What Was the Bakufu?

The Military Government Ruled Japan for Nearly Seven Centuries

Osaka Castle

Daniel Ramirez / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The bakufu was the military government of Japan between 1192 and 1868, headed by the shogun. Prior to 1192, the bakufu—also known as shogonate—was responsible only for warfare and policing and was firmly subordinate to the imperial court. Over the centuries, however, the bakufu's powers expanded, and it became, effectively, the ruler of Japan for nearly 700 years.

Kamakura Period

Detail of Samurai Protecting a Royal Carriage from a Scroll Painting.
Saurai protecting royal carriage durring the Burning of the Sanjo Palace. Corbis / VCG / Getty Images

Beginning with the Kamakura bakufu in 1192, shoguns ruled Japan while emperors were mere figureheads. The key figure in the period, which lasted until 1333, was Minamoto Yoritomo, who ruled from 1192 to 1199 from his family seat at Kamakura, about 30 miles south of Tokyo.

During this time, Japanese warlords claimed power from the hereditary monarchy and their scholar-courtiers, giving the samurai warriors— and their lords— ultimate control of the country. Society, too, changed radically, and a new feudal system emerged.

The Ashikaga Shogonate

After years of civil strife, precipitated by the invasion of the Mongols in the late 1200s, Ashikaga Takauji overthrew the Kamakura bakufu and established his own shogunate in Kyoto in 1336. The Ashikaga bakufu— or shogonate—ruled Japan until 1573.

Painting of Ahsikaga Takauji seated.
Ahsikaga Takauji. 日本語: 不明 / Public domain /  Wikimedia Commons 

However, it was not a strong central governing force, and in fact, the Ashikaga bakufu witnessed the rise of powerful daimyo all around the country. These regional lords reigned over their domains with very little interference from the bakufu in Kyoto.

Tokugawa Shoguns

Toward the end of the Ashikaga bakufu, and for years thereafter, Japan suffered through nearly 100 years of civil war, fueled mainly by the increasing power of the daimyo. Indeed, the civil war was sparked by the ruling bakufu's struggle to bring the warring daimyo back under central control.

Painting of Tokugawa Ieyasu seated on a rug.
Tokugawa Ieyasu. Kanō Tan'yū / Public domain / Wikimedia Common

In 1603, however, Tokugawa Ieyasu completed this task and established the Tokugawa shogunate—or bakufu—which would rule in the emperor's name for 265 years. Life in Tokugawa Japan was peaceful but heavily controlled by the shogunal government, but after a century of chaotic warfare, the peace was a much-needed respite.

Fall of the Bakufu

When U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) in 1853 and demanded that Tokugawa Japan allow foreign powers access to trade, he unwittingly sparked a chain of events that led to Japan's rise as a modern imperial power and the fall of the bakufu.

Japan's political elites realized that the U.S. and other countries were ahead of Japan in terms of military technology and felt threatened by western imperialism. After all, powerful Qing China had been brought to its knees by Britain just 14 years earlier in the First Opium War and would soon lose the Second Opium War as well.

Meiji Restoration

Rather than suffer a similar fate, some of Japan's elites sought to close the doors even tighter against foreign influence, but the more foresighted began to plan a modernization drive. They felt that it was important to have a strong emperor at the center of Japan's political organization to project Japanese power and fend off Western imperialism.

As a result, in 1868, the Meiji Restoration extinguished the bakufu's authority and returned political power to the emperor. And, nearly 700 years of Japanese rule by the bakufu came to a sudden end.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Bakufu?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-bakufu-195322. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 29). What Was the Bakufu? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-bakufu-195322 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Bakufu?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-bakufu-195322 (accessed March 29, 2023).