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This article is about the Japanese military rank and historical title. For other uses, see Shogun (disambiguation).
Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun (1192–1199) of the Kamakura shogunate

A shogun (将軍 shōgun?, [ɕoːɡu͍ɴ], "general", literally "military commander") was a hereditary military governor in Japan during the period from 1192 to 1867. In this period, the shoguns were the de facto rulers of the country, though officially they were appointed by the Emperor.[1]

The modern rank of shōgun is equivalent to a generalissimo. Although the original meaning of shogun is simply a "general", the title was the short form of sei-i taishōgun (征夷大将軍?)literally "The Great General of Barbarian Conquered", the governing individual at various times in the history of Japan, ending when Tokugawa Yoshinobu relinquished the office to the Meiji Emperor in 1867.[2]

A shogun's office or administration is the shogunate, known in Japanese as the bakufu (幕府?, literally "tent office/government"), which originally referred to house of the general and later also suggested a private government under a shogun.[3] The tent symbolized the field commander but also denoted that such an office was meant to be temporary. The shogun's officials were as a collective the bakufu, and were those who carried out the actual duties of administration while the imperial court retained only nominal authority.[4] In this context, the office of the shōgun was equivalent to that of a viceroy or governor-general, though the shōguns often wielded far greater power than a governor-general would ordinarily have.

Heian period (794–1185)[edit]

Main article: Heian period

Originally, the title of Sei-i Taishōgun ("Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians"[5]) was given to military commanders during the early Heian Period for the duration of military campaigns against the Emishi, who resisted the governance of the Kyoto-based imperial court. Ōtomo no Otomaro was the first Sei-i Taishōgun.[6] The most famous of these shoguns was Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, who conquered the Emishi in the name of Emperor Kanmu. Eventually, the title was abandoned in the later Heian period after the Ainu had been either subjugated or driven to Hokkaidō.

In the later Heian, one more shogun was appointed. Minamoto no Yoshinaka was named sei-i taishōgun during the Gempei War, only to be killed shortly thereafter by Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

Kamakura shogunate (1192–1333)[edit]

In the early 11th century, daimyo protected by samurai came to dominate internal Japanese politics.[2] Two of the most powerful families – the Taira and Minamoto – fought for control over the declining imperial court. The Taira family seized control from 1160 to 1185, but was defeated by the Minamoto in the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Minamoto no Yoritomo seized certain powers from the central government and aristocracy and established a feudal system based in Kamakura in which the private military, the samurai, gained some political powers while the emperors of Japan and the aristocracy in Japan remained the de jure rulers. In 1192, Yoritomo was awarded the title of Sei-i Taishōgun by the emperor and the political system he developed with a succession of shogun at the head became known as a shogunate. Yoritomo's wife's family, the Hōjō, seized the power from the Kamakura shoguns. When Yoritomo's sons and heirs were assassinated, the shogun himself became a hereditary figurehead. Real power rested with the Hōjō regents. The Kamakura shogunate lasted for almost 150 years, from 1192 to 1333.

In 1274 and 1281, the Mongol Empire launched invasions against Japan. An attempt by Emperor Daigo II to restore imperial rule in 1331 was unsuccessful, but weakened the shogunate significantly and led to its eventual downfall.[7]

Main article: Kenmu restoration

The end of the Kamakura shogunate came when Kamakura fell in 1333, and the Hōjō Regency was destroyed. Two imperial families – the senior Northern Court and the junior Southern Court – had a claim to the throne. The problem was solved with the intercession of the Kamakura Shogunate, who had the two lines alternate. This lasted until 1331, when Daigo II (of the Southern Court) tried to overthrow the shogunate in order to stop the alternation. As a result, Daigo was exiled. Around 1334–1336, Ashikaga Takauji helped Daigo regain his throne.[8]

The fight against the shogunate left the emperor with too many people claiming a limited supply of land. Takauji turned against the emperor when the discontent about the distribution of land grew great enough. In 1336 Daigo was banished again, in favor of a new emperor.[8]

During the Kemmu Restoration, after the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, another short-lived shogun arose. Prince Moriyoshi (Morinaga), son of Daigo II, was awarded the title of Sei-i Taishōgun. However, Prince Moriyoshi was later put under house arrest and, in 1335, killed by Ashikaga Tadayoshi.

Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1573)[edit]

The tomb of Ashikaga Takauji

In 1338 Ashikaga Takauji, like Yoritomo, a descendant of the Minamoto princes, was awarded the title of sei-i taishōgun and established the Ashikaga shogunate, which lasted until 1573. The Ashikaga had their headquarters in the Muromachi district of Kyoto, and the time during which they ruled is also known as the Muromachi Period.

Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868)[edit]

Main articles: Tokugawa shogunate and Bakumatsu

Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power and established a government at Edo (now known as Tokyo) in 1600. He received the title sei-i taishōgun in 1603 after he forged a family tree to show he was of Minamoto descent.[9] The Tokugawa shogunate lasted until 1867, when Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned as shogun and abdicated his authority to Emperor Meiji.[10]

During the Edo period, effective power rested with the Tokugawa shogun, not the emperor in Kyoto, even though the former ostensibly owed his position to the latter. The shogun controlled foreign policy, the military, and feudal patronage. The role of the emperor was ceremonial, similar to the position of the Japanese monarchy after the Second World War.[11]

A shogun was a military leader equivalent to a general, and at various times in the first millennium, shoguns held temporary power, but it became a symbol of military control over the country. The establishment of the shogunate (or bakufu) at the end of the twelfth century saw the beginning of samurai control of Japan for 700 years until the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the nineteenth century.


Today the head of the Japanese government is the prime minister; the usage of the term "shogun" has nevertheless continued in colloquialisms. A retired prime minister who still wields considerable power and influence behind the scenes is called a "shadow shogun" (闇将軍 yami shōgun?), a sort of modern incarnation of the cloistered rule. Examples of "shadow shoguns" are former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka and the politician Ichirō Ozawa.[12]

The label shogun is also commonly used, often ironically with the honorific -sama, to refer to Kim Jong-il, since several of his laudatory titles include the word "general" (Hangul장군님; hanja將軍). It is also a reference to his being essentially a military dictator, as well as to North Korea's isolation, similar to the policy of sakoku.


The term bakufu originally meant the dwelling and household of a shogun, but in time, it came to be used for the system of government of a feudal military dictatorship, exercised in the name of the shogun; this is the broader meaning conveyed by the term "shogunate".

The shogunate system was originally established under the Kamakura shogunate by Minamoto no Yoritomo. Although theoretically the state, and therefore the emperor, held ownership of all land of Japan. The system had some feudal elements, with lesser territorial lords pledging their allegiance to greater ones. Samurai were rewarded for their loyalty with agricultural surplus, usually rice, or labor services from peasants. In contrast to European feudal knights, samurai were not landowners.[13] The hierarchy that held this system of government together was reinforced by close ties of loyalty between samurai and their subordinates.

Each shogunate was dynamic, not static. Power was constantly shifting and authority was often ambiguous. The study of the ebbs and flows in this complex history continues to occupy the attention of scholars. Each shogunate encountered competition. Sources of competition included the emperor and the court aristocracy, the remnants of the imperial governmental systems, the shōen system, the great temples and shrines, the shugo and the jitō, the kokujin and early modern daimyo. Each shogunate reflected the necessity of new ways of balancing the changing requirements of central and regional authorities.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Shogun". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved November 19, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "Shogun". The World Book Encyclopedia 17. World Book. 1992. pp. 432–433. ISBN 0-7166-0092-7. 
  3. ^ Totman, Conrad (1966). "Political Succession in The Tokugawa Bakufu: Abe Masahiro's Rise to Power, 1843–1845". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 26: 102–124. doi:10.2307/2718461. JSTOR 2718461. 
  4. ^ Beasley, William G. (1955). Select Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy, 1853–1868, p. 321.
  5. ^ The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary, ISBN 0-8048-0408-7
  6. ^ 征夷大将軍―もう一つの国家主権 (in Japanese). Books Kinokuniya. Retrieved March 7, 2011. 
  7. ^ Columbia University (2000). "Japan: History: Early History to the Ashikaga Shoguns". Factmonster. Retrieved 2007-04-17. 
  8. ^ a b Sansom, George (1961). A History of Japan, 1134–1615. United States: Stanford University Press. 
  9. ^ Titsingh, I. (1834). Annales des empereurs du Japon, p. 409.
  10. ^ "Japan". The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book. 1992. pp. 34–59. ISBN 0-7166-0092-7. 
  11. ^ Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashi (Winter 1991). "In Name Only: Imperial Sovereignty in Early Modern Japan". Journal of Japanese Studies 17 (1): 25–57. doi:10.2307/132906. JSTOR 132906. 
  12. ^ Ichiro Ozawa: the shadow shogun. In: The Economist, September 10, 2009.
  13. ^ Bentley, Jerry. Traditions and Encounters. pp. 301–302. ISBN 978-0-07-325230-8. 
  14. ^ Mass, J. et al., eds. (1985). The Bakufu in Japanese History, p. 189.

Further reading[edit]

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