What is Sankin-kōtai?

A modern rendering of a daimyo procession. Note the commoners bowing as the parade passes by.

There is a concise definition on Samurai Archives:

[Sankin-kōtai is] the Alternate Attendance Policy. Established by the Tokugawa Shōgunate, this system required all daimyo to live in Edo for a certain period of time, often every other year.

The daimyō were required to attend (provide service to) the shōgun in Edo and so they set up residences within the city. I like to think of them as embassies from the provinces. The daimyō would bring samurai “staff” from their domains to serve in Edo as well, so these were essentially provincial courts accompanied by a military staff. The daimyō residences included a small palace for the lord and domainal* administration as well as barracks for the lower ranking samurai who accompanied the lord.

Each lord generally maintained 3 residences in Edo, though some had more. The land was granted to them by the shōgunate and could be confiscated or redistributed at the discretion of the shōgun or his council of advisors.

There are 3 types of domain residences**

upper residence
seat of economic, governmental and diplomatic duties for the domain;
since the business of the domain was handled here, these were usually located in close proximity to Edo Castle
middle residence
residence of a retired lord, his widow, and/or the children of the head of the family
lower residence
holiday residence/villa (often located on the outskirts of town);
also used as a primary residence if the upper or middle residences were destroyed by fire or some other emergency.

As mentioned in my ongoing description of yamanote vs. shitamachi, the elite warrior class was given the high ground in Edo (yamanote). This displayed their status clearly as the ruling class, but also served a defensive function seen as normal at the close of the Sengoku Period. It also served to keep them free from the low city (shitamachi) which originally consisted of wetlands. ewwwww!

Fukuoka domain’s upper residence in Kasumigaseki (Kuroda family). This lot became the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It’s often said that the family of the daimyō were hostages of the shōgun. That’s one way of putting it, but the word hostage has such a different connotation these days. They were living lives of great wealth in these Edo-based palaces, enjoying beautiful gardens and delicious foods and lives typical of the nobility of their time.

But maintaining 3 or more residences in Edo in addition to a castle and other residences in your own domain PLUS governing and feeding your domain was costly. The cost varied from time to time and domain to domain, but economic strain of sankin-kōtai on an individual domain was 50%-75% of the domain’s wealth.***

Pimpin’ ain’t easy.
Sometimes broke-ass ronin come to your house and try to commit seppuku.
Ain’t nobody got time for that!

The trip to Edo and the trip back to the domain were also costly. The daimyō had to walk, with family and court and staff and in tow, in long processions called 大名行列 daimyō gyōretsu daimyō processions. These elaborate parades took days. But with so many domains coming and going all the time, they were a constant site on the major routes in and out of Edo. There are many great Edo Era prints of these and accounts from foreigners and Japanese alike agreed they were something to see! (That said, you had to get down on the ground and bow as the procession passed you or you could be attacked by domain samurai).

This clown is Charles Lennox Richardson, a limey who got his ass killed by samurai from the Satsuma domain when he didn’t show respect to the lord of Satsuma’s procession in Namamugi, Yokohama.
There’s always one, isn’t there?


2 Bits of Trivia to Show How Massive the Impact of this System was:

–  1/3 to 1/2 of Edo’s population “refreshed” every year ***

– When the system was abolished, the population of Edo halved (from 1 million people to 500,000 people) ***


Because the system lasted for more than 250 years, it had a lasting impact on Edo-Tōkyō. As mentioned earlier, the daimyō received their land from the shōgunate. During the Meiji Restoration, these high city properties and holdings were confiscated and re-purposed. A famous example is the Aoyama family’s massive lower residence which became Aoyama Cemetery. Another famous example is Koishikawa Kōrakuen, which was once a garden of the Mito Tokugawa, but today is managed under the Tōkyō Metropolitan Park Association.

A CG recreation of the 因州池田家表門 Inshu Ikeda ke Omotemon (main gate to the upper residence of the Ikeda family – you can see the in Ueno Park. The original residence was in Daimyo Alley – ie; Marunouchi). By the way, note the dude sprinkling water on the ground. This was a manner to keep dust from kicking up and getting on your clothes. Old ladies in Japan still do this even though the streets are paved. Weird.


Wanna learn more about Sankin-kōtai?

Anyways, this is just a primer on Sankin-kōtai for JapanThis!  If you want to know more, first I suggest listening to this episode of the Samurai Archives Podcast:

An informal discussion about the policy of alternate attendance and its effects on the city of Edo and the country of Japan. Highly recommended.

I also suggest this book, Tour of Duty:

This is probably the definitive work on sankin-kotai in English. A fantastic read and, yes, highly recommended.

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* Is “domainal” even a word???
** Viva Edo!

*** Tour of Duty, Constantine Nomikos Vaporis

19 replies on “Sankin-Kōtai”

Sadly, none of these residences survived the 1923 Kantō Earfquake. There are bits and pieces here there, tho (gates, walls, Inari shrines, etc).

The plots of land usually became schools, hospitals, and government buildings. Many became public parks.

I think the closest things to intact daimyō palaces are Tōkyō Dome/Koishikawa Kōraku-en, Shiodome Shiosite, Hama Rikyū Tei-en, Shiba Rikyū Tei-en, Roppongi Hills, and Meiji Jingū Shrine. There are a few others.

I actually run tours through these kinds of places (probably the only person doing so in English), so if you ever need a guide

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