Setting Your Game In Early 16th Century Japan

In the 15th century, the Japanese Empire is officially a tributary state of Míng China. In reality, Japan isn't ruled by its emperor, impoverished and restricted to a ceremonial role, but by its military commander-in-chief or shōgun (将軍). China does not hold any kind of real power over the shōgun either.

The office of shōgun stays within the Ashikaga clan. The Ashikaga shogunate is also called the Muromachi period of Japan because the shōgun resides in the Muromachi district of Kyōto (京都). The shogunate is a semi-hereditary position: upon the death of a shōgun, the male members of the clan fight or manoeuvre to obtain the title; each contender is supported by various other feudal clans who have an interest in his victory. In the second half of the 15th century, one of these succession contests escalates into a full-blown civil war, known as the Ōnin War, which ends in 1477 leaving Japan bled white and without a clear-cut winner.

In the early 16th century, even though Japan enjoys a relative period of peace after the hardships of the Ōnin War, the country is divided and is effectively experiencing a form of “low-intensity” feudal anarchy:
  • The direct rule of the Ashikaga clan is restricted to the half-ruined city of Kyōto itself, where the cousins Ashikaga Yoshitane and Ashikaga Yoshizumi are constantly vying for the shogunate, with the Hosokawa clan pulling the strings.
  • Because of the decline of the shogunate, the provinces are ruled by petty feudal lords called daimyō (大名), whose personal loyalty to the shōgun depends on the personal prestige of the latter, and who are constantly feuding amongst themselves.
  • Kaga Province has become a de facto independent republic under the Ikkō-shū (一向宗) sect of Pure Land Buddhism.
  • Kyōto is in a perpetual state of unrest, with barricades dividing the various districts of the city, whose allegiances are constantly shifting.
  • Because of the general lawlessness, travel by road is highly unsafe.
  • There are trade barriers between provinces, and the use of money loses ground in favour of barter.

Barricade fighting in Kyōto (1528)

Should the GM decide to set his game in early 16th century Japan, adventurers will have an easy time finding jobs as caravan guards, bodyguards, spies, assassins, etc.

With travel between provinces having become dangerous, roads are deserted, and supernatural creatures can reclaim the wilderness…


  1. Don't forget the europeans, with missionaries and guns!

  2. Well, the first Europeans to land in Japan were Portuguese blown off course to China in 1542. That's not exactly "early" 16th century!

    Their arrival introduced arquebuses to Sengoku Japan, and completely changed the way battles were fought!

    That would be a separate blog entry :)