Running Japan's government was the shogun, a military dictator appointed by the emperor as a ceremonial formality. Following the attempted Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, the government levied new taxes for defense spending and preparations. Some responded with the increase in taxation with discontent. In 1318 a new emperor, Go-Daigo, ascended the throne, and in 1333 he had allies in his attempt to overthrow the Hojo shogunate — to restore traditional royal family rule after 150 years of a military rule. Emperor Go-Daigo wanted to be an imperial dictatorship like the emperor of China.
Wanting to elevate his own power, Emperor Go-Daigo planned to remove samurai warriors from their place in the political, feudal order. As servants of the great lords (daimyō) samurai warriors supported the shogunate. Go-Daigo's force was defeated, in 1336. Supported by Samurai warriors, another dynasty of military dictators began, to be known as the Ashikaga shogunate. Emperor Go-Daigo had escaped into the wilderness and died in 1339. He was succeeded by one of his sons, and for centuries to come Japan's emperors would have little influence politically. Rule in Japan was, like other authoritarian societies, was to be ruled by those with superiority in organized violence, despite an emperor's association with the divine.
The passing of the Hojo shogunate was the end of Japan's Kamakura Period. The new shogunate dynasty in the 1330s began Japan's Ashikaga period. The Ashikaga shogunate divided it bureaucracy into four offices: an office for overseeing police and military matters, and the other three were for financial affairs, judicial affairs, and for maintain records regarding land and taxation. The Ashikaga appointed military governors to the provinces. Ashikaga passed the shogunate to the sons or others of their choosing.
The Ashikaga shogunate failed to control the feudal warlords (daimyō), who were supposed to be vassals of the shoguns.) Their authority was never well established. Daimyō fought each other. Peasants rose against their lords, and samurai rose against their overlords. By 1500 the entire country was engulfed in civil wars.
But people continued to do what they needed to survive economically. The frequent movement of armies stimulated growth in transport and communications, and this provided additional revenues from customs and tolls. To avoid such fees, commerce shifted to Japan's central region and to the Inland Sea. Economic development and the desire to protect trade achievements brought about the establishment of merchant and artisan guilds.
The new small daimyō that arose with samurai who had overthrown their great overlords stimulated the building of castle towns to protect the newly opened domains, and for these new towns roads were built.
Since the 1490s the Ashikaga shoguns had become the puppets of the Hosokawa family — a samurai clan. The reign of Emperor Go-Kashiwabara (1500-26) was a low point in influence by emperors. In 1525, court ceremonies were suspended for lack of funds.
With the absence of central authority, piracy grew. Japanese pirates plundered the coastlines of Korea and China. And as an armed group, the pirates asserted power within Japan. They made themselves economic parasites by taxing local shipping.
Guns had begun arriving in Japan, said to have been introduced by pirates and armed merchants from Southeast Asia. And gun-making spread rapidly through Japan. A feudal lord, Oda Nobunaga (family name first), armed his soldiers with guns, which helped him dominate other feudal lords. Oda Nobunaga, lord of the Nagoya castle, gradually gained control of the region around Kyoto and conquered that city in 1568.
Oda Nobunaga defeated a coalition of rival daimyō. And he defeated armies of Buddhist sects. Where he ruled he encouraged Christianity, seeing it as a counter force against Buddhism.
In 1573 he drove the last Ashikaga shogun out of Kyoto, and with the surrender of the last great Buddhist fortress-monastery in Osaka in 1580, he became master of all of central Japan. The Ashikaga Period of Japan's history had come to an end.
Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.