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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]

Territory and Rank

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. In the initial distribution of domains at the beginning of Tokugawa rule, many of the most powerful tozama daimyô were permitted to retain their territory - as it would have been too risky or difficult for the Tokugawa to attempt to deny the Shimazu or Maeda clans their sizable and powerful strongholds - but explicit efforts were made to place fudai daimyô strategically as "blocks" or "guards" (押え, osae, lit. "pushing" or "pressure") against the threats posed by these daimyô. The Hosokawa clan, for example, was placed in Kumamoto han in order to serve as osae against the Shimazu in Kagoshima, and the Môri in Chôshû as an osae against all of Kyûshû. The Ii clan in Hikone similarly served as osae against the western provinces, and as "guardian" (shugo) over Kyoto (in addition to the shogun's own representative, the Kyoto shoshidai, who oversaw the administration of the city). The Niwa clan, meanwhile, served as osae against the northern provinces (Tôhoku).[2]

Further reassignments or disenfeoffments 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]


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)[11] 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][12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

Governance and Organization

The domain was at once a political entity to be governed, and at the same time, in some important conceptual respects, an extension of the lord's household. Though Uesugi Harunori, who famously wrote "the lord exists for the sake of the state and the people; the state and the people do not exist for the sake of the lord,"[15] likely represents the attitudes of many daimyô, this was certainly not the case for all lords of all domains across the period, and would in any case have been acted upon quite variously.

Though the daimyô was nominally and theoretically the ruler of his domain, a great deal of the actual political and administrative work was done by karô (House Elders) and rusuiyaku (officials overseeing matters in the lord's absence, in Edo, other major cities, or in the domain). While many daimyô certainly participated in policy discussions, and expressed opinions, desires, or orders, a great deal was often decided or performed by retainers, who then simply obtained the daimyô's formal seal of approval. Much as might be said about the shogun, the Emperor of China in many periods, or various other rulers throughout world history, it was arguably ritual and performative activity which more heavily dominated a daimyô's time, and his obligations and role as ruler.[16]

For many domains, we can consider the administration of the domain as consisting of two often conflicting sets of concerns: kasei (家政), the management of the lord's household, and kokusei (国政), the management of the "state."[17] To a certain extent, the domain certainly did exist to support the lord and his household, both because of basic feudal obligation, this being his feudal domain, and in order to help effect the lord's ability to fulfill his feudal obligations to the shogun. But the feudal relationship went both ways, and a lord had a certain responsibility to the people of his domain, both purely out of reciprocal obligation as their lord (service in exchange for protection), and in order to ensure the people's ability to maintain a prosperous enough domain (e.g. growing enough food, and paying enough in taxes) to support his own personal and political needs. Thus, the entire relationship was, as in most if not all polities, reciprocal to a large extent.

As mentioned above in the discussion of sankin kôtai, a lord's personal/household expenses could be quite considerable, and relied upon the prosperity of the people of his domain to be able to support these expenses through their taxes. Lords felt great pressure in the prestige economy of samurai society to present themselves as wealthy and prestigious, and this required considerable outlays to ensure the lord had the finest clothes, the finest horses, the largest and finest mansions, and sufficient grand pomp and circumstance in his various ritual performances (e.g. processions of his sankin kôtai entourage through the streets), both within the domain, and especially in contexts where it would be visible to other daimyô, and to the shogun. Yet, even with this taken into account, there were times in many domains where the lord's expenses came to be unreasonable, even unsupportable. In some cases, his top advisors and policy-makers were able to reorganize budgets, raise taxes, or otherwise help provide for these excessive expenditures; in other cases, the advisors were able to convince the lord to cut back. In other cases, still, however, the advisors were unable to resolve the situation, leading to economic difficulties, sometimes disaster, for the domain, sometimes ending in rebellion and the violent (or not so violent) replacement of the lord.

Lordly successions were often relatively straightforward, with the lord simply designating his heir, and then either retiring, or passing away, and being succeeded by that heir. Though the heir was often the lord's eldest son, or another direct son, it was not uncommon for nephews, other relatives, or even members of other families to be adopted to serve as the heir. Officially, the shogunate required lords to name their heirs before falling ill, and required the heir to be of age (in other words, underage children could not be named heir). Early in the Edo period, this was relatively strictly enforced, leading to many domains falling into attainder; if the lord fell ill or died without naming an heir, or if his heir was not yet of age to be officially designated, the family lost their lands, and the domain was given to another family. Before long, however, the system came to be less strictly enforced, and even with a shogunate inspector (metsuke) present, a family could have a seriously ill or even deceased lord name a child his heir, with the official documents indicating that the lord was in good health at the time, and his heir a man of adult age. This was all a part of the system of omote and uchi, in which maintaining the peace took precedence over strict adherence to the law.[18]

However, it was not entirely uncommon for lords to also be forced to retire, or even in some cases killed, as political factions vied amongst their retainers. Tsushima han provides a bold example of this, as in 1862 chief advisor Sasu Iori was killed, and daimyô Sô Yoshiyori pressured to resign in favor of his son Sô Yoshiakira, when a powerful faction among his retainers opposed Sasu & Yoshiyori's behavior regarding the domain's stances towards the shogunate, and in dealing with foreign threats. Though Yoshiakira remained Lord of Tsushima into the Meiji period, factional rivalries amongst his top administrators continued. Katsui Gohachirô, a member of the faction which arranged for Sasu's death and Yoshiakira's accession, turned against his fellow conspirators in 1864, launching attacks on the Sô mansions in both Tsushima and Kyoto, and seizing the reins of domainal administration. He was killed the following year, as Hirata Ôe, a supporter of the previous faction, organized against him. Hirata was then killed himself by some of Katsui's supporters, leaving one of Hirata's men, Higuchi Kennosuke, to assume control of the domain's affairs. Higuchi was then killed in turn in 1867.[19] This is perhaps an extreme case, given that it takes place amid conflicts between pro- and anti-sonnô jôi factions in the heat of the Bakumatsu, but it seems not unlikely that similar factional disputes took place in many domains at various times over the course of the period.


  • 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. Yamamoto Hirofumi, Sankin kôtai, Kodansha gendai shinsho (1998), 189-192.
  3. Schirokauer, et al. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 131.
  4. Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 36-37.
  5. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 21.
  6. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 17.
  7. 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.
  8. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 58.
  9. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 62.
  10. 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.
  11. "藩 fān." Pocket Pro Chinese-Japanese Dictionary ポケプロ中日辞典. Shogakukan, Inc.
  12. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 28.
  13. Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa, Cambridge University Press (1998), 7.
  14. Roberts, Performing the Great Peace, pp11ff.
  15. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 1.
  16. Yamamoto, 187-188.
  17. Luke Roberts, "Mori Yoshiki: Samurai Government Officer," in Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources, Inc. (2002), 39.
  18. Roberts, Performing the Great Peace.
  19. Hellyer, 227-230.