Feudalism in Japan- An Overview


Cover for volume 1, and it stars the two leads. The man sitting is Kuze Akihito, and the one standing is Katsuragi Tomoyuki

This is taken from a forum post I made in Baka Manga updates. One of my favourite yaoi manga is Blue Morning, or Yuuutsu na Asa. It’s the story of an heir to a Samurai house in Japan who falls in love with his butler. It is set during the waning days of Japan’s feudal era, and provides a good read into what life was like in Japan during that time.

It’s not the first yaoi to take place during that time period, which was from the 12th to 19th century CE, never mind the first Japanese art. That is why I have decided to research into the era, so I can best understand the manga that takes place there. I posted my findings in the forums on Baka, and now I am posting it here. Warning, this will be a bit long, and I’m copying it word-for-word from my forum post!

Feudalism: The Basics

Feudalism was the economic system of the middle ages in Europe and Japan. In Europe it ran from the ~800sCE to 1600sCE; in Japan it went from ~1100s CE to 1868 CE. It was based on lords offering their knights land grants in exchange for military service. The deal, and the terms, for the land grants were often sworn based on religious grounds. The vassal promised military service for 40 days/year during times of peace, and indefinite service in times of war.

In turn these knights could divide up the land and disperse it to lesser knights and lords. The land division would then divide further, portions of the land were called fiefs, and given to even lesser lords and knights. The rulers of the land would then rent it out to peasants, who farmed the land instead of paying a monthly tax for it.

The results for European and Japanese feudalism were:

  1. No unified government. Although the highest tiers of lordship swore loyalty to the King or Emperor, the lesser vassals real rulers were the Lords giving them the land. Note these transactions were between individuals, not countries nor nation states. As a result, there was often in-fighting between the lesser vassals, and the Kings and Emperors often tried to not get involved in such affairs. A sort-of example could be seen in the setting the play Macbeth was set in: Macbeth had his own castle and subjects, and ruled as Lord (called Thane in Scotland).

  2. The feudal system prevented economic growth, unlike mercantilism and capitalism. This is because the workers of the land, called serfs, were often forced to stick with the Lord the land grant came from. They had to grind their grain, bake bread, and sell and trade among the other peasants living and working on the Lord’s lands. They had to pay fees for everything from a tax on the food they harvested to a tax on using bridges their lords built. If anyone has ever seen the movie DragonHeart, an example of this is in one of the scenes one of Lord Felton talks to King Einon about introducing a road tax for all peasants, and travelers, that visit his lands.

European feudalism grew out of the ashes of the Western Roman Empire, and Germanic traditions; while Japanese feudalism grew out of Confucian philosophy. The results were similar but different versions of the medieval feudalistic system.

 Japanese and European Feudalism:


  1. In both feudal Japan and Europe, constant warfare made warriors the most important class. Called “knights” in Europe and “samurai” in Japan, the warriors served local lords. In both cases, the warriors were bound by a code of ethics. Knights were supposed to hew to the concept of chivalry, while samurai were bound by the precepts of Bushido, or “the Way of the Warrior.”
  2. It resulted in a  social system of various classes with little possibility of mobility from one class to another
  3. Both were a system that was based on the offering of allegiance in exchange for protection
  4. Both cultures had a warrior class with a code of honor, and a peasant class tied to the land. The warrior classes (knights in Europe, Samurai in Japan) pledged allegiance to their lords, and the lords to their lords, and their lords to the King/Emperor. Peasants in both societies were bound to the land and turned over a portion of their produce in return for protection.
  5. Both societies also had clergy that functioned outside the normal feudal system (Catholic clergy in Europe, Buddhist monks in Japan).
  6. Japanese feudal society, the shogun, representing the emperor, ruled through daimyo, or feudal lords. In European feudalism, the king ruled through his nobles. In both cultures, the King and Emperor often acted as figure heads, and not really directly ruling things (though in European history, some kings did deviate!)
  7. Women in both societies were expected to submit to male heads of households.


  1. European feudalism grew out of the Roman Empire, and has ties to Catholicism; Japanese feudalism is tied to Buddhism, and Confucian ideals.

  2. Philosophy of Feudalism:
    a) In Japan, moral beliefs centered around filial piety and the idea of duty. The daimyo and samurai had a moral obligation to protect the peasants living on their land, while the peasants had a moral obligation to respect and pay food taxes to the nobility in return. Neither party, culturally speaking, could sway from this arrangement.
    b) the knights and peasants of Europe viewed feudalism as a reciprocal benefit, but were more flexible on the moral aspect.

  3. The samurai of Japan did not independently own land. Instead, the daimyo allotted them a portion to live on and paid an income based in rice.

  4. Resistance to change during the last half of the second millennium CE
    a) The Japanese feudal system was also more resistant to change. After the unification of Japan in the early 1600s, the country expelled all foreigners in 1639, and it closed off the land, aside from a Dutch trading post in Nagasaki and a few other ports. This nearly eliminated foreign influence and most importantly firearms, which were a force equalizer that helped eliminate the knights’ hold over Europe.
    b) Meanwhile, European feudalism ended with the medieval era, and gave rise to mercantilism during European exploration and the beginning of the colonial era.

Japanese Feudalism in Particular

yuuutsu_na_asa_by_zyphriel-d85s0e5The era of feudalism in Japan took place from the 12th through 19th centuries CE. Yuutsu Na Assa takes place near the end of that era, and focus more on the transition from the feudal, isolationist system to more of an open policy towards foreigners, and Western economics.

Even though Confucius was Chinese philosopher who lived in the late 500s – early 400s BCE, his beliefs and teachings spread to Japan and helped shape the feudal system. Why the Japanese waited until the 12th century CE to adapt his philosophy and teachings into a economic system is for a different blog article, but it happened nonetheless. Confucius stressed morality and filial piety, or respect for elders and other superiors. This teaching fueled the code of ethics, and understanding of the roles of the different hierarchies in feudal Japan.

As a result, the samurai and lords build a code of ethics around their duty to care for the people on their lands, and to protect them. Furthermore, it was their duty to serve their Lords and the duty of the Lords to serve the Emperor. In turn it was the duty and honour of the peasants, artisans, and merchants to give back to their lords. This duty and honor was not easily changed, nor subverted.

Hierarchy in Feudal Japan

Samurai were the Knights of feudal Japan, who were the most powerful figures during that time period. In Blue Morning Kuse Akihito descended from a Samurai family. They commanded respect and obedience from their subjects so much so, people were to bow when a Samurai walked by, a Samurai who could behead them if they refused.

Unlike in European feudalism, Japanese samurai did not own any land. Instead, the daimyo, who were the lords in feudal Japan, used a portion of their income from taxing the peasants to pay the samurai a salary, usually paid in rice. Although women were subservient to men in feudal Japan, Samurai women, for example, were expected to be strong like the men, and to face death without flinching. In addition, samurai were supposed to be cultured and artistic, able to compose poetry or write in beautiful calligraphy.

The only people Samurai answered to were Daimyo, and Daimyo answered to Shoguns.

Daimyo: feudal lords in Japan (means ‘great name’ in English) who rented out their land to Samurai.

Shogun: most powerful military ruler among the Daimyo. They served only the Emperor

Farmers/Peasants: Farmers were the class beneath the Samurai. Unlike in Europe, farmers were considered an important class because Confucius pointed out that farmers are the ones who make all the food people live off of. In spite such honour, the farmers lived under a crushing tax burden for much of the feudal era. For example, as taken from the Asian history website I got the information from, during the reign of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, farmers were not allowed to eat any of the rice they grew. They had to hand it all over to their daimyo, and then wait for him to give some back as charity.

Artisans: Made the clothing, cooking untensils, and other tools needed to live life
they were considered less important than the farmers. Even skilled samurai sword makers and boatwrights belonged to this third tier of society in feudal Japan. The artisan class lived in its own section of the major cities, segregated from the samurai (who usually lived in the daimyos’ castles), and from the lower merchant class. I think Katsuragi’s family, and the servants in Kuze’s household, were part of this class in the manga.

Merchants: Merchants were at the tail end of the feudal system, and probably one of feudalisms few success stories. Not only were they at the bottom of the barrel in feudal Japan, but they were a wealthy powerhouse in spite of it. According to one source, “Merchants were ostracized as “parasites” who profited from the labor of the more productive peasant and artisan classes. Not only did merchants live in a separate section of each city, but the higher classes were forbidden to mix with them except on business.” However, with much wealth the restrictions on them eventually lessened and they became influential.

Where the Manga Meets History


3Class differences fuel much of the conflict between the main characters in the manga. For example, the main characters Kuze Akihito and Katsuragi Tomoyuki are master and servant. Kuze is the descendant of a Samurai family, while Katsuragi is from a more artisan family officially. While I cannot confirm, from reading the manga Marquise Moriyama is most likely at least a Daiymo within the narrative.

In feudal Japan, Kuze is always ahead of Katsuragi and Kuze frequently expresses such disdain that the divide exists at all. Many times throughout the series, the class system is blatantly challenged by Kuze as a result.

For example, Kuze attempts to upturn the hierarchy and class differences within the Kuze household: For example in volume 1 and 2 Kuze tries to get his servants to dine with him at the table during dinner, and many times in the volume Kuze wants Katsuragi to walk side-by-side with him at social gatherings. and between himself and Katsuragi (i.e. wanting to walk side-by-side as equals). Katsuragi, and the servants in the Kuze household, could not even fathom sitting as an equal at the table with Kuze because as far as they are concerned, it is dishonorable to even attempt such a thing.

Note it’s not just the underlings who get challenged in terms of their position. Marquise Moriyama is most likely the Daiymo that rules over the households in their area of Japan. In the manga, to challenge him or try to manipulate him to do the bidding of his undelings was unconscionable in feudal Japan. Yet, Kuze and Katsuragi do just that in volumes 4 and 5.

The way the two go about it is a give away the manga takes place at the end of the feudal era. If they were closer to the beginning, Katsuragi and Kuze would’ve been signing their own death warrants for challenging the Marquise. Instead they got a way with it, and gained the upper hand in the much scheming in the manga.
Speaking of getting ahead, the merchants have a part to play in the manga. Again, if this was early in the era the Merchants probably would have been an afterthought for most of the characters. In Blue Morning, however, the Ishizaki (?) were quite influential in the manga.
Since this is later in the feudal era, the restrictions placed on merchants were lessening because most of them were well off and wealthy. The dichotomy between old ways and new ways, I think anyway, are most prominent in the scenes that involve them: People like Moriyama and Katsuragi range from barely tolerating them to complete disdain; meanwhile, Kuze was proving to taking the steps towards the modern era by allying with them and befriending the heir at the same time. And his friend took things a step further by openly criticizing Kuze on numerous occasions, and often they were very unsolicited.
Does Kuze rebuff his friend’s advise and critcisms? No! In fact he welcomes them, walks side-by-side with him on numerous occasions, and apologizes for getting into a fight with him. No wonder so many people in the manga ask, who the hell is this kid?

Sources Used







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