Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact

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New History Textbook for Middle School Students Chapter 2 Section 1-3


Section 3 – Medieval society and culture

Topic 28 – The transformation of medieval cities and villages
How did life in Japan’s cities and rural villages change during the medieval period?

The evolution of agriculture
Agricultural productivity increased during the medieval period due to various improvements in technique. A two-crop system of rice and wheat became popular, as did the use of horses and cattle to plow fields. New methods were devised to utilize waterwheels to irrigate crops and to fertilize fields with grass cuttings and animal feces.

Commercial crops also came into wide cultivation. Commercial crops such as white mulberry, paper mulberry, lacquer trees, perilla, and indigo became the raw materials of Japan’s growing handicraft industries. For textiles, hemp continued to be cultivated, but starting from the sixteenth century, cotton introduced from Korea was also grown.

The growth of handicraft and business
Japanese handicraft centered around the manufacture of specialty goods distinctive to a local community. Well-known examples include the elaborate brocades of Kyoto, silk fabrics of Hakata, paper of Mino, rice wine of Nada, and lacquer ware of Noto. The lives of the Japanese people were also greatly improved by the appearance of commercial blacksmiths, who forged swords and agricultural implements such as shovels and hoes, as well as commercial foundries that produced day-to-day necessities such as pots and sickles.

Business thrived in tandem with the development of agriculture and handicraft, and street markets began to open up at regular intervals in front of popular venues such as temples and transportation hubs.1 Other new lines of business that arose out of Japan’s medieval economic expansion were wholesalers (toimaru), who managed the shipping of commodities, teamsters (bashaku), who transported freight by packhorse, and storehouse and rice wine merchants, who offered high-interest loans.2

*1=The main form of street market that flourished during the Kamakura and early Muromachi periods was the sansai markets that were held three times a month. After the Onin War, the production and circulation of goods increased, leading to the advent of the rokusai markets that were held six times a month. Transactions at the markets were carried out with copper coins imported from China.

*2=Merchants and craftsmen who served temples or the Imperial Court and court nobles organized themselves by profession into guilds (za) that were granted monopolistic privileges on the production and sale of their goods in exchange for payment of business taxes.

The rise of autonomous cities and villages
As trade and business burgeoned, cities sprang up throughout Japan where merchants and craftsmen congregated. Hakata (in modern-day Fukuoka Prefecture) and Sakai (in modern-day Osaka Prefecture), two port towns that flourished as centers of the tally trade with Ming China, were governed by consultative bodies composed of wealthy local merchants and took on the characteristics of autonomous cities. In Kyoto, every district within the city came to have its own system of self-government, run by the wealthiest businessmen and professionals.

Rural villages also took steps towards self-government. In and around the capital region, local farmers rallied behind influential freeholders or village samurai to create united communities that transcended the structure of the traditional shoen. They began holding forums at village shrines and temples in order to discuss and collectively decide upon matters of local importance such as the communal use of forests and fields, maintenance of irrigation channels, public events like festivals, and local rules. These autonomous rural organizations were called so.

The jurisdiction of the so eventually enlarged to the point where they exercised the rights of jigeuke, which was the right of the village to pay the land tax in a lump sum without undue interference from estate owners, and jikendan, which was the right of the village to conduct independent criminal investigations and trials.

Many so also undertook collective action to achieve common goals. They petitioned the shogunate to issue debt cancellation edicts, expel samurai from their neighborhoods, remove travel checkpoints, and on occasion even launched armed insurrections called land ikki.

Topic 28 Recap Challenge! – Summarize what autonomous organizations took shape in the cities of medieval Japan using approximately fifty words and in the rural villages using approximately one hundred words.

Examples of So Rules Excerpted from the Archives of Imahori Hie Shrine

“-Anyone who is called twice to a forum but does not attend shall be fined. (1448)”

“-Anyone who cuts a seedling tree in a forest under so jurisdiction will lose his status as a villager. (1449)”

“-No outsiders without a guarantor shall be allowed to settle in the village. (1489)”

Topic 29 – Kamakura culture
What were the distinguishing characteristics of the culture of the Kamakura period?

The new movements of Kamakura Buddhism
During the Kamakura period, the Buddhist faith became increasingly widespread among the masses. Evangelical Buddhist priests in the mold of Genshin and Kuya came forth from Mount Hiei in order to save the souls of common men and women suffering from war, natural disasters, and famine. Honen founded the Pure Land school, which professed that all who ardently recited the prayer “Namu Amida Butsu” would be reincarnated in the Pure Land.1 His disciple, Shinran, pursued Honen’s ideas further and came to the conclusion that the sinful could be saved precisely because they understood the gravity of human sin better than the sinless did. This was the foundation of the True Pure Land school, including the Ikko school. Yet another prominent Buddhist priest of the era, Ippen of the Ji school, travelled across Japan performing religious dances and distributing cards with Buddhist prayers written on them. Because each of these new Buddhist movements emphasized the greatness of Buddha’s mercy and the limits of human knowledge, they are part of the “faith alone” (tariki hongan) tradition of Buddhism, which asserted that salvation is achieved not through human action but only through faith in Amida Buddha. The belief that one need only to pray and leave the rest in Buddha’s hands greatly appealed to the common people, who where entirely lacking in religious training or education.

*1=”Namu Amida Butsu” literally means, “I place my faith and trust in the Buddha of Infinite Life”.

According to the Kamakura Buddhist priest Nichiren, it was the Lotus Sutra that contained the ultimate teachings of Buddhism and, thus, both people and nations could achieve peace through recitation of the prayer, “Nami Myoho Rengekyo”, which literally means, “I place my faith and trust in the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra”. This was the basis of the Nichiren school of Buddhism.

By contrast, Eisai and Dogen, two Buddhist priests who studied in Song China, preached Zen Buddhism. Eisai founded the Rinzai school, which teaches that the spirit of Buddha resides in even the lowliest man and that becoming conscious of it is the key to enlightenment. Dogen founded the Soto school, advocating that people achieve enlightenment through the solemn ritual of seated meditation. Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on self-discipline complemented the samurai ethos, and for this reason was patronized by the Kamakura shogunate.

The art and literature of the Kamakura period
The art form that was often the most emblematic of the samurai era was sculpture. The great sculptors Unkei and Kaikei and their disciples imbued their sculptures with realistic and imposing designs. The muscular physique and fierce expression of the Deva King statue at Todai-ji Temple’s Great South Gate overwhelmed all who saw it. Kofuku-ji Temple’s statues of Asanga, a Buddhist scholar of ancient India, and his disciple Vasubandhu are believed to be the work of Unkei.

Todai-ji Temple’s Seated Statue of the Venerable Chogen is Japan’s crowning achievement in realistic portrait sculpture. The Buddhist priest Chogen solicited donations across Japan for the purpose of rebuilding temples in Nara that had been destroyed by fire during the Gempei War. Chogen had Todai-ji Temple’s Great South Gate reconstructed in the architectural style of Song China, and today it remains Japan’s largest temple gate, towering at over twenty-five meters in height.

The memory of the Gempei War remained deeply engraved in the hearts of the Japanese people, who felt stronger sympathy for the defeated Taira clan, popularly known as the Heike for short, than the victorious Minamoto clan. The Tale of Heike, a retelling of the fall of the Taira clan, became a beloved national epic thanks to the work of the blind “lute priests”, who spread the tale across Japan through song and music.

Meanwhile, the art of Japanese poetry was further refined by court nobles, culminating in the compilation by Fujiwara no Teika of an avant-garde poetry collection entitled the New Kokin Wakashu. Other distinctive poets who emerged from the Kamakura period include Saigyo, a samurai who gave up his status to become an itinerant monk, and Shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo who edited a collection of his own poems called the Kinkai Wakashu.

Two great collections of light essays produced during the Kamakura period were An Account of My Hut by Kamo no Chomei and Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenko. Both works dealt with the theme of impermanence in an age of strife.

In the field of painting, many of the best works of the period were realistic portraits called nise-e in Japanese and pictures scrolls such as The Tale of Heike Picture Scroll.

Topic 29 Recap Challenge! – Using approximately one hundred words, summarize the reasons why the Pure Land and True Pure Land schools of Buddhism were widely embraced among the common people, whereas the Zen Buddhism of Eisai and Dogen became popular among the samurai class and was sponsored by the Kamakura shogunate.

The Opening Lines of The Tale of Heike

The sound of the bell of Gion Shrine
echoes the impermanence of all things.
The hue of the flowers of the teak tree
declares that they who flourish must be brought low.
Yea, the proud ones are but for a moment,
like an evening dream in springtime.
The mighty are destroyed at the last,
they are but as the dust before the wind.

Great Japanese Poems of the Kamakura Period

Looking far, I see
No sign of cherry blossoms
Or crimson leaves.
A reed-thatched hut on a bay
On an evening in autumn.
-Fujiwara no Teika (1162 – 1241)

From the vast sea
The waves encroach in thunder
Upon the quaking shore –
Breaking, smashing, riving,
Falling in great sheet of spray.
-Minamoto no Sanetomo (1192 – 1219)

This is what I want:
To die in the springtime,
Beneath the blossoms –
Midway through the Second Month,
When the moon is at the full.
-Saigyo (1118 – 1190)

Topic 30 – Muromachi culture
What were the distinguishing characteristics of the culture of the Muromachi period?

The Kitayama culture and the Higashiyama culture
The culture of the Muromachi period is divided into two phases named after and symbolized by the mountain retreats constructed by two of the Muromachi shoguns. The first was the Golden Pavilion built in Kitayama, Kyoto, by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun. The second was the Silver Pavilion built in Higashiyama by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun.

The Golden Pavilion, which was adorned with brilliant gold leaf, was composed of three floors, each put together in a different architectural style. The first floor was constructed in the “palace style” favored by court nobles, the second floor in the “parlor style” typical of samurai culture, and the third floor in the style of Buddhist temple architecture. This structure is symbolic of the transition from Japan’s classical court culture to its samurai culture.

Japanese theater also made strides thanks to the work of the father and son duo Kanami and Zeami, who were supported by Yoshimitsu. They successfully incorporated field music and monkey music,1 two forms of popular entertainment, into noh theater. The comedy skits shown during noh intermissions, called kyogen in Japanese, often dealt with the daily lives of common people.

*1=Field music (dengaku) and monkey music (sarugaku) were forms of popular theater performed since the Heian period. Monkey music is a song and dance routine with comedic words and gestures. It was performed at public events such as Shinto kagura ceremonies as a form of entertainment. Field music is song and dance that was originally acted out during rice planting to encourage the farmers, but eventually became wildly popular even among the court nobles.

Noh and kyogen were put on in the homes of samurai and in temples, and became representative performing arts of the era. Japan’s culture during the time of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu is called the Kitayama culture.

In Yoshimasa’s Silver Pavilion, the Heian “palace style” disappeared entirely. Instead, the simple elegance of samurai culture was reflected in both the “parlor style” of its first floor and the Zen temple style of its second floor.

The “parlor style” was favored in samurai residences. It was characterized by tatami mats, sliding room dividers, sliding paper doors, and a large alcove called a tokonoma to display artwork or calligraphy.

The more modest forms of cultural expression promoted by Yoshimasa later evolved into the somber and tranquil culture of wabi-sabi, which can be translated as “the beauty of imperfection”. For the tea ceremonies, there were not only the bustling tea parties attended by dozens or more, but now also the wabi tea enjoyed silently in a simple tea hut. Zen temples began to prefer dry landscape gardens of modest aesthetic, notably the rock garden of Ryoan-ji Temple and the moss garden of Saiho-ji Temple, which was dubbed “Moss Temple”.

In the field of painting, Sesshu studied the art of ink wash painting in Ming China and established the Japanese form of monochrome landscape painting. This period was also the golden age of renga, Japanese linked-verse poems that were composed in succession through a collaboration of several poets. Sogi was one of the most distinguished renga poets. These cultural trends are collectively referred to as the Higashiyama culture.

The social and regional spread of the new culture
Because many court nobles and Buddhist priests fled the capital region to escape the maelstrom of war, Kyoto culture was transmitted across Japan’s provinces. Ashikaga Academy in Shimotsuke Province, which was supported by the Uesugi clan, became Japan’s most important educational institution.2 Buddhist temples throughout Japan also began to provide education to the children of samurai and commoners, and literacy rates increased. As a result, picture books known as otogizoshi were widely read, which served to popularize the traditional Japanese folktales of Urashima Taro and The Inch-High Samurai.

*2=In 1432 (Eikyo 4), Uesugi Norizane, a protector-daimyo who served as kanrei in eastern Japan, restored the Ashikaga Academy (in Ashikaga City of modern-day Tochigi Prefecture) to serve as the highest seat of learning in eastern Japan. Its students came from every part of Japan, from as far north as the Oshu Province and as far south as Ryukyu. The Ashikaga Academy charged no tuition and offered courses in Confucianism, Chinese divination, medicine, and military strategy. The academy also had its own medicinal herb garden.

The growth of trade and business brought increasing prosperity to the lives of the common people. They enjoyed better diets, and more and more of them took to drinking tea, which had been brought to Japan from China by Eisai during the Kamakura period. Miso and soy sauce also became widely available. The alcoves (tokonoma) common in civilian homes used to be bedrooms, but starting in the medieval period they were instead used to display artwork or calligraphy. This period was also the origin of the lively Bon dance, which has been an annual tradition throughout Japan ever since.

The Pure Land school, Nichiren school, and Zen Buddhism were all born from the feelings of uncertainty prevalent among Japan’s war-torn people during the Kamakura period, but each would later experience continued growth as religious organizations.

Topic 30 Recap Challenge! – During the Muromachi period, a new culture of modesty that shunned extravagance was born. Give three examples of this trend.

The Ikki and the Tradition of Consultation
What was the nature of Japan’s medieval ikki? What impact have the ikki and the tradition of consultation had on Japanese politics since the Muromachi period?

The origin of the ikki
The word “ikki” derives from the Japanese phrase ki wo itsu ni suru, meaning “to be of one mind”. Ikki means people meeting together with a shared goal in mind and uniting as equals in spite of their differing standpoints.

In the late Heian period, when the warrior monks of a Buddhist temple needed to act together, for something like litigation, they undertook a special ritual swearing before the deities that they would remain united. They wrote their objectives on a piece of paper, burned it, stirred the ashes into a cup of water, and passed it around so that each member could drink from it. Such actions are said to be the origin of the ikki.

The Kamakura shogunate and the ikki
In 1225 (Karoku 1), Kamakura Regent Hojo Yasutoki created the Council of State, which brought together leading housemen, including the Hojo regent, and representatives of other shogunate officials. He hoped that henceforth all government decisions would be made at such meetings. After the promulgation of the Formulary of Adjudications in 1232 (Joei 1), the Council of State also conducted trials on the basis of that law. At the time that the Formulary of Adjudications was completed, the Council of State drew up a document that stipulated the following:

“When we discuss litigation at meetings of the Council of State, we must not judge either the plaintiff or the defendant on the basis of any friendships we may have with them or any other personal biases towards them. All statements delivered at a meeting of the Council must be made solely on the basis of reason, without need to defer to other attendees nor to fear anyone of higher social status. All councilors shall be collectively responsible for the decisions of the Council, whether the decision be right or wrong.”

This document, which was signed by every member present, imbued the Council of State with the exact same formulation as an ikki. The members of the Council of State made an oath to the deities to tightly cooperate and conduct trials with the utmost standards of fairness. Therefore, the spirit of consultation was the essence of any ikki. In other words, all members had to thoroughly discuss the issue at hand with one another in the hopes of ultimately arriving at the right decision.

The blossoming of the ikki and village autonomy
The shogunate and the protector-daimyo came out of the Onin War badly weakened, and a growing number of Japanese farming villages responded by organizing ikki. After thorough consultation concerning their course of action, the farmers typically rose up and defended their villages through the strength of their own arms in order to force the authorities to hear out their demands.

In 1428 (Shocho 1), the members of a farmers’ ikki that had started in Omi Province (modern-day Shiga Prefecture) attacked high-interest moneylenders in Kyoto and demanded that the shogunate write off their debts. These collective uprisings of farmers and other citizens in the name of debt relief were called the “debt cancellation ikki”.

The twin principles of all ikki were consultation and unity, but they were not restricted to any one social class. Ikki came to be organized not just by farmers, but also samurai, Buddhist priests, and even craftsmen. The ikki became the standard model for any Japanese communities wishing to join together to achieve a common societal goal.


Fumiko asks her sister about the periodization of medieval history…

The following is a dialogue between Fumiko, a Japanese middle school student, and her elder sister.

Fumiko: In medieval times, the government was run by the samurai, right?

Fumiko’s sister: The samurai were originally bodyguards to the court nobles, but they went on to become much more than that. You could say that it was the samurai who made the medieval period what it was.

Fumiko: So does that mean that the medieval period started when the samurai started?

Fumiko’s sister: The Hogen and Heiji Rebellions of the twelfth century divided Imperial Family members and court nobles against one another and brought the Taira clan to the height of its power. Still, it wasn’t until the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate that the age of the samurai really began. So when do you think that the medieval period ended?

Fumiko: I learned that it was when Nobunaga and Hideyoshi unified the country in the sixteenth century.

Fumiko’s sister: That’s right. Specifically, we usually say the year 1573, when Nobunaga drove Ashikaga Yoshiaki from Kyoto and overthrew the Muromachi shogunate. Just think of the medieval period as the four-hundred-year span of time between the late-twelfth and the late-sixteenth centuries.

Fumiko: And what about the Emperors? What role did they play in the medieval period?

Fumiko’s sister: The Minamoto and Taira clans were able to claim leadership of the samurai because they were offshoots of the Imperial Family. Even though the Emperors withdrew from the political stage, they continued to have influence. The Emperors were the ones who appointed the shogun.

Comparing historical periods

Compare each set of the following topics and jot down the key differences.

(1.) Taira rule versus the Kamakura shogunate.

(2.) Kamakura culture versus Muromachi culture.

(3.) Ancient Buddhism versus Kamakura Buddhism.

Comparing historical figures

Hojo Tokimune and Ashikaga Yoshimitsu pursued differing policies towards China. Compare these two historical figures and make a table summarizing your findings.

An essay “in a word”

What did you find most fascinating about Japan’s medieval history?

In a word, the medieval period was the era of __________.

In the blank, insert the topic that you think best fits and write a short essay of between 100 and 200 words on it.

Examples: the samurai, warfare, native Japanese culture, gekokujo, etc…

Group discussion work

(1.) What were the key differences between court government and samurai government? Let everyone share their own ideas.

(2.) Discuss some points that modern Japanese law has in common with the rules set by the medieval so.

(explanation of key terms in less than 100 words)

Hogen and Heiji Rebellions 1156 – 1159 The Hogen Rebellion was a war that broke out due to conflict between Emperor Go-Shirakawa and Retired Emperor Sutoku. Both the brothers of the Fujiwara clan and the powerful samurai split over which side to support. Although Emperor Go-Shirakawa was victorious, the Heiji Rebellion began soon after as a result of a power struggle among the court nobles.
Protectors and stewards late 1100s – 1400 Government officials first appointed by Minamoto no Yoritomo to govern Japan’s provinces. Protectors were appointed in each province to handle military and police work as well as play a role in political administration. The stewards were appointed to manage the shoen and imperial lands and to collect land taxes from them.
Kamakura shogunate 1192 – 1333 The shogunate founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo. After receiving the title of shogun from the Imperial Court, Yoritomo made Kamakura the headquarters of a simple and practical-minded military administration. The Kamakura shogunate, a full-fledged samurai government, lasted for about 140 years, a time known as the Kamakura period.
Housemen Kamakura period The samurai retainers in the service of the shogun. The Kamakura shogunate was founded on the lord-vassal relationship between the shogun and the housemen. The shogun protected the hereditary lands of the housemen and provided them with new lands. In return, the housemen pledged fealty to the shogun and, in times of war, risked their lives on the battlefield for him.
Hojo regency 1200s The government of the Hojo regents, who were advisors to the shogun. After the death of Yoritomo, the Hojo clan of Yoritomo’s wife Masako gradually wiped out the other powerful housemen and seized control. The Hojo clan dominated the government as regents to members of the Fujiwara clan or Imperial Family who held the title of shogun in name only.
Jokyu War 1221 A failed uprising by Retired Emperor Go-Toba who desired to overthrow the Hojo clan. In order to restore the power of the Imperial Court, Go-Toba called upon samurai throughout Japan to overthrow the Hojo clan, but most of them rallied behind the shogunate. They defeated the forces of the Imperial Court, and Go-Toba was banished to Oki Island.
Formulary of Adjudications 1232 The unique legal code of Japan’s samurai government. Regent Hojo Yasutoki created it on the basis of the customs of samurai society in the year Joei 1, from which it is also known as the Joei Formulary. It explained in clear terms the standards of judicial trials and the rights and duties of housemen, and it served as a model for the legal codes of future samurai governments.
Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274, 1281 Two invasions of Japan by Mongol forces. Kublai Khan, the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, founded the Yuan dynasty and began to extend his sway over all East Asia. He also plotted to subjugate Japan and assembled a massive fleet for that purpose. However, the Mongol hordes attacking Japan ran into stiff resistance from the Kamakura samurai and were ultimately defeated.
Einin Debt-Cancellation Edict 1297 An edict requiring that any land pawned or sold by a houseman be unconditionally returned to its original owner. Its intention was to provide financial relief to the housemen, but it actually made the situation worse as there were no more moneylenders who would give them credit.
Kemmu Restoration 1333 – 1336 A new government uniting the samurai and the court nobles. After the fall of the Kamakura shogunate, just as Japan’s era name changed to Kemmu, Emperor Go-Daigo founded this new regime with the goal of instituting direct Imperial rule. The Kemmu Restoration soon produced backlash due to Go-Daigo’s refusal to acknowledge the customs of samurai society and the traditions of the court nobility.
War of the Northern and Southern Courts 1336 – 1392 A civil war between the two halves of Japan’s divided Imperial Court. Fighting raged across the country for about sixty years pitting the Northern Court in Kyoto, which was set up by Ashikaga Takauji who wanted to restore samurai rule, with the Southern Court in Yoshino, which was set up by Emperor Go-Daigo who had escaped Kyoto following the collapse of the Kemmu Restoration.
Muromachi shogunate 1336 – 1573 The shogunate founded in Kyoto after Ashikaga Takauji was appointed shogun by the Emperor of the Northern Court. The shogunate received its name from Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun, who governed the country from the mansion he had constructed in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. Therefore, the time when Japan’s shogunate was controlled by the Ashikaga clan is known as the Muromachi period.
Protector-daimyo 1300s – 1400s Protectors who rose to dominate their respective provinces. As the power of the shoguns declined during the early decades of the Muromachi shogunate, the protectors were given additional powers which served to strengthen their authority and led them to claim the loyalty of the samurai of their provinces. Consequently, the Muromachi shogunate came to resemble a loose federation of protector-daimyo.
Tally trade 1400s – 1500s Trade between Japan and Ming China that started on condition that Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu suppress the wako pirates. This commerce, which was a major source of revenue for the Muromachi shogunate, was called the tally trade because it utilized official certificates called “tallies” that were provided to Japan by the Ming Emperor in order to distinguish licensed traders from wako pirates.
Onin War 1467 – 1477 A war over the successors to the shogun and the kanrei that was fought largely between the forces of Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Mochitoyo. Samurai across Japan divided themselves between Hosokawa’s Eastern Army and Yamana’s Western Army, and the fighting between them lasted eleven years. Kyoto, which experienced the brunt of the fighting, was largely burned to the ground.