A shogunate was a style of Japanese government which gained its name from its head, the shogun. The full title of the shogun was “Seii Taishogun” or ‘Barbarian Subduing Generalissimo’. Shogunates were fundamentally governments whose control was limited to military affairs, although the right to govern often extended into social and economic matters only remotely related to the military. Shogunates controlled Japan from 1185 when the Kamakura shogunate was founded until 1868 when the Tokugawa shogunate ended. They were also called bakufu (or ‘tent governments’, reflecting their origin on the field of battle) in Japanese.
The first shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo. Yoritomo was an important noble of the provincial nobility who had little official status in the imperial court, the sole source of legitimacy. Yoritomo arranged for the emperor to appoint him “Seii Taishogun” or shogun in 1192. This was a position which had been created in the 8th century and filled from time to time when it was necessary to fight against the barbarian people who lived in northern Japan.
Although the position of shogun had been a relatively unimportant office before 1192, Yoritomo brought to it his own military importance. It quickly became the most significant political office and other families strong enough to succeed the Minamoto laid claim to the same office to strengthen their hold on power.
Shogunates took many different forms in response to different requirements during the 7 centuries in which they existed. Generally speaking, however, they were feudal governments which were based on agrarian economies and systems of bonded service similar to the feudal systems of Europe. They did not at any time replace the emperors and their governments which survived in weakened form in Kyoto. At some times, the Kyoto imperial court was very much reduced in importance or wealth, but no shogun considered usurping the position or eliminating it.
Shogunates usually extended their control most firmly over the lands and direct vassals of the ruling family and only loosely over the rest of the country or other families which were not direct vassals. The most centralized shogunate was developed by the Tokugawa family from 1603 to 1868, but even it accepted that the domains of the main feudal lords were independent of the central shogunate.