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Discussion of Authority in Feudal Japan


The Japanese governance structure was constantly transforming throughout the medieval period, changing and adding ideas and practices from various local rulers and leaders. Authority has always been one of the essential aspects of governance, as it has primarily determined the effectiveness of the whole system. Understanding this fact, some Japanese leaders of the feudal period tried to strengthen their governance systems, working mainly with authority or factors that determined it. Authority in medieval Japan was primarily based on political position, it was justified externally, and its limits and possible manifestations depended highly on a particular place in the overall hierarchy.

Basis for Authority

Medieval Japanese leaders, who participated in designing the institutions of power, wished for the authority to be based or at least supported by a person’s professional and personal characteristics. Asakura Toshikage recommended his successors to avoid favoritism, squander and rule judiciously (Excerpts from The Seventeen-Article Injunction of Asakura Toshikage). According to Kemmu Code, public office workers should have been chosen carefully, while only exceptionally talented people could be appointed as protectors (Shugo) of provinces (Excerpts from The Kemmu Shikimoku [Kemmu Code] 1336). Imagawa Ryōshun, an eminent military leader and poet, recommended his younger brother Nakaaki to abandon favoritism, luxurious lifestyle, and unjust punishments, and become more knowledgeable and kind (Excerpts from Articles of Admonition by Imagawa Ryōshun to his Son Nakaaki). However, favoritism, corruption, and some other negative traits were mentioned quite frequently in these works, which may mean that they were widespread. This is further supported by the mentioned existence of protectors, who did not possess the necessary qualities for their position, such as Imagawa Nakaaki. The spread of corruption can be true for both appointment positions and positions that could be inherited. Therefore, in a highly hierarchical Japanese society, a person who was able to receive a governing position either by appointment or by heritage despite lacking some necessary qualities could exercise authority.

The presence of relevant personal and professional qualities could extend and secure the governing process, while their absence – shorten it. Asakura Toshikage warned that the governing person’s discrimination and violation of rules might lead to interventions from neighboring domains, therefore endangering both the domain and the governor (Excerpts from The Seventeen-Article Injunction of Asakura Toshikage). On the other hand, the presence of relevant qualities and personality traits did not guarantee complete protection from intrigues and subsequent career falls. Imagawa Ryōshun, despite being a person noted for his qualities, was dismissed due to the Ashikaga shogunate conspiracies (Excerpts from Articles of Admonition by Imagawa Ryōshun to his Son Nakaaki). Thus, in medieval Japan, possession of necessary qualities was important for governing process, yet it did not have a decisive effect on the life and authority of a person.

Justification of Authority

Since position received by appointment or heritage was the foundation for authority, the justification of authority was based on external power. If a person had been appointed to a position by a higher-level authority, it was this authority’s responsibility to recruit and nominate the right person. For instance, the Kemmu code prescribes governors to carefully select people for administrative jobs (Excerpts from The Kemmu Shikimoku [Kemmu Code] 1336). If a person inherited the power, it was the previous leaders’ duty to teach them governance. Therefore, Asakura Toshikage wrote his house law for successors, and Imagawa Ryōshun taught his younger brother the principles of governance and leader’s behavior. In these cases, strong and righteous rulers could provide their successors with people’s trust, creating favorable conditions for governance. At the same time, it is highly possible that many Japanese leaders of that time did not follow these rules of authority justification, therefore undermining their position and their successors’ positions. Overall, the need for justification of authority was well-understood, and there were ways to justify the power of both appointed leaders and successors, yet not everyone may have used these practices.

Limit of authority

The authority of almost any ruler in medieval Japan was to some extent limited, and it is possible to say that it was limited in at least three ways. Firstly, the authority of any vassal was naturally limited by their master, and they were expected to follow the master’s orders. For example, shogun Minamoto Yoritomo set disputes between his vassals and provided detailed instructions and orders for them to follow (Selected Documents of the Kamakura Bakufu). Secondly, the authority of a person could be limited by their functions described by the law. Minamoto Yoritomo created the jitō (stewards) and Shugo institutions within the Japanese governing system, and according to Kamakura documents, these positions had their functionality and were strictly limited in their power (Selected Documents of the Kamakura Bakufu). Thirdly, various local laws and codes were implemented during different periods to regulate the behavior of leaders and governors of different levels. Asakura Toshikage’s house law and Imagawa Sadayo’s Articles of Admonition are relevant examples of such norms that were closer to recommendations than to laws. Therefore, people could be encouraged to follow these rules, as it happened with Imagawa’s Articles of Admonition, yet it was not guaranteed; thus, these were not full-fledged limitations. All in all, the authority of rulers in Japan was strictly limited by their masters and by law, and in some cases, there were additional local rules and norms to follow.

Exercise of authority

The authority of a person in feudal Japan could be exercised differently depending on a person’s position; while lower-level governors could be controlled strictly, shoguns had much more freedom in terms of power application. Kamakura documents clearly describe the boundaries of the power of Shugo – “Tomomasa’s authority is limited to rebels and murderers” (Selected Documents of the Kamakura Bakufu, 2). Imagawa Sadayo’s texts provide more insight into shugo’s actions; Shugo can exercise power by judging people, imposing death sentences, maintaining and commanding the military (Excerpts from Articles of Admonition by Imagawa Ryōshun to his Son Nakaaki). From the Kamakura documents, it is evident that jitō was responsible for tax collection; however, there is not much information on their rights and abilities to exercise power. Finally, it is known that shoguns’ capabilities could be almost endless in terms of governance. After becoming a shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo was able to redesign Japanese governance institutions and spread his power throughout the country (Selected Documents of the Kamakura Bakufu)


Some Japanese leaders and rulers of the feudal period made significant contributions toward strengthening their governance systems. The personal and professional qualities that rulers of different levels should possess to be able to govern were listed and justified; strong leaders provided their successors with precise advice on territory and people management. However, not all of these recommendations were followed, creating a hybrid system that contained both positive and harmful practices. Despite the efforts of some leaders, the position of a person remained the primary basis for authority; therefore, in many cases, it had to be reinforced by the external power of higher authority. At the same time, while shoguns could enjoy almost limitless power and influence, such vassal positions as Shugo and jitō were very limited in their authority. Overall, many rational and wise ideas about different levels of governance were produced during that period of time in Japan; unfortunately, not all of these concepts were implemented to their maximal effect.


“Excerpts from The Kemmu Shikimoku [Kemmu Code] 1336,” Asia for Educators. 2021. Web.

“Excerpts from Articles of Admonition by Imagawa Ryōshun to his Son Nakaaki,” Asia for Educators. 2021. Web.

“Excerpts from The Seventeen-Article Injunction of Asakura Toshikage,” Asia for Educators. 2021. Web.

“Selected Documents of the Kamakura Bakufu,” Asia for Educators. 2021. Web.


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