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The Feudal Nobility

The final steps in the unification of the government of the empire was taken in the year 1871, closing with the record of the deposition of the territorial barons from their ancient positions as quasi-sovereigns of their fiefs, and the conversion of those fiefs into prefectures, administered by officials of the Government at Tokyo. The titles borne by the feudal nobility were of two kinds the official titles conferred by the Court, and territorial titles.

Prior to the year 1871 tirst in rank were the Kuge or court nobles, the attendants at the Court of the Emperor at Kyoto, who, invariably tracing their descent from collateral branches of the imperial family and therefore sharing to some extent the prestige of the Emperor's divine origin, were, though poor and landless, recognised without question as the highest in the land next to the imperial family. They performed no military duties; their time was passed in the seclusion of the Court, in the performance of court duties, in studying court etiquette and polite accomplishments. At the time of the Restoration they numbered one hundred and fifty houses; they stood apart, a class by themselves.

The history of these official titles is this. When the government of the country passed out of the hands of the Kuge, or Court nobles, into those of the military class, the official posts previously held by the former were filled by members of the feudal nobility, who accordingly assumed the official titles attached to those posts. In the course of time, as successive changes in the details of administration occurred, the duties of these posts became merely nominal, until at last the titles, some of which had become hereditary, came to be merely honorable distinctions, having no connection with the discharge of official duties. There were in Iyeyasu's time about sixty of these official titles, which were, nominally, in the gift of the Crown. Until the end of the Shogunate there was much competition for these titles, which were the cause of constant intrigue between the Imperial Court and the Yedo Government.

The Daimio or territorial nobles were the descendants of great military adventurers of the Middle Ages who enriched themselves by taking permanent possession of lands which they had won by the sword, or had received from the Shogun as rewards for their services. They had no claim to the ancient lineage of the Kuge; but on the other hand they were feudal chiefs of territories that in some cases comprised entire provinces. All were wealthy, though in varying degrees; all were practically sovereign lords of their fiefs, governing them as petty kingdoms, exercising independent administrative and judicial powers within their limits, issuing their own paper currency, framing their own laws, and supporting their own armies.

The territorial title of a daimio consisted originally of the word Kami joined to the name of the province in which his territories lay. The title of a daimio, therefore, in early days had direct reference to the province in which his fief was situated. In the course of time, however, though this territorial title remained in general use, it by no means followed that there was any connection between the particular province mentioned and the territory actually possessed by a daimio. This change in the significance of the title was due to several causes: to the partition amongst several daimios of lands originally held by a single individual, to the removal of a daimio to another fief, to which he often carried his old title, and to the formation of cadet houses, which sometimes retained the title of the senior branch. The multiplication of similar titles led to much confusion, and in the later days of the Shogunate, by way of remedying this inconvenience, a daimio on appointment to the Council of State was obliged to change his title, if it were one already borne by an older member.

By the early 19th Century the surroundings in which the daimios were brought up had the effect of depriving them of all character and initiative, and how they, like the Mikado and Shogun, were mere puppets in the hands of others, unfitted for responsibility of any kind, unaccustomed to the direction of affairs. The great majority of feudal lords were generally persons who have been born and nurtured in the seclusion of the women's apartments: who even when they have grown up to man's estate still exhibit all the traits of childhood. Leading a life of leisure, they succeed to the inheritance of their ancestors. And in the same category are those who, though designated vassals, are born of good family on the great estates.

There were, indeed, a few instances of feudal chiefs who had some share of power and influence. But they were exceptions to the general rule, and the authority they exercised was brought to bear rather on the affairs of the State than on the administration of their own territories. Long before the Restoration the government of feudal fiefs had passed out of the hands of the nominal rulers, and their hereditary chief retainers, into those of clansmen of inferior status. These were the real authors of the measure of reform which swept away the feudal system. They were the same men who carried out the Restoration. Throughout all the negotiations for the surrender of their fiefs the feudal nobility counted for nothing, and, as a class, were only dimly conscious, if aware at all, of what was going on before their eyes.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:28:37 ZULU