Kuge (court noble) (公家)

Kuge is a general term to refer to nobles and government officials who serve chotei (Imperial Court) in Japan.

Originally it meant Emperor or chotei and read 'koke' (public family) or 'oyake' (public or official). Since the Kamakura period, bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) that served choka (the imperial family or household) with military power was refered to as buke (samural family), nobles who served choka in governmental affairs came to be called kuge.

Brief history

In the aristocratic society family lineage which allowed one to ascend to Kugyo (the top court officials) began to be limited since the late Heian period, and as kakaku (family status) was fixed when Sekke (line of regents and advisers) was established by the Northern House of the Fujiwara clan, a hierarchical kuge society was formed by the early Kamakura period. In the kuge society, the highest government post one could reach depended on one's kakaku. At that time 'a family system' assuming inheritance of family property was being established in each class of Japanese society, therefore, the formation of the kuge society can be understood as establishment of 'a family' within the noble hierarchy. The finacial basis of kuge in its formative period depended on the right to collect land tax from shoen (manor) and koryo (public land).
Among the kuge, the upper nobles were building up their financial basis by ruling a shoen estate as honke (a head family), gaining the commendation of shoen, and middle-class nobles were doing so by gaining the right to manage shoen, as they were appointed to azukaridokoro (a deputy of "shoen" manor lord) by upper nobles or main temples and shrines, and so on

Throughout the Kamakura period, not only the military government (Kamakura bakufu) which mainly took charge of military and police authorities and the dominion of Togoku (the eastern part of Japan, particularly the Kanto region), but also the kuge government (chotei) which dealt with governmental affairs and ruling of Seigoku (the western part of Japan) co-existed, and the both attended the government in cooporation. In local areas, however, some cases where the rights of the kuge side to financial control were encroached by local samurai (jito) (manager and lord of manor) began to appear. This inclination became evident during the Muromachi period. The authority of the kuge government came to be greatly encroached by the bakufu and shugo (provincial constable), and gradually became little more than a mere name.

During the Edo period, the kuge society gained protection from the bakufu, while the "Kinchu narabini kuge shohatto" (a set of legal regulations that applied to emperors and Kyoto nobles) that regulated emperors and kuge was established and defined the relationship between kuge and samurai of the Edo period. Although the kuge society was retained until the end of the Edo period, it was abolished in the course of the Meiji Restoration and most of the kuge shifted to the social status of peerage. At the end of the Edo period, with the background of a revival of chotei's authority, it produced many important figures, such as Tomomi IWAKURA and Sanemi SANJO who left great achievements during the Meiji Restoration.


Kuge can be classified into two ranks in a broader sense - "Toshoke" (the hereditary lineage of court nobles occupying relatively high ranks) which refers to a family allowed to be tenjobito (a high-ranking courtier allowed into the Imperial Palace) and Jigeke (family status of non-noble retainers who are not allowed into the Emperor's living quarters in the Imperial Palace) which refers to a family otherwise, but generally speaking, kuge refers to Toshoke. Such tradition to call Toshoke and tenjobito which were allowed access to the Imperial Court 'kuge' continued to the Edo period.

Besides, a family dated back generations ago was called kyuka (old family), and those which moved out and set up a new branch family after the Azuchi-Momoyama period were called shinke (newly founded family).

Kakaku (family status)

Between the late Heian period and the Kamakura period, kakaku of the kuge was fixed and the government posts one could attain were restricted depending on one's lineage and pedigree. During this period kakuku was formulated in the following order.
(See each item for details.)

Sekke (line of regents and advisers)
Seiga family (one of the highest court noble families in Japan at that time)
The house of minister
The House of Urin (holding military ranks)
Important noble family (kuge)
Hanke (a kind of family status of court nobles) (kuge) (shodaibu) (aristocracy lower than Kugyo)

Shift to the peerage

In the course of transition to peerage, status as peerage of kuge families was decided according to their kakaku and the record of appointments in generations while they served their governments. In principle, heads of Sekke and Seiga family became Dukes or Marquises, families whose ranks were below them became earls if they had produced many Dainagon (chief of the councilor of State), and otherwise they became viscounts. In addition, some of the jika families, that became peerage, all shifted to barons.