(Friday Night History) Feudal Edge Case

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Shiroishi Castle, home of the Katakura family– who had many of the trappings of daimyo but were not daimyo. (Image PD)

Here’s the thing.

The definition of a daimyo in the Edo period gets weird around the edges. There are some broad definitions applied to daimyo, but they aren’t nearly as clear-cut as one might assume. So, let’s start with more or less the standard definition.

Per Kotobank, an online encyclopedia and dictionary, a daimyo is a person who is recognized as an independent feudal lord by the Tokugawa Shogun– along the way, usually receiving a kanji from the ruling Shogun’s name to mark the affirmation or reaffirmation of that status– and held over 10,000 koku (bales of rice) in income, usually in the form of a landholding. One might say, “but hey now, Doc, what about a castle?” but this isn’t required to be a daimyo– there were lots and lots of daimyo who neatly fall within the traditional definition of the term who didn’t have one, so this isn’t an integral part of that definition.

Anyway, so in short, that’s (1) Shogunal recognition as a daimyo, and (2) at least 10,000 koku of income. You with me so far?

Good, ’cause from here on out it gets weird. The sheer number of exceptions and edge cases render the standard definition kind of laughably flimsy and hollow.

First, we have the people who held over 10,000 koku, even way over 10,000 koku, but were not daimyo. The most notable case of these is the Tayasu, Shimizu, and Hitotsubashi lords, the 3 Tokugawa cadet branch lords who were collectively called the Gosankyo, the 3 Lords. They resided in the Shogun’s castle, held great prestige, held over 100,000 koku of income in the form of direct emolument, but weren’t daimyo! Their lineages existed solely to provide backup heirs should the main Shogunal lineage die out. This happened at the very tail end of the Edo period, when Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu became Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last shogun, in 1866.

Secondly there were the people who held over 10,000 koku but were not daimyo. Bigger domains ruled by older daimyo families like the Date in the north or the Shimazu in the far south had many cases of this, often but not always in the form of cadet branches. The Katakura family’s a good case in point. With a holding of 18,000 koku, the family was a Date vassal clan and held Shiroishi Castle in the domain’s south as its residence. It nearly became an independent daimyo family in the 1590s, due to the invitations of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but his offer of recognition was refused by Katakura Kagetsuna (Kojuro I), who chose to continue service to the house of Date. I suspect if he hadn’t, his sister Kita– who had been wetnurse and first tutor in martial arts to both Kagetsuna and his overlord Date Masamune– would never have let him hear the end of it. And while Kagetsuna and several others like him in Date service held daimyo-level income and many of the trappings of a daimyo, they were not daimyo themselves.

Third, daimyo who didn’t actually have the traditional daimyo level income. A noteworthy case of this is the Ashikaga family of Kitsuregawa domain. This was a branch of the same family that was once the 2nd shogunal dynasty back during the Muromachi era. Because of this exalted lineage, the Tokugawa shogunate gave it the status of a 100,00 koku domain, despite the fact that its landholdings, centered on Kitsuregawa in modern-day Sakura, Tochigi Prefecture, never amounted to more than 5,000 koku. It was excused from alternate-attendance duty, the duty by which the Shogunate kept the daimyo and high-ranking bannermen (hatamoto) in Edo some of the year. But perhaps out of pride and wanting to keep up appearances with its peers, the Kitsuregawa family performed alternate attendance in Edo anyway.

Which brings me to an even stranger case, that of daimyo who were simultaneously recognized as daimyo but were also vassals of other daimyo. Tamura of Ichinoseki domain, in modern Iwate Prefecture, is a case of this. Holding a modest but respectable 30,000 koku, the house Tamura was a cadet branch of the house of Date. It performed alternate-attendance in Edo and was recognized as an independent daimyo by the shogun. However, it was also a Date cadet branch and vassal family and held status within Sendai domain!

To sidebar, for a moment: Sendai domain was unique in that it had a microcosm of the Shogunate-domain (bakuhan taisei) system in place. Sendai domain was very large, and unwieldy to manage from one or two castles, as most other domains were managed in the Edo period. Thus, Date vassals held landholdings throughout the domain and performed alternate attendance on the lord in Sendai just as the lord performed alternate-attendance on the shogun, his overlord, in Edo. This was a system the Date had used for centuries, dating back to before the Edo period’s onset in the 17th century. Senior vassals held castles– called fortresses (yogai) to stay within the letter of the Shogunate law on castles– but many Date vassals, great and small, held landholdings throughout the domain where they lived at least part of the time. And Tamura of Ichinoseki performed alternate-attendance– or at any rate, maintained offices– in both Edo and Sendai.

There were also situations where the definition involved some measure of overt or tacit hostility. Some people who are considered daimyo in the Edo period used to be vassals of daimyo who did an end run around their overlords, got confirmed as daimyo by the shogun, but not officially recognized as such by their now ex-overlords. The most notable case of this is the house of Tsugaru, in the far north of Honshu, who had once been vassals of the Nanbu clan of Morioka domain, but became independent when they reached Hideyoshi and pledged fealty to him ahead of the Nanbu daimyo. The two clans were at odds for the rest of the Edo period, with multiple assassinations and other clashes marking their shared history, once even nearly coming to open war and requiring Shogunate arbitration during what’s called the Cypress Tree Incident (Hinokiyama-sodo). To this day, local wisdom has it that people from the old Tsugaru land (Aomori) and people from the old Nanbu land (Morioka) don’t get along. There is also rather famously the case of the Inada family, which ruled Awaji island and had been on track to become an independent daimyo when the Edo period began, and had to remain in what had been a temporary assignment as reinforcement to the Hachisuka clan of Tokushima domain. Promised independence in exchange for imperial service in the Boshin War of 1868-1869, the Inada clan made a bid for independence, but that bid was met by a crackdown and attack on its castle town, in what’s called the Kogo Incident. Inada Kunitane and his retainers got to very briefly set up as their own independent domain, but far north in the newly named and officially annexed Hokkaido– events that were dramatized in the 2005 film Kita no Zeronen.

Finally, there were people who held daimyo level income and status, but were heading a branch of a much larger domain on whose administration, facilities, and personnel they relied, to the extent that they weren’t meaningfully independent. Any domain you might encounter whose name ends in “Shinden” is a case of this– a domain whose tax base was made by clearing out new field (shinden) to make that magic minimum of 10,000 koku.

There are many more cases in point, here, and any serious consideration of history has to be more than just the disconnected reciting of anecdotes. I’d be going on for multiple episodes if I did that, and we need to keep the show going. Suffice it to say, there are many, many edge cases that make a clear-cut definition to “daimyo” in the Edo period ring a little hollow– and I think it’s a good lesson in questioning the limits and rigidity of terms that, in history, we tend to take for granted.

So, what makes a daimyo?

Eh. It depends!


  • “Daimyo.” https://kotobank.jp/word/%E5%A4%A7%E5%90%8D-92048 Accessed 13 May 2021
  • Kazama Kansei, “Shiroishi-jō,” pp. 125-138 of Sendaijō to Sendairyō no Shiro, Yōgai (Tokyo: Meichō Shuppan, 1982), pp. 126-127.
  • “Kessanji no Kaiki: Katakura Kojuro Kagetsuna-ko.” https://kessanji.jp/history/katakura Accessed 14 January 2021.
  • Kudō Mutsuo. Mura no Dekigoto- Tōhoku: Hankyō wo Meguru Tsugaru, Nanbu Sanron, pp. 166-167.
  • Sendaijō to Sendairyō no Shiro, Yōgai, ed. Kobayashi Seiji (Tokyo: Meichō Shuppan, 1982)
  • “Sumoto Castle 洲本城” Japan National Tourism Organization https://www.japan.travel/en/spot/1047/ Accessed 13 May 2021
  • Conrad Totman. Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1600-1843. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 110-115, 126-130.
  • Toshio G. Tsukahira. Feudal Control in Tokugawa Japan: the Sankin Kotai System. (Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1966), pp. 39, 52-53.

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