This article will compare and contrast feudal Japan with feudal Europe while offering some explanations for the differences.
Although many people consider feudalism a European invention, the Japanese invented a form of feudalism independent of the Europeans at about the time that feudalism was at its height in Europe. Although these two feudalistic societies differed in several important ways, they also exhibited some key commonalities. This article will compare and contrast feudal Japan with feudal Europe while offering some explanations for the differences.
Since the ownership of land is what defines feudalism, both Japan and Europe had landowning and non-landowing castes during the Middle Ages. Unlike European feudalism, however, Japanese feudalism did not have a true pyramid form with the monarch presiding over a hierarchy of less important nobles. There are two main reasons for this. First, authority in Japan was much less centralized than it was in the nation-states of Europe. Although most of the local aristocrats paid lip-service to the emperor, the rugged terrain of Japan made it difficult for the emperor to fully control the local aristocracy. Thus, the local aristocrats had much more power in Japan than they ever had in France, Britain, or any other European country.
Secondly, although the lower nobility in Japan (the samurai) swore fealty to their local lords, the local lords did not give the samurai any land of their own. While the European nobility received land in exchange for their military service, the samurai did not join a landowning hierarchy. Instead, they were given an independent income from their local lord based upon what that lord’s lands produced. In contrast, European knights usually had their own serfs to work the land the knights received from their lord. While a Japanese samurai might have had servants, these servants did not work the land they way they would have done in Europe.
Obviously, the Japanese and European feudalistic systems were based on radically different legal and cultural structures. While the basis for feudalism was Roman and Germanic law and the Catholic Church in Europe, Chinese Confucian law and Buddhism were the basis of feudalism in Japan. Because of these differences in the basis for feudalism in Japan and Europe, feudalism developed in those two areas at different times. Although feudalism was largely established throughout Europe by the 9th century, it was not until the 12th century that feudalism began to appear in Japan. Thus, the Japanese Samurai system is not quite as old as that of the European knight.
Perhaps the most important similarity between Japanese and European feudalism for most people was the fact that they were both hereditary caste systems. In both areas, those who were born peasants had not chance of becoming anything other than peasants. Furthermore, they had no hope that their children would be anything other than peasants. Similarly, those who were born into the families of local lords or samurai would belong to the same caste as their parents, no matter how unqualified for leadership they might be. Over time, these caste systems began breaking down, but they severely limited the opportunities of the masses for hundreds of years.