During the Heian period, samurai in the service of an aristocrat or samurai chief were called 'kenin' (retainers) and with the establishment of the Kamakura period, those warriors who served as attendants to the Lord of Kamakura came to be called 'gokenin' out of respect for the Lord of Kamakura.
These retainers were also referred to as 'Kamakura-dono Gokenin,' 'Kanto gokenin' and 'Chinzei gokenin.'
The establishment of the position of gokenin was closely connected to the creation of the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) by MINAMOTO no Yoritomo. In exile Yoritomo had very few retainers to call upon so, when he raised an army in 1180, he attempted to entice samurai from the South Kanto region to serve as `inherited gokenin` on the basis they had previously served his father (MINAMOTO no Yoshitomo) as retainers. However, the relationships between leader and subordinate that existed previously were characterised by individual bonds and, many samurai subsequently elected not to subordinate themselves to Yoritomo. With the subsequent establishment in Kamakura of political power in the Eastern provinces, one by one the samurai in various provinces came under Yoritomo`s control. The order of Prince Mochihito was used to control and organize the rapidly increased number of samurai. Those samurai who obeyed this order and came under the control of Yoritomo were all regarded as gokenin.
During the turmoil of the Jisho-Juei Civil War, it was necessary to designate samurai as gokenin (retainers of a shogun) even more around the country as opposed to the shogunate's stronghold in the east of Japan. As such, those samurai who obeyed the order to kill members of the Taira clan were recognized as gokenin (shogun retainers) and many were given recognition and guarantees of ownership of their principal residences in an act known as `Hontaku Ando` (confirmation of a family's possession of its residence and the immediately adjacent land).
In contrast to the many gokenin (samurai retainers) in the Kanto region who achieved the status through Yoritomo's Shoryo Ando (act providing authorization of land ownership and guaranteeing feudal tenure), it was honjo (domain owning governors) or kokushi (provincial governors), and lords of manors, who had secure tenure of their territories and authority over the Hontaku Ando (residential tenure) retainers
In light of this, Yoritomo did not impinge on the governors` jurisdiction but made retainers gokenin by guaranteeing status to these gokenin samurai retainers.
In this way, gokenin retainers consisted of individuals in receipt of Shoryo Ando (feudal tenure) rights directly from the Lord of Kamakura or Hontaku Ando (residential tenure) rights. Previously many gokenin retainers resided in the eastern provinces of Japan and consisted of many veterans who had served under Yoritomo from early on. While gokenin samurai retainers received extensive patronage (eg. being appointed manor lords), they were also obligated to muster in Kamakura during times of emergency. The latter gokenin samurai retainers were organized on province allegiances and called 'kuni gokenin' (lit. provincial retainers). After the Jisho-Juei Civil War, samurai throughout Japan were made kuni gokenin (provincial samurai retainers) following service as obanyaku (guards in Kyoto), and many warriors from western Japan followed this path to becoming gokenin. The Shugo (Governor) of each province was responsible for the control of kuni gokenin (provincial samurai retainers), and submitted to the shogunate a register of gokenin who carried out obanyaku (Kyoto guard duty) as requests for guards increased.
As well as being classified according to Shoryo Ando (feudal tenure) or Hontaku Ando (residence tenure) as described above, the gokenin (samurai retainers) ranged from influential individuals with large territories holding shugo (governor) status in more than one province through to the other end of the spectrum: insignificant gokenin with only small territories. However, all were treated equally as subordinates of the Lord of Kamakura. Since the time of Yoritomo, master-servant or dominant-subservient relationships between gokenin (samurai retainers) were strictly forbidden. Direct relationships with the imperial court were in particular, strictly prohibited.
Go-on to Hoko (Patronage and Service)
Gokenin (samurai retainers) received patronage and stipends from the Lord of Kamakura. Patronage consisted of the above-mentioned Shoryo Ando (feudal tenure) and Hontaku Ando (residential tenure). Gokenin who killed traitors to the shogunate would be granted the traitor's territory. Gokenin (samurai retainer) were appointed as lords of a manor when the beneficiary of land grants forming an act of Shoryo Ando (feudal tenure) or when granted a land holdings. After the Jokyu War, Retired Emperor Gotoba's vast territory was granted to gokenin who had served with distinction. The granting of this new territory took the form of appointing lords to rule the manors within the territory, and those appointed were called 'Shinpo Jito' (literally New Manor Lords).
In return for patronage, gokenin (samurai retainers) had a duty to serve the Lord of Kamakura both militarily and politically. In addition to joining the ranks of the army during wartime, military service also included serving as obanyaku in Kyoto and Kamakura or guard service in other provinces. Political service was also referred to as 'Kanto Mikuji' and consisted of collecting the taxes of rice and money levied on gokenin by the bakufu.
This reciprocal relationship between the Lord of Kamakura and gokenin was called 'goon to hoko' (literally meaning reward and service).
From the mid-Kamakura period
Few gokenin have been identified in historical sources. With the exception of Kanto Provinces, approximately ten gokenin (samurai retainers) have been identified in a few provinces. Compared to other areas, the provinces of the Kanto region had far more gokenin, with the highest count (approximately 80) identified in Musashi Province and several dozen known to reside in each of the other provinces. According to a historical source dated from the year 1275, the total number of gokenin in the entire country was about 480 which indicates gokenin numbers were tightly restricted even within the elite samurai class.
On the other hand, there were also many so-called 'higokenin' (non-samurai retainers) who did not have a contractual reward-for-service relationship with the Kamakura bakufu (shogunate). The bakufu (shogunate) obtained direct power over the higokenin (non-samurai retainers) as a result of the Mongol invasions of Japan however, there were many samurai who did not obey the bakufu. Following the Einin no Tokuseirei (debt cancellation decree), the preferential treatment of gokenin over higokenin became pronounced and led to rogue elements among higokenin rebelling against the bakufu, imperial court nobles and religious institutions.
As the Kamakura bakufu became ever more powerful, the word 'gokenin' came to mean 'samurai.'
The Muromachi bakufu did not adopt the gokenin (samurai retainer) system but the word 'gokenin' was frequently used for those samurai who were immediate followers of the shogun, and was a term used to refer to retainers of some daimyo (feudal lords) during the Warring States period.
As the Kamakura bakufu became ever more powerful, the word 'gokenin' came to mean 'samurai.'
The Muromachi bakufu did not adopt the gokenin system but the word is frequently used as a paleographical term to refer to hokoshu (immediate retainers of the shogun). The word Gokenin is not used in history textbooks as a term for individuals who had a master-servant relationship with the shogun family of Muromachi bakufu. It is frequently used to refer to those samurai who were direct vassals of the shogun, but also came to be used to refer to retainers of daimyo (feudal lords) during the Warring States period (Japan). Particularly well-known Gokenin (samurai retainers) hailed from the Takeda and Mori clans.
`Kinnenyaku (low rank) Gokenin, 2-kan 700-mon (pay rate), Yaheimonju HAGIWARA (name)` and so on. An entry in a land survey list in the year 1513 at Erin-ji Temple in Kai Province. Professor Satoshi YADA of Niigata University explains that in this extracted reference, the term 'Gokenin' was used to differentiate village officials (sobyakusho) who became ji-zamurai (lords of smaller rural domains) from retainers who originally served the Takeda clan.
During the Edo period the term 'Gokenin' came refer to immediate retainers of the Tokugawa Shogun family who held lands of less than 10,000 koku (1 koku = 4.96 bushels): in particular, individuals lacking the rank to be granted a direct audience with the shogun.
Those retainers who were privileged enough to be granted face-to-face audiences with the shogun were called 'hatamoto.' (direct retainers, lit `flag bearer`)
Gokenin (samurai retainers) were generally not permitted to ride on vehicles or horses, or have an entrance hall (genkan) to their house. The definition of `vehicles` however, did not included doorless palanquins. Police attached to the magistrates offices were exempted from this rule and were permitted to ride horses. There were situations in which skilled Gokenin were promoted to high positions usually held by Hatamoto (direct retainers), and it was generally the case that a gokenin family would be granted hatamoto status if three successive generations were appointed to hatamoto positions.
Successive generations of Gokenin families were divided into 3 classes: 'fudai' (heredity daimyo), nihanba (the middle rank between fudai and kakaeseki), or kakaeseki (hereditary daimyo who were promoted in the periods of the fifth shogun and the succeeding shogun). Fudai were the descendents of Gokenin who had served the Shogun family as police from when the Edo bakufu (shogunate) was founded by Ieyasu TOKUGAWA until the fourth shogun, Ietsuna TOKUGAWA. `Kakaeseki` (also called kakaeire) families were those families had been newly promoted to the status of Gokenin. The so called `Nihanba` families occupied a status intermediate between the two preceding statuses. Fudai who had a long and distinguished family history were called 'fudaiseki,' and they had their own seats within Edo-jo Castle.
Even when the Fudai and Nihanba ranked families did not hold an official position within the shogunate, they would receive a stipend and were granted inheritance rights to their estates. Individuals inheriting or appointed to gokenin status were not granted audiences with the shogun (as a hatamoto (direct retainer) could expect. The status of `Fudaiseki` (hereditary ranked families) were bestowed the title during a face-to-face meetings with superiors within the castle. Gokenin were ranked below Fudaizeki (hereditary retainers) and not granted audiences with superiors within the castle but, were granted the status within their own groupings.
Contrasting with gokenin retainers holding Fudai and Nibanha status were the Kakaeseki retainers who were restricted to serving for one single generation and, usually relinquished the gokenin status upon retirement or death. However, this rule of thumb waned over time and there were some posts (eg. a town magistrate's police chief) who were granted single generation kakaeseki status, but were also permitted to ride on horseback, received stipends of over 230-koku and were allowed to pass on their status to successors. Not only this, but in reality the status and stipends of Kakaeseki gokenin retainers were inherited by successors upon retirement or death, so in the latter part of the Edo period it became common for wealthy merchants and farmers to buy their way into gokenin ranks by paying to become the adopted son of an impoverished gokenin. A market for Gokenin titles was known as 'gokeninkabu' (lit. Gokenin shares) with a market price determined by whether or not the family status could passed on to other generations.
The majority of gokenin were generally made up of individuals who either did not hold fiefs but held the rights to 30 to 80-koku in rice or, small land owners holding up to 200 koku of land. However, hatamoto (direct retainers) and gokenin (samurai retainers) were differentiated by whether or not they were granted audiences with the shogun. The value of the stipend did not dictate family status: hatamoto entitled to the smallest stipends received only 50 koku - less than most gokenin. Some gokenin had estates exceeding 200 koku in value but none exceeded more than 400 koku. From the middle part of the Edo period, the fief system began to collapse and there was a shift to rights to rice (`kuramaidori`). Gokenin holding lands in the regions largely disappeared and in their place hatamoto were promoted.
Many gokenin found themselves slip into severe poverty from the middle of the Edo period onwards. Retainers serving in various domains of Japan who could live a fairly comfortable lifestyle with a 100 koku stipend, however, by comparison a gokenin belonging to the bakufu would have led a hard life even with a stipend of the same value. Gokenin who resided in metropolis of Edo faced high urban prices, whereas retainers in regional domains who received a small stipend on par with gokenin was also granted farmland on which they would work part-time to generate extra income - an option not available to gokenin. It was common for impoverished gokenin to supplement the family income by secretly holding side jobs.