Medieval Japan, the long period from the thirteenth century to the early seventeenth century, conjures up parallels with feudal Europe. After all, both Japan and Europe were caught up in intense fighting spearheaded by warrior classes. In fact, the Japanese samurai does have some similarities to the European knight. And political power was divided into feudal subunits, although the structures in Japan were significantly different from those in the West.
There's another similarity as well. In Japan, as in Europe, constant warfare caused people to seek solace in religion. The Buddhist faith, which emphasized the impermanence of life, spread from its former hold among aristocrats to have a new appeal throughout Japanese society. Buddhism touched everything in life, but its poignancy is perhaps greatest in Japanese literature.
“Feudalism” and its Meaning in Medieval Japan
The term "feudal era" has often been used to describe the Japanese medieval period. Historians have been fascinated by the similarities, and by the differences, between Japanese and European feudalism.
When Japan entered the modern age and learned about Western history and Western historians began to study Japan, people were struck by the fact of what appeared to be great parallels between this kind of feudalism in Europe and in Japan. And as comparative studies developed, people went so far as to say that the kind of feudalism that we are talking about existed in only two places, at two times, in world history, and that was Europe, western Europe, during its medieval period, and Japan during its medieval period.
The problem however with this is that Western feudalism was taken as the model and people looked at Japanese history and sought to find things that were comparable to the Western model. And that brought about, inevitably, a certain distortion of the Japanese case. Japan was made to fit the Western model. And in recent years both Japanese historians, and perhaps particularly Western historians, have begun to rebel against the whole business of comparative feudalism with the particular desire, Western historians of Japan particularly, a particular desire to see and understand Japan on its own terms. That having been said, there still are remarkable similarities.
Now, stated in simple terms, what we mean by this kind of feudalism is we have the premise of a society that is overwhelmingly agricultural, there's very little commercial development. Most of the people are peasants, they're serfs tied to the land, and you have a ruling military or warrior class. And the two most critical elements in that warrior class are the lord-vassal relationship and the fiefholding.
Lord-Vassal Relations in Medieval Japan
Much attention has centered on the lord-vassal relationship.
One aspect of the warrior way, the lord-vassal relationship in Japan, that sets it apart quite distinctively from Europe is that the Japanese tended to conceive of this relationship in kinship terms, or fictive kinship terms.
Now, we see the development of warrior bands from the beginnings of warrior society in the late ninth and tenth centuries. Originally or initially the beginning of these bands comprised warriors who were related by blood. In other words, they were families or family groupings. But, later on a people who were not akin were brought in to the warrior bands. And then the lord-vassal relationship included both kin and non-kin, and yet, there was always this tendency to conceive of it in fictive kinship terms. To see the lord as the parent and the vassals as the children. We can see that actually throughout Japanese history and even today.
The Spread of Buddhism in Medieval Japan
Also interesting is a comparison of Japanese Buddhism and Western Christianity, both of which spread rapidly in feudal societies. It is intriguing to think about the sharp differences in the two theological outlooks, but also about some similarities in their respective impacts on social and cultural life.
Of course, Buddhism didn't begin in the medieval period. The Japanese first became acquainted with Buddhism at the end of the sixth century. And after some struggle with the believers in Shintô, the two religions came to co-exist and most Japanese believed in both of them at the same time. What is important in the medieval period is that Buddhism, which up until this time had been a religious discipline started mainly by priests, monks in monasteries or else by people who were scholars, became the religion of many ignorant people who turned to religion for comfort in times of despair.
Buddhism offered much. It ultimately offered to all the people release from a life of suffering. Buddhism believes that this existence is a place of impermanence, all things are in flux, things are constantly changing, nothing actually is real. And as a result of this, people suffer because people have desires, they try to acquire things and hold onto them, but they can't because they're not real. So, it's suffering. So, it's a very powerful message, a very powerful concept about existence, about life itself and the offering of great rewards to those who pursue Buddhist practices to achieve release from this suffering which was conceived in terms of transmigration. You're born, you die, you're reborn and so forth, in an endless sequence, and the suffering only increases because your bad karma from an earlier life affects you in this life.
So, it's a grim description of life itself, but of course, it holds ultimate rewards--release from this suffering, entering into Nirvana, entering into a state of bliss, and so forth.
In the medieval period there was enough to be despondent about. First of all, there was the warfare, the warfare which began at the end of the twelfth century which is considered to be the beginning of the medieval period. And the warfare goes on with longer or shorter interruptions until the end of the sixteenth century. And that is, in fact, the medieval period, from the end of the twelfth to the end of the sixteenth century.
During this time people who saw their houses destroyed, whole cities destroyed in warfare had to believe in something that didn't change, something that would comfort them and something, also, for them to think about as a salvation after death. They didn't want to believe that this world ended with the terrible things that they had witnessed.
President Emeritus, Asia Society
Professor of Japanese History
Shinchô and University Professor Emeritus