Court Ranks

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Japanese Court Ranking Systems were developed along after the Chinese model. The earliest--possibly indigenous--rankings were kabane, which appear to have been given to groups, usually kinship or occupationally based groups, rather than individuals. This was one of the special characteristics of the cap-ranks (kan'i, 冠位) ), so called because, originally, each rank was designated a different colored cap (kammuri, 冠), in imitation of the Chinese system. Later this translated to the color of formal robes worn at court.

By giving cap-ranks to individuals, it was intended that this would encourage a meritocracy. Officially, anyone could take the examinations and thus obtain court rank, and they would not be passed down from father to son without reason. In time, however, it came to be that the offspring of a high-ranking nobleman would be guaranteed a high initial position, and only members of certain families were allowed to obtain the highest court ranks.

Ranks are often confused with offices or titles, such as Dainagon, Shonagon, Udaijin, etc. Although each office was assigned a rank, it did not necessarily mean that the officeholder held that rank.

Nobles of third rank and above were sometimes called Gekkei, or "moon lords," and those of the fifth and sixth ranks unkaku ("cloud dwellers"), poetic references alongside the Imperial Court as heaven and the Emperor as the sun.[1]

Cap Ranks of Suiko Tenno

The first court ranking system that appears in the chronicles is the cap-rank system of Empress Suiko. According to the Nihon Shoki this system was devised on the 5th day of the 12th month of the 11th year of Suiko (11 January 604) and implemented in the first month of the following year. The ranks were:

Rank System of 603

  1. 大徳 - Dai-toku (Greater Virtue)
  2. 小徳 - Sho-toku (Lesser Virtue)
  3. 大仁 - Dai-nin (Greater Benevolence)
  4. 小仁 - Sho-nin (Lesser Benevolence)
  5. 大禮 - Dai-rai (Greater Propriety)
  6. 小禮 - Sho-rai (Lesser Propriety)
  7. 大信 - Dai-shin (Greater Faith)
  8. 小信 - Sho-shin (Lesser Faith)
  9. 大義 - Dai-gi (Greater Justice)
  10. 小義 - Sho-gi (Lesser Justice)
  11. 大智 - Dai-chi (Greater Knowledge)
  12. 小智 - Sho-chi (Lesser Knowledge)

Cap Ranks of Kōtoku Tennō

New cap ranks were designated in the 647. This system included 7 cap-ranks, most divided into grades of Greater and Lesser, for a total of thirteen grades.

Rank System of 647

  1. 織冠 - Shoku-kwan (Color of cap and clothing: Dark purple, embroidered on the edges)
    • 大織冠 - Dai-shoku-kwan
    • 小織冠 - Sho-shoku-kwan
  2. 繍冠 - Shu-kwan (Border of cap and the clothing: Dark purple)
    • 大繍冠 - Dai-shu-kwan
    • 小繍冠 - Sho-shoku-kwan
  3. 紫冠 - Shi-kwan (Color of cap: purple with a woven border. Color of clothing: Light purple)
    • 大紫冠 - Dai-shi-kwan
    • 小紫冠 - Sho-shi-kwan
  4. 錦冠 - Kin-kwan (Clothing for both grades is true dark red)
    • 大錦冠 - Dai-kin-kwan (Cap of Dai-haku-sen brocade with a woven border)
    • 小錦冠 - Sho-kin-kwan (Cap of Sho-haku-sen brocade with a border of Dai-haku-sen brocade)
  5. 青冠 - Sei-kwan (Cap of blue silk and clothing of deep violet)
    • 大青冠 - Dai-sei-kwan (Cap had a border of Dai-haku-sen brocade)
    • 小青冠 - Sho-sei-kwan
  6. 黒冠 - Kok-kwan (Cap of black silk, clothing of green)
    • 大黒冠 - Dai-kok-kwan (Cap had a border of wheel-pattern brocade)
    • 小黒冠 - Sho-kok-kwan (Cap had a border of diamond-pattern brocade)
  7. 建武 or 立身 - Kembu or Risshin (Initial rank, the cap was made of black silk and had a border of dark violet). There was only one grade of the initial rank.

Besides the official caps and ranks, there were 'to-kwan' (鐙冠), made of black silk with varnished gauze stretched behind. Besides caps and official court clothing, rank was also indicated by hair ornaments shaped like a cicada. From Sho-kin-kwan (Lesser Kin-kwan) up these were made of gold and silver. Those for Sei-kwan were simply silver, and those of Kok-kwan were made of copper. There were no such ornaments for Kembu caps.

The old caps were supposed to be discontinued in the 4th month of the following year, but powerful families of the Left and Right continued to wear the old caps.

The year following (649), another system was instituted, this time consisting of 19 different grades.

Rank System of 649

  1. 大織 Dai-shiki (Greater Woven Stuff)
  2. 小織 Sho-shiki (Lesser Woven Stuff)
  3. 大繍 Dai-shu (Greater Embroidery)
  4. 小繍 Sho-shu (Lesser Embroidery)
  5. 大紫 Dai-shi (Greater Purple)
  6. 小紫 Sho-shi (Lesser Purple)
  7. 大華上 Dai-kwa-jo (Greater Flower, Upper)
  8. 大華下 Dai-kwa-ge (Greater Flower, Lower)
  9. 小華上 Sho-kwa-jo (Lesser Flower, Upper)
  10. 小華下 Sho-kwa-ge (Lesser Flower, Lower)
  11. 大山上 Dai-sen-jo (Greater Mountain, Upper)
  12. 大山下 Dai-sen-ge (Greater Mountain, Lower)
  13. 小山上 Sho-sen-jo (Lesser Mountain, Upper)
  14. 小山下 Sho-sen-ge (Lesser Mountain, Lower)
  15. 大乙上 Dai-otsu-jo (Greater Kingfisher, Upper)
  16. 大乙下 Dai-otsu-ge (Greater Kingfisher, Lower)
  17. 小乙上 Sho-otsu-jo (Lesser Kingfisher, Upper)
  18. 小乙下 Sho-otsu-ge (Lesser Kingfisher, Lower)
  19. 立身 Risshin (Promotion or advancement)

Cap Ranks of Tenchi Tennō

On the 9th day of the 2nd month of 664, Emperor Tenchi once again revised the ranking system as follows. For the most part it remained similar to the previous cap-rank system, but added a 'middle' grade to each Greater and Lesser rank, substituted 'Kin' (Brocade) for 'Kwa' (Flower), and broke the initial rank into two separate ranks.

Ranks System of 664

  1. 大織 Dai-shiki (Greater Woven-stuff)
  2. 小織 Sho-shiki (Lesser Woven-stuff)
  3. 大縫 Dai-shu (Greater Embroidery)
  4. 小縫 Sho-shu (Lesser Embroidery)
  5. 大紫 Dai-shi (Greater Purple)
  6. 小紫 Sho-shi (Lesser Purple)
  7. 大錦上 Dai-kin-jo (Greater Brocade, Upper)
  8. 大錦中 Dai-kin-chū (Greater Brocade, Middle)
  9. 大錦下 Dai-kin-ge (Greater Brocade, Lower)
  10. 小錦上 Sho-kin-jo (Lesser Brocade, Upper)
  11. 小錦中 Sho-kin-chū (Lesser Brocade, Middle)
  12. 小錦下 Sho-kin-ge (Lesser Brocade, Lower)
  13. 大山上 Dai-sen-jo (Greater Mountain, Upper)
  14. 大山中 Dai-sen-chū (Greater Mountain, Middle)
  15. 大山下 Dai-sen-ge (Greater Mountain, Lower)
  16. 小山上 Sho-sen-jo (Lesser Mountain, Upper)
  17. 小山中 Sho-sen-chū (Lesser Mountain, Middle)
  18. 小山下 Sho-sen-ge (Lesser Mountain, Lower)
  19. 大乙上 Dai-otsu-jo (Greater Kingfisher, Upper)
  20. 大乙中 Dai-otsu-chū (Greater Kingfisher, Middle)
  21. 大乙下 Dai-otsu-ge (Greater Kingfisher, Lower)
  22. 小乙上 Sho-otsu-jo (Lesser Kingfisher, Upper)
  23. 小乙中 Sho-otsu-chū (Lesser Kingfisher, Middle)
  24. 小乙下 Sho-otsu-ge (Lesser Kingfisher, Lower)
  25. 大建 Dai-ken (Greater Ken)
  26. 小建 Sho-ken (Lesser Ken)

Cap Ranks of Temmu Tennō

Emperor Temmu again reformed the rank system with one of his own. It is recorded on the 21st day of the 1st month of the 14th year of Temmu. These new ranks were a great departure from the previous system. At the two it had ranks for Princes (王); two grades of Myō (明, Bright) and four grades of Jo (浄, Pure). Each of these was further subdivided into categories of Dai (大, Great), or Kwo/Ko (廣, broad), for a total of 12 grades of rank.

Below that was a series of ranks for other high officials. There were eight ranks, with four grades each, which were then divided into Dai (大, Great), or Kwo/Ko (廣, broad). The eight ranks were Sho (正, True or First), Jiki (直, Staight or Direct), Gon (勤 Diligent), Mu (務, Earnest), Tsui (追, Following), and Shin (進, Advancing). This meant a total of 48 grades for the high officials.

The total system held 60 ranks

Rank System of 686

Princely Ranks

  • 明位 – Myō'i (Bright Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 明大壱 – Myō-dai-ichi
      • 明廣壱 – Myō-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 明大貳 – Myō-dai-ni
      • 明廣貳 – Myō-kwo-ni
  • 浄位 – Jo'i (Pure Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 浄大壱 – Jo-dai-ichi
      • 浄廣壱 – Jo-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 浄大貳 – Jo-dai-ni
      • 浄廣貳 – Jo-kwo-ni
    3. 参 - San
      • 浄大参 – Jo-dai-san
      • 浄廣参 – Jo-kwo-san
    4. 肆 - Shi
      • 浄大肆 – Jo-dai-shi
      • 浄廣肆 – Jo-kwo-shi

High Official Ranks

  • 正位 Sho'i (True or First Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 正大壱 – Sho-dai-ichi
      • 正廣壱 – Sho-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 正大貳 – Sho-dai-ni
      • 正廣貳 – Sho-kwo-ni
    3. 参 - San
      • 正大参 – Sho-dai-san
      • 正廣参– Sho-kwo-san
    4. 肆 - Shi
      • 正大肆 – Sho-dai-shi
      • 正廣肆 – Sho-kwo-shi
  • 直位 Jiki'i (Straight or Direct Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 直大壱 – Jiki-dai-ichi
      • 直廣壱 – Jiki-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 直大貳 – Jiki-dai-ni
      • 直廣貳 – Jiki-kwo-ni
    3. 参 - San
      • 直大参 – Jiki-dai-san
      • 直廣参 – Jiki-kwo-san
    4. 肆 - Shi
      • 直大肆 – Jiki-dai-shi
      • 直廣肆 – Jiki-kwo-shi
  • 勤位 – Gon'i (Dilligent Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 勤大壱 – Gon-dai-ichi
      • 勤廣壱 – Gon-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 勤大貳 – Gon-dai-ni
      • 勤廣貳– Gon-kwo-ni
    3. 参 - San
      • 勤大参 – Gon-dai-san
      • 勤廣参 – Gon-kwo-san
    4. 肆 - Shi
      • 勤大肆 – Gon-dai-shi
      • 勤廣肆 – Gon-kwo-shi
  • 務位 – Mu'i (Earnest Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 務大壱 – Mu-dai-ichi
      • 務廣壱 – Mu-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 務大貳 – Mu-dai-ni
      • 務廣貳 – Mu-kwo-ni
    3. 参 - San
      • 務大参 – Mu-dai-san
      • 務廣参 – Mu-kwo-san
    4. 肆 - Shi
      • 務大肆 – Mu-dai-shi
      • 務廣肆 – Mu-kwo-shi
  • 追位 – Tsui'i (Following Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 追大壱 – Tsui-dai-ichi
      • 追廣壱 – Tsui-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 追大貳 – Tsui-dai-ni
      • 追廣貳 – Tsui-kwo-ni
    3. 参 - San
      • 追大参 – Tsui-dai-san
      • 追廣参 – Tsui-kwo-san
    4. 肆 - Shi
      • 追大肆 – Tsui-dai-shi
      • 追廣肆 – Tsui-kwo-shi
  • 進位 Shin'i (Advancing Rank)
    1. 壱 - Ichi
      • 進大壱 – Shin-dai-ichi
      • 進廣壱 – Shin-kwo-ichi
    2. 貳 - Ni
      • 進大貳 – Shin-dai-ni
      • 進廣貳 – Shin-kwo-ni
    3. 参 - San
      • 進大参 – Shin-dai-san
      • 進廣参 – Shin-kwo-san
    4. 肆 - Shi
      • 進大肆 – Shin-dai-shi
      • 進廣肆 – Shin-kwo-shi

Cap Ranks of Jitō Tennō

On the 14th day of the 4th month, 4th year of Jitō (690), the color of the court costume for the various ranks was changed. Other than that, it seems to have remained the same as in the reign of Temmu.

  • Jo-dai-ichi to Jo-kwo-ni: Court costume of dark purple (黒紫).
  • Jo-dai-san to Jo-kwo-shi: Court costume of bright purple (赤紫).
  • All Sho'i grades: Court costume of bright purple (赤紫).
  • All Jiki'i grades: Court costume of dark red (緋).
  • All Gon'i grades: Court costume of dark green (深緑).
  • All Mu'i grades: Court costume of light green (淺緑).
  • All Tsui'i grades: Court costume of dark blue (深縹).
  • All Shin'i grades: Court costume of light blue (淺縹).

In addition, anyone of Jo-kwo-ni or higher could wear ra silk gauze of 1 tan 1 bu, while those of Jo-dai-san to Jiki-kwo-shi could wear ra silk gauze of 1 tan 2 bu. All should wear variegated belts (綺帯) and white trousers (白袴).

Cap Ranks of Mommu Tennō

On the 21st day of the 3rd month of 701, Emperor Mommu created a new era name, Taihō, so-called because of gold presented by the island of Tsushima, and reformed the ranks and offices of the court. They created four ranks of Imperial prince (Myō, 明冠), 14 ranks of other princes (Jo, 淨冠), for a total of 18 princely ranks. In addition they created 6 ranks of Shokwan (正冠), 8 ranks of Jikikwan (直冠), and 4 ranks each of Gonkwan (勤冠), Mukwan (務冠), Tsuikwan (追冠), and Shinkwan (進冠). Outer officials are given the rank from Jikikwan-sho-go’i-jo (直冠正五位上) to Shinkwan-sho-sho’i-ge (進冠少初位下): a total of 20 grades. Military ranks start at Shokwan-sho-san’i (正冠正三位) and go to Tsuikwan-ju-hachi’i-ge (追冠従八位下), for a total of 12 grades. The term ‘cap’ (冠 ‘’kwan’’) is replaced with ‘rank’ (位 ‘’i’’).

The colors of court clothing also changed:

  • Imperial Princes and Princes and Officials of the 1st rank wear dark purple (黒紫).
  • Princes of the 2nd rank and lower, and Officials of the 3rd rank and higher wear bright purple (赤紫).
  • The four upper grades of Jikikwan wear deep red (深緋).
  • The four lower grades of Jikikwan wear light red (淺緋).
  • The four grades of Gonkwan wear deep green (深緑).
  • The four grades of Mukwan wear light green (淺緑).
  • The four grades of Tsuikwan wear deep blue (深縹).
  • The four grades of Shinkwan wear light blue (淺縹).

Everyone wears lacquered caps (漆冠), belts of kamhata silk (綺帯), and black leather boots. Those of Jikikwan rank and above wear white sashinuki, and those of Gonkwan and below wear white ‘sune-mo’ (脛裳).

The changes hadn’t been in effect long when they were reformed once more. In the entry for the 27th day of the 5th month of 701 it is recorded that the ranks of Gon and below were abolished. In fact, in the chronicles, almost all mention of the former ‘kwan’ are entirely extinguished. Instead, you have ranks for Imperial princes, and simple numerary court ranks for other princes and officials. For each of the official ranks, there are First, or Senior (正 ‘’sho’’), and Following, or Junior (従 ‘’ju’’) categories. For the 4th through 9th ranks there are also Upper (上 jo) and Lower (下 ‘’ge’’) divisions.

Court Ranks of 701

Imperial Princes (親王)

  1. 一品 - Ippon (First Rank)
  2. 二品 - Nihon (Second Rank)
  3. 三品 - Sanbon (Third Rank)
  4. 四品 - Yonhon (Fourth Rank)

Princes and Ministers (諸王、臣)

  1. 一位 - Ichi’i (First Rank)
    • 正一位 – Shoichi’i (Senior First Rank)
    • 従一位 – Juichi’i (Junior First Rank)
  2. 二位 – Ni’i (Second Rank)
    • 正二位 – Shoni’i (Senior Second Rank)
    • 従二位 – Juni’i (Junior Second Rank)
  3. 三位 – San’i (Third Rank)
    • 正三位 – Shosan’i (Senior Third Rank)
    • 従三位 – Jusan’i (Junior Third Rank)
  4. 四位 – Shi’i (Fourth Rank)
    • 正四位上 – Shoshi’i-jo (Upper Senior Fourth Rank)
    • 正四位下 – Shoshi’i-ge (Lower Senior Fourth Rank)
    • 従四位上 – Jushi’i-jo (Upper Junior Fourth Rank)
    • 従四位下 – Jushi’i-ge (Lower Junior Fourth Rank)
  5. 五位 – Go’i (Fifth Rank)
    • 正五位上 – Shogo’i-jo (Upper Senior Fifth Rank)
    • 正五位下 – Shogo’i-ge (Lower Senior Fifth Rank)
    • 従五位上 – Jugo’i-jo (Upper Junior Fifth Rank)
    • 従五位下 – Jugoi’-ge (Lower Junior Fifth Rank)
  6. 六位 – Roku’i (Sixth Rank)
    • 正六位上 – Shoroku’i-jo (Upper Senior Sixth Rank)
    • 正六位下 – Shoroku’i-ge (Lower Senior Sixth Rank)
    • 従六位上 – Juroku’i-jo (Upper Junior Sixth Rank)
    • 従六位下 – Juroku’i-ge (Lower Junior Sixth Rank)
  7. 七位 – Shichi’i (Seventh Rank)
    • 正七位上 – Shoshichi’i-jo (Upper Senior Seventh Rank)
    • 正七位下 – Shoshichi’i-ge (Lower Senior Seventh Rank)
    • 従七位上 – Jushichi’i-jo (Upper Junior Seventh Rank)
    • 従七位下 – Jushichi’i-ge (Lower Junior Seventh Rank)
  8. 八位 – Hachi’i (Eighth Rank)
    • 正八位上 – Shohachi’i-jo (Upper Senior Eighth Rank)
    • 正八位下 – Shohachi’i-ge (Lower Senior Eighth Rank)
    • 従八位上 – Juhachi’i-jo (Upper Junior Eighth Rank)
    • 従八位下 – Juhachi’i-ge (Lower Junior Eighth Rank)
  9. 初位 – Sho’i (Starting Rank)

The above system has retained its form even to modern times, though its use has waxed and waned with the activity of the court.

Edo Period

In the Edo period, court rank and the associated ritsuryô titles became merely a symbolic, honorary, distinction, with no real power or political position at court. However, these remained of vital importance within the Tokugawa shogunate, as court rank and title were key determining factors as to a daimyô's privileges, potential for political office, and treatment otherwise by the shogunate.

In 1606, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the Imperial court to not award any court rank to any bushi without that individual first being recommended by the shogunate for that rank. In 1620, bushi were removed from the kugyô bunin, a listing of all Imperial courtiers Third Rank and above; this meant that while bushi could still enjoy the honorary privilege and prestige of high court rank, they were no longer listed among those directly answerable to the Court.[2]

  • The Tokugawa shogun held the title of Naidaijin 内大臣.
  • Lords of the Owari and Kishû Tokugawa clans held the title of Dainagon 大納言.
  • Lords of the Mito Tokugawa clan held the title of Chûnagon 中納言.
  • Lords of the Maeda clan held the title Sangi 参議.
  • Lords of the Shimazu and Date clans typically rose to the title of Chûjô 中将("Middle Captain") at some point in their tenure.
  • Other high-ranking kunimochi daimyô typically held the title of Shôshô 少将 ("Lesser Captain")
  • Lower-ranking kunimochi daimyô typically held the title of Jijû 侍従 ("Chamberlain"), but were sometimes promoted to Shôshô after ruling for thirty years or a similarly long or honorable tenure.
  • Jun-kunimochi daimyô were typically of Fourth Rank (shihon 四品), but were sometimes promoted to Jijû.
  • Most other daimyô were considered Junior Lower Fifth Rank 従五位下, with the title of dayû 太夫, but after serving for many years they were sometimes granted a promotion to Fourth Rank.


  • Nihon Shoki
  • Shoku Nihongi
  • 2006, "A User-Friendly Timeline of Ancient Japanese History (with furigana): From the earliest times to 1155", Yoshikawa Kobunkan, ISBN 4-642-01436-5.
  • Yamamoto Hirofumi, Sankin kôtai, Kodansha gendai shinsho (1998), 196-197.
  1. Arai Hakuseki, Joyce Ackroyd (trans.), Told Round a Brushwood Fire, University of Tokyo Press (1979), 303n118.
  2. Kate Wildman Nakai, Shogunal Politics, Harvard University Press (1988), 176-177.

See also