The Golden Era
Samurai has gone a long way in Japanese history. Meanwhile, their existence had a golden era. What was this period called? What events took place? Why was this even special?
Samurai were members of Japan’s warrior class. They emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries. During this time, the imperial family and other nobility ruled the empire. They had control over large landholdings during the Heian Period, spanning from 794 to 1185.
In this era, the imperial court and nobles relied upon agricultural income. They obtained this from their distant estates. As such, they needed to protect these from attacks. The nobles commissioned to manage the estates but failed to maintain security. They lacked skills for effective administration.
Hence, the court hired local associates for assistance. These security assistants trained themselves for defense. They then emerged as the predecessors of early Samurai.
These forerunners then formed warrior bands. They formed these temporarily to aid in a military campaign. They would disband them later on. However, the bands eventually grew into military clans.
By the eleventh century, elite families began to take power. Consequently, several men pledged their loyalty. They signed contracts as well. This was in exchange for their military service.
The Kamakura Period
Kamakura Shogunate was the ruling empire. It headquartered in Kamakura, a city in the Kantô region. This period lasted from 1185 to 1333.
In 1185, the Minamoto clan won the Genpei War. It defeated the Taira clan. At the end of the Heian Period in 1192, the Kamakura Period began. Minamoto Yoritomo established the Kamakura Shogunate.
This Shogunate was not as powerful as that of Ashikaga. However, it had full control of the Samurai. Its establishment gave Samurai rule its authority. They belonged to the powerful landowners called Kenmon. Aristocrat families, temples, and shrines were in this too. The court was this cluster’s government.
The Shogunate, however, did not fully cover the archipelago. For some regions, its authority was weak. Thus, several areas emerged in western Japan.
Local groups such as Akutô controlled these places. Bad parties comprised these groups. They were thieves, brigands, and opportunists. Specifically, they seized land and power by force.
This weakness of Minamoto Yoritomo led to his downfall. Eventually, he died in 1199. Taking over his place was his wife’s father Hôjô Tokimasa.
Succeeding Shogun were largely Hôjô puppets. They exercised true political power. However, the third Shogun was the last one as a result of Minamoto Sanetomo’s assassination in 1219. The imperial family and aristocratic Kujô family took over.
Two years later, a conflict ensued. This was between the Shogunate and the imperial court. History called this the Jôkyû War. Fortunately, the Shogunate survived.
Meanwhile, the imperial court split into two. These were the Daikakuji and Jimyôin lines. The Shogunate interfered again in 1297. Hence, tension increased between the two lineages.
Eventually, it led to the Shogunate’s downfall. Emperor Go-Daigo seized control over the succession. This came in as the 1330 Genkô War. Later, in 1336, Takauji established the Ashikaga Shogunate. This opened the Muromachi Period.
Lifestyle and Religion
In this period, society allowed women to inherit and own properties. This did not exempt the Samurai. However, fathers or husbands considered women’s bodies their property. Suppose a woman suffered sexual violence, authorities would require the attacker to pay not the woman. Instead, the father or husband would receive compensation.
Meanwhile, a Samurai had themselves appointed to the provinces. Some of them lived in Yakata or fortified compounds.
Finally, religious development became rampant. Several sects emerged. Various figures promoted their teachings and Buddhism was one of these. Together with Shintoism, this religion shaped the lives of the Samurai. In fact, significant development of this era concerned Buddhist sculpture. An example was the restoration of the Great Buddha temple, Todaiji.
The Muromachi Period
This era was also known as the Ashikaga Period. It ran from 1336 through 1573. In power were the Ashikaga Shoguns. They ruled from the Muromachi, a Kyôto district.
Ashikaga Takauji established the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336. Ruling in Muromachi, history also named it the Muromachi Shogunate.
Controversy, however, dominated the government. Takauji had a disagreement with Emperor Go-Daigo. It was about who of them actually had the right to rule. The Shogun won the argument and deposed the emperor. This went in favor of Emperor Komyo. Go-Daigo fled and set up his own imperial court in the south.
Over the succeeding years, international relations went well. Shoguns would send diplomatic and trade missions to Korea. They used a Daimyo as an intermediary. Moreover, Japan established a trade relationship with China. It traded with Southeast Asia as well.
Unfortunately, the Ashikaga Shoguns proved weak. They lacked wealth and power later on. Eventually, in 1573, the Ashikaga lineage faced its defeat. Ashikaga Yoshiaki fell into the hands of warlord Oda Nobunaga.
Religion and Traditions
Samurai still followed their traditions. These mainly were tea ceremony and floral arranging. Also included were calligraphy, painting, and martial arts. These even extended their influence to military elites.
As they did in the previous period, Samurai still embraced Buddhism. Military elites adopted the ideals of Zen. These were beauty, nature, simplicity, and utility. In line with this, Zen paintings became famous. Muromachi painter-monks contributed in this. Some of them were Sesshû, Shûbun, and Josetsu.
Arts and Culture
The government had a strong influence on culture and arts. Samurai dominated the tradition of poetry, music, dance, and theater. The Noh was particularly in their official patronage. It was a form of Japanese traditional drama.
Moreover, a Samurai would be in every meeting room with a court noble. They engaged in different arts and intermingled. Gradually, they developed a citywide cultural network.
Furthermore, performance troupes organized into Za. They gave out paid performances called Kanjin. Riverbanks or other marginal areas served as their venues. This entertainment greatly infatuated the attending Shogun.
It also made crowds excited every time. For instance, the stand collapsed in 1349 killing over a hundred people. Nevertheless, it just showed how influential cultural arts had become.
Generally, the arts associated itself with the magical and otherworldly. Hence, performers considered themselves as marginal peoples. People called them Muen or Kugai Mono. This had some negative and dangerous connotations.
Nevertheless, it contributed to the development of refined arts. Further developments took place afterwards.
Unfortunately, it was in this period that the Onin War started. Breaking out in 1467, it intensified into a civil war soon. Several Daimyo fought for the Ashikaga rule. It burned the capital of Kyôto. Also, the Sengoku Period began here. It was a hundred-year period of civil strikes.
The destruction of Kyôto affected the arts. Particularly, many artists, performers, and poets left. They sought for other businesses elsewhere. This led to the city’s decline as a cultural center.
Fortunately, remaining enthusiasts disseminated the arts to the provinces. In between the 15th and 16th centuries, elites developed and refined it. Daimyo and other prominent patrons adopted it.