Kamakura-era armour

The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) began when the Minamoto clan defeated the Taira clan at the Battle of Dannoura (Shimonoseki) in 1185. Some mark beginning of the period when Yorimoto Minamoto became Japan’s first shogun in 1192. The Kamakura Period was an era in which bushido (the way of the samurai) was conceived and developed and the Imperial family was kept out of sight in Kyoto while shoguns ruled through puppet emperors. With the demise of the Chinese-style bureaucratic state a feudal system was conceived that took its place.

The Yorimoto shogunate considered the pursuit of the arts by the Imperial family and Heian Period nobility to be wasteful and decadent. It encouraged austerity and the pursuit of the martial arts and used its strength to bring landlords under their control and restore control over Japan. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Kamakura period was marked by a gradual shift in power from the nobility to landowning military men in the provinces. This era was a time of dramatic transformation in the politics, society, and culture of Japan. The bakufu, or government by warrior chieftains (shogun) or their regents, controlled the country from their base in Kamakura, near modern Tokyo. Because the emperor remained the titular head of state in his capital in Kyoto, a binary system of government, whereby emperors reigned but shoguns ruled, was established and endured for the next seven centuries. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Asian Art. "Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods (1185–1392)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]

The Kamakura period marks the transition to the Japanese "medieval" era, a nearly 700-year period in which the emperor, the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but were largely relegated to ceremonial functions. Civil, military, and judicial matters were controlled by the bushi class, the most powerful of whom was the de facto national ruler. The term feudalism is generally used to describe this period, being accepted by scholars as applicable to medieval Japan as well as to medieval Europe. Both had land-based economies, vestiges of a previously centralized state, and a concentration of advanced military technologies in the hands of a specialized fighting class. Lords required the loyal services of vassals, who were rewarded with fiefs of their own. The fief holders exercised local military rule and public power related to the holding of land. This period in Japan differed from the old shoen system in its pervasive military emphasis. [Source: Library of Congress *]

See Separate Article on the subject: MONGOL INVASION OF JAPAN

Kamakura-era Aizen mandala


Websites and Sources: Essay on Kamakura and Muromachi Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Kamakura Period Wikipedia ; ; Wikipedia article on Muromachi Period Wikipedia ; Tale of Heike site meijigakuin.ac.jp ; Kamakura City Websites: Kamakura Today kamakuratoday.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Samurai Era in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; Artelino Article on Samurai artelino.com ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com

Kamakura Period Imperial Rulers (1185–1333)


Go-Toba (1183–1198).

Tsuchimikado (1198–1210).

Juntoku (1210–1221).

Chukyo (1221).

Go-Horikawa (1221–1232).

Shijo (1232–1242).

Go-Saga (1242–1246).

Go-Fukakusa (1246–1259).

Kameyama (1259–1274).

Go-Uda (1274–1287).

Fushimi (1287–1298).

Go-Fushimi (1298–1301).

Go-Nijo (1301–1308).

Hanazono (1308–1318).

[Source: Yoshinori Munemura, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org]

Rise of the Military Class in Heian-Era Japan (794-1185)

Under the early courts, when military conscription had been centrally controlled, military affairs had been taken out of the hands of the provincial aristocracy. But as the system broke down after 792, local power holders again became the primary source of military strength. Shoen holders had access to manpower and, as they obtained improved military technology (such as new training methods, more powerful bows, armor, horses, and superior swords) and faced worsening local conditions in the ninth century, military service became part of shoen life. Not only the shoen but also civil and religious institutions formed private guard units to protect themselves. Gradually, the provincial upper class was transformed into a new military elite based on the ideals of the bushi (warrior) or samurai (literally, one who serves). [Source: Library of Congress *]

Bushi interests were diverse, cutting across old power structures to form new associations in the tenth century. Mutual interests, family connections, and kinship were consolidated in military groups that became part of family administration. In time, large regional military families formed around members of the court aristocracy who had become prominent provincial figures. These military families gained prestige from connections to the imperial court and court-granted military titles and access to manpower. The Fujiwara, Taira, and Minamoto were among the most prominent families supported by the new military class. *

Shoguns and Minamoto Clan Take Power

Minamoto no Yorimasa

In the mid 12th century, control of Japan was gradually shifting away from the Imperial aristocracy into the hands of the newly emerging warrior class, the samurai. Two powerful warrior clans, the Minamato (Genji) and the Taira (Heike), fought for dominance. In a series of battles the Heike won and established themselves on Kyoto as the de facto leaders of Japan.

In 1180 the Genji staged a rebellion lead by the warrior poet Minamoto Yorimasa but were defeated with Yorimasa committing seppuku ritual suicide. Yorimasa, a legend goes, was worried about his head being paraded as a trophy so before his death he ordered that his head be placed in a bag attached to his most trusted horse with his most trusted retainer. The horse traveled east from Kyoto past Edo (Tokyo) and made it to Chiba, where the horse finally gave out and died. The head was buried there in a farmer’s’s field. The grave is still tended there today.

The victory of the Minamotos over the Taira clan at the Battle of Dannoura (Shimonoseki) in 1185 marked the end of the Imperial throne as a source of political power. Although the imperial family continued to exist, they were ensconced in the Imperial palace in Kyoto and were involved very little in governing Japan. The Emperor became a revered spiritual authority without any political power and the country was governed by local warlords. The provincial warlords that took power away from Imperial family created a dual system of government, with a ceremonial branch headed by the Emperor and a feudal branch ruled by the warlords. During the Japanese feudal period (1192-1868) sometimes Japan was controlled by competing warlords; other times it was unified under a single leader, the shogun.

Yoritomo Establishes the Kamakura Shogunate

Once Minamoto Yoritomo had consolidated his power, he established a new government at his family home in Kamakura. He called his government a Shogunate (tent government), but because he was given the title seii taishogun by the emperor, the government is often referred to in Western literature as the shogunate. Yoritomo followed the Fujiwara form of house government and had an administrative board, a board of retainers, and a board of inquiry. After confiscating Taira estates in central and western Japan, he had the imperial court appoint stewards for the estates and constables for the provinces. [Source: Library of Congress*]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “After victory over the Taira, Minamoto Yoritomo set up his headquarters in Kamakura, a city in the general vicinity of present-day Tokyo. Yoritomo claimed to be in complete support of the imperial court, and all evidence indicates that he did respect imperial traditions. Nevertheless, because of Yoritomo’s military power, talks with the imperial court were actually negotiations regarding the division of power. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“In 1192, the emperor bestowed on Yoritomo the title sei'i taishogun, which means "barbarian-conquering great general." Thereupon, Yoritomo established a military government at his base in Kamakura. His title is usually abbreviated to shogun, and his military government is commonly known by its Japanese term “bakufu,” which is so common that we will use it here. The title Shogun may sound impressive, but, being a military post, it was not high on the list of court offices. It seems that Yoritomo was willing to go without a high office or title from the imperial court, which must have pleased the aristocrats, and set up his headquarters far from Kyoto. In return, however, the court delegated substantial real authority to him.” ~

Yorimoto as Shogun

Minamoto Yoritomo

As shogun, Yoritomo was both the steward and the constable general. The Kamakura Shogunate was not a national regime, however, and although it controlled large tracts of land, there was strong resistance to the stewards. The regime continued warfare against the Fujiwara in the north, but never brought either the north or the west under complete military control. The old court resided in Kyoto, continuing to hold the land over which it had jurisdiction, while newly organized military families were attracted to Kamakura. [Source: Library of Congress] According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Initially, Yoritomo received permission from the court to appoint his own officers as shoen supervisors and as provincial military governors in all of Japan’s eastern provinces. This development in effect created “two different governments” in Japan, each with its own capital. Yoritomo’s Bakufu ruled the east from the city of Kamakura; Go-Shirakawa the cloistered emperor, ruled the western provinces from Kyoto. The imperial capital retained its prestige as the center of high culture. However much the imperial court may have disliked its forced alliance with Yoritomo, the merger actually strengthened imperial authority in the western provinces because now the imperial court had a powerful backer. Yoritomo’s appointees also restored shoen revenues to the Kyoto aristocratic holders of shiki, though there was a discount to pay for the bakufu-appointed overseer. (As time went on, however, these overseers became a major problem for shiki-holding aristocrats, as we will see later.) The alliance between the civilian and military governments also gave legitimacy to Yoritomo’s Bakufu. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~]

According to Samurai Archives: Yoritomo did not take over the imperial government, but it gave him authority for his doing whatever he wanted to do, and his government through control of his own retainers was the only effective government in Japan. His Board of Inquiry (monchûjo ), which had a pretty good reputation for fairness, was used and accepted by even those not his retainers. Yoritomo accepted a number of comparatively low court ranks, including that of "Barbarian-expelling Generalissimo" Seii Tai Shogun (1192). By this he was formally delegated with the emperor’s military authority. [Source: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

Thomas Hoover wrote in “Zen Culture”: The form of government Yoritomo instituted is generally, if somewhat inaccurately, described as feudalism. The provincial warrior families managed estates worked by peasants whose role was similar to that of the European serfs of the same period. The estate-owning barons were mounted warriors, new figures in Japanese history, who protected their lands and their family honor much as did the European knights. But instead of glorifying chivalry and maidenly honor, they respected the rules of battle and noble death. Among the fiercest fighters the world has seen, they were masters of personal combat, horsemanship, archery, and the way of the sword. Their principles were fearlessness, loyalty, honor, personal integrity, and contempt for material wealth. They became known as samurai, and they were the men whose swords were ruled by Zen. [Source : “Zen Culture” by Thomas Hoover, Random House, 1977]

Kamakura Shogunate

The Kamakura shogunate was the first of three shogunates to govern Japan. Based at Kamakura, roughly 30 miles southwest of the villages that would later develop into Edo and then Tokyo, the Kamakura shogunate was founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo following his victory over the Taira clan in the Gempei War of 1180-1185. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

Minamoto Yoritomo procession

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: First, the Kamakura bakufu “supervised Japan’s warrior households, which was no simple task. Second, it supervised local officials and shoen managers. Third, it adjudicated disputes involving warriors or warriors versus civilian aristocrats (the imperial court continued to adjudicate disputes involving civilian aristocrats and ordinary people residing in Kyoto). The bakufu, in other words, had become Japan’s largest legal organization, and its courts were constantly backlogged with disputes. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

According to Samurai Archives: This first shogunate left much intact from the preceding Imperial period, including tax structures and the system of shôen, or private estates. The bakufu was a rather small government, with only three offices: one administering and enforcing shogunate policy, one overseeing shogunal retainers, and one which dealt with judicial matters. Shôen holders continued to enjoy their tax exemptions, collecting and keeping taxes within their own lands, and taxes likewise continued to be collected in much the same way as they had been under the Heian court, with a portion of the taxes going to the shogunate and its retainers, and the remainder going to the Imperial Court. Shogunal retainers are believed to have numbered only around 2,000 in the period from 1185-1221, and around 3,000 afterwards. The total population of the archipelago may have been around 9.75 million in 1300. |~|

“The Imperial Court retained considerable power during this period, with some scholars describing the Kamakura period as one of dual governance. While the shogunate appointed military governors (shugo) and stewards (jitô) to the provinces, the Court continued to appoint civil governors (kokushi), who also worked to govern these regions and to collect taxes; the Court also continued to exercise more direct control over the areas around Kyoto. Powerful Buddhist temples, retired emperors, and court nobles also continued to wield considerable wealth and influence. |~|

“During this time, was not uncommon for women in samurai families to be trained in archery and other martial arts, and to enjoy considerable legal rights on a par with men, including the ability to inherit and own property; in a few cases, women even inherited formal titles and posts. As the importance of military service and warrior mentality more generally gained strength, however, women began to lose such legal privileges, and began to be pushed into a more domestic role. As the size and strength of a family’s land holdings became more important, the practice of dividing one’s land among all of one’s sons and daughters was replaced with the practice of male primogeniture, in which the eldest son (or son-in-law, adopted as heir) inherited all.” |~|

Rise of the Hojo Clan After Minamoto Yoritomo

Yoritomo died after falling from his horse and was buried at the foot of Ôkura-yama in Kamakura. His sons briefly held power, but was quickly undermined by his wife’s family, the Hojo clan, who wiped out of the potential successors from Yorimoto’s family. The Hojo clan ruled for more than a century but was weakened by the cost of defending Japan against the attack by Kublai Khan.

Despite a strong beginning, Yoritomo failed to consolidate the leadership of his family on a lasting basis. Intrafamily contention had long existed within the Minamoto, although Yoritomo had eliminated most serious challengers to his authority. When he died suddenly in 1199, his eldest son Minamoto no Yoriie became shogun and nominal head of the Minamoto, but Yoriie was unable to control the other eastern bushi families. Yoriie was succeeded as shogun by Yoritomo’s second son Minamoto no Sanetomo. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Yoritomo died relatively young... At the time of his death he had two small sons and had not made arrangements for who would succeed him to leadership of the Minamoto family and the other families allied with it. Yoritomo’s principal wife, Hojo Masako (1157-1225), took advantage of the situation. Along with her father, Hojo Tokimasa (1138-1215), she used her power over Yoritomo’s sons to place members of the Hojo family into key leadership positions within Kamakura’s Bakufu. Gradually, the Hojo family gained de facto control of the Bakufu. Yoritomo’s descendants continued to become Shogun, but they were actually puppets of a Hojo regent, who ruled the Bakufu from behind the scenes.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

By the early thirteenth century, a regency had been established for the shogun by his maternal grandparents-- members of the Hojo family, a branch of the Taira that had allied itself with the Minamoto in 1180. Under the Hojo, the Shogunate became powerless, and the shogun, often a member of the Fujiwara family or even an imperial prince, was merely a figurehead. With the protector of the emperor a figurehead himself, strains emerged between Kyoto and Kamakura.

Struggle Between Kamakura and Kyoto

Hojo clam flag

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Around the year 1220, Japan had two governments, each ostensibly headed by someone who was in fact nearly powerless--the emperor in Kyoto and the Shogun in Kamakura. The real power in each case lay behind the scenes--the cloistered emperor in Kyoto and the Hojo regent in Kamakura. This type of arrangement is still common in Japan today, whether in the realm of government or in business. It is common to find someone with a lofty title but very little real power serving as a ceremonial figurehead for one or more persons behind the scenes, often with humble titles, who actually wield power and make decisions. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“Until 1221, the power balance between the imperial court and the Bakufu was about even. The Bakufu, however, had greater potential power since government is ultimately based on coercive force. In the early Kamakura period, two important power struggles took place, one in each capital. In Kamakura, the brother and sister team of Hojo Yoshitoki (1163-1224) and Hojo Masako seized power from their father Tokimasa and (really) retired him. In Kyoto, Emperor Go-Toba "retired" at age 18 and then set to work eliminating the influence of rival court factions. By 1202, he was in complete control of his own cloistered government and was on the fast track to becoming master of the whole capital. Go-Toba began to compete with Kamakura in certain ways. For example, he recruited prominent Bakufu retainers for his personal guard units, thus providing an alternative source of patronage for warriors. Both the Hojo siblings and Go-Toba were ambitious. ~

“Go-Toba and Hojo Masako entered into negotiations for a marriage link between the imperial court and the Bakufu. Masako’s plan was for one of Go-Toba’s sons to be adopted into the Minamoto family and become shogun. Go-Toba balked at the plan after he learned of the assassination of the third shogun, Minamoto Sanetomo (1192-1219), for not cooperating with the Hojo. The bakufu responded by implied threats and other forms of pressure, and, finally, Go-Toba was forced to allow an imperial princess to marry the Hojo-controlled shogun. Go-Toba decided at this point to go to war and destroy the Bakufu.” ~

Kamakura Government Gains Upper Hand After the Jokyo War

In 1221 a war — the Jokyu Incident — broke out between the cloistered emperor and the Hojo regent. The Hojo forces easily won the war, and the imperial court was brought under direct Shogunate control. The shogun’s constables gained greater civil powers, and the court was obliged to seek Kamakura’s approval for all of its actions. Although deprived of political power, the court was allowed to retain extensive estates with which to sustain the imperial splendor the Shogunate needed to help sanction its rule. [Source: Library of Congress] According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Go-Toba “quietly raised an army from imperial shoen and Buddhist temples and attacked suddenly in 1221. The attack initially caught the Hojo family off guard, but they soon rallied and defeated Go-Toba’s forces in what is known as the Jokyu War (or Jokyu Disturbance). The fighting lasted approximately a month. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“When word spread of the defeat of the imperial forces, lawlessness broke out in several western provinces as local warrior groups took advantage of the situation. This and similar incidents made the bakufu leaders realize that however much they might want to exact revenge on the imperial court, they still needed its authority to maintain order in the west. Therefore, the bakufu did not make radical changes in the imperial court. The changes it did make, however, were significant. After exiling Go-Toba to a remote location, the bakufu abolished the court of the cloistered emperor. Retired emperors now really retired. Second, the bakufu posted an overseer in Kyoto and reserved the right to intervene in high-level personnel decisions in the imperial court. Finally, the bakufu forced the court to allow it to post shoen managers and provincial military governors in the western provinces, just as it had earlier done in the east. ~

“From this point on, the balance of power shifted firmly in favor of the warriors. The imperial court continued to exist, but it gradually lost power and prestige until the nineteenth century. For reasons we examine in HIST 481, from the mid-nineteenth century, the imperial court gradually regained its prestige, as well as some of its power. During the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, It was warrior government and institutions that most shaped the direction of Japanese society. As political power shifted from civilians to warriors, institutional importance shifted from the imperial court to the bakufu.

Hojo Regency

Hojo Masako

The Hojo clan ruled for more than a century but was weakened by the cost of defending Japan against the attack by Kublai Khan. Several significant administrative achievements were made during the Hojo regency. In 1225 the Council of State was established, providing opportunities for other military lords to exercise judicial and legislative authority at Kamakura. The Hojo regent presided over the council, which was a successful form of collective leadership. [Source: Library of Congress]

The adoption of Japan’s first military code of law--the Joei Code--in 1232 reflected the profound transition from court to militarized society. While legal practices in Kyoto were still based on 500-year-old Confucian principles, the Joei Code was a highly legalistic document that stressed the duties of stewards and constables, provided means for settling land disputes, and established rules governing inheritances. It was clear and concise, stipulated punishments for violators of its conditions, and remained in effect for the next 635 years. * According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: A period of approximately fifty years of relative peace and prosperity followed the Jokyu War. The Hojo regents provided excellent leadership for the bakufu, and the bakufu oversaw the operations of the imperial court...Despite the prevalence of disputes over shoen (estate) revenues and general aristocratic anxiety, there were no major problems until the late 1260s. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

The post-Jokyu era was a difficult time for many court aristocrats. Kato describes aristocratic reactions to the reality of warrior power as follows: The aristocracy reacted in two basic ways to the military power of Kamakura. The first, as we have already seen, was to seize every opportunity to set in motion plots aimed at resurrecting the old system. The unsuccessful Jokyu uprising of 1221, led by the Retired Emperor Go-Toba (1180-1239), was a typical example of this reaction. The second reaction is well illustrated by the policy of Fujiwara Kanezane (1149-1207) and his close relationship with Yoritomo; Kanezane’s policy being to preserve the autonomy of Kyoto by compromise with Kamakura and to maintain for the aristocracy as many as possible of the special privileges, especially ‘shoen', they had enjoyed under the old system. Many individual aristocrats adopted this second attitude as a means of self-preservation. [Source: Shuichi Kato, Japanese Literature, p. 239.]

Kamakura Bakufu Documents

Document 14 of the Kamakura Bakufu — Yoritomo Settles a Dispute over the Possession of a Jitō Shiki, ordered: to Taira Michitaka, 3d year of Bunji [1187], 5th month, 9th day — reads: “That the false claim of Bingo Provisional Governor [“gon no kami”] Takatsune is denied; and that the “jitō shiki “of Sonezaki and Sakai Befu’s Yukitake Myō, within Kii District, Hizen Province, is confirmed. Because of the dispute between Takatsune and Michitaka over the aforesaid places, the relative merits of the two parties have been investigated and judged, and Michitaka’s case has been found justified. He shall forthwith be confirmed as “jitō”. However, as concerns the stipulated taxes [“shotō”] and the annual rice levey [“nengu”], [the “jitō”’s] authority, following precedent, shall be subject to the orders of the priprietor [“honjo no gechi”]. It is recorded in Michitaka’s documentary evidence [“shōmon”] that originally these places were Heike lands. Therefore, in the pattern of confiscated holdings [“mokkan”], management should proceed accordingly. It is commanded thus. Residents shall know this and abide by it. Wherefore, this order.” [Source: “The Kamakura Bakufu: A Study in Documents,” by Jeffrey P. Mass (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), 40, 49 158 /~]

Document 24 of the Kamakura Bakufu — The Bakufu Confirms a Woman as Jitō, 3d year of Kempō [1215], 3d month, 22d day — reads: “The chancellery of the shogun’s house orders: to the residents of three “gō “within Nitta Estate, Kōzuke Province; Iwamatsu, Shimo Imai, Tanaka. In accord with the last will [“yuzurijō”] of the husband, Yoshikane, his widow shall forthwith be “jitō”. The aforesaid person, in accordance with the will, is appointed to this “shiki”. As to the fixed annual tax and other services, these shall be paid in accordance with precedent. It is commanded thus. Wherefore, this order.” /~\ Document 138 of the Kamakura Bakufu — the Shugo’s Authority Is Described, 1199 29th day — reads: Koyama “saemon no jō “Tomomasa has been appointed to the “shugo “post of Harima Province. The housemen of this province are to obey Tomomasa, perform the imperial guard service, and in general show their loyalty. Tomomasa’s authority is limited to rebels and murderers; he is not to interfere in provincial administration [“kokumu”] or judge the suites of the people. And he is not, under any pretext, to cause difficulties for the notables of this province. He has been apprised of these instructions.” /~\

Mongol Invasions of Japan

Samurai ships used against the Mongols

The repulsions of two Mongol invasions were momentous events in Japanese history. Japanese relations with China had been terminated in the mid-ninth century after the deterioration of late Tang China and the turning inward of the Heian court. Some commercial contacts were maintained with southern China in later centuries, but Japanese pirates made the open seas dangerous. At a time when the Shogunate had little interest in foreign affairs and ignored communications from China and Koryo (as Korea was then known), news arrived in 1268 of a new Mongol regime in Beijing. Its leader, Khubilai Khan, demanded that the Japanese pay tribute to the new Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and threatened reprisals if they failed to do so. Unused to such threats, Kyoto raised the diplomatic counter of Japan’s divine origin, rejected the Mongol demands, dismissed the Korean messengers, and started defensive preparations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

After further unsuccessful entreaties, the first Mongol invasion took place in 1274. More than 600 ships carried a combined Mongol, Chinese, and Korean force of 23,000 troops armed with catapults, combustible missiles, and bows and arrows. In fighting, these soldiers grouped in close cavalry formations against samurai, who were accustomed to one-on-one combat. Local Japanese forces at Hakata, on northern Kyushu, defended against the superior mainland force, which, after one day of fighting was decimated by the onslaught of a sudden typhoon. Khubilai realized that nature, not military incompetence, had been the cause of his forces' failure so, in 1281, he launched a second invasion. Seven weeks of fighting took place in northwestern Kyushu before another typhoon struck, again destroying the Mongol fleet.

Although Shinto priests attributed the two defeats of the Mongols to a "divine wind" (kamikaze), a sign of heaven’s special protection of Japan, the invasion left a deep impression on the Shogunate leaders. Long-standing fears of the Chinese threat to Japan were reinforced, and the Korean Peninsula became regarded as "an arrow pointed at the heart of Japan." The Japanese victory, however, gave the bushi a sense of fighting superiority that remained with Japan’s soldiers until 1945. The victory also convinced the bushi of the value of the Shogunate form of government. *

The Mongol war had been a drain on the economy, and new taxes had to be levied to maintain defensive preparations for the future. The invasions also caused disaffection among those who expected recompense for their help in defeating the Mongols. There were no lands or other rewards to be given, however, and such disaffection, combined with overextension and the increasing defense costs, led to a decline of the Kamakura Shogunate. Additionally, inheritances had divided family properties, and landowners increasingly had to turn to moneylenders for support. Roving bands of ronin further threatened the stability of the Shogunate. *

For More Information on the Mongol Invasions See Separate Article on the subject: MONGOL INVASION OF JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Social Upheaval After the Mongol Invasions

The Mongol Invasions proved to be the beginning of the end for the Kamakura bakufu. To begin with, the invasions exacerbated pre-existing social tensions: “Those dissatisfied with the status quo believed that the crisis provided an unprecedented opportunity for advancement. By serving generals and . . . [shugo], these men could ignore the commands of their family chieftains (soryo) . . . Takezaki Suenaga, for example, disobeyed the commands of his relatives in order to receive lands and rewards from ranking bakufu officials such as Adachi Yasumori. . . . Soryo generally resented the creeping autonomy of some family members, which they perceived to stem from encroaching bakufu authority. [Source: “In Little Need of Divine Intervention,” p. 269.)

The Kamakura government was able to keep the world’s greatest fighting force from conquering Japan but it emerged from the conflict broke and unable to pay its soldiers. Disenchantment among the warrior class greatly weakened the Kamakura shogun. The Hojo reacted to the ensuing chaos by trying to place more power among the various great family clans. To further weaken the Kyoto court, the Shogunate decided to allow two contending imperial lines — known as the Southern Court or junior line and the Northern Court or senior line--to alternate on the throne.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Until the time of the invasions, all warfare had taken place within the Japanese islands between competing groups of local warriors. This situation meant that there were always spoils, typically land, taken from the losing side. The victorious general would reward his officers and key allies with grants of this land and other wealth taken in battle. The idea that sacrifice in military service should be rewarded had, by the thirteenth century, become deeply ingrained in Japanese warrior culture. In the case of the Mongol invasions, of course, there were no spoils to divide up as rewards. Sacrifices, on the other hand, had been high. Not only were the expenses for the first two invasions high, the bakufu regarded a third invasion as a distinct possibility. Costly patrols and defense preparations, therefore, continued for several years after 1281. The bakufu did all it could to equalize the burden and used what limited land it could spare to reward those individuals or groups who had made the greatest sacrifices in the defense effort; however, these measures were inadequate to prevent serious grumbling among many of the warriors. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“There was a sharp rise in lawlessness and banditry after the second invasion. At first, most of these bandits were poorly armed civilians, sometimes called #akuto ("gangs of thugs")# ??. Despite repeated orders from the bakufu, local warriors were unable, or unwilling, to suppress these bandits. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, these bandits had become more numerous. Furthermore, it seems that impoverished warriors now made up the bulk of the bandits. The Kamakura bakufu was losing its grip on the warriors, particularly in outlying areas and in the western provinces.” ~

Go-Daigo and Demise of the Kamakura Shoganate

Go Daigo

Allowing two contending imperial lines to coexist worked for several successions until a member of the Southern Court ascended to the throne as Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318- 39). Go-Daigo wanted to overthrow the Shogunate, and he openly defied Kamakura by naming his own son his heir. In 1331 the Shogunate exiled Go-Daigo, but loyalist forces rebelled. They were aided by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-58), a constable who turned against Kamakura when dispatched to put down Go-Daigo’s rebellion. At the same time, another eastern chieftain rebelled against the Shogunate, which quickly disintegrated, and the Hojo were defeated. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In addition to problems with bandits, the bakufu faced renewed problems with the imperial court. The complex details need not detain us here, but the bakufu had gotten itself entangled in a bitter succession dispute between two branches of the imperial family. The bakufu decided that each branch should alternate emperors, which only prolonged the dispute from one reign to the next and also caused increasing resentment toward the bakufu in the court. Go-Daigo a strong-willed emperor (who liked wild parties), came to the throne in 1318. He soon became convinced of the need to change the imperial institution radically. Recognizing the almost total militarization of society, Go-Daigo sought to re-make the emperorship so that it would be at the head of both civilian and military governments. In 1331, he began a rebellion against the bakufu. It quickly ended in failure, and the bakufu exiled Go-Daigo to a remote island. Go-Daigo escaped, however, and became a magnet around which all the many dissatisfied groups in Japan rallied. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

End of the Kamakura Period

The Kamakura period came to end in 1333 when thousands of warriors and civilians were killed when an Imperial forced led by Nitta Yoshisada defeated the shogun’s army and set fire to Kamakura. One regent for the shogun and 870 of his men were trapped in Toshoji. Rather than give up they took their own lives. Some jumped into the fires. Others committed suicide and killed their comrades. The blood reportedly flowed into the river.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “After Hojo Tokimune died in 1284, the bakufu suffered intermittent rounds of internal disputes, some of which resulted in bloodshed. By the time of Go-Daigo’s rebellion, it lacked sufficient internal unity to deal with the crisis effectively. As the opposition forces grew stronger, bakufu leaders assembled a vast army under the command of Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358). In 1333, this army set out to attack Go-Daigo’s forces in Kyoto. Takauji had apparently made a deal with Go-Daigo, however, for midway to Kyoto he turned his army around and attacked Kamakura instead. The attack destroyed the bakufu. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Nambuko Period

The period after the destruction of Kamakura is sometimes called the NambokuPeriod (Nanbokucho Period, Period of Southern and Northern Courts, 1333-1392). Overlapping with the early Muromachi Period, it was relatively brief time in history that began with the restoration of Emperor Godaigo in 1334 after his army defeated Kamakura army during its second try. The Emperor Godaigo favored the priesthood and aristocracy at the expense of the warrior class, which rose in revolt under the leadership of Takauji Ashikaga. Ashikaga defeated Godaigo at Kyoto. He then installed a new emperor and named himself as shogun. Godaigo set up a rival court in Yoshino in 1336. The conflict between Northern Court of Ashikaga and Southern Court of Godaigo lasted for more than 60 years.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In 1333, a coalition of supporters of Emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339), who sought to restore political power to the throne, toppled the Kamakura regime. Unable to rule effectively, this new royal government was short-lived. In 1336, a member of a branch family of the Minamoto clan, Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), usurped control and drove Go-Daigo from Kyoto. Takauji then set a rival on the throne and established a new military government in Kyoto. Meanwhile, Go-Daigo traveled south and took refuge in Yoshino. There he established the Southern Court, in contrast to the rival Northern Court supported by Takauji. This time of constant strife that lasted from 1336 to 1392 is known as the Nanbokucho period. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Asian Art. "Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods (1185–1392)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Go-Daigo did not give up his claim to the throne. He and his supporters fled south and set up a military base in the rugged mountains of Yoshino in present-day Nara Prefecture. There they waged war against the Ashikaga bakufu until 1392. Because there were two competing imperial courts, the period from roughly 1335 until reunification of the courts in 1392 is known as the period of the Northern and Southern Courts. During this half century plus, the tide of battle ebbed and flowed with victories for each side, until gradually, the fortunes of Go-Daigo’s southern court declined, and its supporters dwindled. The Ashikaga bakufu prevailed. (At least this is the "official" textbook version of these events. In reality, the opposition between the northern and southern courts lasted much longer, at least 130 years, and, to some small extent, it continues to this day. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~] “After considerable maneuvering, Takauji managed to drive Go-Daigo out of the capital and installed a different member of the imperial family as emperor. Go-Daigo set up his imperial court to the south of Kyoto. Takauji propped up a rival member of the imperial clan as emperor and for himself took the title shogun. He tried to establish a bakufu along the lines of the former government in Kamakura, and set himself up in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. It is for this reason that the period from 1334 to 1573 is known as either the Muromachi period or the Ashikaga period.” ~

Nanbokucho Period Imperial Rulers (1336–1392)

Go-Daigo (1318–1339).

Kogen (Hokucho) (1331–1333).

Komyo (Hokucho) (1336–1348).

Go-Murakami (Nancho) (1339–1368).

Suko (Hokucho) (1348–1351).

Go-Kogon (Hokucho) (1352–1371).

Chokei (Nancho) (1368–1383).

Go-Enyu (Hokucho) (1371–1382).

Go-Kameyama (Nancho) (1383–1392).

[Source: Yoshinori Munemura, Independent Scholar, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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