History Daimyo

By JREF · Nov 1, 2011 ·
  1. JREF
    A title given to the largest of the landholding military lords ruling over a sizeable number of vassals (家人 kennin) from the tenth until the mid-nineteenth century. In the term, dai (大) means large, and myō stands for myōden (名田, lit. “name land”), meaning privately held land. Lesser holders of name land were sometimes referred to as shōmyō. (小名, lit. “small names”). The term appears in 11th-century documents about large local landholders, civil as well as military. In time, it came to be exclusively attached to military lords, and by the end of the sixteenth century its use had become formalised and institutionalised to apply to military lords, whose lands were assessed at not less than 10,000 koku of annual rice production. One koku (石) is the equivalent of 278.3 litres or 150 kilograms (23.6 stone or 330 pounds) of rice and historically defined as enough rice to feed one person for one year. The wealthiest fiefs were worth over a million koku.

    1. Sengoku daimyō
    2. Shokuhō period
    3. Kinsei daimyō
    4. Buke shohatto
    5. Post-Tokugawa
    6. Major daimyō houses

    Several stages in the evolution of the daimyo as the primary figures of local rule in premodern Japan can be distinguished. The Japanese military aristocracy (buke or samurai) had a lengthy history going back to the middle of the Heian Period (794-1185). With the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) at the end of the twelfth century, provincial military houses acquired titles such as jitō (地頭, land steward) or shugo (守, military governor) from the shōgun. As leaders among the local military aristocracy obtained proprietary rights over increasing amounts of land and attracted increasing numbers of military followers, they emerged as daimyō in the literal sense of the term. The widespread fighting and general political instability that marked the years between the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333 and the stabilisation of the Muromachi shogunate (1338-1573) in 1392 saw some military families establish themselves as dominant figures in the provinces. Some of them were holdovers from the Kamakura period, but a significant number were men of the Kantō region, kinsmen or close followers of the Ashikaga family that had established the Muromachi shogunate. It was Ashikaga practice to enlist such houses as vassals and to appoint them as their primary agents (shugo) in the provinces.

    Under the Muromachi shogunate, shugo were given jurisdiction over one or more provinces. In most cases, although the shugo were able to dominate their provinces of assignment militarily and politically, they only held a small part of these provinces in fief. In many cases, a Shugo's primary landholdings were not located in the province over which he was placed. As vassals of the shōgun, however, shugo could exploit certain traditional tax rights inherited from the provincial civil governors under the imperial bureaucracy, for example, the tansen (段銭), a surtax of a certain amount of cash (sen) per tan (about 0.12 hectare) of cultivated land. They were also given the right to levy imposts on civil aristocratic and religious estates within their provinces for military support purposes, one such being the power of exercising hanzei (半済, “half-rights”), namely to hold back half of the estate income due to the absentee proprietor, for use by the shugo. They were also directly involved in the settling of land disputes and the division of spoils after military actions. Accordingly, as the shugo added to their holdings within their provinces of assignment and converted an increasing number of local gentry into their direct vassals, they became provincial hegemons. Examples for such 15th-century clans are the Hosokawa (細川), the Uesugi (上杉), the Takeda (武田), the Toki (土岐), the Shiba (斯波), the Isshiki (一色), the Kyōgoku (京極), the Yamana (山名), the Hatakeyama (畠山), the Ōuchi (大内), the Ōtomo (大友), and the Shimazu (島津) clans.

    Sengoku daimyō (戦国大名)

    During the first half of the 15th century, shōgun and shugo supported each other to make for an era of relative stability. But with the Ōnin War (1467-77), during which the main shugo houses divided into two factions and fought battles in the streets of Kyōto, that stability was broken. Most shugo daimyō of this period were destroyed and were supplanted by Sengoku daimyō. These newly emerging local powers did not necessarily control territories as vast as the shugo territories but held them more securely. The fragmentation of proprietary rights and lines of authority among local military houses that had characterised provincial government under the shugo could no longer be tolerated. The new daimyō built their domains through military power, resulting in all land being held by them either directly as granary land or indirectly in fief by pledged vassals.

    Sengoku daimyō built castle towns in their domains from which they could control their vassals and the villages that served as their land base. By the middle of the 16th century, the most powerful of the Sengoku daimyo had extended their boundaries by absorbing their weaker neighbours attaining sufficient strength and autonomy to rule their domains like petty princes. They issued their laws (分国法 bunkokuhō), adopted their weights and measures, even their era names (元年 nengō). They regarded their fiefs as “states” (国家 kokka) and themselves as protectors of the state. While the Sengoku daimyō domains were won and held by armed force, most daimyo found it politically appropriate to legitimise themselves by claiming to be successors to the former shugo. Increasingly, however, the most powerful of the Sengoku daimyō claimed the right of local governance based merely on their ability to bring law and order to the domains. Such were the later Hōjō (北条), the Takeda (武田), the Uesugi (上杉), the Imagawa (今川), the Asai (浅井), the Ukita (宇喜多), the Chōsokabe (長宗我部), the Mōri (毛利), the Ōtomo (大友), the Ryūzōji, and the Shimazu (島津) clans.

    As the daimyō, whose rule resulted in extreme territorial decentralisation, retained considerable local autonomy as vassals of the hegemon, a policy of military unification was imposed first by Oda Nobunaga, then by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This unification, or rather conquest, of the daimyō, began in 1568 with Nobunaga’s entrance into Kyōto and was completed in 1590 when Hideyoshi defeated the Later Hōjō clan (後北条氏 Go-Hōjō-shi) in the Odawara campaign. Consequently, the daimyō as local military-political powers underwent essential changes, either as a result of their efforts to enhance their control over their domains, or forced upon them by the centralising power of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. The daimyō of this period are often referred to as shokuhō-daimyō (織豊大名), shoku (織) and (豊) being alternative readings of the first characters in the names Oda (織田) and Toyotomi (豊臣).

    Shokuhō period

    Under Nobunaga and Hideyoshi the daimyō consolidated their power at the same time that they were forced to yield some of their autonomy to the shōgun. Nobunaga began the practice of moving daimyō and their retainers from one domain to another for strategic purposes or to break the deeply entrenched local ties of some to their hereditary territories. He also began, and Hideyoshi completed, a nationwide cadastral survey (太閤検地 taikō kenchi) that gave the ruling class accurate information on the extent of the country’s cultivated land, its productivity, and its distribution for the first time in Japanese history.

    Along with the military consolidation process and the spread of more systematic control over the land and its cultivators, Hideyoshi imposed a nearly complete separation of members of the military aristocracy and the cultivating class. This phenomenon, referred to as heinō bunri (兵農分離, hei meaning “warrior” and “cultivator”), resulting from the withdrawal of the samurai from their positions as castle and fief holders in the country to take up residence in the daimyō‘s town headquarters. This left only the commoners (百姓 hyakushō) on the land, whose names were listed in the cadastral register against the lands they cultivated, grouped into village (村 mura) units. At the same time, the practice of assessing land by kokudaka (石高, annual estimated yield measured in koku) for purposes of taxation was introduced. This practice made it possible to measure each daimyō‘s “worth” by establishing the total of the kokudaka of the villages in his domain) and provided Hideyoshi with a base figure on which to calculate military and other obligations due to him from the daimyō. Under this system, each mura was also treated as a single tax unit collectively responsible for the delivery of taxes on its combined rice yield.

    In 1598, on the eve of Hideyoshi’s death, the gross kokudaka of the country was calculated at just under 19 million koku. The tax rights to this productive base were held by Hideyoshi and just over two-hundred daimyō. The share of lands held by the imperial court as well as temples and shrines was tiny. Hideyoshi’s private holdings were assessed at two million koku, and the largest of the vassal daimyō held territories of the following size (in koku):
    1. Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康, 1543-1616), 2,557,000
    2. Mōri Terumoto (毛利輝元, 1553-1625), founder of Hiroshima, 1,205,000
    3. Uesugi Kagekatsu (上杉景勝, 1556-1623) of Echigo, later Aizu, 1,200,000
    4. Maeda Toshiie (前田 利家, 1538-1599) of Kaga, 835,000
    5. Date Masamune (伊達政宗, 1567-1636), founder of Sendai, 580,000
    6. Ukita Hideie (宇喜多秀家, 1573-1655) of Bizen and Mimasaka, 574,000
    In total, 41 daimyō held domains assessed at 100,000 koku or more, and 68 daimyō held the minimum of 10,000 koku.

    The power structure introduced by Toyotomi Hideyoshi did not long survive his death. Tokugawa Ieyasu implemented the bakuhan system of government (幕藩体制 bakuhan taisei), one that rested on a strong national authority (the shogunate or bakufu) set above the daimyō domains (藩 han). Under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) both the national powers of the shōgun and the local powers of the daimyō were further extended. The status of the daimyō domain within the bakuhan system continued to evolve and did not reach full development until the early years of the 18th century. The daimyō of this era are referred to as Kinsei (early modern) daimyō.

    Daimyō processions

    Daimyō processions (大名行列 daimyō gyoretsu) were the long trains or processions of vassals and servants that accompanied daimyō on their annual journeys to attend the Tokugawa shogun at Edo (sankin kōtai). The shogunate tried to limit the number of persons in each retinue by issuing specific regulations fixing numbers in proportion to official domain size (表高 omotedaka). Thus, rules of 1648 limited those with domains assessed at more than 100,000 koku to 15 mounted warriors, some 300 lesser samurai and a comparable number of petty attendants. However, the size of the entourage was a mark of daimyō status, and during the 17th and early 18th centuries, the processions of major daimyō numbered in the thousands, while those of even the most modest lord numbered a hundred or more. Later, as domain finances deteriorated, the size of the processions declined, but they remained major displays of pomp and prestige.

    The procession was carefully organized and consisted of units of pikemen, mounted and unmounted swordsmen, banner carriers, karō and other domain officials with some of their own vassals and servants, the daimyō in his palanquin (kago) surrounded by a variety of personal attendants, extra palanquin carriers (rokushaku), porters carrying his necessities and appropriate gifts, and then rearguard units of samurai and servant personnel. As the retinue advanced, front-runners cleared the highway, commanding observers and others to kneel while the daimyō passed. The routes and timing of these processions were carefully systematised, and to accommodate them a network of inns developed on the major highways, most notably the 53 post stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道). These massive and expensive operations imposed costly burdens on the daimyō‘s exchequer, in the process contributing significantly to the spread of a "commercial" economy along the highways of Japan.

    Kinsei daimyō (近世大名)

    The Kinsei daimyō differed from their predecessors insofar as their domains were more systematically centralized and responsive to the daimyō‘s authority. Since the time of Hideyoshi’s cadastral surveys, the daimyō‘s retainers had been drawn off the land into garrison residence at the daimyō‘s great castle and placed under the direct command of the daimyō. At first, the daimyō retained the practice of dividing the domain’s land base between granary land and land held in fief by his major vassals. The granary lands, some 30 to 40 per cent of the domain’s total, were used to support the daimyō‘s establishment and to provide stipends for his salaried retainers. All daimyō worked to reduce as many as possible of their enfeoffed vassals to the more dependent status of stipend recipients, and most had managed to do so by the end of the seventeenth century. This allowed the daimyō to exercise their authority and implement their policies uniformly throughout their domains.

    Daimyō administration of their domains was roughly the same in all parts of Edo-period (1600-1868) Japan. Once the military imperatives of the civil wars of the sixteenth century had been reduced by the state of peace during the Tokugawa hegemony, the main focus of daimyō attention was directed to civil administration and economic development. The daimyō used their kashindan (家臣団, housemen) both to protect and to administer their fiefs. Typically, a council of elders (家老 karō) was given responsibility for general policy formation and superintendence of both military and civil administrative staff. For civil administrative purposes, the daimyō assigned retainers to such posts as superintendent of the castle town, rural magistrate, and commissioner of finance, police, public works, religious institutions, and education. Daimyō administration exercised by this samurai-staffed bureaucracy reached down to the level just above the primary units of commoner society, the city ward (町 machi) and rural village (村 mura). The daimyō gave a considerable degree of self-rule to these units under headmen (村長 shoya) chosen from among the commoner members of the units. City ward and rural village were mostly left alone as long as their headmen delivered the yearly taxes.

    Under the Tokugawa bakuhan system some 245 daimyō served as local administrators of the roughly two-thirds of the country’s lands not directly under the shōgun‘s rule. All daimyō were sworn vassals of the shogun, from whom they received their patents of investiture to their domains. daimyō domains were of various types and sizes. To the shōgun, the most significant differences among daimyō houses lay in the history of their relationship to the shogunal house. Most important and prestigious were the shinpan daimyō (親藩大名, kinsmen), especially the Three Successor Houses (御三家 gosanke), who, along with the main line of descent from Ieyasu, bore the surname Tokugawa. Former housemen and other non-daimyō vassals of the Tokugawa raised to daimyō rank following the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) or later by the Tokugawa house were classed as hereditary vassals (譜代大名 fudai daimyō). Houses that had acquired their status as daimyō under Nobunaga or Hideyoshi and had joined Ieyasu before or after Sekigahara were treated as allies and called “outside lords” (外様大名 tozama daimyō). By the end of the eighteenth century, there were 23 shimpan holding an aggregate of 2.7 million koku, 145 fudai with 6.2 million koku, and 98 tozama with 9.8 million koku. The lands held directly by the shōgun totalled 6.8 million koku.

    In addition to this classification, daimyō of this period were also ranked according to size and resources. Those who held domains the size of provinces – a total of twenty – were classed as “province holders” (国持 kunimochi). Those permitted to have castles within their boundaries were designated “castle holders” (城主 jōshu), of which there were 140. The remaining 110 daimyō were simply called “fief holders” (領主 ryūshu). The most obvious means of differentiating daimyō was naturally by domain size, which varied from the largest (the Maeda of Kaga at 1.02 million koku) to the minimum 10,000-koku level, of which there were 49 (see below).

    The daimyō under the bakuhan system were granted certain rights of autonomy, but there were also limitations. Although no codified regulation specified the daimyō‘s powers, custom and pragmatic codes and ordinances left little room for debate on basic principles. Daimyō were given the free administration of their domains, as far as the right of taxation, law enforcement, criminal justice, and the maintenance of a domain army were concerned. In return, they had to show absolute loyalty to the shōgun, adhere to the shōgun‘s basic laws, provide military support, assist the shōgun in the construction of castles and other public works, and administrate their domains.

    Buke shohatto (武家諸法度)

    All daimyō came under the provisions of the Laws for the Military Houses (武家諸法度 buke shohatto), issued first by Ieyasu in 1615 and subsequently revised several times. The code eventually included provisions against the practice of Christianity and the building of ocean-going vessels, and the requirement of sankin kōtai (参勤交代, alternate attendance). By this provision, daimyō were obliged to build and maintain residential establishments in Edo (modern-day Tōkyō) for themselves, their families, and some high-ranking retainers to pay court to the shōgun. Daimyō were permitted to reside in their home castles in alternate years or half-years, leaving their families behind in Edo as hostages. This enforced residence in Edo had a series of profound effects on the daimyō. It kept them under the eye of the bakufu and assured the shōgun that the daimyō received whatever commands he directed toward them. The cost of maintaining two residential establishments and the expense of travelling in state between them became a heavy burden on daimyō finances, a situation the shogunate encouraged, for economically weakened daimyō were less likely to challenge shogunal authority. Above all, sankin kotai contributed to a uniform and cosmopolitan lifestyle, since all daimyō and many of their retainers were obliged to spend a large portion of their active lives in Edo, regardless of how distant their domains were.

    The daimyō were always regarded as an integral part of the Tokugawa power structure, both as governors of the two-thirds of the country not directly administered by the shogunate and as the primary officials and policy makers of the shogunate itself. It would have been inconceivable to Ieyasu or for later shōgun to eliminate the daimyō to centralise the shōgun‘s rule, as the Tokugawa military triumph had been dependent on their support and since such an effort would have required the approval of the daimyō themselves. In fact, the daimyō under the Tokugawa shogunate obtained more autonomy and local security as the regime went on.

    The institutional consolidation under the bakuhan system and the enduring sate of internal peace created by the Tokugawa eventually led to political and economic weakness. In the first century of the Edo period, the daimyō were able to consolidate the control over their domains and tried hard to make their vassals more dependent on them. They also perfected their administration of the castle towns and the agricultural villages, devoting vast financial resources to improving their local economies by water control and land reclamation. The eighteenth century was a time of cultural and economic expansion, exhibited by the spread of schooling and the study of Confucian philosophy, by the economic growth, the production and circulation of special commodities among daimyō domains, and a general improvement in living standards. After 1800, most domains were afflicted by social and economic problems, and the shogunate and most daimyō were severely in debt, with desperate countermeasures often bringing daimyō and shogunate interests into conflict. Some domains, like Chōshū (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) and Satsuma (now Kagoshima Prefecture), managed to implement successful financial reforms, but most fiefs did not. Thus, when Commodore Perry forcefully opened the Japanese ports to American ships, neither the shogunate nor the daimyō were able to show significant resistance. In the months that followed, the shogunate restored to the daimyō the right to increase their military capacities, particularly their coastal defences, to build or acquire naval vessels, and waived the sankin kotai requirement. Daimyō, and their domain officers, once again became independent participants in national affairs, negotiating with representatives of foreign powers and agitating for political advantage in domestic politics.

    The Meiji Restoration was more the work of daimyō domains than of daimyō as individual leaders. As political activists emerged among the samurai of the larger domains, they proceeded to use their daimyō as figureheads to work for the destruction of the shogunate and the creation of a national state structure. Thus, once the “return to imperial government” (尊皇攘夷 Sonnō jōi, “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) was promulgated, the daimyō and their domains quickly disintegrated.

    Daimyō loans

    Daimyō loans (大名債 daimyō gashi) were cash loans by wealthy merchants to daimyō during the Edo Period. Because of frequent requisitions by the shogunate and the expense of living in Edo in alternate years (sankin kōtai), many daimyō experienced financial difficulties throughout the period, especially after the mid-17th century. Since not a few daimyō reneged on their loans, bankrupting their creditors, the merchants protected themselves by demanding security and charging extremely high interest rates. The interest was usually collected in rice, the staple crop and principal source of domain income. Thus, as debts increased, these merchants, known as kakeya and kuramoto, came to control much of domainal finance. The Kōnoike family of Osaka, for example, accumulated enormous wealth through lending to five domains. So deeply in debt were some daimyō that they welcomed the opportunity to “return” their domains to the emperor after the overthrow of the shogunate in 1867-68 and thereby have their debts assumed by the new Meiji government.


    In 1869, the daimyō were first required to return their domain patents of investiture to the emperor (版籍奉還 hanseki hōkan) but were permitted to remain as “governors” in their former domains, now called han (版). It is of interest to note that this was the first and only time official use was made of the term han for the daimyō domains. In 1871, the han were finally abolished and replaced by prefectures. By 1872, they were consolidated into 72 administrative units governed by officials appointed from Tōkyō. The former daimyō were called en masse to Tōkyō, thereby cutting off any independent base of power from which to potentially rebel, and became a pensioned nobility. The daimyō, together with the kuge, formed a new aristocracy, the kazoku. Members of former daimyō families remained prominent in government and society, and in some cases continue to remain prominent to the present day.

    Major daimyō houses and domains around 1664

    -Daimyō houseDomainTypeCastle townKokudaka
    1Tsugaru (津軽)*HirosakiTHirosaki42,000
    2Satake (佐竹)*AkitaTAkita205,000
    3Nambu (南部)*MoriokaTMorioka100,000
    4Sakai (酒井)Tsuruoka (Shonai)FShonai120,000
    5Date (伊達)SendaiTSendai625,600
    6Uesugi (上杉)YonezawaTYonezawa154,000
    7Hoshina (保科)AizuSAizu230,000
    8Tokugawa (徳川)MitoSMito280,000
    9Maeda (前田)*Kanazawa (Kaga)TKanazawa1,022,700
    10Tokugawa (徳川)Owari (Nagoya)SNagoya619,500
    11Matsudaira (松平)Fukui (Echizen)SFukui447,000
    12Ii (井伊)HikoneFHikone300,000
    13Tōdō (藤堂)*Anotsu (Tsu)TTsu323,900
    14Tokugawa (徳川)Kii (Wakayama)SWakayama555,000
    15Sakakibara (榊原)HimejiFHimeji150,000
    16Hachisuka (蜂須賀)TokushimaTTokushima257,900
    17Yamanouchi (山ノ内)Tosa (Kōchi)TKōchi200,000
    18Ikeda (池田)TottoriTTottori320,000
    19Ikeda (池田)OkayamaTOkayama315,000
    20Asano (淺野)Hiroshima (Aki)THiroshima426,000
    21Mōri (毛利)*Chōshū (Hagi)THagi369,000
    22Kuroda (黒田)FukuokaTFukuoka430,000
    23Arima (有馬)KurumeTKurume210,000
    24Hosokawa (細川)KumamotoTKumamoto540,000
    25Nabeshima (鍋島)*Saga (Hizen)TSaga357,000
    26Shimazu (島津)Satsuma (Kagoshima)TKagoshima28,000
    Alternative domain names in parentheses. * House name sometimes also used as domain name.
    S: shinpan; F: fudai, T: tozama


    Daimyō procession (大名行列 daimyō gyoretsu; photo credit: Fuji Arts)

    • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005


In order to add your comment please sign up and become a member of JREF through the registration form at the top right of the page; you can also sign up under your Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ account.
  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice