The Life of Shōgun: Actually they were not rulers so much

Tokugawa Ieyasu: The first Shōgun of Edo shogunate

Most of the time, Shōgun is described as the most powerful men in the history of Japan. In some period, indeed, they had more robust power than emperors, being dominant on the top of Samurai society and other aristocrats and commoners.  

This is image entertainment created, however. In reality, it was not like that. Of course there are some shōgun who had significantly strong power, but they were the exceptions. Most of the shōguns did not have such authority. 

Shōguns only worked for 2 hours per day, certainly, they cannot rule the land of the rising sun only by that short time.  They finished working at 1 pm, they were enjoying their private time. They had a lot of hobbies, one of them is definitely done 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 “shōgun”. Shōgun is technically just meaning “general”. General Lee is “Lee Shōgun” in Japanese. But most of the time in Japanese history, when we say “shōgun”, it means “Seii-Tai-Shōgun(征夷大将軍)”, which literally means “General for conquering barbarians”. In other words, shōgun was originally a temporary position for the head of military forces to conquer “barbarians”. Here, the barbarian means people in the north of Japan, the clans called Emishi. Ashitaka, the main character from Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki, supposed to be an Emishi man, although the time period and many facts do not make sense from the real history.  

So-called “shōgun” started from Minamoto-no Yoritomo(源頼朝). When Yoritomo started Kamakura Shogunate and became a ruler of east Japan at the end of the Heian period, he needed to have a position for convenience, because commoners believed they were the descendants of a Sun God and that is why they were the true rulers of Japan, so Yoritomo was assigned as a Seii-Tai-shogun to rule in the east(West Japan was still ruled by emperors and their men).

Seii-Tai-shōgun” is a long word to pronounce, so the term “shōgun” started being used. 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-shōgun, which is “the chief adviser to the Emperor”, although he was the same entity as Shogun and not really an adviser at all. Therefore, the term shōgun is a little complicated depending on for whom we use it, but here, I use it as “Seii-Tai-shōgun”. 

Minamoto-no Yoritomo is the very first shōgun, who started Kamakura Bakuhu(shogunate). Obviously, Yoritomo had power. After he died, his successor for the seii-tai-shōgun position was Yoritomo’s son Minamoto-no Yoriie(源頼家). However, right after Yoriie became a shōgun, his authority was taken away by Clan Hojo, his mother’s clan. Yoriie was forced to give up a shōgun position for his little brother, Sanetomo(源実朝). Yoriie was a shōgun only for a year, and he was confined, and murdered while taking a bath. So as his little brother. Shōgun Sanetomo was also murdered by his nephew.

The first samurai reign by Clan Minamoto was over. However, the Kamakura shogunate lasted even after the absence of Minamoto shōguns. Shōgun is necessary for a shogunate; there are 6 shōguns 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 shōguns. 

Like the way Minamoto-no Yoritomo, the very first shōgun for Kamakura shogunate, always in the beginning of the reign 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.

The third Shogun Iemitsu(徳川家光) had a great power indeed. However, he declared that he was more powerful than his grandfather Iyeyasu, because he is “Shogun by nature”, comparing with the two shōgun before him who needed to fought and struggle to get the shogun position. On the other hand, Iemitsu was born and raised as a shōgun, and he actually had strong leadership. He systemised the Edo shogunate, assigning and using bureaucrats properly and precisely. That is why, ironically, the authority of shōguns became weaker.

Shōguns became a kind of superficial position. They indeed recognise ministers and other bureaucrats, but he did not choose one. Ministers called Tairō(大老) and Rōjū(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(tenka-taihei), which means “peace reign under the sky”. There were some famines but no war, and time of great art. People cannot make great art when life is too hard to live. So it was a peaceful time even the power of the shōgun was weak and bureaucrats were dominant.

Bureaucrats were working hard to rule Japan, so shōgun had a lot of free time. He wakes up at 6 am, and somehow 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 shōgun. But not for enjoying the time with his ladies. He goes there to pray for the last shōguns ahead of him. At 10 am, there is a ritual of greeting by the women in Ooku. After that, the shōgun’s work starts.

Most of his job is approving the decisions of his subordinates, who have more power than him. He probably meets some lords if they visit him, sometimes eating lunch with them. And now it is 1 pm, and time for leaving the office. 

After that, it is his private time. But he is a great shōgun, so he does not waste time just by eating and napping. He studies, and practices 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 Midaidokoro(御台所), the highest-ranked lawful wife, and chat for a while.

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 needs to go through the arrangement beforehand to visit the harem in the night, even though it is his harem. 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 into his bedroom. 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 shōgun were only lawful wives, and other eight 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, it is a very small number of women a shōgun could have intimate relationships.

Also, when shōgun spent a night with one of them, it was not really one of them. There were always other maids in the next room, watching what they were doing inside the shōgun’s bedroom.

The watcher maids were sometimes Ochurou, the eight pretty women. It must be very hard for them to watch her man spending a night with another woman… Or maybe not. Shōgun’s private life was very politic, not romantic. But either way, it should be tough, because Ooku women had the mission to bring power toward their house by gaining the favour of shōgun. Even so, this is one of the systems that made the Edo period really peaceful. 

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