A Brief History of Japan's Daimyo Lords

Landowners and Vassals Who Governed Provinces in Feudal Japan

Color sketch depicting Japan in 1863.

Print Collector/Contributor/Getty Images

A daimyo was a feudal lord in shogunal Japan from the 12th century to the 19th century. The daimyos were large landowners and vassals of the shogun. Each daimyo hired an army of samurai warriors to protect his family's lives and property.

The word "daimyo" comes from the Japanese roots "dai," meaning "big or great," and "myo," or "name." It roughly translates in English to "great name." In this case, however, "myo" means something like "title to land," so the word really refers to the daimyo's large landholdings and would most likely literally translate to "owner of great land."

The equivalent in English to daimyo would be closest to "lord" as it was used in the same time period of Europe.

From Shugo to Daimyo

The first men to be called "daimyo" sprang from the shugo class, who were governors of the different provinces of Japan during the Kamakura Shogunate from 1192 to 1333. This office was first invented by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. 

A shugo was appointed by the shogun to rule one or more provinces in his name. These governors did not consider the provinces to be their own property, nor did the post of shugo necessarily pass from a father to one of his sons. Shugo controlled the provinces solely at the discretion of the shogun.

Over the centuries, the central government's control over the shugo weakened and the power of the regional governors increased markedly. By the late 15th century, the shugo no longer relied on the shoguns for their authority. Not simply governors, these men had become the lords and owners of the provinces, which they ran as feudal fiefdoms. Each province had its own army of samurai, and the local lord collected taxes from the peasants and paid the samurai in his own name. They had become the first true daimyo.

Civil War and Lack of Leadership

Between 1467 and 1477, a civil war called the Onin War broke out in Japan over the shogunal succession. Different noble houses backed different candidates for the shogun's seat, resulting in a complete breakdown of order across the country. At least a dozen daimyo jumped into the fray, hurling their armies at one another in a nation-wide melee. 

A decade of constant war left the daimyo exhausted, but did not resolve the succession question, leading to the constant lower-level fighting of the Sengoku period. The Sengoku era was more than 150 years of chaos, in which daimyo fought one another for control of territory, for the right to name new shoguns, and it seems even just out of habit.

Sengoku finally ended when the three unifiers of Japan (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu) brought the daimyo to heel and re-concentrated power in the hands of the shogunate. Under the Tokugawa shoguns, daimyo would continue to rule their provinces as their own personal fiefdoms, but the shogunate was careful to create checks on the independent power of the daimyo. 

Prosperity and Downfall

One important tool in the shogun's armory was the alternate attendance system, under which daimyo had to spend half of their time in the shogun's capital at Edo (now Tokyo) and the other half out in the provinces. This ensured that the shoguns could keep an eye on their underlings and prevented the lords from becoming too powerful and causing trouble.

The peace and prosperity of the Tokugawa era continued until the mid-19th century when the outside world rudely intruded on Japan in the form of Commodore Matthew Perry's black ships. Faced with the threat of western imperialism, the Tokugawa government collapsed. The daimyo lost their land, titles, and power during the resulting Meiji Restoration of 1868, although some were able to transition to the new oligarchy of the wealthy industrialist classes.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Brief History of Japan's Daimyo Lords." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-japans-daimyo-lords-195308. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). A Brief History of Japan's Daimyo Lords. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-japans-daimyo-lords-195308 Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Brief History of Japan's Daimyo Lords." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-japans-daimyo-lords-195308 (accessed May 30, 2023).