An abbreviation of seii tai shōgun (征夷大将軍), which is customarily translated as “barbarian-subduing generalissimo.” Shōgun were military governors whose regimes dominated the Japanese polity for most of Japanese history between 1192 and 1867. Their regimes were known as bakufu (幕府) or “tent governments,” a term commonly translated as shogunate. There were three shogunates, the first (1192-1333) situated in Kamakura, the second (1338-1573) in the Muromachi district of Kyōto, and the third (1603-1867) in Edo (now Tōkyō).
During the Kamakura Period the shogunal title was transmitted irregularly, but in the Muromachi Period it was in the sole possession of the Ashikaga clan, and during the Edo period, of the Tokugawa. Formally each shōgun was appointed by the emperor and was responsible for keeping the peace of the realm. In fact, emperors were nearly powerless and approved shogunal appointments as instructed by the military figures who dominated affairs. Each shōgun headed an administrative organisation that governed his direct vassals and his domain while maintaining some degree of control over the domains controlled by other military families and by major Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines.
The title seii tai shōgun derived from an ancient set of titles bestowed on government officials who led expeditions against insurgents or indigenous tribal groups on the periphery of the realm. Most notably, the imperial government during the Nara Period (710-794) ordered several officials in succession to lead forces against tribal groups known as Ezo or Emishi (蝦夷), natives of northern Honshū, descendants of those who developed the Jōmon culture and thought to have been related to the Ainu. These officials were given titles such as chintō shōgun (“east-pacifying general”), chinteki shōgun (“barbarian-pacifying general”), seii shōgun (“barbarian-subduing general”), and eventually seii tai shōgun. The most famous of these generals was Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (坂上田村麻呂, 758-811), who was commissioned to pacify the northeast in 791 and designated seii tai shōgun in 797.
The Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333)
The borders subsequently became quiet, and the shogunal title fell into disuse. It was resurrected four centuries later during the Taira-Minamoto War when the brilliant and ambitious warrior leader Minamoto no Yoshinaka (源義仲, 1154-1184) drove the Taira leaders out of Kyōto and appropriated for himself the title seii tai shōgun. After Yoshinaka’s death, his cousin Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199) triumphed in the civil wars and established his military headquarters in Kamakura. In 1192, the emperor designated Yoritomo shōgun, giving him standing authority to undertake military action against anyone who might challenge his regime. The title was only one of several that cumulatively gave Yoritomo active and legitimate control over his domains and vassals and the right to appoint supervisory officials, jitō (地頭, land steward) and shugo (守, military governor), over much of the rest of the country.
Yoritomo’s sons proved unable to dominate their powerful vassals the Hōjō family. The Hōjō seized power and, after the Minamoto line died out, settled on the practice of selecting malleable aristocrats from the Kyōto nobility who would go to Kamakura and receive the title of shōgun. By the time the Hōjō regents fell victim to rebellion in 1333, they had established the principle that the shōgunal title would be held only by a man who nominally headed a shogunate (bakufu), a ruling military regime sanctioned by the imperial court.
The Ashikaga shogunate (1338-1573)
The military leader Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏, 1305-1358) participated in the destruction of the Hōjō rule in 1333. Two years later he led his army east from Kyoto to suppress other insurgents, holding the title of seitō shōgun (“east-subduing general”) for the occasion. In 1336, he overcame his rivals and upon establishing his bakufu in Kyōto, claimed for himself the title of seii tai shōgun in 1338 on the grounds of his Minamoto ancestry. For the next 30 years, Takauji and his son were continually at war fending off rivals. By the 1370s his grandson Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1358-1408) was able to govern by maintaining a standing alliance with a few powerful regional warlords (shugo daimyō). During the next century, he and his successors engaged in constant political manoeuvring in attempts to consolidate their control over the country.
During the century after the Ōnin War (1467-77), however, the shogunal position weakened as regional warriors (Sengoku daimyō) came to control more and more of the country. In 1493, the shōgun Ashikaga Yoshitane (足利義稙, 1466-1523) departed from Kyōto to suppress a rebellious warlord, and during his absence, another warlord set up a new shōgun in his stead. In 1508, Yoshitane was able to return and oust his rival, only to flee the city again in 1521 and die in exile two years later. Finally, in 1573 the fifteenth Ashikaga shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki (足利義昭, 1537-1597), made the mistake of scheming against Oda Nobunaga, who had installed him as shōgun five years earlier. He was driven out of Kyōto by Nobunaga, and the Ashikaga shogunate ceased to exist. Neither Nobunaga nor his successor, the national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ever sought the title of shōgun or established a bakufu. Despite the enormous power they wielded, they seem to have accepted the tradition that the title was reserved for men of Minamoto descent, which neither of them could claim.
The Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867)
The period of civil war among regional warlords (daimyō) culminated in 1600 with the Battle at Sekigahara. The leader of the triumphant army, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was able to trace a tenuous link to Minamoto ancestors, and in 1603 he accepted the title of shōgun from the court. He also accepted other titles that had come to be associated with the title of shōgun from the time of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, most notably that of Genji no chōja (源氏長者) or chief of the Minamoto.
During the next century and a half, his successors were able to retain governing power in their own hands by manipulating and balancing both their vassals and the regional daimyō. However, the elaborate institutional structure, detailed regulations, and complex balancing mechanisms that held these groups in check also gradually deprived the shōguns of political flexibility. During the last century of Tokugawa rule, the “barbarian-subduing generalissimo” was a nearly powerless figure in a political system whose survival rested in large part on balance among the interest groups who participated in the governing process.
Most seii tai shōgun were slightly less than military dictators. Of nine Kamakura shōgun, apart from Yoritomo, all were figureheads. Of fifteen Ashikaga shōgun, none dominated the country, only four or five dominated all or part of central Japan, and the others were hard-pressed merely to preserve their very limited patrimony. And of fifteen Tokugawa shōgun, five or six were able to dominate the country while the others were more or fewer figureheads dominated by their advisory officials and the governing system they maintained.
In modern times the term shōgun is sometimes applied to senior or retired politicians still wielding considerable power and influence (a “shadow shogun”, 闇将軍 Yami shōgun, a king-maker or éminence grise).
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
- Cover image: the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1867, the year he abdicated (photo credit: public domain)