Sankin kotai

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  • Japanese: 参勤交代 (sankin koutai)

Sankin kôtai, or "alternate attendance," was a system of military service which served as a central piece of the Tokugawa shogunate's systems for controlling the daimyô and maintaining power. Daimyô were obligated to alternate their residence between Edo and their domain; the expense of journeys to and from Edo each other year, with large entourages, combined with the expense of maintaining mansions in Edo often cost significant portions of the domain's resources, keeping them from consolidating power within their domains. The process of having so many samurai traveling to and from the capital, and maintaining residences in the capital, had a profound effect on cultural diffusion throughout the realm, and contributed significantly to the samurai-heavy demographic character of Edo.

The wives of daimyô were obliged to remain resident in Edo, as political hostages, while the heirs to the domains, as well as retired former lords, were obliged to travel between Edo and the home domain, alternating with the lord.[1]

Detail from a handscroll painting depicting the sankin kôtai procession of the lord of Iyo-Matsuyama han. Date unknown. National Museum of Japanese History



The sankin kôtai system can be linked to a number of precedents in earlier periods, including in the relationships between gokenin ("housemen") and the Kamakura shogunate, and between shugo daimyô and the Muromachi shogunate. Systems practiced in a number of Sengoku period domains provide an even stronger example, closer to the Edo period practice both chronologically, and logistically. In many regions in the Sengoku period, it was not unusual for retainers, granted a small sub-fief by their lords, to be required to appear before the lord at New Year's, or on other regular occasions, to demonstrate their obedience; of course, Sengoku retainers were also obliged to provide warriors, arms, horses, and/or other equipment to their lord's armies. The practice of keeping daimyô's wives and heirs hostage in Edo also grew out of Sengoku era practices regarding hostages. Yet, no such system was ever implemented in earlier periods as widely, and as systematically, as under the Tokugawa shogunate.[2]

Some scholars identify the first performances of sankin under the Tokugawa as a series of meetings in the earliest years of Tokugawa Ieyasu's hegemony between Ieyasu and certain prominent tozama daimyô. As Maeda Toshiie and others were received in audience by Ieyasu and formally bowed before him and declared their submission to his authority, they were performing "sankin": coming to their lord's castle and sitting in attendance, or in service, to their lord, the shogun. The lords of the northern, central, and western regions were obliged to journey to Sunpu and Edo in 1609, and to declare their submission and loyalty. Many of these daimyô had been loyal to the Toyotomi clan, or still were, and had not been directly defeated in battle by the Tokugawa; thus, obliging them to formally declare their submission and loyalty was an important step towards securing Tokugawa hegemony. Building upon the ceremonial and socio-political / ideological (i.e. feudal) precedents of the preceding age, such audiences set the model, to some extent, for the form, and meaning, of sankin kôtai audiences going forward.[2] The Shimazu clan were the first to propose having the lords' wives remain in Edo as "hostages," a practice which was later made standard and obligatory by the shogunate.[1]

Implementation & Logistics

Initially voluntary, the system was made mandatory for tozama daimyô in 1635 in a re-issuance of the buke shohatto ("various laws for warrior families"); this was expanded to all daimyô in 1642. Lords were obligated to maintain a residence in Edo, where members of their close family would reside as hostages against the daimyô's disobedience or rebellion. As of 1648, each lord's heir was obligated to travel to Edo as well, alternating with his father, so that either the lord or his heir would be in Edo at any given time. At some point after that, it became standard for the heir to simply be raised in Edo, and not to travel to the home domain (kunimoto) until he succeeded his father and became daimyô; this further served the Tokugawa purposes of weakening daimyô ties to their power bases, as it meant that most daimyô, having been raised in Edo, had little familiarity with their domain and its people. The first entry of a new daimyô into the domain, an event known as okuni iri, was thus heightened in significance, and was often accompanied by great celebrations, and commemorated in paintings or other works.[3] Retired daimyô were also obliged to travel to Edo occasionally, to be re-confirmed in their being granted leave to remain in their domain (or in Edo, as they wished).[4]

From 1684 onwards, the fudai daimyô of the Kantô region had to make their sankin journeys every six months; seven clans spent the 2nd month through the 8th month in the city, and another seven clans spent the 8th month through the 12th month there. Other fudai daimyô arrived in Edo in the 6th month, while tozama daimyô generally arrived in the 4th month.[5]

Though most daimyô were obliged to perform this journey regularly, some tozama daimyô were granted exceptions, in most cases due to their great service to the realm in other respects, or after successfully arguing for the excessiveness of the burden. These included Tsushima han which governed relations and trade with Korea, and Fukuoka and Saga han, which contributed to the defense of the port of Nagasaki. Some northern domains which contributed to responses to Russian incursions also received temporary exemptions at times.[6] Further, about thirty daimyô, including the lord of the Mito Tokugawa clan and the members of the rôjû, were of a status known as jôfu (定府), and were primarily based in Edo, not spending any considerable amount of time in their domains.[7] Daimyô could also request, and be granted, exceptions from sankin kôtai on a one-time basis, when the lord was ill or the Edo mansion had burned down, or when the domain was fulfilling its obligations to the shogunate through corvée contributions to public works that year.[4]

The sankin kôtai system ensured a reliable flow of considerable numbers of elite travelers across the country, contributing considerably to both official and private construction of post-stations and inns (and their surrounding towns), lighthouses and port facilities, maintenance of highways, and expansion of travel-related services, such as networks of messengers, porters, and horses. The Tôkaidô saw 146 sankin kôtai groups every year, in addition to Imperial envoys, shogunal officials, and others.[8] Such entourages typically moved about ten ri a day,[9] often passing through several post-stations where they stopped for lunch, tea, or short breaks, as they made their way to the station where they would spend the night. Special elite lodgings known as honjin and waki-honjin, employed chiefly by daimyô traveling on sankin kôtai, and by others of similar status, quickly became standard sights in most post-towns after the 1642 expansion of sankin kôtai obligations.[10] Corvée labor was employed to provide a considerable portion of the porters, boatmen, and the like. Barrier checkpoints called sekisho were established along the highways to regulate travel; among their functions, too, was to enforce that firearms not be carried into Edo (so as to help prevent rebellion), and that women (who might be hostage members of daimyô families) not be allowed to leave.

Daimyô quickly came to establish regular schedules of reservations with particular honjin, which knew to expect them on or around particular dates every year, and knew to prepare a reception in a particular fashion, with the daimyô paying a set amount of money in gratitude; by making this a regular, established, pattern, it helped avoid difficulties which might emerge from attempting to negotiate and re-negotiate dates, accommodations, and/or payment.[10] A larger honjin might provide lodgings for the daimyô and as many as sixty of his more esteemed retainers, while additional members of a samurai entourage (or Ryukyuan or Korean embassy) would stay at waki-honjin, hatagoya (regular inns, also patronized by individual travelers), private homes, Buddhist temples, and/or Shinto shrines.[10] Honjin generally charged rates they themselves considered quite low, depending on supplemental payments of "reikin," or "gratitude money" - essentially, tips - and/or by gifts of special products from the daimyô's home province. However, for daimyô struggling with financial difficulties, these additional costs - paid to every honjin along the journey - could be quite a burden. From the mid-Edo period onwards, many daimyô began skipping mid-day rests at honjin along their travel routes, and stopping for food, tea, or a rest at roadside teashops and the like instead, in an effort to save money.[11]

Many daimyô of western Japan also came to maintain mansions in Osaka and Kyoto as well, where the daimyô and his retinue would stay during their journeys to and from the shogun's capital, thus contributing to the culture and economy of these cities as well.

In the early Edo period, most daimyô of Kyushu, Shikoku, and western Honshû, traveled by ship to Osaka; sekibune were converted into luxurious gozabune for this portion of the journey, and riverboats were used to travel up the Yodo River from Osaka to Fushimi, from which the daimyô would then travel overland to Kyoto proper, and then along the Tôkaidô to Edo. Later on, however, many daimyô switched to traveling overland for as much of the journey as they could, avoiding sea travel. The Shimazu clan lords of Satsuma han likely had the longest journey; it typically took 40 to 60 days to travel the 440 ri to Edo. Though they originally sailed to Osaka from Kumisaki (Satsuma Sendai) or Wakimoto (Akune) on Kyushu's west coast, or from Hososhima in Hyûga province on Kyushu's east coast, they later switched to marching overland across Kyushu to Shimonoseki, and then walking the San'yôdô to Osaka.[12] Daimyô who did not maintain their own ships were typically provided ships by other daimyô, at the orders of the shogun; this was particularly the case for the river journey up the Yodo River.[13]

When daimyô passed through the territory of another lord, the latter typically provided warriors to serve as a guard, or escort, through the territory.[14] They also often dispatched a retainer or other official (or traveled himself, depending on the rank and identity of the visiting daimyô) to formally meet with the traveling daimyô, extend greetings, and offer gifts; the traveling daimyô would then send a formal response in return, often also accompanied by gifts.[15]

The financial costs of sankin kôtai were among the heaviest burdens upon daimyô budgets, leading to many daimyô incurring very significant debts over the course of the period. Despite the expense, however, daimyô often felt obligated to maintain large entourages and lavish traveling conditions in order to maintain impressions of their power and prestige; not only the number of men in one's entourage, but the number of spears preceding and following the daimyô in procession, the number of certain types of baskets and baggage, among other elements of performance and display, meant a lot in terms of representing one's prestige and power to all those who could see it. For this reason, though the shogunate repeatedly tried to restrict the allowable size of sankin kôtai entourages, daimyô regularly exceeded the official limits. For example, a set of regulations issued in 1711 limited the largest domains to no more than four hundred and a few tens of men, plus another 15-20 mounted warriors. Daimyô with territories assessed at 100-200,000 koku were to have roughly half that number (200-something men, plus ten mounted warriors). Those between 50-100,000 koku might have around 160 men, plus roughly seven mounted warriors. And finally, the smallest domains were to have entourages numbering around fifty, with only three or four mounted warriors among them.[10]

The actual numbers often far exceeded these regulations, but also varied widely from domain to domain, and across the period, with Satsuma han, for example, bringing an entourage of over 1,200 men to Edo in 1635, but only around 500-600 on many other occasions. Kaga han occasionally brought as many as 2,500 men to Edo. These numbers, however, represent only the people brought along from the home province, and do not include the many porters and laborers typically hired to carry luggage and otherwise accompany the samurai entourage along the road.[10] For daimyô with the largest territories (over 200,000 koku), this core group of retainers generally included 15-20 retainers on horseback, 120-130 ashigaru, and 250-300 chûgen (low-ranking figures between samurai and commoner status). Daimyô with a fief between 100,000 and 200,000 koku might be accompanied by ten mounted retainers, 80 ashigaru, and 140-150 chûgen. For those above 50,000 koku, perhaps seven mounted officials, 60 ashigaru, and 100 chûgen. And for the lowest-ranking daimyô, three mounted officials, twenty ashigaru, and thirty chûgen.[16]

Though still one of the largest domains, and thus something of an exception, Tosa han has been oft-discussed as an example of the size and extent of the undertaking of sankin kôtai journeys. Tosa generally moved 1,500 to 3,000 people and their baggage each year between the home province and Edo, a 500 mile journey over mountains, seas, and highway. In 1697, over 2,800 people accompanied the lord.[17] Three years earlier, while the lord was resident in Edo, there were over 4,550 other Tosa people resident there with him. The domain had to pay porters, innkeepers, shippers, and food suppliers for the journey, and then also suppliers of food and other necessities (and luxuries) to this large Tosa population in the capital, as well as carpenters and artisans to service the domain mansion. In 1688, Tosa's total domain budget was 3,953 kan, of which 300 paid for the sankin kôtai journey, 1,422 paid for expenses related to the mansion in Edo, and 1,042 went to paying off loans from Osaka and Edo merchants. Wakayama han, the domain of the Kishû Tokugawa clan, to give another example, had a total annual revenue of 30-40,000 ryô in 1831, when it spent 12,930 ryô on the lord's journey to Edo.[10] In total, domains typically spent between 40% and 70% of their annual budgets on costs related to sankin kôtai.[18]

In addition to simply being resident in Edo for a certain period of time, the performance of sankin kôtai involved formal audiences with the shogun, in which the daimyô would officially present himself to the shogun, as performance of military duty, in observance of feudal fealty to his lord. During a daimyô's time in Edo castle, only the daimyô himself and a certain number of higher-ranking retainers would actually enter the castle; the remainder of his retinue, some considerable number of middle- and low-ranking samurai, would remain outside the castle, sitting around on the ground, eating, drinking, chatting, sleeping, etc. Both when arriving in Edo, and when departing, the clan would send a formal request to the rôjû some six months ahead of time; the response would declare when they would be expected at the castle for formal audiences.[4] Once actually arriving in the city, a message would be sent to announce their arrival, and either a member of the rôjû, or for lower-ranking daimyô a sôshaban, would come to the lord's mansion and deliver orders to venture up to the castle at a specific day and time to be received by the shogun; high-ranking daimyô would be received individually, while lower-ranking lords were received only in groups.[19]

When a daimyô departed Edo at the end of his year of attendance, if at that time he did not have a formally designated heir, he submitted a document known as a kari yôshi negaigaki (仮養子願書). This "temporary heir request" named someone to serve as the daimyô's heir should he die on the return journey to his domain, or during the intervening year while home in his domain, before returning once again to Edo.[20]


The sankin kôtai system came gradually to an end in the Bakumatsu period. Obligations were relaxed in 1862, allowing daimyô to come to Edo only once every three years (instead of every other year), allowing those of tamari-no-ma-zume rank or equivalent to stay in the city only 100 days (instead of closer to a full year), and allowing them to send their wives and heirs back to their home provinces (rather than having them be hostages in Edo).[11] This led to many daimyô abandoning their Edo mansions, or at least severely reducing the number of retainers they had stationed there. By some estimates, as many as 360,000 people left Edo in the 1860s to return to their home domains, representing too a severe decline in commercial demand for goods and services, and thus having a dramatic impact on the city's economy as well.[21]

As Chôshû and other domains grew increasingly defiant against Tokugawa rule, the shogunate attempted in 1864 to reverse this relaxation of the obligations, and to restore the sankin kôtai system to its fuller strength. However, many daimyô refused to return to such a system, and offered a variety of excuses, as they began to request, year after year, exemption or deferral on traveling to Edo.[11] Shimazu Tadayoshi, the final lord of Satsuma han, citing illness or foot injuries and the need to soak in medicinal hot springs in his native Kagoshima, was one of a number of daimyô who thus never performed sankin kôtai at all, for the length of his rule.[22]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ueno Takafumi, Satsuma han no sankin kôtai (2007), 92.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Watanabe Kazutoshi 渡辺和敏, "Sankin kôtai to honjin" 参勤交代と本陣, Honjin ni tomatta daimyô tachi 本陣に泊まった大名たち, Toyohashi, Aichi: Futagawa-juku honjin shiryôkan (1996), 49-50.
  3. Edo-zu byôbu to gyôretsu, exhibition pamphlet, National Museum of Japanese History, August 2014.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Nagai Hiroshi 永井博, Sankin kôtai to daimyô gyôretsu 参勤交代と大名行列 (Tokyo: Yôsensha 洋泉社 MOOK, 2012), 126-131.
  5. Miyamoto Tsuneichi 宮本常一, Nihon no shuku 日本の宿, Tokyo: Shakai shisôsha (1965), 165.; Miyamoto, Daimyô no tabi, Tokyo: Shakai shisôsha (1968), 57.; Ogawa Kyôichi 小川恭一, Shogun omemie sahô 将軍お目見え作法, Tokyojin 東京人 (1995/1), 78.
  6. Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 152.
  7. Ogawa, 78.
  8. Miyamoto, Nihon no shuku, 174. Meanwhile, the Mutsu Highway (Mutsu Dôchû) saw 37 sankin kôtai groups each year, the Nakasendô 30, the Mito Dôchû 23, the Nikkô Dôchû four, and the Kôshû Kaidô three. Miyamoto, Daimyô no tabi, 57.
  9. Yamamoto Hirofumi, Sankin kôtai, Kodansha gendai shinsho (1998), 110.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Watanabe, 53.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Watanabe, 54.
  12. Gallery labels, Shôkoshûseikan, Kagoshima.
  13. Ronald Toby ロナルド・トビ, "Sakoku" toiu gaikô 「鎖国」という外交, Tokyo: Shogakukan (2008), 233.
  14. Miyamoto, Nihon no shuku, 174.
  15. Noda Hiroko 野田浩子, “Oitoma kara sankin made no ichi-nen” 御暇から参勤までの一年, in Asao Naohiro 朝尾直弘 (ed.), Fudai daimyô Ii ke no girei 譜代大名井伊家の儀礼, Hikone Castle Museum (2004), 149.
  16. Miyamoto, Nihon no shuku, 168.
  17. These numbers include footsoldiers (ashigaru), menial attendants, and others, and only a small portion of mounted samurai. Constantine Vaporis, Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo, and the Culture of Early Modern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 74.
  18. Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain, Cambridge University Press (1998), 18.
  19. Yamamoto, 184-187.
  20. Noda Hiroko 野田浩子, "O-itoma kara sankin made no ichi nen" 御暇から参勤までの一年, in Asao Naohiro 朝尾直弘 (ed.), Fudai daimyô Ii ke no girei 譜代大名井伊家の儀礼, Hikone Castle Museum (2004), 148.
  21. Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996), 39.
  22. Marco Tinello, "The termination of the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo : an investigation of the bakumatsu period through the lens of a tripartite power relationship and its world," PhD thesis, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia (2014), 377.
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