Phases of Martial Structuring: Buke shohatto

We’ve arrived to the last part regarding the martial structuring that took place during the generations when Japan still was under feudal rule. Today’s post will be on the “Buke shohatto” (武家諸法度), which was generally seen as a uniformed martial system recognized by all throughout Japan. Unlike the others discussed before, where different factions were influenced to adopt the latest weapons and strategies in order to defeat any opposition that may come their way, Buke shohatto was enforced by the ruling power upon those of the warrior class in a way where the whole populous was affected. In reality, it was but one of many different types of regulations imposed on the people during the Tokugawa shogunate. For this article, we’ll look at the roots of Buke shohatto, its components, and the pros & cons that came with it.

Buke shohatto is different from what one would expect of a so-called “martial system”. Instead of more of a systematic approach by groups with military strength to defend and fight against others for the sake of land or power, this defines the type of control one ruling power in a military state of a country would possess, and how that ruling power remains dominant, even without the dependency on all-out wars.

Artwork of Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), 2nd Shogun during the Tokugawa shogunate. From Wikipedia.

Generally translated as “Laws of the Military Houses”, Buke shohatto is a set of 13 articles of rules. The groundwork for this was put into place by Tokugawa Hidetada in 1615, based on the command of his father Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Ieyasu who, at the time had retired from being Shogun, had introduced these rules to the feudal lords who gathered at a meeting at Fushimi castle in the same year. This period with the 13 rules set place was labeled as Genna rei (元和令, order of Genna period).

Originally in 1611, after Ieyasu had seized power of Japan, he created as an edict with 3 articles of oaths that daimyō (大名, feudal lords) who claimed loyalty to him and the new bakufu (幕府, military government) that was put into place, had to agree to. Later, high-ranking scholars working for the shogunate had presented 10 more rules that daimyō should agree on. Buke shohatto did receive some revisions, amendments, and additions over time, primarily by shogun successors. In the end, these 13 articles of rules were very strict, and had to be followed lest one wished to pay the consequences.

Major objective of creating the Buke shohatto was the following:

  • A means to control both daimyō families and warriors alike
  • Give a framework of a lifestyle individuals were to operate by in an era that was being created
  • Prevent any one group from rising & opposing the shogunate

Below are the original 13 regulations of the Buke shohatto¹. These are several pics of the rules in Japanese, followed by a modern translation in English. The translation comes from the Buke shohatto English page on Wikipedia.

  1. The samurai class should devote itself to pursuits appropriate to the warrior aristocracy, such as archery, swordsmanship, horsemanship, and classical literature.
  2. Amusements and entertainments are to be kept within reasonable bounds and expenses for such activities are not to be excessive.
  3. The han (feudal domains) are not to harbor fugitives and outlaws.
  4. Domains must expel rebels and murderers from their service and from their lands.
  5. Daimyō are not to engage in social interactions with the people (neither samurai nor commoners) of other domains.
  6. Castles may be repaired, but such activity must be reported to the shogunate. Structural innovations and expansions are forbidden.
  7. The formation of cliques for scheming or conspiracy in neighboring domains must be reported to the shogunate without delay, as must the expansion of defenses, fortifications, or military forces.
  8. Marriages among daimyō and related persons of power or importance must not be arranged privately.
  9. Daimyō must present themselves at Edo for service to the shogunate.
  10. Conventions regarding formal uniform must be followed.
  11. Miscellaneous persons are not to ride in palanquins.
  12. Samurai throughout the realm are to practice frugality.
  13. Daimyō must select men of ability to serve as administrators and bureaucrats.

On a martial arts-related note, daimyō families were able to train in martial skills while getting adequate education. Despite this privilege, the reality was many were busy with actual work or recreational activities, with very little chance to hone their skills in true confrontations. While they could still be formidable with a sword in their hands, their actual skills paled in comparison to the warriors of the warring age.

As stated earlier, many influential families were allowed to became daimyō and own land. Due to their background, these families were privileged with the title “buke”, or warrior families, thus placing them in the “samurai” class. Take note that the term buke (military families) was not directed towards vassals to the shogun, nor warriors of the many domains. The former were called hatamoto (旗本), whereas the latter were labeled as hanshi (藩士). There were specific rules for them to follow, which will be discussed later.

Back on topic, the Buke shohatto kept daimyō families in check. For example, daimyō families received pay from the government in the form of koku (石), or bushels of rice. This was also payment by the daimyō families to those who worked for them. However, these families had to pay the bakufu in taxes, which was rice harvested in each families’ domains. Depending on certain factors, if output of rice was too low, then more taxes was placed on those specific families. This was a huge burden on many daimyō families, which prevented them from becoming too financially strong.

Another example is their travels to Edo (present day Tokyo) and visits to the Shogun while doing work there. On a yearly basis, at least one trip had to be made per the head of the household’s responsibility. Costs for this trip was expensive, and they were not given funds or compensation for making the journey. Furthermore, they had to follow certain protocols while making the trip to Edo. For instance, they could only be accompanied by a certain number of followers and horses according to their rank. This could pose a problem if their luggage, items, cargo, and so on was large while the traveling group had fewer members. The limitations on the numbers allowed to travel was to prevent attempts on taking over Edo, starting a war, etc.

As mentioned earlier, there were specific rules and regulations set aside for warriors that were not considered a “buke”. Some factors distinguished this, including receiving an income of jūman koku, or 100,000 bushels of rice. These rules are called Shoshi hatto (諸士法度), or otherwise known as Hatamoto hatto (旗本法度). This set of regulations surpasses the Buke shohatto in numbers, as there was 23 rules in total.

These regulations were first drafted in 1632, initially featuring 9 regulations. Later, this would be increased to 23 regulation in 1635 by Tokugawa Iemitsu, which is often the reason why most of the credit of its development goes to him. The intentions of the Shoshi hatto was to give warriors who worked for the shogunate and the daimyō families rules on how to conduct themselves in the new era being created by the Tokugawa shogunate, as well as give a framework of behavior and development they should aim for. In return, they receive an honest amount of compensation in the form of koku (rice). Of course, this gives warriors of all types an indication of the need to be employed in one way or another to benefit from this.

Two pages illustrating the regulations of the Shoshi hatto, from the book “Shiho Shiryo – Dai 170-go Tokugawa Kinreiko” (司法資料. 第170号 徳川禁令考)

Warriors that were employed as vassals (or otherwise known as retainers) directly under the Shogun were called hatamoto (旗本), while hanshi (藩士) that served directly under a daimyō were given the more proper title of gokenin (御家人). As one would expect, hatamoto are viewed as high-ranking warriors, since they answer directly to the shogun and can have an audience with him directly. gokenin are lower ranking warriors, as they don’t work directly with the Shogun. Also, hatamoto receive a higher stipend of koku than gokenin.

Having 23 regulations that needed to be observed and follow, there was a lot of pressure for these vassal warriors. The general premise that these regulations impose are the following:

  • Upholding loyalty
  • Maintaining a level for military service
  • Being ready for use of weapons and tools for war
  • Starting a family through marriage
  • Being mindful of one’s actions and conduct
  • Keeping good communication
  • Avoiding unnecessary quarrels
  • Understanding who takes responsibility during fires
  • Dealing with wrong doers and law breakers
  • Responsibilities on one’s fief
  • Handling boundary disputes
  • Correct protocol in handling territorial matters relating to political issues and regular civilians
  • Family management as head of his family

As mentioned before, the Shoshi hatto was separate from the Buke shohatto up until around 1683, which afterwards it became obsolete. Most of the regulations placed on vassals were consolidated and merged with the Buke shohatto at a later date.

Now, let’s take a broader view of the Buke shohatto and how well it worked in allowing the Tokugawa shogunate to maintain rule and suppress any possible threats. There was obviously good points that came of this.


  • Unnecessary wars and conflicts were almost quelled completely.
  • A push for social and economical development could be seen over a course of time as many found new ways to survive through the form of business and constructive work, especially through contact with and the adaptation of technologies from Western countries.
  • Certain main roads necessary for travel by daimyō, tax collectors, inspectors, and so on were ordered to be developed by the shogunate. These roads being made accessible contributed to smooth relay of communications, delivery of supplies, and so on. In turn, these same roads were safer (at least during the day) and more frequently used by others such as merchants, monks, and regular civilians.
  • Piracy, as well as monopoly of the waterways was prohibited. This also included the construction of very large ships. In the end, seaports were developed for fair use and labor/transportation purposes
Artwork entitled, “Suehiro gojūsan tsugi Totsuka” (末廣五十三次 戸塚), this is a visual interpretation of a procession to Kyōto along a main road called Tōkaidō by the 14th shogun Tokugawa Ieshige, on his way to see the Emperor. He is accompanied by around 3000 armed attendants. By Utagawa Sadahide, produced in 1865. From


  • Certain measures were put into place to ensure obedience from daimyō. While effective in the grand scheme of things, ethically they are questionable. For example, daimyō had to comply with a system called “Sankin Kotai” (参勤交代), which basically was an agreement where as they did work for the Shogunate, one or several of their close relatives, such as wife and kids, had to live in Edo. Since these relatives were under surveillance, they were essentially prisoners. Any rash actions from the daimyō would put their lives at risk, so they had no choice but to be obedient.
  • A restriction was placed on the number of castles daimyō could own. Under the regulation called “Ikkoku Ichijo rei” (一国一城令), they were permitted to own only one castle in each land area. The reasoning behind this was to prevent the building of military strength by accumulating a large force, weapons, and supplies in a remote castle, or house them in a fort close by on their land. This was also to dissuade cooperation between different daimyō to join forces. In the process, many historical castles, forts, and the such had to be demolished.
  • On a larger scale, the Tokugawa Shogunate could not ensure complete peace and safety throughout Japan; while the Buke shohatto was to take care of this by leaving such management in the hands of the daimyō, in the long run there were still areas that were left unchecked or could not get full support just because the Shogunate wasn’t designed to do so.
  • As a balance measure for paying daimyō and others on a yearly basis, taxes were placed on everyone. These taxes came from the rice harvested in each area. Depending on their status, each daimyō had to deliver a certain amount. However, this did not take into consideration on certain factors, such as actual man-labor to produce the set amount, as well as if harvesting conditions were bad due to droughts and so on. This placed a lot of pressure on both the daimyō and the people on his land, which in turn influenced some to bribe tax collectors that would come visit their lands.
  • Lack of true financial support overall. For the most part, if areas needed any form of development, such as the construction of bridges, this was placed in the hands of the daimyō of that specific area.
  • Masterless warriors, such as rōnin (浪人) did not get the same support as retainers to the Shogun and daimyō did. In fact, they had to fend for themselves for the most part, with their focus being more on finding actual work. One route that could be taken was trying to set up their own legitimate martial arts system and open up a school in a particular area. For others, acquiring work that could use their talents, such as bodyguard, guardsman of a manor, police, investigator, an instructor, and so on. Labor work was aplenty throughout Japan as many towns were growing, so if these warriors could make the journey to areas where large projects were being conducted, then there was a chance to gain employment, if only for a short period of time.

There are other cases, both positive and negative, but those will continue to carry us further off topic. At the same time, this shows the impact that the rule-heavy society created by the Tokugawa shogunate had as a whole, as its influences reached much further off of the battlefield and into the reality that was becoming of Japan from the Edo period onward.

Buke shohatto is the last form of martial system of Japan when it was still a military country. It ended once the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown by those wanting to return power to the Emperor in the late mid-1800’s, ushering a new, modernized governing system. This here closes the series on the martial structuring in Japan’s history. Much time was spent researching each part of this series, so it took longer to bring to completion than expected. I thank everyone for their patience.

1) To view the different iterations of the Buke shohatto, Shoshi hatto, and other regulations devised within the Tokugawa Legislation in English, there is a web archive that is currently accessible here.