New Ideas and Changing Culture in Medieval Japan

The historian Amino emphasizes the diversity of the Kamakura period by claiming that the Japanese became increasingly aware of different types of people outside of their familiar region, The rise of warlords and the samurai class during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, 1185 to 1573, facilitated a feudalistic society that reshaped the Japanese political system. Simultaneously, key economic and administrative changes, like the jito system, agricultural improvements, and trade relations with China, indicate that Japanese society was characterized by a receptivity to new ideas that encouraged social progression and economic profitability.

The lord-vassal system that came to dominate the political landscape of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods encouraged wide-reaching socio-political changes that forced new ideas of hierarchy on Japanese culture. By the 12th century, old elites flailed against the implementation of new, decentralized rule by the rising military class. Emperor Go-Toba, who reigned between 1183 and 1198, renounced Kamakura rule and tried to reassert the primacy of the emperor. He was eventually exiled after Kamakura retaliation, framing the dispute between the Kyoto court and the Kamakura shogunate. The Kyoto court slowly declined in influence, and a new class of territorial military lords, daimyo, emerged. The feudalistic structures implemented by the Kamakura court contrasted sharply with the preceding Heian period: the rise of the samurai class, and their domination of the land, characterized the medieval period. Power devolved from court nobles to military sects; military families ruled the land while emperors such as Go-Toba and his court remained in place, but enjoyed no tangible power. To maintain their dominion, military families like the Minamoto and the Fujiwara, offshoots of the imperial dynasty, built private castles, established towns, and allowed samurai retainers to reside in their lands. The relationship between the samurai and his lord reflected broader ideas of vassalship that became significant to Japanese cultural tradition. Indeed, the dawn of the Ashikaga Shogunate, spanning the 14th and 15th centuries, bore all the elements we recognize as quintessentially Japanese today.

The consolidation of the military class at the end of the Kamakura period coincided, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the advent of war during the Ashikaga Shogunate. Society was torn apart by civil conflict and dispute; the period was so intense, with its endless cycle of civil wars, that the major goal of subsequent reunification efforts in Japan were simply to reestablish order. Chaos reigned in Japan during throughout Muromachi period: the Onin War of 1467-1477, between rival warlords and samurai, was characterized by brutality, petty crime, and economic hardship that destroyed Kyoto over and over again. The shogun Yoshimasa had no appetite for fighting or insurrection, and retreated in the middle of the war, withdrawing from the capital completely and indulging in a luxurious exile. As normal Japanese people contended with an increase in violence, they also became increasingly receptive to religious values, adopting Buddhism as a religion of the people and wresting it from its previously scholarly connotations. As conflict and dispute wore on, the Japanese looked to spiritualism to distract from militarism and rivalry.

Despite unstable political landscapes, economic prosperity across the late Kamakuran period and throughout much of the 15th and 16th centuries, facilitated by key changes in agricultural and administrative systems, encouraged trade and commerce that introduced new wealth, products, and values to the kingdom. Medieval Japan gave rise to the feudal relationship between lord and vassal. The former gave lands to the latter in return for military service. Shoguns who had many estates sometimes gave some of them to a steward, or jito, to ensure stability. Minamoto no Yoritomo, who ruled the Kamakura shogunate from 1192 to 1199, oversaw jurisdiction in matters of land tenure and agricultural income. In an ambitious bureaucratic undertaking, he promised to take care of his loyal followers by designating shiki and shoen land on a “case-by-case” basis in which detailed data was gathered to determine who got what (Lecture, September 25th). He assigned a shugo to every village, along with a jito to ensure the safe and appropriate handling of taxation. The shogunate justified these manifestations of bureaucracy by pointing to national security concerns.

Eventually, the jito and shugo eroded the authority of the imperial officials; the jito position became hereditary and highly prestigious. Medieval Japan was receptive to the implementation of new systems overtime, perhaps by default, as the descendants of these Kamakuran bureaucratic officials became influential feudal landowners in their own right (Discussion, October 2nd). Many key figures of the Kamakura period were efficient administrators. Villages prospered across Japan as communal projects such as irrigation channels- a practice harking back to early shoen periods- flourished in the absence of a central government.

The introduction of double cropping, a staple of the Kamakuran agricultural economy, meant that land cultivators depended less and less on proprietors, instead maintaining their own paddies and farms. The system, encouraged by the regimented bureaucracy established by Minamoto no Yorimoto, facilitated the rise of the rural class. The rehabilitation of the agricultural system- which included the implementation of improved tools, fertilizers, and strains of race- allowed the country to prosper. Its success created a surplus of provisions, which in turn increased the prosperity of the urban market, which began to dominate entire regions, like the seafaring Wakaso province, by the 13th century. Trade became more specialized, governed by guilds, and Zen monks operating in market towns acted as envoys between Japan and China.

By the mid-14th century, official trade with China had temporarily faded, although the Japanese still held Chinese products in high regard. The silk road enabled new information to flow into Japan, disseminating across the kingdom through new technologies such as the printing press. Monks continued to travel in unofficial capacities as merchants between China and Japan. Chinese merchants became so prominent in Japan that China towns emerged in Kyushu: an expansion of relations across the board increased the scale of trade concessions and brought products from as far away as Indonesia to Japanese shores. From a purely cultural perspective, the Japanese of the mid Muromachi were, by that point, well-acquainted with a steady flow of “outside” influences. By the time the Japanese reignited official trade with China in a bid to regain control over their assets, commerce had become highly specialized and was carefully governed by guilds. Japan and China exchanged everything from gold, swords, and timber, to silk, porcelain, and coinage.

Medieval Japan can ultimately be described as a feudalistic society that emphasized self-reliance and individualized doctrine. The endurance of centrifugal power, headed by established families like the Minamoto and the Fujiwara, simultaneously allowed for an increase in economic profitability as a result of trade competition and also catalyzed conflict and warfare for centuries. Medieval Japan was receptive to ideas of personal enlightenment, encouraged by the popularization of Zen Buddhism. Japanese literature and plays of the time, such as Noh drama, emphasized a cultural penchant for discipline, a fact reflected in extended periods of brutal, transformative samurai warfare that were “seemingly about nothing”. The Japanese of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods were swept up in wholesale changes in socio-political progression and an economic boom that invigorated and allowed for the implementation of new ideas that at times conflicted, but often comforted, to their traditional worldview.


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