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Knights and Samurai: Comparing the Feudal Structures of Japan and Europe

Photograph of Japanese Samurai in Armour

Photograph of Japanese Samurai in Armour

The feudal system is a term for the economic, political and social structures that governed Europe during the Middle Ages; but halfway across the world in Japan, very similar structures were in place.

In both cases, a class of peasant farmers formed the economic backbone; an honourable warrior class was the basis for military power; and civil order depended on a bond of personal loyalty between vassal and lord. Samurai pledged their service to a Daimyo (a powerful clan lord) who ruled the land on behalf of the Shogun – Japan's warlord in chief; just as European knights served barons and dukes whose authority derived from their king.

In Europe, the Middle Ages was an era of destructive conflict, with the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses being prime examples. Similarly, the “Sengoku Age” - or “Warring States Period” - saw Japan plunged into political turmoil, as various clans sought to usurp the seat of the crumbling Ashikaga Shogunate.

The mythical reputations of the samurai and ninja - two popular icons derived from Japanese culture - are a product of this era. The former sought to win honour for their lords in glorious battle, while the latter waged war through assassination and subterfuge.

There was even religious conflict to rival that of Europe, as some clans chose to embrace the Christian influence introduced by newly arrived European explorers, while others vehemently resisted it.

But the feudal system was never even uniform across Europe, so it's unlikely to be so among cultures separated by such vast distance. For all the similarities on the surface, deeper inspection reveals important differences in the values that governed political and economic relationships in Japan and Europe during their respective feudal periods.

The Lord-Vassal Relationship

When a European vassal pledged his service to a lord, he swore an oath of fealty that bound the two parties by law. There may not have been any paper to sign, but the oath itself was the closest thing to a legal contract.

But a samurai swore no such oath, and there was no legal contract of any kind. The bond between samurai and lord resembled a bond of kinship rather than a legal agreement, and the obedience of a samurai to his lord was like that expected of a son by his father.

Both relationships were invested with duty and honour, but for different reasons. Furthermore, in Europe the bond between a lord and vassal stipulated obligations on both sides, with the lord expected to provide protection and land while the vassal provided military and advisory aid.

A Japanese Daimyo had no such obligations to his samurai, though a wise Daimyo preferred to avoid angering his vassals. If he did gift a vassal with land, it was to reward loyal service, not to secure it.

Which brings up another major difference. Land was the basis of the lord-vassal relationship in Europe, but in Japan, the bond itself was what mattered. As such, a knight or noble given land that belonged to more than one lord owed fealty to all of them; whereas a samurai served one lord, and one lord only. Of course, in reality samurai could (and did) experience conflicted loyalties.

Centralized Power

Portuguese explorers arriving in Japan during the 16th century compared the relationship between emperor and shogun to that of a pope and king. The emperor served as a symbol of all that the people held sacred and holy, while true military and political power lay in the hands of the shogun.

But while the emperor had even less political power than a pope, in truth he probably had more influence. The shogun simply could not hope to hold his seat without it being validated by the emperor, whose divine sanction in turn strengthened the shogun's position.

The spiritual authority of Japan's emperor was powerful indeed. It may be due to the long lineage of the imperial family, stretching back unbroken to at least 660 B.C. It could also be that Japan's small and relatively isolated landmass resulted in a stronger sense of identity founded on the imperial dynasty.

Furthermore, the emperor's lack of political power may have actually strengthened his influence, with the ruling classes viewing him as someone who truly transcended the structure.

Either way, decentralization of power was a defining characteristic of the feudal system in Europe, where kings for the most part were under the sway of the lords that ruled the land in their name. But in Japan, the shogun-emperor dynamic resulted in a stronger centralized authority (the Sengoku Age being a notable exception).

The Peasants

Peasants were the bottom rung of the social ladder in both feudal societies, but in Europe they formed a borderline slave class distinct from the free tradesmen who frequented the towns.

Peasants in Japan, however, were divided into subclasses where farmers had the highest position, followed by artisans, then merchants. Indeed, while merchants may have enjoyed a higher status than farmers in Europe; in Japan they were perceived as having benefited from the work of others, and thus were regarded as the lowliest form of peasant.

But while peasant farmers in Japan may have had more freedom than their European counterparts, class distinction between peasant and samurai was rigidly enforced.

The Warrior Class

Samurai and knights were both bound by a code that stressed honour, loyalty and protecting the weak. But differences in the belief systems that influenced them meant differences in what constituted honour.

For a knight to slay a surrendered foe was the height of dishonour, while a samurai deemed surrender itself to be dishonourable. A knight's life belonged to God, so to take one's own life was a sin. For the samurai, ritual suicide (known as 'seppuku') was not only allowed, it was required in certain situations.

A knight defeated in battle may not beg for mercy, but could certainly hope for it, as the ransoming of prisoners back to their noble houses was customary during war. Not so in feudal Japan, where a samurai was expected to die rather than surrender, and sought above all else to free himself from the fear of death.

Knights and samurai provide a valuable history lesson, in that they were two warrior orders that valued honour, but had differing views on what honour actually meant.

Similarly, the political and social structures of Japan and Europe during this era can't be judged solely by the similarities that may have existed on the surface. Only by examining the values that drove the relationships can one gain insight into how those relationships in turn drove the system.

Questions & Answers

Question: You say "But a samurai swore no such oath, and there was no legal contract of any kind," but what about the formal written oaths known as Kishoumon (起請文)?

Answer: Good point about the Kishoumon, this was effectively quite similar to the oath sworn by western vassals. The difference is the lack of a legal framework, which is what I was referring to. The oaths of samurai were more familial and religious in nature, based on custom rather than institutions. Here's a couple of extracts from 'Japanese Civilization: A Comparative View' by S. N. Eisenstadt, which I used as a source:

"In Japan relations between vassal and lord were generally couched, not in contractual terms based on fully formalized mutual legal rights and obligations, but in terms of familial or filial obligations. Within this structure vassals exercised no principled legal rights vis-à-vis their lords..."

"This does not mean, of course, that in Japan there were no de facto modes of consultation among vassals and between vassals and their lords. But such consultations were ad hoc, structured according to situational exigencies and custom, not according to any conception of inherent rights of vassals either individually or as a body"

Question: What were the requirements for entry into the feudal society as a samurai and a knight?

Answer: The position of samurai was hereditary, you had to be born into it. It was very rare for someone born outside the samurai class to become one, although it could happen. A famous case was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who started off as the son of a peasant, became a soldier, earned favor with the daimyo Oda Nobunaga and was promoted to samurai, eventually rising to the rank of imperial regent.

As for knights, in theory, anyone could become a knight if they were made one by another knight, a lord or the king. In practice, knights were mostly the son of nobility as only they could afford the horse and armor, and their training started from an early age (starting off as a page, then serving under another knight as a squire, then eventually becoming a knight in a ceremony around age 18).

Question: What was given to the samurai as a reward?

Answer: Samurai were usually garrisoned in the daimyo's castle and paid a salary (often in rice rather than money). However, a daimyo could gift a samurai with land or money if he wished. This is in contrast to the relationship between a knight and his lord in Europe, where the lord was expected to grant the knight land in exchange for his service.

Question: Who ruled over the samurai?

Answer: In theory, the emperor was the highest authority, and samurai were supposed to be loyal to him above all else. In reality, samurai obeyed the commands of the diamyo (Japanese lord) who employed them, as he provided them with their livelihood.


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