daimyo (dĪˈmyô) [key] [Jap., = great name], the great feudal landholders of Japan, the territorial barons as distinguished from the kuge, or court nobles. Great tax-free estates were built up from the 8th cent. onward by the alienation of lands to members of the imperial family who could not be supported at court. These estates were administered by territorial barons, or the daimyo. By the 12th cent. certain daimyo had become more powerful than the emperor himself. One, Yoritomo, became the first shogun and forcefully revised this situation by setting up a centralized feudal system. The power of the shogun disintegrated during the fierce civil wars of the 14th, 15th, and 16th cent., but in the early 17th cent. Ieyasu completed the reunification of Japan. The daimyo who supported Ieyasu before the decisive battle of Sekigahara (1600) became the fudai, or hereditary vassals, and his opponents were known as tozama, or outside lords. The tozama, who controlled the rich western fiefs, were generally viewed with suspicion by the shogun and were excluded from office in the central government. Ieyasu's descendants, the Tokugawa shoguns, deployed the daimyo and shifted their fiefs to retain power in the central government. In the 18th and early 19th cent. the daimyo, with their tastes for luxury and need for show in long stays at the court, were hard pressed by the limits of their incomes (in general, tax revenue from peasants and merchants in their fief). They tended to sink deeper and deeper in debt, especially to the merchants of Tokyo and Osaka, while their social and economic usefulness approached the vanishing point. The daimyo were advised by a council of elders consisting of their highest-ranking vassals. The civil and military administration of the daimyo domains were staffed by the samurai. Pressured by their advisers, who argued that the Tokugawa regime was too weak to counter the Western threat, tozama barons of W Japan (notably Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, and Hizen) joined the imperial court to overthrow the shogun in the Meiji restoration (1868). Convinced of the need to establish a centralized administration, these daimyo returned their fiefs to the emperor (1869). By 1871 all daimyo had lost their feudal privileges.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.