Samurai Gaiden: Court Ranks and Titles

A topic I’ve brought up a handful of times is the court rank and title of various samurai. Akechi Hidemitsu is most often known as Samanosuke, Takayama Shigetomo is usually known as Ukon, and Yamamoto Haruyuki is usually referred by his court title of Kansuke.

So what exactly are these court titles and why did all these samurai have them? Well, today we’re going to take a very basic look at Japanese court titles and examine how they worked and what they meant.

And the answer is…they often meant nothing. But we’ll get to that closer to the end of today’s discussion on Japanese Court Titles.

So the first thing to note is that the Japanese Imperial Court went through several different incarnations as far as rank structure, what ranks meant, and how ranks were signified. In the early days the system strongly mimicked the Chinese style in a form known as Kan’i where each position correlated to a particular rank and that rank was noted by wearing a different colored cap. However eventually this was replaced by wearing different colored clothing when at court.

Now without getting caught up in the drudgery of a century of Asuka-Nara minor and major political changes, let’s look at the system instituted during the reign of Emperor Mommu in the early 8th century.

The divisions of court ranks at this time were divided into princely ranks and official ranks, that is ranks for officials within the empire. Rarely will we be dealing with princely ranks, because for most of what we’re dealing with just know that those would be for the Imperial family and the like. They came in four levels: Ippon, Nihon, Sanbon, and Yonhon – that is First, Second, Third, and – you guessed it – Fourth.

The official ranks were set up in a similar fashion classed from highest to lowest as Ichi’i, Ni’i, San’i, Shi’i, Go’i, Roku’i, Shichi’i, Hachi’i, and Sho’i. The lingering ‘I’ sound on all of those the character ‘I’ which simply means rank. So from high to low that equates to First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Beginner Ranks.

The first second and third ranks were also split into two parts: Senior and Junior. So that means that you had ranks like Shoni’i, Senior Second Rank and Jusan’i, Junior Third Rank.

Ranks within the spectrum of fourth through eighth were even split into four subsections: High Senior, Low Senior, High Junior, and finally Low Junior. Can you imagine being made High Junior Sixth Rank? You’d have to introduce yourself as Juroku’i-ju.

Now I’ve just told you all of that to tell you not to worry about it much. Rarely will you see someone actually referring to themselves as Oda Shoichi’i Nobunaga. And not just because he had been dead for over three hundred years before the court posthumously awarded him the right of Senior First Rank.

“I’m what?!”

No what you always hear are actually the opposite of these things. What we’ve just talked about were Court Ranks, but things like Samanosuke and Ukon were Court Titles. These titles equated to jobs within the Imperial Court…although by the time of the Sengoku period and beyond really very few of the people who held those ranks probably actually did the jobs inherent of that position.

For instance the Ii family held the post of Kamon no-kami which can be translated as Director of the Palatial Cleaning Department or…Captain of the Janitors. Did he actually command the palace’s cleaning crews on a day-to-day basis? No, he was busy running Hikone-han. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was beneath Lord Ii to sign his name Ii Kamon no-kami Naosuke.

It was an honor to be given a post within the Imperial Court and one that many samurai wore as a badge of honor and pride. Remember that through most of the Japanese civil wars it was still ostensibly ‘fact’ that the Emperor was divine. The wars to become Shogun was essentially Head Samurai, but on paper they were still subservient to the Emperor; kind of like being Prime Minister of a monarchy. On paper the King is the highest authority in the land, but really the Prime Minister runs the government.

Now as I said – each title was basically a post in the Imperial Court and was associated with a particular court rank. Hence why I bothered to tell you anything about that court rank. So you could be given the rank of Shugoku no Jou, or Secretary of the Prisons, only if you had the equivalent court rank of Senior Eighth Rank.

So if somebody wanted to then promote you to Assistant Director of the Department of Poetry, or the Uta no-suke, you would generally have to be promoted to the court rank of Senior Sixth Rank. That is not to say that in rare occasions it didn’t work without the dual promotion, but generally how it would work is you would be given a Court Rank and that would allow you to hold a position within that rank which you could hope to be given. If you did something meritorious and earned yourself a promotion to a higher court rank, you may be given a nicer title.

So lets take a look at Akechi Hidemitsu’s title…and that is not to say he was the only one known by this title. Many samurai were known to have held by the title of Samanosuke. Samanosuke can be translated several ways such as…Vice-Commander of the Left Stables, Lieutenant of the Left Cavalry Division, or Deputy Director of the Left Stable Department. Literally it comes out to mean Assistant Head of the Left Horses.

So we can assume that Hidemitsu held the court rank of Senior Sixth Rank, since that is the equivalent post within the court. Yamamoto Haruyuki, was known by the title of Kansuke; which near as I can tell means he was an Advisor. Kansuke translates as Giving Aid, formed of the characters Kan and Suke which mean Intuition or Perception and Assistant, respectively. So an Assistant of Intuition…or an Advisor.

Takayama Shigetomo was known as Ukon this means that he held a rank in the Ukan’e, the Palace Guards-Right Division. I don’t know his formal rank in the department, but that was the department his rank came from.

The prolific writer, Murasaki Shikibu gets her name from her father’s position within the Imperial Court: Shikibu no Daijo. Shikibu no Daijo means Senior Secretary of the Department of Ceremonies and in all likelihood he would signed his name as Fujiwara Shikibu no Daijo Tametomo.

At one point in his life the aforementioned Nobunaga was known as Oda Kazusa no-suke Nobunaga, or Lieutenant Governor of Kazusa Province. Proving that court titles really meant nothing…Nobunaga did not rule over Kazusa at any point in his life – as a matter of fact, it is unlikely he ever set foot in the province.

Similarly Nabeshima Naoshige held the court title of Echizen no-Kami, however that province was ruled by the Maeda family. Naoshige was a Ryuzoji retainer who defected to the Toyotomi when Hideyoshi came aboard Kyushu and was eventually given much of their territory for himself. The Ryuzoji lands were on the other side of the country from Echizen so its unlikely he ever even went there for a visit, even less likely he ran anything in the province. But he was still considered to be the governor of that province by the Imperial Court, which by this point in time had no real power to its name.

“I’m governor of where?
…never heard of it.”

So hopefully that helps you to better understand a bit about the Imperial Ranks and Titles that we throw around all the time. If you have any questions on a particular rank or title…or you just want to know more about court ranks and titles in general, let us know in the comments. You can also check out our last video which was answering a viewer question on how Japanese swords were made or check out the playlist of all of our other videos.

~RCS

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