Other Classes

Far below the samurai in the social hierarchy were the peasants, artisans, and merchants. Peasants, who made up 75 percent of the population, formed the backbone of feudal society in Japan. Peasant families cultivated rice and other crops on the estates of samurai. Some peasants also served as foot soldiers in feudal wars.

On rare occasions, an able peasant soldier might rise through the ranks to become a samurai himself.

Artisans, such as armorers and sword-makers, provided necessary goods for the samurai class. Merchants had the lowest rank in Japanese society, reflecting the Confucian view of them as people who were interested only in profits and who made these profits off the goods made by others. However, while peasants had a higher status, merchants often had much greater wealth.

Illustration of ships, soldiers and horses being swept away by a tidal wave.

Over 13,000 invaders drowned in the first tsunami that saved Japan. Almost all of the 4,400 ships and 140,000 Chinese invaders were lost in the second tsunami.

Mongol Invaders Threaten Japan

During the feudal age, most fighting took place between rival warlords, but the Mongol conquest of China and Korea also threatened Japan. When the Japanese refused to accept Mongol rule, Kublai Khan launched an invasion from Korea in 1274. A fleet carrying 30,000 troops arrived, but shortly afterwards a typhoon wrecked many Mongol ships and drove the invaders back to the mainland.

In 1281, the Mongols landed an even larger invasion force, but again a typhoon destroyed much of the Mongol fleet. The Japanese credited their miraculous delivery to the kamikaze (kah muh KAH zee), or divine winds. The Mongol failure reinforced the Japanese sense that they were a people set apart who enjoyed the special protection of the gods.

A United Japan

The Kamakura shogunate crumbled in the aftermath of the Mongol invasions. A new dynasty took power in 1338, but the level of warfare increased after 1450. To defend their castles, daimyo armed peasants as well as samurai, which led to even more ruthless fighting. A saying of the time declared, “The warrior does not care if he's called a dog or beast. The main thing is winning.”

Illustration of a mustachioed man with a stern countenance seated in a robe wielding a fan, and surrounded by several women. Japanese characters mark the border.

After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasau seized control of central Japan. He used strict administrative regulations to control anyone who challenged his power.

Warriors Gradually Unite Japan

Gradually, several powerful warriors united large parts of Japan. By 1590, the ambitious and successful general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (hee day YOH shee), a commoner by birth, had brought most of Japan under his control.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments