Kokushi (provincial governor) (国司)

In medieval Japan, a kokushi was a government officer who was sent by the central government to administer a ryoseikoku (an area of regional administration). The four ranks of the kokushi system were known as the shitokan, with the individual ranks being kami (governor), tsuke (vice-governor), jo (secretary) and sakan (clerk) (for more information, refer to 'the local government system in ancient Japan').

Gunji (district officials) were appointed by influential people from the region, namely former gozoku (local ruling clan) members. For these reasons, the kokushi were pivotal to central government control. A kokushi's tenure was six (subsequently four) years. A kokushi performed his duties in the kokuga (provincial government office). He had supreme authority in the area under his jurisdiction and was responsible for all matters pertaining to religious services, administration, the law and the military.


The "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan) records how the kokushi system was introduced by imperial decree at the time of the Taika Reforms. At this time there were no plans to distribute kokushi uniformly throughout the country. It is said that kokushi were originally known as 'kuni no mikoto mochi' (provincial governors), and above them were the 'oho mikoto mochi' (provincial governor-generals) who were in charge of several provinces (it is said the name 'Dasaifu' (an area in Kyushu) is derived from 'oho mikoto mochi', as it shares the same Chinese characters). From this point on until the end of the 7th century, kokushi were placed throughout the country following the establishment of the ryoseikoku system.

In the early 8th century, the Taiho Ritsuryo (Taiho Code) - a fully-fledged system of law - was issued, and the Ritsuryo system (a system of centralized government based on the Ritsuryo code) was established. Kokushi occupied a very important position in the Ritsuryo system. The Handen Shuju system (a system for periodically reallocating rice land) was the basis of the Ritsuryo system and involved the creation of the ancient family registry system, the allotment of rice fields and the collection of tax/corvee, all tasks carried out by the kokushi. In this way, the kokushi were entrusted with spreading the ideas of the Ritsuryo system throughout Japan.

In the Heian period, the Imperial Court revised the system for governing local areas. The main responsibility of the kokushi became the collection of a fixed amount of tax, and they were relieved of the duty of governing, a duty which had been part of the Ritsuryo system. This was because it became possible to collect these taxes without relying on the Ritsuryo system of governance. A group of rich farmers named the Tato (cultivators) made their appearance around the 9th and 10th centuries, and during the same period, koden (land directly controlled by the kokuga (provincial government office)) was reorganized into units of land known as myoden. The kokushi were able to secure the fixed amount of taxes by entrusting the Tato with the management of and collection of taxes from the myoden (the Tato so entrusted were known as Fumyo). Under the Ritsuryo system, tax was levied on each individual so it was necessary to administer each person individually. However, as described above, around the 10th century a system was established for levying tax on myoden or, in other words, on land (this system was known as the myo taisei).

When a fixed amount of tax had been secured, several kokushi appeared from outside the area (these were known as yonin). The head of the kokushi who were assigned to and resided in a province became known as the zuryo. With the switch to this new system, known as the Ocho Kokka system, as long as the zuryo delivered a set amount of tax to the treasury, they were free from control by the imperial court and were able to privately secure/accumulate any revenues that exceeded the set amount.

At that time, it was mainly middle-ranking royalty who were assigned to be kokushi. Furthermore, a kokushi assignment was directly connected to the accumulation of wealth, so middle-ranking royalty fought for the appointments and also sought to be reappointed. "Makura no Soshi "(The Pillow Book) includes a description of the day when a person was assigned to kokushi (the assigning ceremony is called a jimoku). In the middle and later periods of the Heian period, the chigyo-koku system (see the next sentence) was established. In this system, the right to recommend the kokushi of a province was given to a member of the imperial family or a dominant royal, and the dominant royal, who was given the right, appointed his family member or vassal to the kokushi, obtaining a vast amount of income from the province.

Kokushi existed in the Kamakura period as well. However, the bakufu (military government) dispatched jito (estate stewards) to several areas, and these jito became actively involved in the shoen (manors) and the kokugaryo (public lands) administered by the kokushi. Naturally, the kokushi resisted this situation. However, jito made inroads into Kokugaryo, depriving kokushi of their right to control the provinces.

Shugo (provincial constables) were granted substantial rights entering the Muromachi period, for example the hanzei kyufu (the right to collect half the tax from an area) and the shisetsu jungyo (the right to settle land disputes on behalf of the bakufu). These rights also exerted a strong effect in the kokugaryo lands administered by the kokushi, resulting in a substantial transferal of kokushi rights to the shugo.

In this way, the kokushi became government officers in name only and real power shifted to the shugo (these people were known as shugo daimyo (shugo lords)). The kokushi evolved to become only an honorary post. Therefore, the role of kokushi was appointed to someone irregardless of whether they were in control of the province or not. During the Sengoku (warring states) period, many people such as busho (warlords) appointed themselves kokushi or pretended to be kokushi. While real political power was in the samurai class, for example, in a bakufu, kokushi was only a honorary post. However, the Sengoku period saw many cases of people of lower standing overthrowing their social superiors, and during this time increasing numbers of hereditary daimyo without an official bakufu post such as shugo or shugodai (deputy shugo) began to demand official posts in order to assert the legitimacy of their control over a promise or their excursions into other provinces. In this era, daimyo in the sengoku period actively donated money or other valuables to the imperial court in order to secure a kokushi post. This situation allowed the emperor to be recognized again as having a position of power.

In the Azuchi-Momoyama period, as Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI took the position of kanpaku (chief adviser to the Emperor), the title of kokushi changed into an official post for a samurai family to show the level of its social position or authority and became completely nominal. After the Edo bakufu was established, the bakufu recommended to the imperial court that a daimyo should be appointed to kokushi, according to the social standing of his family. There were also many cases of normal samurai appropriating the kokushi title as their own personal name (this act was known as hyakan-na). This tradition continued until the Meiji Restoration.

Classification of province ranks
Based on its economical criteria, such as provincial power, each province was classified into taigoku (a major province), jogoku (an upper-class province), chugoku (a middle-class province) or gekoku (a minor province), and the amount of tax on a province was determined based on its rank in this classification. This classification changed according to the situation surrounding the provinces and times. Also, the kokushi rankings and personnel were also base don this classification (for example, the position of taigoku no kami (governor of a major province) was reserved for Jugoinojo (Junior Fifth Rank, Upper Grade), the position of jogoku no kami (governor of a second ranking province) were reserved for Jurokunoge (Junior Sixth Rank, Lower Grade), while suke (vice-governors) were not appointed to chugoku (middle-ranking provinces) or gekoku (lower-ranking provinces).

Shinno ninkoku (provinces whose gubernatorial posts were reserved as sinecures for imperial princes)
For more details, refer to the 'shinno ninkoku' page.

The Emperor Kammu had many children, and many of these princes were given official posts as kokushu (governor). Some provinces known as shinno ninkoku always had princes appointed as kokushi, and these princes were known as taishu (governor-generals). It is said that the actual works of the head governor were handled by its suke (his deputy).

[Original Japanese]