The Kamakura Shogunate (Samurai): A Historical Look Back

The feudal period of Japan is considered by many as arguably the most fascinating time in the history of Japan. An example of this is the creation of the television mini-series Shōgun, which aired on NBC in September of 1980. It was a time when the Imperial rule of Japan was reduced to a political, military, and social non-factor.

A Shogunate is a type of government—specifically, it is a military government found during the feudal period of Japan (usually identified as the time between 1185 until 1603). The Shogunate gets its name from the leaders—the Shogun. Shogun is a Japanese word which translates to military commander. Shogunates were Japanese governments controlled by high-level Samurai commanders. The first recorded Shogunate in Japanese history was the Kamakura Shogante, named after the city its leader called home, and the de facto capital at the time, the city of Kamakura. Kamakura is on the eastern coast of Japan, approximately 31 miles south-southwest of Japan’s current capital, Tokyo. The first leader of the Kamakura Shogunate was Minamoto no Yoritomo, a very highly respected 12th century Japanese Samurai.

Minamoto no Yoritomo was a high-ranking commander and son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, a major figure in the Heiji Rebellion. When Minamoto no Yoritomo’s father and his forces were defeated by the Emperor’s forces, Minamoto no Yoritomo and his two brothers were destined to be executed, but his life was spared. Yoritomo and his brothers were sent into exile in 1160. Ironically, it was during their exile that they honed their skills, both militarily and diplomatically. It was also here that they formed alliances, later known as the Hōjō clan, and ultimately sought to fulfil the dreams of their father and unseat the Emperor of Japan. Yorimoto would eventually achieve his goal by defeating the Emperor’s forces in 1221 in the Jōkyū War, or the Jōkyū Disturbance. This brought about the dawn of the Kamakura Shogunate.

Yorimoto would go on to form his own government made up of his fellow Samurai Shogun. These fellow Shogun formed what was called the Bafuku. The Emperor’s life was spared, but he was relegated to a position of military, political and social insignificance.

It was under the Kamakura Shogunate that many Chinese influences found their way into Japanese society. Two of the most notable influences were found in the realm of religion. Two new Buddhist sects were introduced—the Zen sect and the Lotus Sutra sect. This was significant because many found the Zen sect to be extremely appealing. In fact, as part of the military code of law implemented by the Kamakura Shogunate (called the Goseibai Shikimoku), Confucian values such as loyalty to the master were heavily stressed.

When Yorimoto’s died his son, Minamoto no Yoriie, was considered too young to rule. Hōjō Tokimasa, the clan chief of Yorimoto’s widow, Hōjō Masako, claimed the title of regent, or Shikken, over Yoriie. Tokimasa would go on to depose Yoriie with the help of Yoriie’s younger brother, Minamoto no Sanetomo. Sanetomo would become the new Shogun and assume the role of Shikken. Unfortunately, Sanetomo was assassinated by his nephew Kugyō. Due to Sanetomo dying childless, this ended the Minamoto clan’s claim to the Head of the Shogunate. This forced Hōjō Masako, Yorimoto’s widow, to identify a bloodline successor. She identified Kujo Yoritsune as a distant blood relative and he became the new head of the Shogunate.

The Shogunate seemed to be in a position to rule for the foreseeable future—they possessed all of the influence and power within the borders of Japan. What they did not take into consideration were the factors lying outside of their borders.

In 1274, a devastating and marauding force had been wiping out armies and kingdoms all over eastern Asia. Led by a fierce and intimidating leader named Kublai Khan, this force was none other than the Mongols. Kublai Khan and the Mongols set their destructive sights on the island of Japan. Kublai Khan demanded that the Shogunate submit to the Mongols; unsurprisingly, the Shogunate refused. The Shogunate Army proved to be far tougher than the Mongols expected. This prompted the Mongols to attempt an en-masse naval invasion—however, the Mongols failed to take Mother Nature into consideration. During the Mongols’ attempted naval invasion, a massive typhoon came through what is now known as the Sea of Japan. The storm wiped out approximately one-third of the Mongols’ forces. Taking this defeat as a personal challenge, Kublai Khan attempted to execute this ambitious amphibious invasion again just seven years later. In 1281, Kublai Khan amassed a truly enormous force. With a combined force of approximately 4,400 vessels and some 140,000 warriors, Kublai Khan set sail for Japan once again. As they approached Hakata Bay on Aug 12, 1281, a second massive typhoon barreled through, drowning over half of the invading Mongols in the storm. The Mongols were unable to mount any further invasions of Japan due to internal factors. After twice having experienced amazingly good fortune, the Shogunate felt the storm had to have been divinely inspired. The storms were called Kamikaze, which translates as “Divine Wind.” While the Shogunate were fortunate against the Mongols, their luck did not last at home. The repeated military build-up to prepare for the Mongols exhausted the Kamakura Shogunate’s finances. This resulted in the Shogunate resorting to implementing taxes. The taxation did not sit well with the members of the Bafuku. They expected great reward for repelling the Mongols, but they were instead rewarded with burdensome taxes. This created great division within the Shogunate and opened the door for Emperor Daigo II’s forces, with the help of a Shogun named Ashikaga Takaunji who turned on the Kamakura Shogunate, to defeat the Kamakura forces, seize control of Japan, and reinstate the Imperial rule.

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