Japan History: From the Taira to 1867

Japan History - From the Taira to 1867


After the Fujiwara fell, after an initial prevailing of the Taira clan it was the Minamoto who took the reins of power by defeating their rivals in the most famous naval battle of ancient Japan: that of Dan no Ura in 1185. This date not only marked the passage from the period Heian to that of Kamakura (1185-1333), but also a radical change in Japanese society. The victor, Minamoto-no Yoritomo, moved his court to Kamakura, established a military government (the bakufu, “government of the tent”) and took the title of shōgun. This office was not in contrast with the figure of the emperor, although in reality the effective power remained almost continuously in the hands of the shōgun. until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. But the rise of local powers forced Yoritomo to a skilful game of alliances with the strongest feudal lords, and when this political sense was lacking in his descendants, power gradually passed into the hands of regents, the Hōjō, with the same function that the Fujiwara family had in the Heian period towards the emperors. In 1274, for the first time in its history, the danger of an invasion threatened Japan. Offended by the shōgun’s repeated refusal to become his vassal, Qubilai Khān he launched his Mongols to conquer the archipelago, attacking Hakata in northern Kyushu. The strenuous defense of the local feudal lords and a provident cyclone repelled the assault. The enterprise was retried in 1281, again without success, given the defense measures taken by the Hōjō and the bakufu. Paradoxically, it was this victory that marked the end of the Hōjō. Unlike the previous infighting, in fact, this time the remains of a loser did not exist to be distributed as a prize to the feudal lords who had borne the weight of the struggle and the Hōjō therefore had to reward the vassals by reducing the family power that was the basis of their supremacy.. To this situation we must add the serious crisis caused by a dynastic struggle for the succession to the throne that broke out in the capital. The period 1333-92 (called Nanboku-chō, period of the courts of the South and the North) in fact saw two distinct branches of the imperial family opposing each of which claimed the rights to legitimacy. Among the personalities that characterized it are the emperor Godaigo, fierce defender of the legitimacy of the Southern court, its great antagonist, the shōgun Ashikaga Takauji and Kitabatake Chikafusa, author of the Jinno Shōtōki, a historical-political work in defense of Godaigo’s thesis. If the actual Ashikaga shogunate began with Takauji , it was beginning with the 3rd shōgun, Yoshimitsu, that the country enjoyed relative peace. According to carswers, the political capital was again transported to Kyōto, in a neighborhood known as Muromachi which also gave its name to the period (1392-1573). The Ashikaga attempt at centralization of power was frustrated by a new element: the growing influence of numerous overlords, especially those of the western regions. For obvious geographical reasons, trade with China and Korea had increasingly developed along these coasts, and this trade then ended up benefiting the central areas of the country as well. In fact, the Ashikaga period saw a notable economic development, also supported by the spread of a monetary regime to replace the bargaining chip. The commercial ties with the continent favored the intensification of cultural exchanges, and Zen permeated the social life of the period. Among the shōgun Ashikaga there were excellent patrons: painting, architecture, the nō theater, the tea ceremony had them as their protectors. But this world that was beginning to crystallize into apparent tranquility was suddenly shaken, around 1465, by the struggles for the choice of the 8th shōgun ‘s successor, Yoshimasa. The shogunate was overwhelmed (but not canceled) by the struggles that involved great families of feudal lords (daimyō) (from Önin, 1467-78): when these ceased, the country was in the grip of the most complete anarchy.


Thus began a period called Sengoku (of the Warring States, 1482-1568) in which we witnessed the transformation of numerous fiefdoms into real lordships. The sec. XVI brought about a profound change in the country’s structures with the development of private trade in almost the entire Asian area, the birth of free cities, the arrival of Westerners with the introduction of firearms and Christianity, the reunification of the country under military dictatorship and the first attempt at a pan-Asian expansionist policy. The initiator of the reunification of Japan was Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), a small daimyō from the central provinces who was soon joined by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) to form the triad to which Japan owes its unification. Hideyoshi can perhaps be considered the greatest political and military figure in Japanese history. When Nobunaga died, after making an agreement with Ieyasu, he, a skilled strategist and excellent politician, in a few years managed to tie even the daimyō to himselfmore riotous. He used Christianity to fight against rebellious Buddhist monks and to enjoy the trade the Portuguese had with China. He then took advantage of the widespread belief that Western Catholics were a potential “fifth column” of European expansionism, and, with trade already well underway, he expelled them. In a vast conquest strategy that also included China, Hideyoshi occupied Korea in 1592. But after an initial success, the Japanese army was stopped by the intervention of the Chinese one and the stalemate lasted until Hideyoshi’s death in 1598: then the troops were withdrawn. In the subsequent power struggle, Ieyasu prevailed and defeated Hideyoshi’s son and followers and, proclaimed shōgun in 1603, he moved the political capital to Edo, today’s Tōkyō (the emperor and the court remained in Kyōto), starting the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) that led Japan to the threshold of the modern world. The state was reorganized according to criteria inspired by the neo-Confucian thought of Chu Hsi and all social classes were subjected to strict control. Rigidity in the internal system was accompanied by a total closure to the outside, a closure that blocked trade and led to the prohibition and persecution of Christianity. But contacts with foreign countries were not completely cut off: the Dutch remained confined to Deshima (Nagasaki), a tenuous channel through which, however, Japanese curiosity turned to the study of Western things (rangaku). For approx. 200 years the country experienced relative peace and prosperity. Intense was the cultural life that saw the emergence of bourgeois literature, kabuki theater, poetry, the developments of the pro-Chinese (ie Confucian) and nationalist (ie Shinto) schools to the detriment of Buddhism. But at the beginning of the century. XIX, for internal reasons due to international pressure, the system entered a crisis which culminated in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore M. Perry, bearer of the American requests for opening. In a climate of great political uncertainty, the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854who opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American ships and installed a US consul in the former. Similar treaties followed with Great Britain, Russia, France and Holland and in 1858 new agreements that led to the establishment of customs duties. This led to a period of strong internal tensions and in 1867 the nationalist forces achieved the surrender of the last shōgun and the definitive fall of the bakufu. Thus, after centuries, the effective power returned to the emperor, in the person of Mutsuhito who transferred the capital from Kyōto to Edo, renaming it Tōkyō.

Japan History - From the Taira to 1867