Kamakura Period Japan History

History of Japan Kamakura Period 1192-1333 鎌倉時代

During the Kamakura period:

Kamakura Period of Japanese History.
Kamakura Period of Japanese History

In August 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo was appointed seii taishogun ('barabarian subduing generalissimo') or, more briefly, Shogun, under the new Emperor Go-Toba. He was different from previous 'advisors' to the Emperor (i.e. regents) in that he exercised his power from the town of Kamakura, his Kanto (i.e. present Tokyo area) power base, not Heian (Kyoto). The Fujiwara and then the Taira had both ruled by controlling the Court, but Minamoto Yoritomo ruled 'in parallel' from Kamakura, thus starting the Bakufu: a government by a military man for his military class vassals (kenin). He wielded power till then held by the aristocracy, and controlled the land once controlled by the Crown. Ensuing government represented a mixture of Court (for honors and ritual) and Bakufu (for political) control. Although in virtual control of the Court and demanding the country's direct allegiance, he maintained a formal air of deference to the imperial institution.

At Kamakura, three organs were established to govern:

In spite of its military origins, this kind of government was carried out on civilian lines with little significant change from the way the Fujiwara had ruled: via private organs (i.e. not the throne) over public affairs.

Mongol invasion of Japan.
The Mongol Invasion as shown in a contemporary print
Mongol invasion of Japan.
The Mongol Invasion in a contemporary print 蒙古襲来絵詞

Being a feudal system, the Bakufu depended on the the personal loyalty of the Shogun's vassals for its authority and on his ability to reward them for their good service. Vassals were first limited to those with Minamoto family ties but gradually spread, eventually including as many Taira as Minamoto. Under them were the samurai - a definite rank of soldier in the early days - under whom were further ranks of foot soldiers. The ranks continued into civil life, all the way down to the outcastes and slaves (although the period did see the first stirrings of slaves' gradual emancipation.)

More specifically, the Shogun's authority rested mainly on three groups:

  1. Clansmen and other vassals who had freely afforded him their loyalty from the beginning.
  2. The jito (stewards of shoen private estates) whom he confirmed or appointed. As they gradually wrested control of the shoen away from their legal proprietors, their new position as virtual landowners became hereditary. They owed this position to the Shogun, thus strengthening his feudal authority at the expense of the independence of the old private estates. As his loyal retainers in the localities, they could be used to assert his will there more effectively than bureaucrats in Kyoto ever could.
  3. Talented and experienced administrators who were keen to come to Kamakura to exercise the talents of theirs often subordinated to the niceties of hereditary rank in Kyoto. Thus an efficient civil service developed in this ostensibly military-based capital.
Modern History of Japan.

The loyalty of the vassals had to be maintained by ensuring their wellbeing and rewarding them for service.

Shogun Yoritomo died in 1199, but as his putative heirs were too young to rule, control was taken by a council headed by his father-in-law Tokimasa Hojo (a Taira! - albeit the chief executive of Minamoto authority). Great authority, however, was wielded behind the scenes by Yoritomo's wife Masako Hojo who, as the "nun shogun," exercised cloistered rule. Hereafter power remained in Hojo hands under what is known as the Hojo Regency. After the settlement of ingroup and intergroup differences, marked by treachery and bloodshed, the Hojo Regents' hold on power was generally more secure than what Yoritomo had enjoyed. A crucial incident was the 1221 Jokyu Disturbance when the (only formally) retired and politically skilful Emperor Go-Toba, taking advantage of anti-Bakufu sentiment tried, but failed, to wrest back imperial power by force of arms. Go-Toba was banished to what is now Oki Shrine on Nakanoshima in the remote Oki Islands and over 3000 manors confiscated and redistributed to loyal vassals, greatly strengthening the Bakufu's hand. From now the Court - while its formal authority was openly respected - was intricately controlled. The country was secure and peaceful and, perhaps for the first time in history, Japan was ruled efficiently and by law.

In 1232 Yasutoki, the third Hojo Regent, promulgated the Goseibai (or Joei) Shikimoku, or 'Formulary of Adjudications'. This document codified the whole feudal system of the time and marked the formal abolition of the almost 600-year-old and completely defunct ritsuryo system. Shortly after this the traditionally politically recalcitrant monastries were crushed in the 1236 Kofukuji affair and made to submit to Bakufu authority. The Bakufu was now supreme.

It was during the Kamakura era that bushido - 'the 'way of the warrior' - flowered based on an absolute loyalty to one's master, an intense pride in one's pedigree, and a deeply held moral duty or giri to hold to the good rather than yielding to the strong.

The Mongol Invasions

In 1274 the great Mongol leader Kublai Khan, who from 1259 ruled China as Emperor, invaded Japan, having had his demands for Japanese recognition of his sovereignty rejected. But only a day after landing a fierce storm hit and, not wanting to be stranded should things go wrong, his troops returned to their ships and left with great loss of life due to shipwreck. After even more pointed Japanese rejections in which the Mongol envoys were executed he invaded a second time in 1281. During the interval the Bakufu had put enormous effort and resources into defense. Therefore not only were the invaders unable to make much headway, but after about 7 weeks of fighting a hurricane destroyed their fleet. Rightly fearing a third attack, the Bakufu maintained the country's economically draining war-footing until Khan's death in 1294: in all for 20 continuous years.

The economy grew during these years thanks to demand for goods stimulated by the wealth of a minority of vassals as well as by a flourishing trade with China. But this growth did not enrich the majority of Bakufu vassals, as the price they received for their agricultural produce lagged behind the inflation rate. Many of them were deeply in debt thanks to both this and the burden of defense against the Mongols. With more moneylenders assuming the rights belonging to a fief, the bond between vassal and lord was weakened. Moreover, being a feudal system, the Bakufu was deluged with claims for recompense and reward by:

  • the vassals burdened with the cost of defense against the Mongols
  • those who had actually fought the Mongols
  • the influential religious establishments used to receiving lavish gifts regularly.

However the Bakufu too was exhausted by the protracted defense effort and, to everyone's chagrin including its own, had nothing to grant.

'Acts of grace' were passed regularly to ease the plight of indebted warriors, but at the expense of the trust of creditors whose support was vital to the Bakufu.

With the almost simultaneous retreat of the Mongols and death of Tokimune in 1284, not only was lack of reward for military service a common complaint (predominantly in Kyushu) but the quality of Hojo leadership began to decline, leading to an increase in Hojo infighting and erosion of public faith in Hojo ability to administer fairly and effectively.

The Imperial Succession Dispute

What was to become both the overwhelming and underlying crisis of the era was triggered by the death of the emperor Go-Saga in 1272.

Emperors usually officially reigned for a very short time before placing a boychild on the throne and retiring to really rule from behind the scenes not only free of the constrictions of courtly decorum and ritual but free to exercise the power bestowed on them by the enormous imperial wealth they thereby gained access to. This was known as cloister government.

Upon his death, Go-Saga had left his younger son, Kameyama, on the throne at the expense of the elder, Go-Fukakusa, who had been given only a short time on it as a teenager. The younger Kameyama believed his right to rule confirmed by the fact of having been installed at his older brother's expense. Go-Fukakusa believed that having been first installed gave him the right to succeed.

The decision had actually been tacitly left to the Bakufu by Go-Saga; but as well as being distracted with preparations for a third possible Mongol invasion, the Bakufu wished to continue the smooth relations with the Court that had characterized the reign of Go-Saga, so left the decision to the Court.

The next fifty years were characterized by occupation of the throne by junior and senior branch members in alternation and always controversially in a makeshift balancing act maintained by the Bakufu while the respective ambitions and resentments of both sides smoldered on beneath.

The machinations of succession finally reached a point known as the 1317 Bunpo Compromise, resulting in internal factionalization of junior and senior parties, threatening complete fragmentation of the formal center of the nation's authority. The answer was an end to cloister government.

However, the Bakufu lacked the resolve to end it. It no doubt feared the possible ramifications the reaction of the disenfranchised line would have on the national political situation, specifically the creation of an anti-Bakufu party around such a group. In practice, however, it created a worse situation for itself by frustrating both parties.

Go-Daigo and the Fall of the Bakufu

In 1318, Go-Daigo of the younger brother (Kameyama) line, became Emperor: the first non-child Emperor since Kameyama himself. With the backing of his father, the retired Emperor Uda, he
(1) made clear his intention to actually reign, and
(2) nominated his son as his successor.
In doing so he threw down a double gauntlet to the Bakufu in that he (1) made clear his wish to take over the actual government of the country, as well as (2) his ambition to see the still unresolved succession dispute resolved in favor of the junior line.

Most of his 14 years on the throne were spent plotting against the Bakufu, aided by his confidant the Zen master Muso Soseki (AKA Muso Kokushi) and thus facilitating the rise of Zen Buddhism as a political force.

Go-Daigo's son Morinaga was very active on his father's behalf, and took advantage of the anti-Hojo sentiment fermenting in the provinces as revelations of the Bakufu's weakness became clearer. The Bakufu was further weakened with the resignation of the half-mad Regent Hojo Takatoki who left government in the hands of his corrupt advisors.

In a way typical of the times, Go-Daigo was betrayed to the Bakufu in 1331 by an advisor, Fujiwara Sadafusa. The Bakufu response was tellingly tardy. Although it did depose and exile Go-Daigo in favor of the senior branch candidate nominated in the Bunpo Compromise, its weakness was apparent, and both junior and senior branches were now equally resolved to defeat the Bakufu as much an obstacle to the ambitions of each as were each other's.

Go-Daigo managed to escape from exile in spring of 1333. By this time anti-Hojo sentiment was rife in the provinces, and disaffected local chieftains began mounting attacks on its outposts. Attacks on its garrison in the imperial capital Kyoto prompted the Bakufu to call on its powerful eastern vassal Ashikaga Takauji, who was charged with recapturing Go-Daigo. However, Takauji suddenly changed sides and instead attacked the Bakufu garrison in Kyoto and routed it. This triggered a chain of revolt in numerous eastern provinces culminating in the sacking of the seat of the Bakufu, Kamakura, by troops led by Niita Yoshisada in July 1333.

In 1334 Go-Daigo announced the Kemmu Restoration, i.e. the restoration of direct rule from the throne, bypassing the warrior class. He pointedly refused to appoint a new Shogun. Turning back the clock was unrealizable, however.

For all its dreams of controlling the country once more, the Court had no experience of ruling for at least 200 years, and with the demise of the Bakufu, the country descended into virtual anarchy.

Not only this, but Go-Daigo basically misunderstood the motives of the loyalists. Those who sided with him against the Hojo did not do so out of a sense of loyalty to the idea of imperial rule, but rather out of a sense of grievance against the Hojo who not only were unable to guarantee good government, but had not sufficiently rewarded their vassals for their services.

Go-Daigo's greatest mistake, therefore, was to bungle the rewarding of those warriors who had sided with him. In spite of having the vast estates of the Hojo at his disposal, the system whereby it was reallocated to his supporters was inefficient and corrupt, and discontent remained as rife under Go-Daigo as it had under the Hojo.

Furthermore, with the demise of what had still been a relatively strong Bakufu government, the new owners of the land were free to behave as they pleased, and the administration of their estates was marked by a level of corruption and exploitation (the monasteries being the worst offenders) that would not have been tolerated under even the late Hojo government thus breeding peasant antagonism towards the new regime.

Emperor Dodaigo of Japan.
The Emperor Godaigo 後醍醐天皇
Emperor Dodaigo of Japan dreams of ghosts.
The Emperor Godaigo Dreams of Ghosts 後醍醐天皇

A belated counterattack on Kamakura in 1335 by a Hojo remnant, Hojo Tokiyuki, was the pretext for Takauji to request that Go-Daigo name him as Shogun with a commission to leave Kyoto (where, since his defeat of the Hojo, he had been based) and retake Kamakura 'for His Majesty'. Go-Daigo refused, but Takauji left to defeat Tokiyuki anyway, and refused to return to Kyoto.

Takauji Ashikaga saw himself not as the restorer of imperial power, but as the heir of the Bakufu. Once he had crushed the Hojo remnants and secured Kamakura, he set about establishing his own parallel administration there, independent of Kyoto.

An attempt by Go-Daigo to suppress Takauji Ashikaga by sending his loyal warrior Nitta (who had dealt the final death blow against the Bakufu in Kamakura) against him was defeated. Conversely Ashikaga entered Kyoto in February 1336 and put Go-Daigo once more to flight. However, Takauji himself was thoroughly routed only three days later and forced to escape to Kyushu where he quickly overcame local opposition and, within weeks, with a commission from the senior line cloistered emperor, Kogon-In, to 'destroy the rebel Nitta', became master of Kyushu.

With considerable difficulty Takauji moved back east, defeating Nitta and that other even more illustrious loyalist Kusunoki Masashige at the legendary Battle of the Minato River (in present day Hyogo prefecture) on July 5, 1336.

It wasn't until October that Takauji finally achieved the upper hand over Nitta. Loyalist resistance was still rife however, and partly to put an end to the fighting he invited Go-Daigo, in what had proved to be his unassailable monastery on Mt Hieizan, to "come to Kyoto and govern". Go-Daigo accepted the invitation and went to Kyoto, only to discover that it had been no more than a ruse. The now helpless Go-Daigo was forced to retire in favor of the senior line candidate, Komyo, in September and the feud between the two imperial lines started in earnest again.

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