Military Aristocracy (軍事貴族)

The military aristocracy consisted of aristocrats specialized in military affairs who emerged in history in the late ancient period through the early medieval period. These aristocrats were the foundation of the samurais that emerged in history during the formation of the medieval period. Major examples of military aristocrats are Kanmu-Heishi (Taira clan), Seiwa-Genji (Minamoto clan), and the Fujiwara clan of the Hidesato line.


It is believed that Yoshimi TODA's study of the military system made the concept of the military aristocracy become widely known. One of the commonly understood reasons for the rise of this concept was the increasing criticism in the 1970's and onwards of the conventional understanding that local farmers were the foundation of the samurais who overthrew shoen (manors in medieval Japan) control by aristocrats. A new understanding that the origin of the samurais was aristocrats instead of farmers grew as ancient and medieval studies progressed, and the concept of a military aristocracy was formed as a link between aristocrats and samurais.


There were gozoku (local ruling families) that were specialized in military affairs in the Kofun (tumulus) and Asuka periods, which were before the establishment of the Japanese nation under the ritsuryo codes. At that time, there were uji, or clan-based groups that were in charge of specific tasks under the Yamato administration. Among these peer groups, the Mononobe and the Otomo clans were uji in charge of military affairs.

The ritsuryo codes formed in the late 7th century, however, were based on the bureaucracy system and were against the idea of certain clans inheriting specific government posts. When cohorts (in ancient Japan) were formed under the ritsuryo codes, these cohorts took charge of military affairs instead of the Mononobe and the Otomo clans.

The cohort system was gradually abolished from the end of the 8th century through the 9th century. When military mobilization was required, kokuga (provincial government offices) reported to the Daijokan (Grand Council of State), received 'a charter to send troops' from the Daijokan, and conscripted soldiers from domestic households or mobilized kondei (regular soldiers guarding kokubu (ancient provincial offices) or sekisho (checking stations)). There was no permanent national military force, and a temporary force was formed when necessary.

At the end of the 9th century, false registration, vagrancy, or escape by farmers became prominent; therefore, it was difficult to know for each household who could be mobilized in military affairs. Furthermore, widespread banditry continued in Togoku (eastern part of Japan).

Establishment of a Military Aristocracy

In the Kanbyo-Engi period (from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 10th century), there were frequent 'outbreaks of banditry' (Shuba-no-to and Kanbyo-Engi-Togoku-no-ran (disturbances by banditry in Togoku during the period between Kanbyo and Engi)) in which Bando were robbed of kanmotsu (tribute goods paid as taxes or tithes) to be offered to the central government. In order to handle this issue, the Imperial Court carried out institutional reform to grant a wide range of military discretion to zuryo (highest-rank local governors). More specifically, the Imperial Court not only issued 'a charter to catch thieves' to aggressively suppress robbers instead of 'a charter to send troops' to simply permit troop mobilization, but also appointed oryoshi (suppressors) and tsuibushi (envoys to pursue and capture) for each province and required brave local individuals to be under control of kokuga, oryoshi, or tsuibushi. In terms of transfer of rights to local governments, this military reform was the same as the reform, which was starting around that time, to shift the country to a dynasty-based nation.

During this period of time, downfallen low-ranked aristocrats such as TAIRA no Takamochi, MINAMOTO no Tsunemoto, FUJIWARA no Toshihito, and FUJIWARA no Hidesato became famous for searching for and killing thieves. There has been an argument (by Tatsuhiko SHIMOMUKAI) that these aristocrats were able to demonstrate their military power because, their grandfathers learned barbaric military arts developed based on hunting culture when they were appointed to zuryo, and these aristocrats developed military arts of a new style based on the original style. Through distinguishing themselves as local governors or oryoshi, establishing themselves in the areas they were transferred to, and being officially permitted by kokuga to manage koden (field administered directly by a ruler), they established enough of an economic foundation to maintain their own military power. However, the Imperial Court did not treat these individuals as well as they expected; therefore, their discontent grew. The Johei and Tengyo War that occurred around 940 was the embodiment of their discontent. In this war, both the rebelling force and the hunting-and-killing force consisted of descendants of those who distinguished themselves during the Engi period.

Those who distinguished themselves in the suppression of the Johei and Tengyo War, meaning the majority of Johei Tengyo kunkosha (people who distinguishably served in the Johei and Tengyo War), were aristocrats but in fact were middle or low class officers at extremely low government positions. The Imperial Court, based on their understanding that their discontent led to the outbreak of the war, promoted these individuals to low to middle class, fifth or sixth rank aristocratic zuryo. As a result, in aristocratic society of the later half of the 10th century, Johei Tengyo kunkosha and their descendants became known as families specialized in military affairs called tsuwamono-no-ie.

These tsuwamono-no-ie members becoming the origin of the military aristocrats or samurais has been the most compelling theory. Note, however, not all their descendants became military aristocrats or samurais. At that time, there were no institutionalized family business takeover and establishment systems, and therefore, recognition of tsuwamono-no-ie was not stable.

In the 11th century, the 'family business takeover' or the hereditary government office system, in which certain families inherited certain government positions, was gradually established in the aristocratic society. Meanwhile, some families from tsuwamono-no-ie established themselves as being specialized in military affairs. Many of them were technical samurai officers of the sixth rank which was the highest rank for them, but those who were in higher classes dominated a part of shodaibu (aristocracy lower than kugyo) positions, were promoted to the fourth or fifth rank, and were appointed to zuryo-level government positions. This was the beginning of the military aristocracy.

Status of Military Aristocrats

Among military aristocrats, only Kanmu-Heishi (Taira clan), Seiwa-Genji (Minamoto clan), and the Fujiwara clan of the Hidesato line were appointed to a high rank, which was the fourth rank. Among them, only six members of Seiwa-Genji and two members of Kanmu-Heishi were promoted to shoshii (senior fourth rank). At first, members of Seiwa-Genji, such as MINAMOTO no Yorimitsu and MINAMOTO no Yorinobu were appointed to shoshii, allowing Seiwa-Genji to be recognized as the head of the samurai families. However, when Seiwa-Genji lost its power in the generation of MINAMOTO no Yoshichika, who was a son of MINAMOTO no Yoshiie, TAIRA no Tadamori was promoted to shoshii instead. This event is believed to show that the head of the samurai families changed from Seiwa-Genji to Kanmu-Heishi.

Posts of Military Aristocrats in the Government
Needless to say, military aristocrats were required to contribute to the Imperial Court in military affairs. After serving as takiguchi (the Imperial Palace Guards for the north side), they were appointed to military officers such as kurodo (chamberlain) to guard inside the Imperial Court and kebiishi (police and judicial chiefs) to serve as police for the city of Kyoto. Just like lower to middle-class aristocrats who were technical officers of the shodaifu class accumulating their achievements, after accumulating achievements as military officers, military aristocrats were often transferred to various provinces as zuryo.
Around this time, based on the 'charter to send troops' issued by the Daijokan, the kokuga military system had been established in which provincial governors formed forces with provincial samurais to hunt down and catch 'outlaws.'
In this military system, military aristocrats as 'samurai families' demonstrated more than enough capabilities.

In the kokuga military system, provincial governors registered certain individuals as 'samurai' on the name list (called the 'name list of approved samurais'). These certain individuals were gunji (district managers), wealthy farmers, and tato fumyo (cultivators/tax managers) who were descendants of Johei Tengyo kunkosha, samurais, family members of technical officers, and specialized in military arts as a family business. When it was necessary to hunt down and catch outlaws, provincial governors formed forces by referring to the samurai list. Since military aristocrats started to establish relationships with local gunji, wealthy farmers, and tato fumyo in the Johei Tengyo period, they had a much greater advantage than regular zuryo in terms of raising provincial troops. Also, it was military aristocrats' custom that when they were transferred to local areas as zuryo they reinforced their relationship with locally powerful individuals. As a result, subordinate-superior relationships were gradually established between military aristocrats and gozoku (local ruling families). Note, however, these subordinate-superior relationships were not necessarily rigidly established at that time; they seemed to also have flexible aspects.

After serving as zuryo as described above, military aristocrats often became zuryo of other provinces or were appointed to be military officers such as emonfu jo (lieutenant at the outer palace guard headquarters) and senior or junior secretaries of Gyobusho (Ministry of Justice).

Relationship with engu oshinke (a general term for imperial families and nobles who gathered strength by approaching the Emperor's power)
Just like low to middle-class aristocrats who were technical officers, military aristocrats may privately have served as keishi (household superintendents) of powerful aristocrats such as regents or as inshi (officials at the Retired Emperor's Office) of Chiten no kimi (retired emperor). Since the time of MINAMOTO no Mitsunaka, Seiwa-Genji served for generations as keishi of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan (regent family) and actively participated in tashihaiseki (expulsion of other clans from the Imperial Court) by the clan. Furthermore, Seiwa-Genji, as the private force of the regent family, greatly helped the regent family maintain its political power by executing extensive jogo (ninkan) (granting official positions to individuals who offered their private financial assets to the Imperial Court). Meanwhile, Sadamori-ryu Heishi (Taira clan of the Sadamori group) served as keishi (household superintendents) of the Onomiya line of the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan; however, Sadamori-ryu Heishi's position as military aristocrats became lower as the Onomiya line was positioned as an indirect line.

Due to the contribution to the regent family, Seiwa-Genji was treated with privilege. MINAMOTO no Yorimitsu, his brother MINAMOTO no Yorichika, MINAMOTO no Yoriyoshi, and his son MINAMOTO no Yoshiie were one by one appointed to the highest rank for military aristocrats, which was shoshii, and Seiwa-Genji ascended to be the leader of the samurai families. It should be noted here that Seiwa-Genji became the leader of samurai families not because of their bravery but because of internal affairs of central aristocrats such as contributions to the regent family. Although military aristocrats worked on establishment of subordinate-superior relationships with locally powerful individuals, the foundation of their existence was after all in central politics.

When Emperor Shirakawa started the cloister government, TAIRA no Tadamori became roto (retainer) of in no kinshin (retired Emperor's courtier) to approach Shirakawa-in. After suppressing the rebellion by MINAMOTO no Yoshichika, Tadamori became inshi (official of the Retired Emperor's Office), was appointed to shoshii, the highest rank for military aristocrats, and gained power as the leader of samurai families. The leader of samurai families changed from the Minamoto clan to Taira clan as the center of politics shifted from the regent family to Chiten no kimi who established the cloister government (the Minamoto clan gained power using the power of the regent family, and the Taira clan gained power using the power of the cloister government). This shows that the position of the leader of samurai families, meaning the position of military aristocrats, was tightly linked with the changes in central politics.

End of Military Aristocracy

The Hogen War and the Heiji War in the middle of the 12th century were noteworthy incidents since political conflicts inside the Imperial Court were resolved by means of military confrontations. These wars served as opportunities for TAIRA no Kiyomori and his family members, who were the highest rank military aristocrats, to rapidly gain power inside the Imperial Court. In 1160, Kiyomori was appointed to shosanmi sangi (senior third rank royal advisor) that no other military aristocrats could be appointed to, and was then appointed to daijo-daijin (Grand Minister of State) in 1167. He was at that point far beyond what military aristocrats could normally achieve. The Kiyomori family gained further power and finally established the Taira clan administration. This administration was characterized as an early samurai administration in terms of dispatch of gunsei (military government) officers.

During the 1180's a civil war (Jisho-Juei War) to overthrow the Taira administration broke out, and the samurai government of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo (later to become the Kamakura bakufu), consisting of local ryoshu (samurai lord) and samurais in Kanto who were originally military aristocrats, won. The Imperial Court then planned to treat Yoritomo as the highest ranking military aristocrat. Yoritomo, who was basing his power in the samurai class in Kanto, rejected the military aristocrat position and established a new samurai leader position as Kamakura-dono (lord of Kamakura). During the course of these events, the status called military aristocrat rapidly disappeared.

[Original Japanese]