Honke is a nominal owner of the highest-graded patches of land under the stratified land ruling structure of Japanese Shoen (refer to the Shiki system in the shoen koryo sei (The System of Public Lands and Private Estates) section). Honke were usually the Innomiya family, Sekkan-ke (families that produced regents and advisers), and major temples and shrines that received donations from ryoke (a lord of the manor) that had received donations from kaihatsu ryoshu (local notables who actually developed the land). Honke is also called Soke.
Starting from the late 10th century or the 11th century, which was the middle of the Heian period, local kaihatsu ryoshu started to donate their private lands (shoen) that they illegally owned to the zuryo (provincial officers such as dominant nobilities, temples, and shrines in the capital) in order to escape from confiscation by the kokuga (provincial government offices). Then, these kaihatsu ryoshu paid a certain amount of tax to the zuryo while holding the right to control those donated lands as shokan, or officers governing shoen (donation while retaining authority). Ryoke were the ones who received donations from kaihatsu ryoshu. Ryoke appointed kaihatsu ryoshu to shokan to manage the lands, and through them, ryoke obtained income for themselves by collecting harvests from shoen as jishi (land taxes under the Ritsuryo system) and required peasants (shomin) who worked within shoen to provide labor for kuji (public duties). These rights to profit from ryoke (sakuai or each shiki's share of collected taxes) such as the right to control, collect jishi, and impose labor services as shoen ryoshu (lord of the manor) were called ryoke shiki (economic rights as a lord of the manor).
Meanwhile, being granted a more powerful authority due to the contract system of kokushi (provincial governors), kokushi often executed confiscation on grounds of the Manor Regulation Act issued as a 'new policy' when the Emperor changed in order to increase kokugaryo (territories governed by the provincial government office) as their own territories; therefore, there were many cases that the authority of ryoke was insufficient to maintain Shoen ownership. For this reason, ryoke donated a part of ryoke shiki to more influential families such as the Innomiya family, Sekkan-ke, and major temples and shrines. The sakuai that the influential families had was called honke shiki (the right that the honke had). Note that, if kaihatsu ryoshu donated their shoen directly to influential families, these shoen would only have honke and no ryoke. Among honke and ryoke, the families that had effective dominion over shoen were called honjo (proprietors or guarantors of a manor). In some cases, honjo gave the shoen-related rights or profit partially to other aristocrats and called these aristocrats ryoke.
As time passed, shokan started to become samurai, and from the Kamakura period and on, the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) appointed shokan to jito (managers and lords of a manor). Jito abolished the traditional stratified land ruling relationships and preferred centralized land ruling. Such centralized ruling of lands refers to ichien chigyo (monistic ruling), and establishment of the jitouke system (the contract system where the manor's owner entrusts a jito to manage his manor and pay the customs) started in Togoku (the eastern part of Japan, particularly Kanto region). Meanwhile, in Saigoku (western part of Japan (esp. Kyushu, but ranging as far east as Kinki), peasants strengthened their territorial bonds, formed villages, and established the hyakushouke system (the contract system where the manor's owner entrusts a peasant to manage his manor and pay the customs) to operate shoen independent of jito's management. Also, shitaji chubun (physical division of land) started to take place as a solution to a conflict between jito and shoen ryoshu over sakuai.
In the Muromachi period, shugo (provincial constables) became powerful and lowered official positions of jito and kokujin (local samurai) from the Kamakura period including zaichokanjin (local officials in the Heian and Kamakura periods) and started to control the lands owned by kokuga, jito, or kokujin with the goal to establish the shugo-ryogoku system (the system where a shugo dominates a manor). During this period, the shugouke system was widely used in which honke or ryoke entrusted shugo to manage shoen in the shugo's own territories and paid nengu (jishi and kuji combined) to honke or ryoke.
Meanwhile, shiki itself shifted from being an expression of an official position to being the right to tax profit, and there were cases where honke or ryoke directly held the shiki of a local lord, or the other way around meaning local lords holding the shiki of honke or ryoke. Furthermore, owing to the Muromachi bakufu system in which interests of court nobles and samurai could be comprehensively adjusted, shoen restructuring was implemented through, for example shitaji chubun, and as a result, management of ichienryo (ichien territories) or bukeichienryo (ichien territories of samurai families) by jisha honjo was established.
In the Sengoku period (period of Warring States), shugo daimyo (Japanese territorial lords as provincial constables) were replaced with sengoku daimyo (Japanese territorial lord in the Sengoku period) and the shoen system (manorialism) collapsed because sengoku daimyo further advanced ichien chigyo of lands.
In the end, as a result of taiko kenchi (the cadastral surveys conducted by Hideyoshi), the right to a particular area of land was granted only to the cultivator of that land, and positions such as honke and ryoke disappeared.