Japan under the shoguns

The defeat of the Taira clan at the hands of Minamoto no Yoritomo in the Genpei War (1180-1185) paved the way for the establishment of the shogunate, a feudal system of government which would last until 1867.

The shoguns were military strongmen who monopolised power whilst maintaining the fiction of obedience to the emperor. They fostered the samurai code of bushido which stressed loyalty, frugality and courage. Zen Buddhism, which cultivated self-awareness through disciplined self-control, represented the spiritual embodiment of this ideology.

In 1192 Minamoto no Yoritomo was awarded the title of Seii Tai Shogun by the emperor, and proceeded to establish his government at Kamakura, near present-day Yokohama. This first Kamakura Shogunate lasted from 1192 to 1333, a period which witnessed a significant growth in agricultural production and mercantile trade.

Yoritomo and his successors were attracted by the austerity of Zen Buddhism, which had been introduced earlier in the century as a separate school from Sung China. It subsequently became an important element of Japanese culture, along with the enduring belief whereby subordinates offered total subservience and loyalty in exchange for the full protection of the ruling elite. The defeat of the invading Mongol hordes during this period, apparently through the intervention of divine winds (kamikaze), also served to reinforce the ancient assumption that the Japanese were a unique and superior race which enjoyed divine protection.

Imperial power was restored briefly in 1333 by Emperor Go-Daigo, but he quickly fell foul of his chief military supporter Ashikaga Takauji, who drove out Go-Daigo, installed a new emperor at Muromachi near Kyoto and set himself up as shogun.

During the first 60 years of the Ashikaga Shogunate - also known as the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) - culture and the arts flourished, notwithstanding the fact that Japan was ruled at this time by two rival courts; ink painting, calligraphy, noh drama, flower arranging (ikebana) and the tea ceremony (chanoyu) all date from this period, which also saw an effluorescence of Buddhist architecture. However, with the decline of Ashikaga power during the 15th century the country steadily began to slide into civil war and chaos. Thus began the so-called 'Warring States' period (1467-1573), a protracted struggle between various daimyo (baronial) houses.

The Momoyama Period (1573-1600) saw the return to unity under first Nobunaga Oda (1534-1582) and subsequently his general, the colourful Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), both of whom embarked on ambitious castle-building programmes. Hideyoshi was a great sponsor of the arts and his rule is marked by a further development in architecture and the fine arts - one outcome of his disastrous invasions of Korea (1592 and 1597) was the capture of Korean potters, the introduction of whose work into Japan stimulated the further elaboration of the arts associated with the tea ceremony.

Following the death of Hideyoshi, the shogunate was re-established by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), who set up his military headquarters at Edo (Tokyo) Castle. The Tokugawa Shogunate was to rule Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, bringing peace and stability through a system of semi-centralised feudalism which carefully balanced the authority of the three Tokugawa-related clans against the power of more than 250 other daimyo who ran their own vast estates under the close surveillance of Tokugawa inspectors and spies.

This Edo Period (1603-1868) was marked by a policy of sakoku ('closed country'), which excluded contact with the outside world. Foreign trade had begun to flourish during the latter years of the Ashikaga Shogunate, with missionaries preaching Christianity and western traders introducing the Japanese people to a range of western goods and scientific discoveries. However, Ieyasu's successors banned Christianity, fearing the involvement of foreign troops in the event of renewed disorder. From 1639 Japanese were forbidden to travel abroad, and trading companies were limited to Dejima, a single Dutch settlement in Nagasaki harbour. Sheltered from alien influences, Japanese culture evolved further distinctive forms during this period.

Steady economic growth attended the long period of stability afforded by the Tokugawa Shogunate, during which towns such as Edo, Osaka and Kyoto developed into lively commercial centres.

While Chinese culture enjoyed something of a renaissance under the Tokugawa Shogunate, popular culture owed more to the emergence of a new class of wealthy townsfolk, whose search for enjoyment became known as ukiyo (the floating world), an idealised world of fashion and popular entertainment. Professional female entertainers (geisha) held court in urban teahouses, and new forms of cultural expression such as kabuki, bunraku (puppet theatre), haiku poetry and ukiyo-e woodblock art developed.

Neo-Confucianism also flourished during this period, and by the mid 17th century it was Japan's dominant legal philosophy, contributing directly to the development of the kokugaku (national learning) school of thought.

Japan's long seclusion finally ended in the 1850s, when American warships coerced the shogunate into conceding trading rights to the western powers.