A Different Feudalism

A bit of Japanese flavour, from the Epic World History blog:

When most people think of feudalism, medieval Europe from about the ninth to 15th centuries is most likely to come to mind. The term feudalism is of fairly recent origin, coined in the 17th century by lawyers and antiquarians who used it to describe rules of land tenure, legal customs, and political institutions that had survived from medieval times. For Marxist historians the key elements of feudalism are the relationships between the feudal landholders and their serfs, whom they compel by force, custom, or law to provide labor, money, or tribute.

If you think that the world consists only of what you can see and touch — in the style of Marx, as opposed to more genetics-grounded materialism (waves to the Solomani Party) — then what matters is how wealth is generated, and where the wealth goes.

Marx’s solution was: the active factor in a society is its economic base, or, to use the Marxist term, its mode of production. The mode of production has two components: the relations of production (forms of property, organization of production, mode of distribution of goods, etc.) and the forces of production (labor and the means of labor). Narrowing the search down, the active element in the dynamics of history, for Marx, were the means of labor, and specifically the tools of production. Yes, you heard that correct. In Marx’s system of Historical Materialism, it was the tools of production that were the active factor in social change. Yes, the tools in themselves, no matter what ideology or religion or habits or customs or culture the people had. — The Oxymoron of “Cultural Marxism”, Bojidar Marinov

I wonder how Marx would have treated superabundance, the post-scarcity economy (well, for limited but real values of post-scarcity, like (near) free food, heating, information, and numerous consumer products). Most likely, he would have become an AI, robot, or machine-mind revolutionary, as those things would be the new exploited working class.

For the record, I treat religion and law as the core foundation of a civilization, not economic classes or genetics or geographic location or technological abilities.

Variant Traveller: have the Virus dieoff stem not from the unexpected end of a bitter war, but from a genius Marxist programmer, with ties to the despised (as per canon) cyborg and (legally unrecognized) AI community (as only biological minds are considered people in Imperial Law).

(Insert snide remark on the Marxist love of dieoffs here – of men, women, and children; as well as animal, flora and fauna.)

Other non-Marxist historians define feudalism as a system of military and political organizations in which armed warriors or knights served leaders, who in turn provided them with land grants in return for personal service. Despite the fact that many of Japan’s governmental structures and institutions were based in part on those of China, Japan’s feudal culture was in many ways more like that of feudal Europe.

A hard-core Traveller scholar would lay down the outline of Vilani-style, Caste-based Corporate Feudalism. I can’t do it, having too much fish to fry, but someone else may be interested.

Also, the Imperial government type “Feudal technocracy” deserves a formal fleshing-out. Perhaps two definitions are in order: the 1970s flavour, when conglomerates seemed to be taking over the world, and a selection of modern flavours,

  • The Classic Corporate Magnate becomes Political leader. (Emperor Cleon himself, President Trump, and many many others),
  • The Political Leader becomes a Corporate Magnate. (Putin, and many many others)
  • The Corporate Cartel takes over the government. (Sorta-kinda the Vilani situation, and definitely true for the Julian Protectorate. Not so common in real life, but I think it will become more common over time.)
  • Ancient ruling families, their power based on land and men-at-arms, successfully make the transition to an industrial, then technological, economy. (Not very common in our history, but certainly possible. Perhaps Japan and South Korea?)
  • and many many others “Corporate Plus…” variants not described here: the Skilled Worker Directorate (“Don’t ever challenge the life support techs!”), the Patent Law Mastery, the Information Gatekeeper Guild, the World Science Council (“Now with megacorp backing!”), the Banker’s Agreement, the One Big Union, the Medical/ Pharmaceutical Network, etc…

In the Traveller Universe, you also have to take into account the possibility of off-worlders – human or otherwise – pulling a successful takeover of a planet: perhaps militarily, but maybe economically. Or they see a power fulcrum the locals missed, and they take the opportunity offered.

“So the ruling Early Stellar planetary dictator/top bureaucrat has the armies, the priesthood/academics, and the land for food production… but the banking system is weak, there is no new local science to speak of, internet development has been deliberately crippled, and popular culture has been stagnant and stilted for a century.

And I notice that the oceans, the atmosphere, and near-orbit have been completely ignored, so far as aquaculture or airborne cultivation, filter and deep mining, and energy production is concerned. Without meson tech, there has been only the most primitive mining done, never mind underground/undersea cities or water mining.


By the 19th century, historians generally agreed that the warriors of Japan were the “Oriental” counterparts to the knights of Europe. The roots of Japanese feudalism can be traced back to the seventh century in Japan and extend through the medieval period of Japanese history.

Civilizations and power-bases are built with men… and these men have names, and histories, and families, and obligations.

Modern Westerners have a habit of overemphasizing abstractions, idealization,  and impersonal systems. Most Imperials – who live in a government of men, not laws – are generally too wise to make that kind of error. Academics, on the other hand…

Japan’s political and economic order did not meet the definition of “full feudalism” until about the year 1300, which is much later than the onset of European feudalism. Many of the laws and institutions described as feudal protected privileges of the landholding aristocracy and allowed them to use their power over the peasant class. Feudalism from the modern historian’s perspective has taken on negative connotations as being outdated, oppressive, or irrational.

The Imperial view of feudalism is much more positive, for all sorts of reasons. “It’s the natural system of human government, after all!”

The primary virtue in the Japanese feudal system was loyalty, because the entire social-political system depended on personal relationships. Contrary to the lord-vassal relationships of European feudalism that were based on mutual and contractual obligation, the Japanese emphasized morality. Loyalty to one’s lord manifested from a belief that he was the superior moral leader.

Unlike in China, where familial loyalty was the dominant ideology, in Japan loyalty to one’s lord was paramount. This is not to say that family ties were unimportant in medieval Japanese society, as inheritance determined power and prestige as well as property ownership.

Being something of a military dictatorship…

(Post Imperial Civil War: a mild megacorporate/racial aristocracy pre-Civil War, with unofficial, very real, but rather light-handed Solomani supremacy outside of the core Vilani regions.)

…the Imperium definitely respects loyalty: but honour is more important in Canon writings. Family and clan ties definitely have a voice as well.

Japanese feudalism also differed from European feudalism in that there was no cult of chivalry that put women on a romantic pedestal as fragile and inferior beings. Japanese warriors expected their women to be as strong as they were and accept self-sacrifice as part of their obligation to their lord.

True: but the Japanese were/are not much interested in eradicating the very notion of femininity. Neither for that matter are the Vilani: they are noticeably more sexually egalitarian than the Solomani (due to a far longer exposure to electrically-powered industrial technology, rather than an ideological revolution), but they are comfortable with the existence of fixed genetically-determined sexual differentiation.

Warrior class-consciousness—a sense of the warrior class as a separate entity—did not materialize until the 13th century when the Kamakura Shogunate (rule by a military generalissimo) took power. The new institution created a new category of shogunal retainer that held special privileges and responsibilities and narrowed the scope of social classes the samurai class comprised.

While there is a noble caste among the Vilani, it isn’t formally a warrior class. (Not that you’d care to mess with this efficient, genocidally-inclined Vilani anyways….) More to the point, the noble caste, like all Vilani castes, is not something you are born into: it’s something that the community chooses for you. “A distinction with a difference.”

Part of the demise of the monarchy can be attributed to the emphasis placed on heredity rather than meritocracy. The members of the Yamato clan were unwilling to share power, as it was synonymous with wealth in the form of land grants, household servants, and agricultural laborers. The old clan leadership was thus transformed into a new ruling class that was dependent on imperial supremacy.

This reminds me of an old Chinese story.

The very first Imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qin, worked hard to eradicate the memory of all history before itself (much as Islamic cultures do, by the way). It also worked hard to restrict the name of Qin only to the members of the ruling dynasty: “If you aren’t Qin, you aren’t much.”

In contrast, the following Han dynasty – a contemporary of Imperial Rome – ended the book burning and the premature burial of scholars *cough*, and cheerfully encouraged subjects to take the name of Han for themselves.

Let it be noted that the Han Chinese are now by far the largest racial subgroup/culture of Chinese people out there. It’s good to see a generous gesture rewarded and remembered for thousands and thousands of years, stretching into the very distant future.

(Points to the name of my religion, Christian. A different King and Kingdom, and radically more extreme on the scale of generosity: but the Christians and even the ancient Han dynasty can speak a love-language that a Secularist can’t even begin to grasp.)

OK, back to Japan.

By the late 10th and early 11th centuries warrior chieftains threatened political order and began to emerge with more regularity. Powerful chieftains like Taira Masakado, who owned vast landed estates in the Kanto region, capitalized on the imperial government’s weakness and challenged its authority.

These challenges contributed to the breakup of the court into many aristocratic factions that competed for power and drew certain warrior families into capital politics.

The Imperial Civil War (604-622) was more a matter of Imperial Grand Admirals of the Flag seizing the Iridium Throne for themselves, rather than ruling houses feuding over it. A case can be made that the original Corporate Imperium was shifting to an Military Imperium since the shocking murder of Empress Nicholle in 475.

Cleon IV, her (and her immediate family’s) assassin and successor, based his rule on dynastic considerations as a member of the founding Zhunastu dynasty: but once you set up your throne on blood, those who specialize in shedding blood get a lot more implied legitimacy and authority.

After a series of power struggles, Taira Kiyomori emerged with increased influence in the court and political power. With a lack of local authority, however, Kiyomori’s ascendancy ended with the outbreak of the Gempei War (1180–85). Minamoto Yorimoto and his followers succeeded in driving the Taira out of the capital and in 1185 their armies were defeated in the west. The victory meant that Yorimoto became the most powerful chieftain in Japan.

This victory was a defining moment in Japanese history because it resulted in the founding of the Kamakura Bakufu, or “tent government.” Yorimoto sought political independence and wanted to avoid immersion in court politics. Yorimoto’s success can largely be attributed to the lord-vassal bonds he established during the Gempei War. In 1192 Yorimoto took the title of shogun or “generalissimo.”

This title brought with it the responsibility of preserving national peace and order. Eventually however the shogun became a warrior monarch whose power came from the imperial government and actually extended beyond it.

Remodeled, this could make for a very different post-Civil War Imperium. Start with a officially-supreme, but really ceremonial Emperor, with actual power residing in a massive roving Imperial Central Fleet led by the Emperor’s right-hand man, Darth Vader right-hand woman, Grand Admiral Arbellatra (who in this timeline comes from a nomadic star-trading clan).

The period after the Onin War is considered the beginning of the “warring states” period in Japanese history, a time when the Ashikaga Shogunate was destroyed and a new group of feudal magistrates emerged from the local warrior class. Domains fell into the hands of feudal lords, known as daimyo, who used force and their loyal vassals to maintain their power, enforcing land taxes to keep the peasantry under much stricter control.

By 1500 the country was divided into the hands of roughly 300 daimyo.

A different civil war, and a different outcome. Three hundred damiyo = 300 Spartans ~240 Imperial subsectors, each practically it’s own tightly-controlled pocket empire paying very little attention to the Imperial capital… and occasionally fighting among themselves.

Hideyoshi never took the title of shogun but did assume high positions in imperial government. Hideyoshi monopolized foreign trade, had land surveyed, and confiscated weapons from the peasant class. These actions further divided the samurai and peasant classes while increasing Hideyoshi’s military might. In 1592 he set out to conquer Korea, a first step toward world conquest, which for him essentially meant China.

Imagine a very talented, very ambitious Party Chairman (a.k.a. pocket empire lord) of a fragmented Solomani Sphere, ready to reunite the Confederation and then go on to conquer the Third Imperium.

Also, the Japanese of the 16th century has a very interesting definition of “World Conquest”.

Consider a superagressive Emperor who decided to unite the entirety of Charted Space under his banner, no matter the cost. Say he succeeds.

(A very interesting campaign, by the way, and the Referee will have to plot out how he succeeds, why he succeeds, how long it takes to him to succeed, the cost of his success, and just how long his – and his successors – rule even lasts.

As always, All Empires Fall. How, when, and why does this empire fall, and what is the long-term legacy?

And don’t forget the communication delays! Even if some kind of FTL/instant communication net is permitted by the Referee, the problem isn’t just time delay at this scale: complexity, comprehension, and control are titanic issues here as well…)

Now, go to www.travellermap.com, and zoom out as far as you can. From there, you can see just how big Charted Space, with it’s tens of thousands of worlds and tens of trillions of sophonts, is compared to the entire galaxy.

From the highest zoom out, Charted Space doesn’t even count as a single pixel on the screen: maybe 1/8th of a pixel, if put to scale.

And don’t forget: when you’re out conquering the entire galaxy, you’d had better take care not to run into even a single civilization that 1) out-techs you 2) out-produces you and 3) is serious when it comes to war.

(And yes, it’s definitely possible that such a culture could be built on just one starsystem, or even a single world, terrestrial or gas giant (…or a single star…) The Third Imperium has about 10 Trillion sophonts – 16 Trillion, according to an ancient Digest Group book I dimly recall from two decades ago – almost all living on the surface of various typically-habitable living worlds, in classic SF style.

One single properly tamed, exploited and populated star system, with hollowed out/broken up worlds turned into habitats – can easily house quadrillions of sophonts (actually, far, far more!) in a great deal of comfort. If it can exploit 0.001% of the material and energy of it’s single star – yay, starmining! – it can and will crush the canonical Third Imperium.

Even if said Imperium ruled the entirety of Charted Space.

Once again, that legendary Ian M. Banks quote: ““An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.”

There be dragons out there.)



About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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