based in Kyoto. Ōtomo no Otomaro became the first Sei-i Taishōgun in history. The most famous of these shoguns was Sakanoue no Tamuramaro who conquered the Emishi in the name of Emperor Kammu. Eventually, the title was abandoned in the later Heian period after the Ainu had been either subjugated or driven to Hokkaidō.

In the later Heian, one more shogun was appointed. Minamoto no Yoshinaka was named sei-i taishōgun during the Gempei War only to be killed shortly thereafter by Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

Kamakura shogunate (1192–1333)[]

In the early 11th century, daimyo protected by samurai came to dominate internal Japanese politics. Two of the most powerful families, the Taira and Minamoto, fought for control over the declining imperial court. The Taira family seized control from 1160 to 1185, but was defeated by the Minamoto in the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Minamoto no Yoritomo seized certain powers from the central government and aristocracy and established a feudal system based in Kamakura in which the private military, the samurai, gained some political powers while the Emperors of Japan and the aristocracy in Japan remained the de jure rulers. In 1192, Yoritomo was awarded the title of Sei-i Taishōgun by the emperor and the political system he developed with a succession of shogun at the head became known as a shogunate. Yoritomo's wife's family, the Hōjō, seized the power from the Kamakura shoguns. When Yoritomo's sons and heirs were assassinated, the shogun became a hereditary figurehead. Real power rested with the Hōjō regents. The Kamakura shogunate lasted for almost 150 years, from 1192 to 1333.

In 1274 and 1281, the Mongol Empire launched invasions against Japan. An attempt by Emperor Go-Daigo to restore imperial rule in 1331 was unsuccessful, but weakened the shogunate significantly and led to its eventual downfall.

The end of the Kamakura shogunate came when Kamakura fell in 1333 and the Hōjō Regency was destroyed. Two imperial families, Go-Saga the senior line, and Go-Daigo the junior line, had a claim to the throne. The problem was solved with the intercession of the Kamakura Shogunate, who had the two lines alternate. This lasted until 1331, when the Go-Daigo line refused to alternate with the Go-Saga line. As a result the Go-Daigo was exiled. Around 1334–1336 Ashikaga Takauji helped the Go-Daigo line regain the throne.

The fight against the shogunate left the new Emperor with too many people claiming a limited supply of land. Ashikaga Takauji turned against the Emperor when the discontent about the distribution of land grew great enough. In 1336 the emperor was banished again, in favor of a new emperor.

During the Kemmu Restoration, after the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, another short-lived shogun arose. Prince Moriyoshi (also known as Prince Morinaga), son of Emperor Go-Daigo, was awarded the title of Sei-i Taishōgun. However, Prince Moriyoshi was later put under house arrest and, in 1335, killed by Ashikaga Tadayoshi.

Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1573)[]

In 1338 Ashikaga Takauji, like Yoritomo a descendant of the Minamoto princes, was awarded the title of sei-i taishōgun and established the Ashikaga Shogunate, which lasted until 1573. The Ashikaga had their headquarters in the Muromachi district of Kyoto, and the time during which they ruled is also known as the Muromachi Period.

Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868)[]

Tokugawa Ieyasu.jpg

Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power and established a government at Edo (now known as Tokyo) in 1600. He received the title sei-i taishōgun in 1603 after he forged a family tree to show he was of Minamoto descent. The Tokugawa shogunate lasted until 1867, when Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned as shogun and abdicated his authority to Emperor Meiji.

During the Edo period, effective power rested with the Tokugawa shogun, not the emperor in Kyoto, even though the former ostensibly owed his position to the latter. The shogun controlled foreign policy, the military, and feudal patronage. The role of the emperor was ceremonial, similar to the position of the Japanese monarchy after the Second World War.

The title of shogun in Japan meant a military leader equivalent to general, and at various times in the first millennium shoguns held temporary power, but it became a symbol of military control over the country. The establishment of the shogunate (or bakufu) at the end of the twelfth century saw the beginning of samurai control of Japan for 700 years until the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the nineteenth century.


Today the head of the Japanese government is called "prime minister", the usage of the term "shogun" has continued somewhat. A retired prime minister who still wields considerable power and influence behind the scenes is called a yami shogun, or "shadow shogun", a somewhat modern incarnation of the cloistered rule. Examples of shadow shoguns are former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka and the politician Ichirō Ozawa.

The term "shogun" is also commonly used, often ironically with the honorific "sama", to refer to Kim Jeong-il, in reference to his being essentially a military dictator, as well as to North Korea's isolation, similar to the policy of sakoku.


The term bakufu originally meant the dwelling and household of a shogun, but in time it came to be generally used for the system of government of a feudal military dictatorship, exercised in the name of the shogun; this is the meaning that has been adopted into English through the term "shogunate".

The shogunate system was originally established under the Kamakura shogunate by Minamoto no Yoritomo. Although theoretically the state, and therefore the Emperor, held ownership of all land of Japan, the system had some feudal elements, with lesser territorial lords pledging their allegiance to greater ones. Samurai were rewarded for their loyalty with agricultural surplus, usually rice, or labor services from peasants. In contrast to European feudal knights, samurai were not landowners. The hierarchy that held this system of government together was reinforced by close ties of loyalty between samurai and their subordinates.

Each shogunate was dynamic, not static. Power was constantly shifting and authority was often ambiguous. The study of the ebbs and flows in this complex history continues to occupy the attention of scholars. Each shogunate encountered competition. Sources of competition included the emperor and the court aristocracy, the remnants of the imperial governmental systems, the shōen system, the great temples and shrines, the shugo and the jitō, the kokujin and early modern daimyo. Each shogunate reflected the necessity of new ways of balancing the changing requirements of central and regional authorities.




A shrine, in Shogun Japan, was an object or place sacred to religion. It was a place of national importance because holy objects were kept there. It originally meant a box or chest, but over time the meaning changed to include a sacred place. It was also built in honour of a saint or virtue.


Shinto is one of the oldest surviving religions of Japan. Shinto means ‘the way of the gods’. Followers of Shinto believed that it could be experienced through faith. Believers of Shinto worshipped many gods called Kami. Kami were basic forces of humans and nature. There were numerous works written about Kami by monks.

One of the most important elements of Shinto is ‘matsuri’. Matsuri is the Great Purification Ceremony. It was a time that individuals and the entire nation confessed their sins and begged the Kami to remove all impurity. Jinin was the term for a shrine worker or a low level priest. They helped the running of their home, the shrine, by tackling a range of jobs. These include guards and warriors. They started out in the Heian period when a group of oil producers gave oil to a nearby shrine. They helped finance major festivals and, in turn, received privileges such as being protected merchants, gaining access to raw material and exemptions for tolls.


Bushido was a form of warrior philosophy. Its translation is ‘way of the warrior’ and was a warrior code for samurai. Followers of Bushido were expected to go through physical hardship. This included long periods of work and barefoot marches through snow. The most important principle of Bushido was loyalty. A samurai was expected to sacrifice his life for his daimyo master if necessary. If a samurai failed in battle or was captured, they would commit ritual suicide called ‘seppuku’. Seppuku was cutting open the abdomen and removing intestines. It was a slow and painful process.


The Kamukura period (1192-1333) began with Buddhism being confined to nobles, monks, scholars and some artisans with enough free time. Buddhism became a religion of masses. The change in period meant that the old court was replaced with a new government, established by Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192, that was based on the military. During this period, Buddhist leaders appeared and preached. They tried to change Buddhism through their own difficult life stories and eventually came to a conclusion; everyone was born with a Buddha nature, you just need to be saved by the Buddha. This can be completed by believing in him. At this time, Buddhist monks were also quite violent. The name of a warrior monk was an immoral. The temple gave refuge to those who have been accused of crimes. Buddhist shrines had monk armies and warrior monks experienced the Gempei war in the early 12th century. Oda Nobunaga’s unified Japan was challenged by Buddhist temples. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa period dissolved this threat. Oda overthrew the military government in 1573 he suppressed the Buddhist temples’ freedom for he feared the increased power of the leading temples and monarchs that were sided with the enemy. After his death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi took over his father’s reign and decreased the Buddhist power even more.

Zen Buddhism[]


Dogen (1200-1253) studied Zen in China. When he returned he introduced it to japan and called his version Soto Zen. He hated the military government. Einei-ji was built by him as a mountain monastery. Inside the monastery, he wrote 95 volumes of essays. Zen Buddhism was a ‘way of life’. It was believed to be a way to live and die peacefully. Zen attracted warriors that are in constant battle with their enemies, and through this, Bushido was created. Monasteries became places of refuge and meditation for monks. They detached themselves from society so they can focus on their faith. Zen emphasised the importance of self-discipline. The aim of Zen was to achieve ‘Satori’. Satori was a moment of enlightenment or a flash of truth. It can be attained in the following ways:

  • Physical hardship
  • Discipline
  • Meditation
  • Observing nature

Zen warriors rose to power because of the shogun period in Japanese period. Samurai turned to Zen more than any other type of Buddhism. This was so they could explore ways to prepare themselves for war and its terrors.