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Map of Nara-period sh?en at Nukuta-dera in present-day Yamatok?riyama, Nara Prefecture. 8th century, in the collection of the National Museum of Japanese History

A sh?en ( or , sh?en) was a field or manor in Japan. The Japanese term comes from the Tang dynasty Chinese term "" (Mandarin: zhu?ngyuán, Cantonese: zong1 jyun4).

Sh?en, from about the 8th to the late 15th century, describes any of the private, tax-free, often autonomous estates or manors whose rise undermined the political and economic power of the emperor and contributed to the growth of powerful local clans. The estates developed from land tracts assigned to officially sanctioned Shint? shrines or Buddhist temples or granted by the emperor as gifts to the Imperial family, friends, or officials. As these estates grew, they became independent of the civil administrative system and contributed to the rise of a local military class. With the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate, or military dictatorship, in 1192, centrally appointed stewards weakened the power of these local landlords. The sh?en system passed out of existence around the middle of the 15th century, when villages became self-governing units, owing loyalty to a feudal lord (daimy?) who subdivided the area into fiefs and collected a fixed tax.

After the decay of the ritsury? system, a feudal system of manors developed. Landowners or nameholders commended shares of the revenue produced (called shiki) to more powerful leaders often at the court, in order to be exempted from taxes and to subvert the Chinese-style "equal fields" system, whereby land was redistributed after certain periods of time. In the Kamakura period a hierarchy of nameholder, manor stewards (jit?), shugo (military provincial governor), and the sh?gun in Kamakura had evolved. These sh?en were completely free from interference from the government, which therefore had no say or control of what occurred within the sh?ens boundaries.

By the end of the Heian period virtually all Japanese land had become sh?en and continued to be through the ?nin War until the Sengoku period.


Sh?en appeared in the 6th century and disappeared in the 16th century. They can be distinguished by historical period, and a sh?en of each period had specific features in its formation and relationships with the cultivators of its fields. There are two primary periods of sh?en development, although in fact smaller and more detailed categorizations exist. The first type; which developed in the middle of the Nara period, are now called shoki-sh?en (?, lit. "early Sh?en"). Sh?en of the second type, which continued from the middle of Heian period to the Sengoku period, are called ch?sei-sh?en (?, lit. "medieval Sh?en"). Note that these names and the distinction between the two are modern concepts, and were not used historically and cannot be found in the historical record.

Before ritsury? system

The earliest antecedent of the sh?en are tatokoro or naritokoro (); which is thought to be one of the etymologies of the term sh?en. Before the ritsury? system or taika reform, land was divided up between powerful families historically called g?zoku () or influential Buddhist temples, and they placed facilities called yake (?) in those lands in order to preside over agricultural management, armament, traffic, and trades. In early documents, the terms yake and tatokoro were used almost interchangeably to refer to those administrative facilities, and so tatokoro are thought to have had functions similar to yake. Before long, however, the meaning of tatokoro was extended to represent not only the originally indicated administrative facilities but also the cultivated land which they administrated.

Land policies in the Nara period

New policies of the central government during the Nara period, initially designed to encourage reclamation, played an important role in the development of sh?en. The land policy of the ritsury? was called handen-sh?ju-sei (), and was similar to Chinese equal-field land system (), but there was a difference in the treatment of reclaimed fields. If someone reclaimed wasteland in Japan at that time, the field would be dispossessed and he could not cultivate the field; while if someone reclaimed a field in China, he could cultivate the land providing that the field was smaller than legally prescribed dimensions. Therefore, there was no incentive to reclaim land and develop new fields, and little land was reclaimed although the population was steadily increasing. The shortage of fields thus became a social and economic problem. To solve this, in 723 the central government promulgated the law of sanze-isshin-h? (), which promoted reclamation. This law allowed one to cultivate any field one reclaimed, and if certain conditions were satisfied, the fields reclaimed by one's parents or grandparents. Twenty years later, in 743 the central government promulgated a further law promoting reclamation, called konden-einen-shizai-h? (?) which provided for the succession of the right to cultivate reclaimed fields in perpetuity. This law resulted in massive reclamation by wealthy people, and this reclamation in turn had a significant impact on the development of sh?en.


One feature that distinguishes early or shoki-sh?en from medieval sh?en is their manner of formation. Most shoki-sh?en were established by a Buddhist temple or a central noble by obtaining ownership of either of two kinds of paddy fields: those that had existed prior to the temple's or noble's ownership; and those that were reclaimed under the order of the temple or the noble which ruled a sh?en. Sh?en composed primarily of newly reclaimed land characterized shoki sh?en, and accordingly shoki-sh?en are sometimes called kondenchi-kei-sh?en (, lit. 'estates of reclaimed fields.').

Another feature of shoki-sh?en is annual rental system of paddy fields. There were no permanent inhabitants of shoki-sh?en and the fields of shoki-sh?en did not have regular cultivators, so cultivation rights were rented out on a contract of a year to peasants who inhabited the neighborhood around the sh?en. Therefore, it was indispensable to recruit help of peasants, who did nearly all the work of cultivation, in order to ensure stable labor force for cultivation and reclamation of new fields. An owner of a shoki-sh?en often utilized the local government system of Daij?-kan, kuni and k?ri to meet this need; an owner of shoki-sh?en who usually had been assigned by the central government as a kokushi (, a head or officer of kuni) appointed a local chief of the peasants to be a gunji (, a head or officer of k?ri) to recruit and administer labor for the sh?en.

Formation of Ch?sei-sh?en

Medieval or ch?sei-sh?en are different from shoki-sh?en mainly in existence of sh?min (, peasants permanently residing on sh?en land) and in the power the owner of the sh?en had over the sh?min. While shoki-sh?en did not have any sh?min and the owner's rule of cultivators was weaker than that of the government, ch?sei-sh?en had sh?min and most of the cultivators were sh?min, and the sh?en owner's rule became more powerful than that of the government. The owner of a sh?en could expel peasants who were not obedient to him from the sh?en, and could promulgate his own penal codes for criminal offenses or treason in order to ensure this control over the sh?min. That is to say sh?en owners, who originally cultivated influence with the government in the capital during the Nara period, came to discard the connection with the central government and to cultivate their power over local peasants.

Another distinguishing feature of ch?sei-sh?en are their exemptions from some kinds of tax imposed by the central government. In the middle or the end of the Heian period there were two types of tax. One type of tax was corvee labor under the supervision of kuni, and the other was a tax on farm products (about three percent of rice or other farm products). To evade these taxes, peasants wanted to be ruled and protected by the sh?en owners, which was usually a politically influential Buddhist temple, Shinto shrine or court noble. To achieve this protection by the sh?en owners, peasants donated the nominal land ownership of the fields they cultivated to sh?en owners. These fields, nominally donated to the ownership of a sh?en were historically called kishinchi (, "donated lands"). Then the sh?en owners who received "donated lands" from the sh?min peasant populace negotiated with the kokushi or directly with the central government and achieved tax exempt status. Most ch?sei-sh?en gathered vast amounts fields through the process of receiving donated lands from peasants as kishinchi. In this sense, ch?sei-sh?en is sometimes called kishinchi-kei-sh?en (, lit. "estates of donated fields").

Meanwhile, there also appeared sh?en which gathered territory by depriving peasants of land ownership. In some cases, sh?en owners would demand tribute from peasants cultivating neighboring fields and if the peasants could not pay that tribute, the sh?en confiscated the fields. In other cases, a peasant could not repay the rent for cultivation rights of sh?en land, and the sh?en owner who was the cultivator's creditor foreclosed on the cultivator's land rights as substitution of the credit, in which case the peasant became bound to the sh?en as a sh?min, rather than a tenant cultivator. This kind of sh?en is sometimes called konden-sh?seki-sh?en (, lit, "estates of accumulated fields").

There were several kinds of ch?sei-sh?en, and each kind of sh?en had particular process of achieving exemption from tax:


Kansh?fu-sho (?) is sh?en where exemption from so (?, a kind of tax, three percent of total harvest of rice) was allowed in official procedures. In the ritsury? system, powerful Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples had the right to receive rice as support from the central government. Each shrines or temples were allotted particular fields to, and the rice was levied as so from peasants cultivating the allotted fields. In the 8th century in some sh?en, semi-permanent land ownership of the fields and exemption from so in the fields was permitted by Daij?-kan, which administered exemption of tax, and the Ministry of Popular Affairs (, Minbush?) notified the owner of the fields about the permission using the document called the minbush?-fu (?, "Popular Affairs certificate") or "charter". Later the permission by Daij?-kan not for temples or shrines but for powerful noble was gradually increased.


Kokumen-sh? () is sh?en allowed exemption from so or other tribute in bempo or binho () system. At that time kuni had an obligation to pay to sh?en owner the benefits the amount of which was determined as to his dignity by the central government. Bempo system is a means usually used when kuni could not prepare the benefits since the taxation from peasants cultivating public fields did not function well; kuni transferred sh?en owner its right of taxation from fields the dimensions of which was corresponding to the amount of the benefits. This field was usually selected, according to sh?en owner's request, from fields which sh?en owner had received from peasants as kishinchi, and this means practical exemption from tax. This system was not admitted by the central government and a contract of bempo became invalid when the term of tenure of the kokushi who contracted was over. However, in most case the new kokushi could not refuse sh?en owner's request of continuation of a contract because they felt sorry for accumulated debt of the delinquent benefits, which had not paid while bempo was performed as substitution of payment. Consequently, these fields were established as an area exempt from so or other tribute imposed by the central government.

In the 10th and 11th century kokumen-sh? was rapidly increased, and in 1040 the central government was not able to continue ignoring kokumen-sh? and finally explicitly prohibited kuni 's new permission of exemption of tax. This ordinance is now called ch?ky?-sh?en-seiri-rei ("The Order for Disposal of Sh?en in Ch?ky? Era" in Japanese).


Rinjiz?yaku (?) is a general term of variant labor imposed to peasants as tax by the government from the middle to the end of the Heian period, and rinjiz?yaku-menjo-sh?en () is sh?en allowed exemption of rinjiz?yaku. There were two main processes of formation of rinjiz?yaku-menjo-sh?en. One was the process of sh?en owner's negotiation with kokushi; sh?en owner abandoned the right of using a part of labor force of rinjiz?yaku and instead achieved exemption from rinjiz?yaku of peasants living in particular area. The other is the process of bempo system. However, repeated exemption of rinjiz?yaku resulted in the shortage of kishinchi of some sh?en owners which was remained not exempt from rinjiz?yaku. While practicing bempo, if all the kishinchi of the sh?en owner was exempt from rinjiz?yaku, sh?en owner was provided with the right of using labor force of particular public fields. This resulted in absorption of public fields into sh?en territory, and in the 11th century new exemption from rinjiz?yaku of fields which had neither exemption of so nor that of other tributes was prohibited.

Sh?en in the Muromachi period

In the aftermath of the ?nin War, the power of the sh?en disappeared as new daimy? came in control of the court. These daimyo dissolved or destroyed the sh?en, preferring to keep the peasants under their direct control, and effectively making them serfs in return for their protection.

See also


  • Edward Kaplan, West Washington University. Medieval Japan's Feudal Process, accessed on December 4, 2008.
  • (in Japanese) Amino Yoshihiko et al., Sh?en no seiritsu to ry?y? [The Rise of Japanese Manors and their Territorial Rights], (K?za Nihon sh?en shi ?, 2), Tokyo: Yoshikawa K?bunkan, 1991; ISBN 4-642-02692-4.
  • Hall, John Whitney. "Terms and Concepts in Japanese Medieval History: An Inquiry into the Problems of Translation". Journal of Japanese Studies 9/1 (Winter, 1983), p. 29, s.v. sh?en.

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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