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For other meanings of the word han, see Han (disambiguation).
  • Japanese: 藩 (han)

The feudal domains ruled by daimyô in the Edo period are today most commonly referred to as han. The han were largely autonomous in terms of their internal affairs, but were subject to numerous strictures imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, as well as taxation and ritual obligations.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, officially acknowledged 185 domains in the early 17th century; by the mid-18th century, the number of domains stabilized around 260, but the total number of distinct domains that existed at one time or another over the course of the Edo period exceeds 540.[1]

Though many daimyô continued to hold their ancestral territory as their han, in theory all han were fiefs granted by the shogunate. The shogunate reserved the right to give and take away lands from daimyô, and often made use of this power, reassigning a given territory to a different samurai clan, and assigning the former lords of that territory to a different domain elsewhere in the archipelago, or simply denying them a territory entirely. This occurred particularly frequently in the first fifty years or so of Tokugawa control, with 281 instances of clans being moved from one domain to another, and 213 instances of clans losing daimyô status, and their domains, entirely during that fifty-year period. The latter was most often due to the absence of an heir; though shogunate policies were relaxed later on, initially, deathbed adoptions were not permitted.[2] The feudal bond was a personal one, between lord and vassal as individuals, not between the lord and his vassal's heir, nor between households, at least in theory, on one level. This was tempered, however, by the belief in patrimonial authority, that an enfeoffment was part of a household's patrimony, something to be passed down from generation to generation within the ie. Other cases of attainder were due to lords being accused of rudeness, insubordination, or other sorts of violations of propriety or competence; roughly one-third of attainders in this fifty-year period were the result of this sort of personal failing on the part of the daimyô. The emphasis here is on the personal bond between the shogun and his vassal, and on the personal behavior of the vassal. Only a very small number of cases of attainder, between three and twelve percent depending on definitions, were due to violations of policy, law, or administrative procedure.[3]

These attainders, reductions, and transfers were disproportionately felt by the fudai daimyô, who represented roughly half the daimyô but who experienced 75% of attainders and 90% of transfers after 1700. Only twice after 1650 did the shogunate attempt to reduce the territory of a tozama daimyô: once in 1664, when the Uesugi clan of Yonezawa han had no heir, and once in 1866 as punishment for Chôshû han's involvement in the Kinmon Rebellion; the latter never came through, however, as the shogunate fell before it could implement the reduction.[4]

The power or status of each han (and of their daimyô) was determined by its kokudaka, normally a measure of agricultural or commercial production in units of koku; in some cases, domains were assigned a kokudaka out of proportion to their agricultural production, in recognition of their importance strategically, diplomatically, or otherwise. The smallest domains, by definition, had a kokudaka of at least 10,000 koku, while the largest, Kaga domain, boasted a kokudaka of 1,000,000 koku. The vast majority of domains were closer to the lower end of this range, and only a handful of domains were assessed in the hundreds of thousands of koku. The largest of these domains were exceptionally large, however, with Kaga's kokudaka being only 1/4 that of the shogunate itself, and the territories of Satsuma, Chôshû, and Kaga combined being home to fully 1/12th of Japan's population in the 1860s, even taking into account the millions who lived in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto.[5]

It is important to remember that the kokudaka represents the total officially assessed agricultural output of the territory; it includes the vast proportion of that production which is simply consumed by the population, and thus is not a direct indicator of the extent of the wealth of the daimyô or of domain finances. The kokudaka also excludes a lot of production which for one reason or another is not officially recorded; for this reason, the kokudaka cannot be taken as a direct reflection of the actual amount of food or wealth available within the domain.[6]

Domain expenses could be quite sizable, with sankin kôtai costing many domains a very sizable portion of their funds, and various infrastructural and other maintenance costs likewise comprising a considerable amount. In 1747, the lord of Kaga han is said to have spent 171,000 ryô (roughly equivalent to 171,000 koku) on domain expenditures, including maintenance on his residences in his castle-town of Kanazawa and in Edo.[7] Though sankin kôtai was likely the heaviest financial burden upon the domains, expenses related to sankin kôtai were regular and could be prepared and accounted for; by contrast, the sudden and unexpected nature of the feudal obligation to provide service to the shogunate in the form of contributions to construction projects and the like made these contributions particular difficulties for domain finances.[8]

Matsumae han, on the island of Ezo (Hokkaidô) was the only han to not have a designated kokudaka, hold its land in fief from the shogunate, or have definite geographical borders.[9]


The term han was only first officially applied to these domains in the Meiji period, as they were being abolished (廃藩置県, haihan chiken), and as "modern" historians began to write "modern" histories of Japan. The term derives from the use of the same character (C: fān)[10] being used in ancient Chinese texts such as the Book of Odes to refer to fiefs or domains of China's ancient Zhou Dynasty.[1][11] It was not even widely used unofficially until the Bakumatsu period, though some thinkers used the term in their writings prior to that. Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725) was the first to apply the term han to the case of daimyô domains in early modern Japan, emphasizing the sense of them being subordinate entities, fiefs granted by the shogunate.[12] Conceptions of the relatively autonomous and "national" or state-like character of the domains remained prevalent, however.

During the Edo period, the term han was not used for the most part, and domains were instead referred to by a number of terms including kuni (国, "country", "state"), ryô or ryôbun (領・領分, "territory", "portion of territory"), shiryô (私領, "private territory"), ie (家, house), zaisho (在所, "place where one is resident"), fu or seifu (府・政府, "government"), and kôgi (公儀, "government", "public affairs"), among others. The use of these terms was often governed by omote and uchi (or "external" and "internal") concerns; a term such as kuni might be used in internal domain documents to refer to the domain, but when speaking to the shogunate about one's domain, kuni would be used to refer to Japan as a whole, and another term, such as zaisho, would be used to the daimyô's humble appointed territory.[13]

Governance and Organization


  • Roberts, Luke. Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2012.
  1. 1.0 1.1 "Han." Encyclopedia of Japan. Kodansha.
  2. Schirokauer, et al. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 131.
  3. Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 36-37.
  4. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 21.
  5. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 17.
  6. And, further, the kokudaka divided by population can therefore not be taken as an accurate reflection of how much food, per capita, subjects of that domain had to eat on average. Most peasants, on average, can be assumed to have been producing, or otherwise obtaining, more rice or other grain than was reflected in the kokudaka.
  7. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 58.
  8. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 62.
  9. Howell, David. "Ainu Ethnicity and the Boundaries of the Early Modern Japanese State." Past & Present, No. 142 (Feb., 1994), pp69-93.
    Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan's Far North." East Asian History 7 (June 1994). p4.
  10. "藩 fān." Pocket Pro Chinese-Japanese Dictionary ポケプロ中日辞典. Shogakukan, Inc.
  11. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 28.
  12. Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa, Cambridge University Press (1998), 7.
  13. Roberts, Performing the Great Peace, pp11ff.
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