In the Middle Ages, Western Europe and Japan operated under feudal systems. Similarities between Japanese and European feudalism include the division of the classes and the relationships of the people living within each social class.
Feudalism is a political and social structure in which social classes define the lives and work of the people living in a town or country. Classes are structured in such a way to provide little chance of a lower-class peasant rising to become a lord, so there is no mobility between these classes over a person's lifetime. This system developed as the result of a weak central government.
In the absence of the king's rule, local landowners gained control by offering protection to the lower classes of people in exchange for allowing them to live and raise food on his land. The landowners performed the duties of the king, which included paying warriors to defend the land, collecting taxes, building infrastructure and settling disputes between people.
Structured Life in Japan
Although separated by thousands of miles, Japan's tiered social structure was similar to the feudal system in Europe. In Japanese feudal society, the shogun military leaders represented the emperor and ruled the people through the feudal lords, which were called daimyo. The daimyo owned tracts of land and allowed peasants to live and work on it. Peasants paid taxes to the daimyo, who then paid samurai warriors to protect the property.
However, following Confucian principles and unlike in Europe, Japanese peasants were considered an honored class because they produced all the food everyone needed to survive. In Europe, the peasants gave a portion of their crops to the upper classes in exchange for protection. Both European and Japanese systems excluded members of the clergy from the social systems.
Loyalty and Skill Were Valued
Both systems placed considerable value on loyalty and military skill, drawing upon philosophy and religion to create the framework for society. The Japanese followed the principles of philosopher Confucius, and the Europeans used the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church. According to these belief systems, daimyo, samurai, nobles and knights all had a moral obligation to protect the peasants.
The peasants had a similar obligation to express complete allegiance to their lords, and in Japan a samurai soldier was allowed to kill any peasant who failed to bow in his presence. Japanese samurai and European knights also followed moral codes, called the bushido in Japan and chivalry in Europe. These codes required them to express courage in battle and complete loyalty to the lords who paid them.
Prestige and Prosperity
In Japanese and European feudal systems, the warriors enjoyed great prestige and prosperity within their communities. When they went into battle against enemies, both groups rode horses, carried swords and wore armor for protection. They also valued honor more than any other principle, but they had different definitions of the concept. Surrendering to an opponent was so dishonorable to the samurai that suicide was the preferred method of death in battle.
In contrast, European knights believed their lives belonged to God and did not have the option of suicide; they had to surrender or die in battle. Similarly, a defeated knight hoped for mercy from his conqueror, but samurai would rather die than surrender to foes.