Chapter 13: Japan Under The Shogun

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Chapter 13 / Medieval Drama

Chapter 13: Japan Under The Shogun 2

Historical Background:

Chapter 13: Japan Under the Shogun. Power and Control. Honour and Duty. First Contact with the West. Chapter 14: Edo Japan - A Closed Society. Chapter 15: Contact. Chapter 13 Japan Under the Shogun287 When people have the opportunity to change their position in society, this is called “social mobility.” In Japanese feudal society there was officially no social mobility. Many Canadians think that social mobility is a fact of Canadian society.

After Constantine’s erroneous move to Byzantium, the political power of the Near East and Europe begins to shift from Roman domination to separate kingdoms united under the Holy Roman Empire.There are basically three periods of the Holy Roman Empire.These are: the Rise of Christianity from 400 AD - 1100 AD, encompassing the growth of the catholic church; the Flowering of Gothic Feudalism from1100 AD - 1350 AD, where church liturgy through drama reaches it’s zenith; and the Secular Period from1350 AD - 1600 AD, where religious monastic individuality supplants the power of Rome.In addition, this is the time when knights of the realm protect kingdoms and serfs work in indentured servitude in exchange for protection.Serfs did not own the land but were allowed to live on it as long as they worked and paid their taxes, or ‘tithes’, to the king.This form of political organization is called feudalism.Interestingly, feudalism is a world standard during this period and is followed in not only Europe but in the near and Far East.

This period is also often referred to as the gothic period and/or as the ‘dark ages’.This is due to the fact that recorded history from this period is sparse.There are many reasons for the term ‘dark ages’ but the most notably reason is that the vast majority of people cannot read or write.In addition, the educated monks, who were quite capable of recording the daily history of the times, had been assigned a more important task - creating copies of the Bible.Since, the printing press had not been invented the most popular book of the time had to be copied by hand, word for word.The care and craftsmanship that went into the illuminated Bibles of the Benedictine Monks or as preserved in The Book of Kell’s is amazing.Because this period is marked by unquestionable faith and servitude to God, Church, and King, it is no surprise that religious devotion and liturgical themes find their way into the drama of the times.

The Theater:

The Medieval Period is marked by a transition in style from ritualistic to representational drama, where things like personal behaviors and objects are physically ‘represented’ on stage by actors.However, thematically the theatre remains a function of religion and is used to supplement mass in the Catholic Church.The church at this time was conducting its services in Latin.Since most people were not educated they did not fully comprehend the message and meaning of the words used.Since misunderstanding and a lack of attendance might mean less attendance and alms, this was of great concern to the church.Thus, in an attempt to educate the peasants on the meaning of fasts, religious holidays, and various ceremonies, the clergy had acolytes perform small playlets dealing with the Quem Quertis or Easter themes concerning the resurrection of Christ and the redemption of sins.Needless to say, these small playlets were a hit and a pleasant addition to the church service.Other liturgical themes were quickly added to fill out the Christian calendar.There were playlets about creation and the casting out of Lucifer - a tale of pride and arrogance.There were playlets on temptation (Adam and Eve) and of jealousy, hatred, and murder (Cain and Able).Whiles others dealt with cleansing and redemption (Noah) and about sacrifice and obedience (Abraham).

These playlets were performed off to the side of the altar in the nave of the church.A platea, or platform, was used to elevate the actors so that they could be seen well by the congregation.As these playlets evolved, they became more elaborate both in their staging and thematic content.Additionally, these evolving playlets required the use of more actors.Some of these complex themes included the Christmas story of the birth of Christ, the passion play of the crucifixion, and the story of damnation, which required a hells mouth, or the mouth of the devil, in which sinners were thrown.The more complex scenic elements were placed upon the simple platea and were called mansions.

These playlets became wildly popular and began to have an unforeseen effect on church attendance.People came just to see the playlets and the playlets were perceived as detracting from the real reason why people should be going to church.Eventually the playlets were moved from the church to the public market square.Originally, these were performed on fixed staging but the need for mobility eventually saw them mounted on wagons.These movable stages were called mansion wagons and soon there were enough companies and wagons to put on religious drama pageants during religious holidays.In fact, many cities had their own pageants.Since the wagons were usually set up in sequence with the events of the Bible, they became known as Cycle plays.The most famous cycle was the York Cycle in York, England - which had forty-eight playlets.In a sense, it was a living Bible.

As time went on, the mansion wagons evolved into more complex forms of staging called pageant wagons.As a civic event, it was the responsibility of the guilds to help build the pageant wagons most closely associated with their trade.For instance, the shipwrights probably worked on Noah’s wagon, while the goldsmiths worked on the adoration or resurrection wagons.It is these pageant wagons that are believed to be the root of the Shakespearean stage.

Meanwhile in Asia, drama is alive and well.There is the development of Sanskrit drama in India, the Indonesian shadow puppet theatre called the Wayang, the masked drama called Kamyonguk in Korea, in addition to the Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki forms of drama in Japan and the now world renowned Chinese Opera.Interestingly, China, India, and Japan are also employing feudal systems of governance.

In Japan, the emperor chose a military leader called the Shogun to supervise the lords of the provinces called Daimyo.For the protection of the provinces citizens and wealth, each Daimyo retains knights called Samurai.Below the Samurai are the merchant class, then the commoners, and finally, the untouchables or Burakumin.Like India and China, Japan uses a very rigid and defined caste system.There is no upward mobility and you are destined to live your life in the caste to which you were born.As in Europe, life was so hard and rigid, that people look forward to the afterlife through their religion.As a result, it is no surprise that all of the Asian drama, except Chinese Opera, is religiously associated.Furthermore the themes that pervade this dramatic age are of forgiveness, redemption, honesty, obedience and sacrifice.

The Playwrights and Theatrical Convention:

Many of the playlets and plays of the medieval period are without author.This is probably due to the nature of the playlets (Biblical writings) or the lack of recorded history.However, a nun by the name of Hrosvitha is credited for writing 20 plays of both religious content and domestic comedies.However, no matter the author, the plays of this period dealt largely with allegorical religious themes.In Everyman, the lead character (Everyman) is told by Death that he will die soon and that he must prepare himself.Everyman tries to persuade his family and friends to come with him on his journey, but they decline.Everyman also discovers that his material goods, as well as all his good deeds (physically represented by actors) will not go either.However, Knowledge leads him to Confession (both played by actors) and through this confession, Everyman’s good deeds are freed and can then follows him on his journey.Everyman then meets up with Beauty, Strength, Discretion and The Five Wits (all played by actors) and they all travel together to the grave.At the grave, Everyman is abandoned by all but Good Deeds - and so the play ends.Although plays like Everyman and The PassionPlay seem quite overly literal and pathetically naive, they are an essential part of theatre history.They show us the need of human beings to have a creative outlet even in the worst of times.

In Japan, the leading playwright in Noh Theater was Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1444), who wrote more than half of the 200 plays that make up the traditional Noh repertory.In the Kabuki Theater, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) who wrote Love Suicides at Sonezeki and Takedo Izumo (1691-1756) also became one of Japan’s leading literary figures.In addition, Chikamatsu Monzaemon a Noh theatre playwright was also the premiere playwright of the puppet theater Bunraku (originally Joruri) and he was also renowned for this body of work.

The Staging and Spectacle:

As previously mentioned during the European Medieval Era, the stage developed from simple platea and more complex mansions into pageant wagons composed of three levels the heavens, the stage, and the cellar.

Not coincidentally, given the religious tenor of the times, these three areas represented heaven, earth, and hell.The heavens were utilized to ‘fly in’ actors, as well as scenery like clouds and backdrops.The cellar was used for graves to bury characters in or, in the case of the hells mouth, to throw the damned into the flaming and smoking mouth of Satan.Although the effects would be considered ‘cheap’ by today’s standards they were quite innovative and popular.In fact, hell’s mouth became such a popular effect that it became part of the ‘standard effects’ package that all theaters had through the royal period.

In Japan, the indigenous religion of Shintoism - a religion based on the reverence of the spirit world and especially the spirits of ancestors, and the imported religion of Buddhism - a religion of enlightenment and nirvana, were finding they could coexist in the Japanese mind.

Noh drama consisted of plays that praised God and portrayed the exploits of warriors and the lives of women.In addition, plays dealt with madness, spirits and demons.Kabuki, on the other hand, consisted mainly of historic or legendary incidents like the plays the 47 Ronin and Chushingura.Both incidents occurred when master-less Samurai (Ronin) were forced by the warriors code known as bushido, to take action and justice into their own hands.Both Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai - Japanese films based on Kabuki scenarios - were turned into A Fist Full of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven.In addition to theses types of stories, Kabuki also presented domestic plays.

Chapter 13: Japan Under The Shogun Movie

Bunraku or Doll Theater, is actually the predecessor to Kabuki.Bunraku uses half-size puppets manipulated by three operators in black garb.These are not marionettes, the puppets are very realistic, elaborate, and finely crafted.The similarities between Bunraku and Kabuki are parallel until the obvious distinction of the use of the live actor versus puppet.Many of the plays in the Kabuki Theater and repertory started out as Bunraku or Jurori scripts.

The stages for Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatre are all relatively the same.

The central acting area is a deep thrust (audience seating on three sides) for Bunraku and Kabuki and an arena (theater in the round) for Noh.Like the platea in medieval times, they consist of a simple platform.The central area houses the musicians, narrators and or actors and, in the case of Bunraku, the puppets and their operators.These designated areas are key elements in the composition of the stage and the action.Upon the stage are four pillars aligned with the four main compass points.These four pillars or (shira) are used by the actors and puppeteers, much like we use upstage and downstage, to navigate around the stage.In addition to the pillars and stage, there is a long platform, which connects the stage to a wall behind the audience.This platform is called the hashigakiri in Noh and Bunraku Theater, and the hanamichi in Kabuki Theater.The actors or puppeteers use this platform to exit to waiting or ‘mirror’ rooms or to increase the tension of the moment by advancing toward and into the audience.Modern day rock performers use hanamichi’s for the same purpose, to get closer to their fans.They are elevated pathways to the mosh pit.

It is astounding that two civilizations, Europe and Japan, could develop so many parallels in performance, thematic content, and staging without formal contact.

Chapter 13 Japan Under the Shogun

How do forms of government and decision making reflect a society’s worldview?

The Emperor

The Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world!

The Emperor’s Imperial seating in Japan is called the Chrysanthemum Throne and has been since 660BC.

During the Edo period, the emperor was largely a figurehead – someone with no real power except in title. He is considered a symbol of state and unity of people.

Social Structure

The shogun is a military rank and historical dictator prior to the Meiji period in Japan. In Japanese it literally translates to “commander of force” and was the ruling dictator in historical Japan.

During the Edo period the Tokugawa Shogunite ruled the land.

The Daimyo

This was a group that ruled the territorial land in historical Japan. The Daimyo status was hereditary – meaning it was passed down from your parents.

The Daimyo was also the title of the ruling landlord in different regions chosen by the Shogun.

The Samurai

The Samurai were the very respected warrior class of pre industrial Japan. The word samurai comes from the Japanese word ‘saburau’ meaning ‘those who serve in close attendance to the nobility’.

Chapter 13: japan under the shogun movie

The Samurai There are many subdivisions in rank for the samurai. They were considered a noble class which trained not only men, but women and children as well.

Shoguns of japan list13:

By the end of the 12 of the warrior. th century the entire class was almost entirely associated with the ‘bushi’ the upper class of the samurai. The samurai followed a set of rules and beliefs called ‘Bushido’ – the way The lowest rank being the ronin – samurai with no master.

The 47 Ronin

The story of the 47 Ronin is considered one of Japan’s most treasured legends. The legend begins with a young daimyo, Lord Asano who was asked, along with other important representatives to meet the emperor.

Lord Kira, a high ranking daimyo was assigned to teach the young Lord Asano proper procedure and behavior in the Emperor’s presence.

The great offence!

Lord Kira was a greedy man. He demanded many gifts for his help and often set unreasonable demands and requests on the young Asano.

Legend has it that Asano was generally a very even tempered and patient man, following the laws of Confucianism. However, while in the shogun’s house Asano lost his patience with Lord Kira and drew his sword – requesting battle! Kira drew back, like a coward, but was struck in the face by Asano’s sword. The injury was non-life threatening (he lived) but the damage was done.

The consequence

Asano knew he had committed a grave offence. He had drawn his sword inside an imperial castle and struck a high ranking official. His punishment was death – which he accepted. When he died, his title, and belongings were stripped from him and his family. All that followed him were now left dishonored.

His samurai were divided, most were given the option to follow Lord Kira, which would allow them to keep their title and place in society. 47 of them chose to become ronin and out of loyalty, avenge their former master’s death.

Honorable behavior has always been an important value in Japanese society. How are the actions of these people affected by their idea of honor? What other values are demonstrated in this story?

It took many years to formulate the plan. Many of the Ronin gained jobs as merchants or farmers in the peasant class.

They launched a surprise attack on Lord Kira in his home and killed him – bringing back his head, as evidence of his death.

The 47 ronin had fulfilled their obligation to their master. They are all buried side by side together in the Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo.


Farmers were considered very important to Japanese society as they produced the food that sustained the people. Peasants had to obey to strict laws that controlled everything about their day to day life – such as, they were unable to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol and they needed special permission to travel outside of their districts.


A ninja or a shinobi were covert or mercenary agents in feudal Japan who specialized in the art of war.

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The ninjas were used in order to start war, or during times of war for espionage and assassinations. They were a sharp contrast to the disciplined and honorable samurai. The origin of the ninja is obscure and largely unknown, but their mystery still lives on today!

Artisans –The swordsmith was considered the most valuable artisan. What does this suggest about Japanese worldview?

Japanese artisans usually lived in towns and cities. An artisan’s son was restricted not only to the class of his father but also to the particular craft that his father practiced.

Although artisans were highly skilled, their rank in society was lower than a peasant as the materials they produced required materials from others. The objects produced by artisans were high quality paper and porcelain, lacquered or enamel containers or sometimes items for the home, like clocks, pots, pans and mats.


Merchants bought items from artisans to trade or sell to others. They also arranged for shipping and distribution of food and stored rice in their warehouse.

Since rice was predominantly used as currency during the Edo period, merchants generally acted in a similar way to modern day bankers.

Since they never produced anything they were on the bottom of the social order. They were constantly watched in order to control their wealth and power in a society. If they were caught bragging or showing off their wealth they could be punished by having their homes or businesses taken away.

Women in Japanese Society

Women were raised and treated according to the social class they were born into. For example, samurai women were expected to care for, teach and raise their children in the ways of samurai.

However, in the general society, women were considered less valuable then men and could not own property and did not have legal existence.

Outside of Edo Society

Outcasts – Burakumin, were people who were shunned by other people in society often due to their work. Usually they had occupations that had to do with death such as executioners, undertakers, butchers, tanners.

They lived in their own hamlets and ghettos due to superstition.

Recap on Edo Society!

First Contact With the West

1534 was considered the year of European Age of Exploration. Like many other groups of people this is the first time the Japanese had contact with the outside world.

Based on what you know about Japanese society, why do you think they might think of the outsiders as ‘barbarians’?

The Southern Barbarians!

In 1543, a Portuguese ship was wrecked off the shore of a Japanese island The Portuguese sailors had said they had come to trade.

The Japanese were fascinated by Portuguese firearms.

They were familiar with gunpowder because of contact with China, but they had never seen guns before.

Japanese swordsmiths soon began imitating these weapons!

Followed by the Portuguese were the Spanish, Dutch, British traders and Christian missionaries.

A New Kind of Belief

At first the Portuguese and Japanese got a long because of their favorable first impressions.

The Japanese were structured and disciplined and the Portuguese brought about new technologies.

Portuguese society had been influenced by Renaissance values and ideals such as: competition, the individual and a more flexible social structure – all of these were major differences inside of Japanese society.


Francis Xavier arrived in Japan in 1549 to start missions to convert the upper classes, the daimyo and samurai, to Christianity.

Portuguese also sent Franciscan priests to work with the poor and outcast classes.

Both the Christian beliefs of the Europeans and the combined Japanese beliefs (Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism) all held strong ethical codes – rules about right and wrong behaviors. However, the Christians believed in one true god, which was new for the Japanese.

Assignment Time!!

You will need to describe/show what you have learned about Japanese social structure during the Edo period.

Be sure to include information about how their beliefs and values contributed to their hierarchy.

Using the Tic Tac Toe model, you must choose a project that is in line with your previous assignment. You may NOT repeat a project. Construct a model Make a collage Make a pamphlet/brochure Create a mobile Free space Design a website Make a song Write a newspaper article Plan a tour