Feudalism was a loosely structured political system in which powerful lords (nobles) owned large sections of land. They divided their land into estates called fiefs, which were given to lesser lords called vassals. Vassals pledged their loyalty and military support to their lords in return for this land.
Japan was rule by an emperor since about A.D. 500, but fights between rival warlords led to the development of feudalism in the 1100s. For several years, military rulers controlled Japan. The dynasty that took power in 1603 brought stability and prosperity to Japan but imposed a rigid political and social order.
Japan is made up of a chain of mountainous islands in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of mainland Asia. There are four main islands and more than 3,000 smaller islands. The Japanese islands are part of the Ring of Fire, a group of lands around the Pacific Ocean that are vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanoes. Underground earthquakes can cause deadly tidal waves to sweep over the islands, destroying everything in their path.
In the 1100s, the central authority of the Japanese emperor declined. Local warlords fought one another. While armies battled for power, a feudal system developed. Feudal society had distinct levels. All members of society had a defined place.
Under the Japanese feudal system, the emperor still ruled in name, but powerful warrior nobles actually controlled the country. The Japanese warrior aristocracy consisted of the following groups: the shoguns, the daimyo, and the samurai.
Under the feudal system, the real power lay in the hands of the shoguns, or top military commanders. Shoguns set up dynasties called shogunates.
As in European feudalism, the shogun distributed land to vassal lords, called daimyo in Japan. The daimyo received land in exchange for a promise to support the shogun with their armies when needed.
The daimyo, in turn, granted land to lesser warriors called samurai, whose name means "those who serve. The samurai promised loyalty to the daimyo and lived by a strict code of conduct known as bushido, or "the way of the warrior. The samurai promised to be loyal, brave, and honorable. Honor was supremely important. A samurai who betrayed the code of bushido was expected to commit ritual suicide, an act called seppuku.
Peasants farmed the land, and artisans made weapons for the samurai. Peasant men, women, and children worked long hours, and few peasants lived past the age of 35. In spite of hardship, the lives of the peasants were held together by the common thread of Christianity. There celebration- marriages, births, and holidays such as Christmas and Easter-were centered in the Christians Church. Also, for their services, peasants and artisans were granted the protection of the samurai.
Despite the fact that they might possess more wealth than members of the upper classes, merchants were the lowest social class in medieval Japan. Over time, however, merchants gained more influence.
Early in the feudal period, women sometimes became warriors or ran estates. Women played an active role in feudal society. A "lady was in charge of her husband's estate while he was away serving his lord in battle. She was responsible for all household affairs including the raising of children. In preparation for their adult role, girls received training in household arts such as spinning, weaving, and the management of servants. Women had limited inheritance rights, however, since most possessions went to the eldest son. The status of women declined, however. Japanese feudal codes did not place women in high esteem. As time passed, inheritance was passed on to sons only.
In 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate came to power, bringing peace and stability to Japan for nearly 300 years.
The Tokugawa shoguns created a centralized feudal government. They halted the fighting among the powerful daimyo by at times forcing then to live at the capital of Edo (now Tokyo) instead of at their country estates. When the daimyo did leave the capital, their families were forced to stay under the shogun's careful watch.
The stability of the Tokugawa shogunate resulted in economic gains. New seeds, tools, and techniques allowed farmers to grow more food. The population grew, and towns were linked by roads. Trade increased. In the cities, a wealthy class of merchants emerged.
Furthermore, Tokugawa shoguns became extremely hostile toward foreigners. By 1638, they had barred all western merchants and prohibited Japanese from traveling abroad. During Japan's period of strict isolation, internal trade boomed. The economy prospered.
During the Tokugawa shogun, many Japanese learned Zen Buddhist practices, such as the tea ceremony and landscape gardening. At the same time, the Japanese made advances in the arts and theater. In kabuki theater, actors wore colorful costumes and acted out stories about families or events in history. In literature, Japanese poets created a Chinese influenced form of poetry called haiku.
Japanese feudalism was similar to European feudalism. Both systems evolved in response to the basic desire for stability. In both Japan and Europe, emperors and Kings were too weak to prevent classes to invasions or halt internal wars. Feudalism provided a way for ruling classes and order.
In the feudal systems of both Japan and Europe, everyone had a well-defined place in society. In both societies, power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of an elite land-owning class. As the class of respected warriors, Japanese samurai played a role similar to that of European Knights. Peasants in both feudal systems worked the land and served the landowners in exchange for protection.
The position of women was different in Japan and Europe. In Japan, the status of woman declined during feudal times. In Europe, the code of chivalry helped raised the status of women. Another difference was the role of religion. Leaders of the Catholic Church in Europe had more political power than Zen Buddhist monks in Japan.
The domination by one country of the political and/or economic life of another country is called imperialism. Europe's activities in Asia, Africa, and Americas from 1500s through the 1700s foreshadowed the major era of European imperialism in the 1800s.
Imperialism in Africa: In the 1400, the Portuguese explore the coast of Africa. Establishing a string of forts in the west and capturing several port cities in the east. The Portuguese. However, were unsuccessful in their attempts to push into the African interior. As a result, the Portuguese gained little profit from their victories.
In the mid-1600s, the Dutch arrived at the southwestern tip of Africa and established the Cape Town settlement. At Cape Town, Dutch sailors could repair their ships as they traveled to or from the East Indies. The Dutch farmers who settled in and around Cape Town were called Boers. The Boers ousted or enslaved many Africans, whom they considered their inferiors.
Imperialism in Asia: Soon after European powers had established direct trading links with Asia, they sought to gain more permanent control there. First Portugal and then other nations set up colonies in Asia, creating competition in the region.
Imperialism in the Americas: After Christopher Columbus land in the West Indies. Friendly relations existed between the Spanish and the Native Americans for a while. However, this friendly did not last.