Facts of the Life of Shōgun – They were not that rulers, to be honest

Most of the time, Shōgun is described as the most powerful men in the history of Japan. They have more robust power than emperors, being dominant on the top of Samurai society and other aristocrats and commoners.  

However, this is the image entertainment made. In reality, it is not like that. Of course there are some Shogun who had a stronger power, but they are the exceptions. Most of the shoguns did not have such authority. 

Shoguns only worked for 2 hours per day, certainly, they could not rule the land of sunrise for 2 hours. After finishing work at 1pm, they were enjoying their private time. One part of his private time is definitely inside the hidden world of 大奥; the harem of 3,000 women, serving for one and only Shogun. 

First, let us make clear the definition of the term “shogun”. Shogun is technically just meaning “general”. General Lee is “Lee Shogun” in Japanese. But most of the time in Japanese history, when we say “shogun”, it means “Seii-tai-shogun(征夷大将軍)”, which literally means “General for conquering barbarians”. Here, barbarians mean people in the north of Japan, the clans called Emishi. Ashitaka, the main character from Princess Mononoke supposed to be an Emishi man, although the time period does not make sense from the real history. So, Shogun, in the beginning, was originally a temporary position for the head of military forces. 

However, when Minamoto-no Yoritomo(源頼朝) became a ruler of east Japan at the end of the Heian period, he needed to have a position for convenience, because on paper still emperors are the gods and true rulers of Japan, so he is assigned as a Seii-tai-shogun. And so-called Shogun started. It is a long word to say Seii-tai-shogun”, so we simply say Shogun.

There are some rulers who did not choose the position of Seii-tai-shogun, for example, Toyotomi Hideyoshi(豊臣秀吉) chose Kanpaku(関白) instead of Seii-tai-shogun, which is “the chief adviser to the Emperor”, although he was the same entity as Shogun and not really an adviser at all. The term Shogun is a little complicated depending on for whom we use it, but here, I use it as the stand for “Seii-tai-shogun”. 

I write Minamoto-no Yoritomo is the very first Shogun, who started Kamakura Bakuhu(shogunate). And the last Shogun is Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and he did “restoration of imperial rule(大政奉還)”, and it was the end of the Edo period. 

Obviously, Minamoto-no Yoritomo had power. After he died, his successor for seii-tai-shogun position was Yoritomo’s son Minamoto-no Yoriie(源頼家). However, right after he became a shogun, his authority was taken away from him by Clan Hojo, his mother’s clan. Then, he was forced to give up shogun position for his brother, Sanetomo(源実朝). Yoriie was a Shogun only for a year, and he was confined, murdered while taking a bath. So as his little brother. Sanetomo was also murdered by his nephew. The great first samurai realm by Clan Minamoto was over. However, Kamakura shogunate lasted after the absence of Minamoto shoguns, and Shogun is necessary for a shogunate, so there are 6 shoguns after Sanetomo, and they were either far relatives of Yoritomo or princes(sons of emperors), but none of them had power. Kamakura shogunate was dominated by Clan Hojo, not shoguns. 

Always in the beginning there is a man in power. But it does not last for good. In the Edo period, obviously the first Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu(徳川家康) was strong, so as the second one, his son Tokugawa Hidetada(徳川秀忠). However, their power was gradually decreased. It was because of the third Shogun Iemitsu(徳川家光). Iemitsu is one of three shoguns from the Edo period that Japanese elementary kids need to memorise, first Shogun, last Shogun, and him. He decleared that he was more powerful than his grandpa Iyeyasu, because he is “Shogun by nature”, comparing with the two shoguns before him who needed to fought and struggle to get the shogun position. But he was born and raised as Shogun, and indeed he had a stong leadership.

He systemised Edo shogunate, using and assigning bureaucrats properly and precisely. That is why the authority of Shogun himself became weaker. Because of him, Shogun became a kind of superficial position. They indeed recognise ministers and other bureaucrats, but he did not choose one. Ministers called 大老 and 老中 had the actual power over the important decisions. But it was not bad politics. The Edo period is often described as 天下泰平, which means “peace reigns under the sky”. Some famine but no war, time of great art. People cannot make great art when life is too hard. 

Here is a day as a shogun. He wakes up at 6 am, and it was prohibited to wake up before that. And then he brushes his teeth, washes his face, eats breakfast and prepares his beard and hair, as we do in this 21st century. Then, he goes to Ooku, the harem of Shogun. But not for enjoying the time with his ladies. He goes there to pray for the shoguns before him. Now it is 10 am, and then, there is a ritual of greeting by the women in Ooku. After that, Shogun’s work starts. Most of his job is approving the decisions of his subordinates, who have more power than himself. Probably meet some lords if they visit him, sometimes eating lunch with them. And it is 1 pm and time for leaving the office. 

After that, it is his private time. But he is a great shogun, so he does not waste time just by eating and napping. He studies, practice horse riding and sword fighting, which he will never use in the peace reign under the sky. When he became tired, he enjoys his hobbies such as music, dance and poetry, and sometimes he visits his 御台所, highest-ranked lawful wife. He eats dinner at 5 pm, and then takes a bath, and sleeps at 9 pm. About once in three days, he goes to his harem, but he needed to go through the arrangement beforehand, even though it is his harem, so he cannot go there just because he feels like visiting his love at the end of the day. 

The reason why Shogun had restriction over his harem is that he needed to have rightful successors. Whom he has children with is also tremendously controlled. He could not invite a pretty woman whom he met on the street. Because if a random woman bears his child, it might create a big problem over politics. That is why women who could spend a night with Shogun is only lawful wives and eight other maids called Ochurou(御中﨟), pretty women chosen from the families of good lineage. Considering there are 1,000 women in the harem on average, 3,000 during the prime time of the Edo shogunate, so small number of women.

Furthermore, when Shogun spends a night with them, there are always other maids in the next room, watching what they are doing inside the room. The watcher maids were sometimes Ochurou, one of 8 lovers, it must be very hard for them to watch her man spending a night with another woman… Or maybe not. It should be very politic, not romantic. But either way, it should be tough, because Ooku women had the mission to bring power toward their family by gaining the favour of Shogun. However, overall this is one of the systems that made the Edo period really peaceful. 


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