Early History of Kamakura, Japan

Minamoto Era

Roughly 900 years ago in the 12th century, the capital of Japan was Kyoto. Back at the time, there was a big civil war being waged across the country between the Minamoto and the Taira military clans. The Minamoto was also called Genji and the Taira as Heike with its different reading of Chinese characters. The civil war was like Japan's War of Roses, as Genji was represented by 'white' and Heike by 'red' as their symbol colors. The Minamoto clan was almost completely defeated in 1159, and all its family members were either killed or forced to take their own lives except for a few. One of the few was Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the most notable samurai warrior as the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate and the military dictator of Japan. He was the only legitimate child of the Minamotos, and was just 13 years old when his father was killed in 1160. Instead of killing him, the chieftain of the Taira clan banished him away from Kyoto to the countryside of the Izu Peninsula, 90 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. Glorious days of the Taira continued. At age 30, Yoritomo married Masako Hojo (1157-1225), a daughter of a local warlord, and slowly but steadily gained momentum. There were still a number of samurai clans in eastern Japan who supported Yoritomo because of his pedigree.

At the age of 33, Yoritomo initiated the first battle at the foot of the Peninsula against the local warlords who belonged to the Taira clan. Though he was defeated, the news spread quickly, and quite a few Minamoto supporters, mainly in eastern Japan, declared one after another that they would take sides with the Minamotos and fight against the Taira clan. Getting help from plenty of provincial warlords, Yoritomo began to win ensuing skirmishes against the local factions of the Taira, and set up his headquarters in Kamakura 1180. Kamakura was a natural fortress surrounded north, east and west by hills, though no higher than 150 meters, and the south bordered by the ocean, or the Bay of Sagami.

The civil war between the Minamoto led by Yoritomo and the Taira clan got off to a start anew and intensified. Meanwhile, Yoritomo had a cousin Yoshinaka Minamoto (1154-1184) living in Nagano Prefecture. He was also among those who rose up in arms against the Taira clan in 1180. Yoritomo also had a half-brother Yoshitsune (1159-1189) by a different mother. He was living in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, northern part of the Honshu island, under the custody of another powerful clan named Fujiwara. Hearing Yoritomo's rally, he rose to an action and joined the Yoritomo's troops. Yoritomo stayed in Kamakura to watch and check the movement of enemies sporadically scattered around the Tokyo area. Yoshitsune as well as Yoshinaka outmaneuvered the enemy with brilliant strategies, and continued to win a series of overwhelming victories.

After occupying Kyoto, Yoshinaka was nominated and named as the Supreme Commander by the Imperial Court in 1184, which, contrary to his expectation, incurred Yoritomo's distrust against him. In fear that Yoshinaka might obtain the ruling power in Kyoto, Yoritomo ordered Yoshitsune to take his life. Yoshitsune and his troops rushed to Kyoto, and eventually killed Yoshinaka destroying his forces completely.

Not only did Yoshitsune beat Yoshinaka, but he also wiped out the remaining Taira clan to the westernmost of the Honshu island in 1185. Yoritomo, however, did not necessarily appreciate Yoshitsune's achievements. In addition, the fact that Yoshitsune accepted, without getting prior approvals from Yoritomo, the Imperial Court's conferment of high-ranking titles made Yoritomo upset. On the occasion that Yoshitsune came back to Kamakura to report the victory, Yoritomo did not allow him to enter Kamakura, let alone to meet him. Furthermore, Yoritomo decided to kill Yoshitsune, who from then on turned fugitive. He fled to Hiraizumi, his hometown, seeking refuge at the Fujiwaras. Yoritomo had difficulties finding him at first, but his troops finally tracked him down. Since the former head of the Fujiwaras had been dead, Yoshitsune was no longer able to get full support from the new Fujiwara chief, and was eventually seized and killed. Even today, he is often referred to as a tragic hero, and his saga appears in a number of Kabuki and Noh plays.

These cruel behaviors by Yoritomo killing his cousin and half-brother were based on the strict samurai-code, and demonstrated that anyone, even his next kin, would not be forgiven unless his order was strictly honored. Earlier, Yoshinaka Minamoto had sent his son to Kamakura as a hostage to pledge his loyalty toward Yoritomo. Yoritomo even killed this 10-year-old, innocent boy as soon as he knew he was betrayed by Yoshinaka over a trifling matter.

In 1192, there was no longer any clans that matched Yoritomo's power, and the Imperial Court gave him the official title of the Supreme Commander. Thus, the first Shogunate, or the military government, started in Kamakura with Yoritomo as a military and political dictator of the entire nation. Establishing a typical feudal system, he took good care of his vassals appointing them as provincial administrators. The government office was placed east of the present-day Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Yoritomo's days of glory, however, came to a sudden end. He accidentally fell from a horse, and lost consciousness in late 1198. He never recovered and died in early 1199.

It was a rule of the day that the seat of the Shogun be succeeded by the first legitimate son of the Shogun. Yoritomo had two sons. The first was Yoriie (1182-1204), who was only 17 years old when his father died, too young to exhibit leadership as a Shogun. He was no more than a puppet, and was enthusiastic over martial art. Political affairs were administered by his henchmen. This created a power struggle between the Hojos, his mother's family, and the Hikis, the family of Yoriie's wife. The struggle developed to a civil-war type battle, and the Hikis were defeated ending with near extermination. Included among the victims were Yoriie's wife Wakasa and their 6-year-old son. Yoriie was forced to take responsibility for this disturbance, and deported down to the Izu Peninsula in 1203. The next year, he was assassinated in Izu.

Although Yoriie had another son Kugyo (1200-1219) by a different woman, the Shogun was succeeded by Yoriie's younger brother Sanetomo (1192-1219) as a natural consequence of the dispute between the two families. Thereby, the Hojos began to exert greater influences in the government and developed into a real powerhouse. Sanetomo took the post of the Shogun in 1203 at the age of only 11. He abandoned himself to the culture in Kyoto, tanka or 31-one-syllable poem in particular, and was not much concerned with politics. His keen interest in Kyoto made the Imperial Court trust him, and he won speedy promotions. Back then, the Imperial Court had still a solid authority to give official court titles, and the Shogunate paid deference to them. Sanetomo's rapid promotion may have worked ill, however. Kugyo envied his promotion. Had there not been Sanetomo, Kugyo might well have been the Third Shogun, he thought. Nursing this delusion, Kugyo took an extreme action. At the ceremony for Sanetomo's promotion taken place at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in winter of 1219, Kugyo abruptly assassinated Sanetomo with his sword. In retaliation, Kugyo himself was killed immediately by members of the Hojo faction. The bloodline of Yoritomo died out at this moment.

Hojo Era

Masako Hojo, the widow of Yoritomo and the mother of two late Shogun, turned hereafter most influential political figure wielding her power, and she was called the Nun Shogun. (Although she had four children including two daughters, she had lost all of her immediate family by the time she died in 1225 at age 68.) The important task then was who should be chosen to be the Fourth Shogun. As the best alternative, the Hojos invited and appointed Kyoto aristocrat Yoritsune Kujo (1218-1256), a child with whom Yoritomo had a distant kinship. Believe it or not, he was only a one-year-old baby when he came down to Kamakura, too young to be the Shogun. The Hojos employed the regency system here with real power leaving in the hands of regents, and choosing them among its family members. The First Regent was Tokimasa Hojo (1138-1215), Masako's father, and second regency passed to Yoshitoki Hojo (1163-1224), Masako's bother, and from then onward, the regency was handed down to the legitimate sons of the Hojo family one after another until the last 16th Regent. During the Hojo regime, which lasted for nearly 110 years from 1219 to 1333, the ruling power continued to rest on them. To keep the Shogun only titular, young children from the aristocrats in Kyoto had always been named. As they grew up, the Hojos replaced them with another child, citing one reason or another. The post of the Shogun was succeeded in the following order:

Shogun's Term of office (year)

Shogun Born-Died In office Term(yrs.)
1st Yoritomo Minamoto 1147-1199 1192-1199 7
2nd Yoriie Minamoto 1182-1204 1199-1203 4
3rd Sanetomo Minamoto 1192-1219 1203-1219 6
4th Yoritsune Kujo 1218-1256 1219-1244 25
5th Yoritsugu Kujo 1239-1256 1244-1252 8
6th Prince Munetaka 1242-1274 1252-1266 14
7th Prince Koreyasu 1264-1326 1266-1289 23
8th Prince Hisa-aki 1276-1328 1289-1308 19
9th Prince Morikuni 1301-1333 1308-1333 25

In Kyoto, Retired Emperor Gotoba (1180-1239), who had been running the Imperial Court just like regents of Kamakura since the incumbent emperor (his son) was too young, thought that the death of Sanetomo might invite a good chance to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate. He recruited samurai who were not happy with the Hojo regime, and raised an army against Kamakura in 1221. Gotoba's troops were, however, not as strong as he had expected. Third Regent Yasutoki Hojo (1183-1242), son of Yoshitoki, attacked Kyoto right away, and Retired Emperor Gotoba was forced to surrender. He was exiled to a tiny island off the coast of Shimane Prefecture. (More than 2,000 political prisoners were detained in this island during 724 to 1867). At the same time, the Kamakura Shogunate established a military station called Rokuhara Tandai in Kyoto in an attempt to check the Imperial Court, and Yasutoki Hojo assumed the chief commander's position. Since then, top members of the Hojos succeeded to the chief commander of Rokuhara.

The Hojos gained power gradually through a series of winning battles with local warrior factions. All of them once used to be Yoritomo's faithful followers. Growing up from a lord of a small manor in the Izu Peninsula, the Hojos became the most dominant family in 1285 after defeating the last rebel Adachi faction, and established the unswerving feudalism in Japan's medieval ages.

In 1268, Japan had to face an external pressure it had never experienced before. Few knew it might change the fate of the Hojos and the Kamakura Shogunate. Kublai Khan (1215-1294) of Mongol, grandson of Genghis Khan (1167-1227), sent an envoy to Japan to make the Shogunate acknowledge Khan's suzerainty. The Kamakura Shogunate refused. Mongolia repeatedly sent envoys thereafter, each time urging the Shogunate accept their proposal but to no avail. In 1274, Mongol fleets with 900 ships and 33,000-strong troops invaded northern part of Kyushu island. Fortunately, a typhoon hit the area in the middle of the battle and most of the ships were destroyed, forcing them to retreat. Kublai sent another envoy in 1279. Back at the time, Tokimune Hojo (1251-1284) was the Eighth Regent. Not only did he decline the offer, but executed (beheaded) the five Mongolian emissaries after summoning them to Kamakura. Getting infuriated, Kublai made another attack on Fukuoka Prefecture in 1281 reinforcing the troops to 140,000 soldiers with 4,000 ships. The Japanese warriors were no match for Mongolians, and the Kublai fleets invaded up to Dazaifu, 15 kilometers south of Fukuoka city. By sheer luck, another typhoon struck the area again, and it gave a crushing blow to the Mongolian troops. (Hence the Japanese called the typhoon Kamikaze or Divine Winds.)

Though peace was restored, the Japanese warlords who fought against the invaders were not happy since they were not given proper rewards. In the former domestic battles, the Shogunate had granted part of the territories obtained from the enemies as rewards to each warlord of the allies in recognition of their service rendered. In the case of the battle against the Mongol fleets, the Kamakura Shogunate had nothing to grant, even though they won the battle. The warlords were disappointed. The battle also caused financial drain for the Kamakura government. Disputes grew inside the government and the Hojos regime began to skid downward.

Up in Kyoto, Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339) was looking for an opportunity to overturn the Hojo regime wishing to reinstitute direct Imperial rule, and attempted a revolt in 1324. This conspiracy was leaked out to Kamakura, and the Emperor was sent to the same island as Emperor Gotoba had been to. While he was on exile, anti-Kamakura sentiment among the warlords had been nursed to the extent that it was no longer controllable. Commotion were seen throughout the country. One of the loyalist warlords dared to help Emperor Godaigo out of the island in 1333, and insurgence grew imminent. The Kamakura Shogunate ordered its troops to attack Kyoto again with more than 200,000 warriors. The military commander was Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), who had close blood-relation with the Hojos, and was their faithful retainer. In Kyoto, however, he suddenly defected to the Imperial Court betraying the Hojos, and attacked Rokuhara under the Imperial order. In the meantime, Yoshisada Nitta (1302-1338), another warlord in present Tochigi Prefecture, who also had a strong antipathy against the Hojos, formed loyalist forces, and assaulted Kamakura at the command of Emperor Godaigo. After waging a fierce battle for several days, Kamakura finally surrendered. The loyalists at long last succeeded in toppling the Hojo regime, bringing about the end of the Kamakura Period. The battle took a bitter toll and 870-odd samurai of the Hojos committed mass suicide near Hokaiji, including the 14th, 15th and 16th Regents.

The following is the list of the Hojo regents and their term in office:

Name Born-Died In office Term Reference
1st Tokimasa 1138-1215 1203-1205 2yrs Masako's father
2nd Yoshitoki 1163-1224 1205-1224 19 Son of Tokimasa
3rd Yasutoki 1183-1242 1224-1242 37 Son of Yoshitoki
4th Tsunetoki 1224-1246 1242-1246 4 Grandson of Yasutoki
5th Tokiyori 1227-1263 1246-1256 10 Grandson of Yasutoki
6th Nagatoki 1230-1264 1256-1264 8 Grandson of Yoshitoki
7th Masamura 1205-1273 1264-1268 4 4th son of Yoshitoki
8th Tokimune 1251-1284 1268-1284 16 Son of Tokiyori
9th Sadatoki 1271-1311 1284-1301 17 Son of Tokimune
10th Morotoki 1275-1311 1301-1311 10 Nephew of Tokimune
11th Munenobu 1259-1312 1311-1312 1
12th Hirotoki 1275-1315 1312-1315 3.5
13th Mototoki ?-1333 1315 1
14th Takatoki 1303-1333 1316-1326 10 Son of Sadatoki
15th Sada-aki 1278-1333 1326 10days
16th Moritoki ?-1333 1326-1333 7

Ashikaga Era

With the collapse of the Kamakura Shogunate, Emperor Godaigo came back to Kyoto and assumed control over the entire country. Nonetheless, he was unable to gratify the unsatisfactory warlords because his reward-granting was insufficient and partial. Their discontent grew even higher. Ambitious Takauji Ashikaga never overlooked this chance. He turned traitor this time again and rose in revolt against the Emperor. Yoshisada Nitta had by then become a military commander of the Imperial Court and had to confront Ashikaga troops. Kyoto changed into a savage battle ground. After advance and retreat, Ashikaga troops finally defeated the Nitta as well as the loyalist forces. Now the military and political ruler, Takauji appointed a new emperor in Kyoto. In counter-action, Emperor Godaigo set up an independent Imperial Court in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture, where he had fled. Thus, the Imperial Court was divided into two factions, one in Kyoto (North) and the other in Yoshino (South). With the supremacy in hand, Takauji at first wanted to establish his government in Kamakura following the Hojo administration. However, he had to change his mind in the end, and settled in Kyoto as he needed to monitor and control the movement of the South Court that appeared unrest. Consequently, Takauji established the Ashikaga Shogunate in Kyoto in 1336. His government office was situated at Muromachi Street, (and the namesake of the Muromachi Period) under the Ashikaga Shogunate, which lasted for the 14 generations, 230 years up until 1573.

Under the leadership of Takauji Ashikaga in Kyoto, a branch government was established in Kamakura to control and oversee eastern Japan. Takauji appointed his fourth son Motouji Ashikaga (1340-1367) as the governor-general of Kamakura, and thereafter the governorship called Kubo was handed to his direct descendants just like the Ashikaga Shogun in Kyoto was succeeded by Yoshiakira Ashikaga (1330-1367), Takauji's first son, and his direct descendants. Also hereditary was vice-governor's position called Kanrei, or an aide to the governor, and as the first vice-governor, Noriaki Uesugi (1306-1368) was appointed by Motouji. Noriaki's ancestor was Shigefusa Uesugi, a court noble in Kyoto bearing the name of Fujiwara, and had come to Kamakura in 1252 as a retainer for Prince Munetaka, the Sixth Shogun. Now that the Ashikagas in Kyoto took the helm of Japan, the governor in Kamakura was given a territory within a radius of about 150 kilometers of Tokyo. Governors and vice-governors were succeeded as follows:

Kubo (Governors) and Kanrei (Vice-governors)

Kubo Born-Died Kanrei Born-Dead
1st Motouji Ashikaga 1340-1367 Noriaki Uesugi 1306-1368
2nd Ujimitsu Ashikaga 1359-1398 Noriharu Uesugi ?-1379
Norikata Uesugi 1335-1394
3rd Mitsukane Ashikaga 1378-1409 Norisada Uesugi 1375-1412
4th Mochiuji Ashikaga 1398-1439 Ujinori Uesugi ?-1417
Norimoto Uesugi 1392-1418
5th Shigeuji Ashikaga 1434-1497

Kamakura governors were usually young when they assumed the post, and therefore, they were figureheads with the real power resting in the hands of vice governors. Throughout this Ashikaga era, Kamakura was the stage of power struggles between the governors and vice-governors, sometimes involving the Shogun in Kyoto. The first governor Motouji died young at age 27. While Ujimitsu was the second governor, there was a conspiracy in Kyoto to expel Third Shogun Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), who built the world-famous Kinkakuji. Yoshimitsu asked Ujimitsu in Kamakura for his help, but Ujimitsu turned down the request. He even tried to dethrone Yoshimitsu and seize the post of the Shogun himself. The vice-governor Noriharu Uesugi unsuccessfully tried to dissuade him from the coup d'etat attempt. As Ujimitsu did not follow his suggestion, Noriharu showed an objection by committing suicide. The storm cloud was gathering between Kyoto and Kamakura. It was Shushin Gido (1325-1388), a famous Zen priest, who brought the dispute to an amicable settlement after all. Gido was once the chief priest of Obai-in at Engakuji and served as a chief priest of Zuisenji.

The third governor Mitsukane was even more ambitious than his predecessor and tried to overthrow the Shogunate in Kyoto in collusion with a military family in western Japan who had been dissatisfied with the way Yoshimitsu treated him. This time again, his aide Norisada Uesugi expressed himself against his idea, and Mitsukane finally gave up the plot. Later, Norisada was promoted to vice governor.

The fourth Governor Mochiuji ended his life in a more tragic way. Since Mochiuji was inattentive as a governor, vice-governor Ujinori Uesugi often suggested that he acted with discretion, which, on the other hand, gave rise to a discord between the two, and finally Mochiuji replaced Ujinori with Norimoto Uesugi, a rival family of Ujinori. In Kyoto, Yoshitsugu (1394-1418), brother of the Fourth Shogun Yoshimochi (1386-1428), was conspiring to take over the seat of the Shogun and sounded Ujinori to join the conspiracy. Being unhappy with the governor, Ujinori accepted the offer and his troops made a surprise attack on governor's residence in 1416. Shogun Yoshimochi in Kyoto immediately sent reinforcements to Kamakura. As a result, Ujinori's attempt ended in a failure and he was forced to take his own life. Mochiuji was thus able to restore the order in Kamakura as a governor. However, he did not go well with new vice-governor Norizane Uesugi (1410-1466) either. When Mochiuji's son reached the age of 13 (a time to celebrate for a boy of his coming-of-age), and he was to be given a new adult name, Mochiuji ignored the time-honored practice to receive one Chinese character from the Shogun's name. (This practice had been followed by many family. Look at the first names of Shogun in Muromachi and Kamakura Period. How many names start or end with 'Yoshi', 'Nori' or 'Tomo'!) Instead, he gave the son the name Yoshihisa without consultations with the Shogun in Kyoto at all. The vice Governor Norizane was upset, and left Kamakura for Gunma Prefecture where he had a huge estate as a lord of manor. Mochiuji interpreted his action as a revolt, and sent troops to kill him. However, Shogun Yoshinori supported Norizane and ordered his troops to attack the Mochiuji's residence. Mochiuji and his son Yoshihisa had no choice but to commit harakiri. It was in 1439 and Yoshihisa was only 14 years old. Hokokuji is known as the place where the young boy performed the ritual suicide.

Mochiuji was survived by his youngest son Shigeuji (1434-1497). He later took office as the governor. After a series of struggles, however, he was ousted to Koga, Ibaraki Prefecture, some 50 kilometers north of Tokyo, and was called Koga Kubo thereafter.

Post Muromachi Era

Japan entered the age of civil strife nationwide, and Kamakura gradually lost its importance politically as well as militarily. In the mid 15th century, a nearby warlord invaded Kamakura setting on fire, and almost all of major buildings were burnt down. From then onward, Kamakura kept on downward spiral becoming a rural and lonely old village. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate gave financial aids to a handful of temples and shrines, but hardly enough to restore the past glory .

In the early Meiji Period (1868-1912), Kamakura was a remote, deserted rural country inhabited only by farmers and temple/shrine people.

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