The Kamakura Shogunate was a government established by Kamakura Shogunate at the end of the Gempei War, which had lasted from 1180 until 1185. The shogunate lasted from 1185 (or 1192, when it was formally recognized by the emperor) until 1333. Because the Minamoto family lived at Kamakura, the new order was called the Kamakura Shogunate, although many sources refer to the period as the Minamoto Shogunate, after the founder’s surname.
The Minamoto clan emerged during the 12th century as a challenge to the Taira clan, who controlled Japanese politics. After a series of wars, the Minamoto clan had been defeated, and when the Gempei War broke out, the Taira were certain of their eventual victory.
They launched a series of preemptive strikes against the Minamoto and easily defeated them. However because of their easy victory, the Taira did not follow up all their military advantages and this allowed the Minamoto to rally their depleted forces.
They also managed to get other smaller clans to support them, and, worried that the Taira were about to become too powerful, the Minamoto gradually gained support, which allowed them to defeat the Taira. At the naval battle of Dannoura on April 25, 1185, the Minamoto attacked their outnumbered opponents and killed the six-year-old emperor, whose grandmother was a member of the Taira clan.
This final victory over the Taira ensured that Minamoto Yoritomo, the leader of the Minamoto clan, and the victor of the Battle of Dannoura, would take control of Japan. He created shogun (general who subdues barbarians), which established a military rule over Japan called bakufu (tent government) whereby the emperor and regents held civil authority, but military affairs were conducted by the shogun under the authority of the emperor. This made Minamoto Yoritomo dictator of the country.
The Minamoto clan descended from Saga, the 52nd emperor (r. 809–829). As with their rivals, the Taira, sections of the imperial family were cut off from the imperial line and took surnames. The Minamoto include descendants of the younger children of Saga, but most of them were descendants of Prince Sadazumi, the son of Seiwa, the 56th emperor (r. 858–876).
Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–99) was the great-grandson times 7 of Prince Sadazumi. In January 1160 his father had taken part in an unsuccessful coup attempt against the Taira and was then exiled to eastern Japan, where he stayed with Hojo Tokimasa, head of the Hojo clan, allies of the Taira.
While there he married Hojo Masako, a daughter of Tokimasa, who tied the Minamoto to the Hojo. During the Gempei War the Hojo provided much support for the Minamoto, and when Yoritomo became the shogun, the Hojos were the second most important family.
Minamoto Yoritomo made his supporter Kujo Kanezane (1149–1207) the sessho (imperial regent) and soon faced challenges from his family. He began to feel threatened by his brothers, especially Yoshitune. Yoshitune fled to the north of Japan where he took refuge with Fujiwara no Hidehira.
Yoritomo threatened to attack Hidehira, who decided that the easiest solution was to get Yoshitune to commit suicide. This death did not, however, prevent Yoritomo from attacking Hidehira’s lands, which were destroyed. On his return south, Yoritomo officially became shogun and established the system of government that was to dominate Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Minamoto No Yoriie and Sanetomo
The stability that Yoritomo brought to Japan was brief. He was shrewd, but ruthless, and was responsible for the deaths of two additional half brothers, Yoshiie and Yoshinaka. When Yoritomo died in 1199, his eldest son was only 17. In 1202 when Minamoto Yoriie was 20, he became shogun.
However the Hojo clan usurped his power in the following year when they established the head of the Hojo clan as the shikken (hereditary regent), a system that operated until 1333. In 1203 Yoriie became ill and his lands were divided between his infant son Ichiman and his brother Sanetomo.
Angered by the power of the Hojo clan, in spite of his mother’s being Hojo Masako, Minamoto Yoriie tried to reassert himself. He started conspiring with Hiki Yoshikazu, who was, in fact, the adopted son of Minamoto Yoritomo, making him Yoriie’s brother by adoption, as well as being his father-in-law. Unfortunately the plot between Yoriie and Yoshikazu was discovered, the Hojos attacked, and Yoshikazu was assassinated.
Yoriie’s son, Ichiman, was murdered and Yoriie was replaced by his more compliant brother, who acquiesced in the domination of the political scene by the Hojo. Yoriie was confined at Shuzenji on the Izu Peninsula and was murdered in the following year by his grandfather.
Minamoto Sanetomo (1192–1219) became the third shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate. He was aged 11 and because of the nature of his coming to power, he would never wield any real power. Instead he devoted himself to cultural matters. He had started writing poetry from the age of 14, and when he was 17 he sent 30 of these poems to Fujiwara no Teika, one of the well-known court poets of the period.
Teika disliked them as they were too close to the Japanese poems of the seventh and eighth centuries, but some were included in an anthology, now held in the Imperial Collection in Tokyo. Sanetomo was also involved in promoting kemari (kickball), a game involving eight players who kick a deerskin ball around a court, ensuring that it never touches the ground. In 1219 Kugyo, the son of Yoriie and nephew of Sanetomo, assassinated the shogun.
Hojo Clan and the Shikkens
In contrast, Kamakura, farther north, was a center that revolved around the Minamoto clan, even if not the actual nominal head of it. The fishing port, which had existed when Yoritomo was young, had become an important city where some 2,000 gokenin (housemen) swore fealty to the clan. As a result many of the emerging Buddhist sects of the period started erecting temples in the town.
For the rest of the Kamakura Shogunate, the Hojo clan curiously chose not to take up the shogunate but operated the regency with the head of the Hojo clan being the shikken. In 1221 Emperor Go-Toba decided to use the demise of the Minamoto family as an opportunity to try to restore direct imperial rule. In 1221 he issued a message to ask warriors loyal to him to rally and attack the Hojo clan.
However few were willing to take on the Hojos and very few supporters made an appearance in what became known as the Jokyu disturbance. On those who did, the wrath of the Hojo clan descended with a large Hojo-financed army taking over Kyoto and arresting Go-Toba.
He was exiled to the island of Oki, and the Hojo, in the name of the shogunate, moved their headquarters to Kyoto, which became the legal and administrative center until the end of the shogunate in 1333. The lands of the nobles who answered the call of Go-Toba were seized and redistributed to supporters of the Hojos, who emerged as the unchallenged rulers of the whole of Japan.
With all of the killings in 1219, the line of Minamoto Yoritomo was extinct and therefore the Hojos decided to appoint Kujo Yoritsune in 1226, a scion of the Fujiwara clan, and a distant relative of Yoritomo, as the next shogun, with Hojo Yoshitoki actually controlling the government. Kujo Yoritsune (1218–56) was eight years old at the time of his appointment and was deposed when he was 26. Kujo Yoritsugu (1239–56), who was only five years old, replaced him, and was deposed seven years later.
For the next shoguns the Hojo clan chose members of the Japanese imperial family with Prince Munetaka (1242–74) as shogun from 1252 until 1266, Prince Koreyasu (1264–1326) as shogun from 1266 until 1289, Prince Hisaki (1276–1328) as shogun from 1289 until 1308, and Prince Morikuni (1301–33) as shogun from 1308 until his death. All were appointed shoguns when they were children, and most were deposed as young men. They were all puppets of the Hojos and were chosen only out of regard for their lineage.
In 1232 the shikken, Hojo Yasutoki, drew up the Joei Shikimoku (Joei Formulary), which laid down 51 articles defining, for the first time, the legal powers of the shogunate that ruled through the Hyojo-shu (Council of State). Some 17 years later a judicial court was established to allow legal decisions to be made more quickly and with greater fairness.
With the Kamakura Shogunate effectively controlled by the Hojos, and with the very easy quelling of the Jokyu disturbance, the greatest challenge to the whole system of government in Japan was not any internal force but the emerging threat of a Mongol invasion, which took place in 1274.
Mongol Invasions and Society During the Kamakura Shogunate
The Japanese managed to prevent the Mongols from encroaching too far inland and were saved when a storm destroyed many of the Mongol ships, forcing them to retreat. The invasion in 1281 was more serious, with the Mongols sending two fleets to Japan. However these faced not only a much stronger Japanese force behind entrenched positions at Hakata Bay, but also a typhoon, which destroyed much of the Mongol fleet, again forcing them to quickly withdraw.
The defeat of both Mongol invasions did show the military supremacy of the Japanese, but also the intervention of the weather on both occasions was seen as a divine message. However concern about future invasion resulted in vast expenditures on weaponry and defensive positions, as well as a move to isolate Japan from China and Korea, from which the invading Mongol navies had sailed.
The importance of the Kamakura Shogunate was certainly not in the political power that was wielded by the shoguns—for most of the time they were puppets—but in the societal changes, or to some extent the lack of them, that occurred in Japan.
The Japanese feudal system was entrenched with warriors—the samurai class—ruling unchallenged, spending their time in training, military exercises, occasional fighting, and for a small number, in learning and the arts. The samurai ruled unquestioned over villages where peasants labored in the fields to produce the crops, and a small number of skilled artisans made the implements necessary for agriculture and war.
Any move to create a large middle class in Japan was quashed, and there was no real incentive for innovation. Samurai were occasionally rewarded with extra land, but as the fighting ceased, less and less land was redistributed by the shikken.
It was only in times such as the Jokyu disturbance that the shikken managed to confiscate enough land to placate ambitious samurai. There were regular disputes between the samurai and the farmers and hence the legal codifications of the Hojos during the 1230s and 1240s managed to establish rules for dealing with these problems.
The only other development from the Kamakura Shogunate was the increase in the belief in Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism and also Neo-Confucianism ideas that had come from China. These led to great changes in religion and the emergence of a large number of Buddhist sects, some of which preached extreme asceticism.