Hoken system (封建制)

The Hoken system is a political system modeled after the Shu Dynasty in China, which was advocated in the political thought of Kanji using nations, such as China. In the modern and present-day era, it also came to be used as a Japanese equivalent for Feudalism, the socioeconomic system characterizing medieval European society. Since the two concepts are substantially different, they are detailed respectively.

Hoken system in the medieval ages (Feudalism)

Feudalism is a historical term referring to the system of government unique to medieval European society, and is translated as 'Hoken System.'
It consisted of loose, land mediated relations of master to servant among king, feudal lord, and retainer, and disappeared under absolute monarchy in the early-modern times.

Marxist history (materialistic concept of history) tries to find out a universal rule of history based on the contradiction between the productive force and the relation of production, and the logical framework was applied to non-European regions as an explanation. In this case, it means the socio-political system considered to have been established after the overturn of ancient slavery with the improvement of productivity, under which feudal lords ruled productive peasants as serfs.


The retainer system (military duties) in the ancient German society and the land loan system (land protection) in the later Roman Empire are often seen as the origin, and it is often explained that the two systems were combined to form feudalism. Under the system, a king makes feudal lords pledge loyalty in return for the protection of their domains, and the feudal lords make the same promise with retainers and make them pledge loyalty. This relationship of master and servant is often connected with the image of chivalric tales and seen as faithful and self-sacrificing, but it is in fact, a realistic relationship based on a mutual agreement, and the relationship was reciprocal and sometimes dissolved in shortly when the lord failed to protect his retainer.

Furthermore, as indicated by the saying "a retainer's retainer is not a retainer," "a retainer's retainer" did not have the master to servant relationship with "a master's master," therefore, a complicated power structure was formed. This made medieval society extremely decentralized (from today's point of view).

In medieval Europe, particularly in its early days, people suffered from repeated invasion by foreigners such as the Normans, Muslims and Magyars. Consequently, the master-and-servant relationship, which is originally an agreement for just one generation, gradually became hereditary and fixed. Thus, the Western European Hoken society based on serfdom and Feudalism matured (but the situation was quite different from village to village and most villages had a large number of free peasants as well as serfs).


In Europe, the formation of Feudalism (Hoken system) was closely related to foreigners' migration and invasion, the Hoken system in Japan, on the other hand, was mainly triggered by domestic factors including samurai ruling (nobility, including the Emperor, authorized the power of samurai). Similar to the Western feudalism, under which multiple contractual relationships and dissolution/alteration of contracts were seen, in Japan, the master-and-servant relationship was fluid and unshaken loyalty as shown in the saying ' A faithful retainer will never serve two masters' was not required until the Edo period.

There are several views about the formation of the Hoken system in Japan. One view is that the Go-on (obligation) and Hoko (duty) -based Hoken system was completed with the establishment of the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun), and this view has been adopted in most introductory books since prewar periods. In this view, the Kamakura bakufu was formed as an independent state power of feudal lords driven by the development of local feudal lords in various places after the breakup of ancient society based on the ancient Ritsuryo codes. Therefore, the Johei and Tenkyo War (in 935) is regarded as an early sign of it.

There was a controversy between medieval history and early-modern history on the establishment of the Hoken system in Japan from 1953 through the 1960's (it is also called the controversy of Taiko-kenchi (cadastral survey instituted by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI)). Moriaki ARAKI, who sparked the controversy, considered the manorial system-based society to be a patriarchal slavery society (=the ancient times), and defined the shogunate system established with Taiko-kenchi as the Hoken system in Japan. However, his idea invited pointed objections and Yoshimi TODA and his group proposed the theory that the system was established after the period of the government ruled by the retired Emperor, and Keiji NAGAHARA and his group proposed another theory that the system was established in the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (in Japan), the civil war period. The interest of historical science became diffused and the controversy came to an end without any clear result.

There is a view that the Hoken system in its true sense did not exist in Japan, because the Hoken system of feudal lords was just 'the right to collect taxes' (see Shiki system), and there was no private ownership of land and rights of control over the people as serfs in the domain, which were commonly seen in the West.

Development stage theory in China

Apart from the Hoken system in Zhou (which will be described later), the Hoken system will be described in view of the development stage theory based on materialistic conception of history.

After the modern era, scholars specializing in Chinese history have been trying to clear the label, 'Asian stagnation' put forth by Karl Marx.

That movement was initiated by Guo Moruo. Guo Moruo applied the development stage theory to Chinese history in his book "Studies on the Ancient Society of China" and defined Zhou as a slavery period and the Hoken system took hold after the Chunqiu period. Lu Zhenyu opposed the idea, insisting that Yin was a slavery society and Zhou was a Hoken system-based society, but the argument ended without conclusion.

In response, Konan NAITO in Japan proposed the view that the period of Wei and Jin in the Northern and Southern Dynasties and the period of Sui and Tang should be regarded as periods of the Hoken system (the Tang-Song Transition Thesis). On the other hand, Naonari MAEDA proposed a view that the social system changed from slavery to the Hoken system during the era ranging from the closing years of the Tang period through the Wudai Shiguo period, and the argument was heated from the prewar period through the 1970's.

These views are based on the existence of serfs which are said to be characteristic of the Hoken system. From the standpoint that the period of Wei and Jin in the Northern and Southern Dynasties was a time of the Hoken system, tenant peasants used by local ruling families were slaves, and the situation changed with the downfall of the Later Han Dynasty. From the standpoint that the Hoken system became prevalent after the Song period, peasants under the Equal-field system were slaves and the Tien Hu system which first appeared in the Song period was regarded as a serfdom.

It was a long dispute but it cooled down with no clear conclusion and is virtually nonexistent now. Various reasons can be cited, but the biggest reason is that Marxism became less appealing and people are now skeptical about the significance of applying development stage theory to Chinese history. Even some Marxist scholars denied the concept of the Hoken system in Chinese history based on the fact that local land lords had no powers such as jurisdiction, and those powers were controlled by the state and there was no seniority that was an important aspect of the Hoken system. Concepts and views of history which characterize the economic system in Chinese history have yet to be constructed, but recently, more studies are focusing on the role of landlords in a local community, instead of describing the class structure by conventional methods.

Hoken system' in Chinese history
In the Hoken system operated under Chinese dynasties, a monarchy nominally authorizes the nobility to rule the domain. At the same time, the authorized nobility falls under the control of the monarchy. Unlike the fiefdom, the Western legal Hoken system, no military duties were expected. Peerage which conceptually linked to a certain domain was given, but that did not necessarily involve the right of control over the land. Therefore, in a different view, it was formed as an extension of blood relations.

Yin and Zhou

It is indicated that the Hoken system was already used in the Yin period, but the details of the system in the period are unknown. According to one theory, in the Yin period, there was another type of country called Fangguo apart from the granted countries, and these were the countries of foreigners or different races. If the Yin were the leaders of the Hokoku league of countries, those granted countries must have been strongly controlled by the Yin, therefore, in the Yin period, the sovereignty over the country should have been given by the Zhou Dynasty to the same families and clans directly under control. Studies have been going on to identify the name of lands granted in the Yin period and various views are advocated, but nothing clear is known.

It is considered that the Chinese Hoken system was at its peak in the Zhou period, and blood relative communities based on Mura (large village) broadly emerged in many places, and Zhou formed fictitious blood relations to control them by making actual blood relations or feudalistic relations with them. These relationships based on the blood family community with primogeniture at its core is called the Sozoku System, and it is generally accepted that the Sozoku system and Hoken system were closely related to each other. However, there are no established theories for what Mura-based states were and when the Sozoku system became common.

Such a Hoken system in Zhou is often compared with Western feudalism. For example, in the development stage theory of Marx, it is argued whether China in the Zhou period was a slavery society or an ancient manor-based society, therefore, it is not easy to settle the dispute. This is closely related to the interpretation of the Jinghu system which was applied in the Zhou period and the nature of the Iden system, whose existence is questionable, is unclear.

Chunqiu and Zhanguo period

It is generally accepted that the Chinese Hoken system collapsed with the breakdown of Sozoku organization
There is no accepted theory on when the Sozoku system reached its zenith, but the generally accepted view is that the system broke down in the Chunqiu or Zhangguo period and rule by nobility was established with Mura at its core. Nuclear families were confirmed in the middle of the Zhangguo period and rulers and subjects relations base on sincere relationships such as Ke and Youxia. Another theory is that the Sozoku-based relations became ceremonial.

In the Chunqiu period, a political form called Kaimei-seiji (politics by pledge of feudal lords) emerged. In the political system, a leading state called Hasha (hegemony) builds sincere relationships with other Hoken states, which is thought to produce more rigid rulers-and-subjects relations than that of conventional Hoken relations. It is thought that the oath of Kaimei establishes relations with members of Kaimei, under which the leader can give orders to the members by taking advantage of god's authority. However, there is no established view on the nature of Hasha, and according to one theory, Hasha means a local leader or an ethnic ruler. Another version has it that Goha (five strong feudal lords in the Chunqiu period) was formed in the Zhangguo period due to the connection with Gogyo shiso (Five Elements Theory).

After the Qin

By the end of the Zhangguo period, Sozoku organizations collapsed or changed their nature, therefore, lords started to build rulers-and-subjects relations with people in their domain individually instead of ruling them based on Sozoku. The Hoken system became meaningless and was replaced by the Gun Ken system. After unifying China, Shikotei, the first Qin Emperor, divided the state into gun and ken, and ruled the whole state with the completely centralized system of gun and ken. The former Han, which overthrew the Qin Dynasty, adopted the Gun Koku system which separated places of newly appointed lords from places using the Gun Ken system. Under the Gun Ken system, the right of coinage and military right were granted at first, but those rights were gradually forfeited. In the Later Han period, it virtually became a pension system, turning into a formality, and continued as a system to grant peerage.

Confucianism, which follows the example of the Li system of Zhou, put importance on the Hoken system of Zhou, but for confucianists who began to take part in centralized politics, the hoken system was very contradictory and was often discussed in the form of essay on the Hoken or Gun Ken system. In particular, the Donglin movement and Iro no gaku in the Min period are famous, where the hoken system was discussed as a system for bureaucrats to voluntarily govern local areas as their responsibility. Ko Enbu incorporates the Hoken system into the Gun Ken system as the saying goes 'Using the gist of Hoken as a pretext of Gun ken,' advocating the centralized political form.