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What Is a Shogunate? [Definition, Meaning]

Between the 11th and 19th century, Japan was mostly ruled by a military government called the shogunate. The shogunate is named after the shogun, the figure at the head of the government. Though Japan still had an emperor throughout most of this period, the shogun tended to be the true ruler of Japan. The shogun ruled over smaller lords called daimyōs, which had internal hierarchical ranks, and the daimyōs ruled over a warrior-class called samurai. Even though they held no lands, samurai were stationed above peasants, merchants, and other lower classes in societal hierarchies.

Anime often leans towards history, which means that many series set before the 20th century feature some form of shogunate and shogun. Typically, animes set before the 20th century will be set in the Sengoku period (15th to early 17th century), the Edo period (16th to 19th century) or the Meiji period (late 19th to early 20th century). All these periods begin and end with political strife as shogunates take over or are ended. The most significant shogunate is the Tokugawa shogunate, which starts at the end of the Sengoku period, dominates the Edo period, and ends with the start of the Meiji period.

There are several easy ways to figure out if you’re dealing with a shogunate in an anime: the most obvious is the presence of a shogun, the second is that of samurais, and the third is that of the Shinsengumi.


Shogun

The shogun is a military dictator and the leading figure of a shogunate. Though the shogun technically operated under an emperor, and it was the emperor that at times appointed the shogun, the emperor had little real power over the shogun. The position of shogun was often passed down from father to son, though not necessarily the eldest son.

There have been many shogunates that have come in and out of power, but the most popular shogunate in anime is the Tokugawa shogunate. As we mentioned earlier, the Tokugawa shogunate is a significant feature in the Sengoku, Edo, and Meiji periods which are often represented in anime. As a result, if you’ve ever watched an anime featuring some measure of historical accuracy, you’re likely to have seen or heard mentioned one of the many Tokugawa shoguns to have ruled in Japan.

Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou (Basilisk)

  • Episodes: 24
  • Aired: Apr. 2005 – Sep. 2005

The Kouga clan and the Iga clan are two ninja clans that have been rivals for centuries. It’s only because the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa ordered a truce between the two clans that their war was brought to a halt. They have an opportunity to solidify the peace between each other when the heirs of each clan, Gennosuke Kouga and Oboro Iga, fall in love. Unfortunately, when two of Ieyasu’s grandsons each stake their claim as heirs to the shogunate, the fragile peace between the two clans is put to an end. Each clan represents one of the two heirs and will send ten of their members to fight in a battle royale for the inheritance to the position of shogun. Gennosuke and Oboro must now choose between family or love as they participate in this deadly competition.

Ieyasu Tokugawa is the first Tokugawa shogun and the 3rd man to have unified Japan. Historically, Ieyasu actually only spent two years as shogun and quickly passed the title over to his third son Hidetada in order to ensure a smooth succession, though he still very much maintained power till his death. In Basilisk, Ieyasu orders the end of war between the Kouga clan and the Iga clan, highlighting his power, and orders its recommencement to settle who will inherit his position as shogun. The winning clan would receive the favor of the Tokugawa shogunate for a thousand years. The promise of favor for a thousand years might have been a tad optimistic considering no shogunate ever ruled for more than three hundred years. Nevertheless, Ieyasu is responsible for 250 years of peace in Japan, so perhaps there is some method to his madness in reducing a war of inheritance to a 10 versus 10 battle royale.

Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou PV


Samurai

A samurai is the sword-wielding warrior class that became famous across Japan between the 11th and 19th century. Samurai were incredibly varied; you could find bandits and criminals among the samurais as much as you could find law-abiding, honor-bound swordsmen. Furthermore, samurais weren’t only restricted to being swordsmen, especially when gunpowder weapons were introduced. During the peaceful Edo period, their role as warriors was reduced, and many ronin – a samurai without a master – emerged from lack of work.

Another effect of the peaceful Edo period is that some of the samurais that were retained began being used as a police force. The samurai worked very much like modern day police officers: enforcing the law and solving crimes.

Onihei

  • Episodes: 13
  • Aired: Jan. 2017 – Apr. 2017

Heizou Hasegawa is the chief officer of the Arson Theft Control division during the Edo period. His responsibility is to prevent arson and theft, solve crimes relating to them, and capture the criminals responsible for those crimes. Onihei is a police procedural and its episodic nature centers around Heizou and his Arson Theft Control team solving crimes.

Onihei gives viewers a great look at life in Japan under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. The episodic nature of the show means that a lot of attention can be given to Heizou’s everyday life and that of his police force, his family, and the criminals he deals with. The ambiguity of the life of a samurai is in full force with Onihei, and the crimes and actions Heizou must take aren’t black and white. The law in Japan hadn’t yet been firmly established, so the morality and ethics of crimes are also up for endless debate. If you’re looking for an anime about the life of a samurai under the Tokugawa shogunate and how the shogunate enforced the law, you’ll have a hard time finding a better fit than Onihei.

Onihei Trailer


Shinsengumi

The Shinsengumi is a bit of a cheat; they’re an organization of samurai that worked as a special police force during the Tokugawa shogunate. The most distinctive physical feature in their depictions are their blue and white jackets. The Shinsengumi were only active from 1863 to 1869 and yet became a popular element of many animes featuring samurai. They were mostly dedicated to policing Kyoto and preventing the efforts of revolutionaries trying to bring the emperor back to power. It’s thanks to the Shinsengumi that the Tokugawa shogunate managed to stave of the Meiji period just a bit longer.

The Shinsengumi have been represented as both heroes and villains in anime depending on if the anime takes a stance for the shogunate or against it. Whatever the side, the Shinsengumi are often depicted as formidable warriors worthy of emulation. Even in more contemporary settings, it’s not unusual for organizations to look to the Shinsengumi as inspiration and take on its name.

Hakuouki (Hakuoki ~Demon of the Fleeting Blossom~)

  • Episodes: 12
  • Aired: Apr. 2010 – Jun. 2010

Chizuru Yukimura goes to Kyoto disguised as a man to search for Koudou, her missing father and a doctor who often travels. In Kyoto, she witnesses the brutal murder of ronin at the hands of crazed people called furies. She is saved from becoming one of their victims by the timely arrival of the Shinsengumi and returns with them to their base when she reveals her story. The Shinsengumi are also looking for her father, and together, they will try to uncover the mystery behind his disappearance.

Hakuouki retraces the history of the Shinsengumi with a fantastical lean. Many of the famed members of the Shinsengumi are present here: Hijikata Toshizou, Shinpachi Nagakura, Souji Okita, Isami Kondou and many others. Furthermore, a lot of the events the Shinsengumi were involved with are addressed: the Ikedaya Incident, the Kinmon Incident, and the Boshin War to name a few. As in reality, the Shinsengumi must protect the shogun and the shogunate by pushing back against imperialistic revolutionaries.

Hakuouki Trailer


Final Thoughts

It’s hard to concisely encapsulate just how expansive the shogunate truly was in Japan. One current you may have noticed in all the examples is how much the shogunate domineered over the lives of the people of Japan while it was in charge. The shogunate is used in countless anime as the initiators of conflicts and manipulating hands behind the scenes. Furthermore, historical figures and organizations connected with the shogunate are often adapted for the purposes of telling historical events in new ways.

We tried to touch on many aspects of the shogunate but nearly seven hundred years of shogunate governments losing, maintaining, and gaining power means we couldn’t touch on everything. Is there an aspect of the shogunate or a related figure that pops up often in anime you’d like to know more about? Let us know in the comments below!

by Jonathan Tshinanu