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Useful Notes / Kamakura Shogunate

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The crest of the Hojo, who held the real power.

In 1185 Minamoto no Yoritomo won the Genpei War, accepted the rank of Sei-i Taishōgun, or, in it's shortened form, Shogun, and became the defacto ruler of Japan. In 1192, he made it official and set up a military-feudal government at Kamakura. The age of the Samurai had begun. Four years later, he died. His son Yoriie took over, but as he was a minor, his father-in-law, Hōjō Tokimasa (ironically related to the Taira) ruled as Shikken, or regent for the Shogun. They grew to hate each other, so Yoriie was assassinated and replaced with his brother, Sanetomo. In 1219, Sanetomo was also assassinated (by Yoriie's son), effectively ending Minamoto rule. Tokimasa, slowly but surely proving himself a bald-faced Evil Chancellor (not to mention a kinslayer for directly ordering Yoriie's death), would in turn, be ousted by his own children: Masako (the widow of Yoritomo and the mother of the two assasinated shoguns) and her brother Yoshitoki, who would eventually consolidate and solidify the rule of the Hōjō Regency.


They would, not unlike the Taira they were related to, establish closer links with the Imperial household and even import Fujiwara princes/noblemen to become the figurehead shoguns of the regime. Nevertheless, the country would be officially run by the Shikken and Rensho (Deputy Regent), and unofficially run by the Tokusō (The head of the Hōjō clan)—maintaining the military/samurai-centric nature of government. The Kamakura Shogunate lasted 135 years, 9 Shoguns, and 16 Shikkens. As part of a feudalistic reform, the Shōen system of manors was expanded, to include the Gokenin, both the Shugo (the official title of the Daimyo before the Sengoku era) and the Jito (who helped the Shugo). Another notable position was the Kanrei (Deputy Shogun), expected to represent shogunal authority on the regional level. Throughout the existence of the shogunate, the relative stability of the period is dependent on maintaining the tenuous Balance of Power between the shugos and the kanreis, ensuring they keep their reverence to the Emperor, as well as maintaining their loyalty to Kamakura. The eventual inability of Kamakura to do this (as well as the self-sabotaging tendencies of the later Muromachi shogunate) eventually gave rise to the sentiment that authority needs to be centralized on one strong leadership, and an unbroken line of succession.


The Hōjō Regency had to face the invasion of the Mongol Empire (then under Kublai Khan, the grandson of the legendary Genghis Khan). Two invasions fleets were launched from the Korean Peninsula for two campaigns (on the years 1274 and 1281, respectively). The ground battles of the first invasion were going well for the Mongol forces (with no small amount of valiant samurai holding their lines in multiple Last Stands). The second invasion fared worse for the Mongols—as the Japanese, having better intelligence, managed to fend off the landings and keep the naval fights at stalemate. Both attempts ultimately had to end because the naval forces were serendipitously struck by typhoons on both instances. The survivors of the typhoon fallouts were eventually captured and executed. The fortuitous winds have since been labelled kamikaze ("divine wind"), and have become foundational in the national myth of Japanese identity.note 

The leadership of the Hōjō Regency during the Mongol Invasion, despite a number of squabbling and competition for glory by a number of warlords, was ably steered by the regent Hōjō Tokimune. The upstanding character of Tokimune (and his devotion to Zen Buddhism) has made him a celebrated character amongst the warrior classes. His successors as heads of the Hōjō clan, however, fatally fell short of his example. His son Sadatoki would allow the squabbling of his clansmen to devolve into vendettas—and his successor, Takatoki would be considered dissolute, immoral, and easily-led by favorites, if not flat-out insane. The degradation of the Hōjō Regency into corruption and in-fighting would embolden the contemporary Emperor, Go-Daigo, to reassert his political authority and attract the samurai clans away from the Hōjō.

It all ended after the 1333 Siege of Kamakura, the Kenmu Restoration led by Emperor Go-Daigo, and then the Muromachi Shogunate (founded by the Emperor's ambitious and wily general Ashikaga Takauji—who ironically is actually related to the Genji, and would use his claim to validate authority over the Taira-related Hōjō and the Emperor), succeeding it. Much of the administrative reforms laid down here will be continued, with varying success, until it all comes crashing down during the Sengoku Period. It is generally the least well-known of the three shogunates (but is seen as relatively stabler than its Ashikaga successors). They will both be dwarfed by the Tokugawa bakufu three centuries later. Notably, Tokugawa Ieyasu himself would be an avid student of this period, keeping a copy of the official history of the period as his personal reading, probably treating the tumultuous history of the period as a guide of what not to do. Given the relative stability of the Tokugawa bakufu, it probably worked.

On an interesting legacy note, the Triforce from The Legend of Zelda is based on the Hōjō crest, three triangles forming a bigger triangle, with a triangular hole in the middle.

Works set in this time period include:


  • A specific genre of classical Japanese literature of this time would be the gunki monogatari ("war tales"), detailing the period (and, prior to 20th-21st century historiography, would serve as primary sources for all events). Varying versions of the texts exists—in oral, written and even picture book forms. While dismissed by some historians as propaganda (in the same way The Bayeux Tapestry is usually criticized as a source for The Middle Ages), they remain mainstays of Japanese literary canon. Of particular interest would be the ones detailing the events from the end of the Heian period to the heyday of the Kamakura Shogunate, which include:
    • The Tale of Hōgen (保元物語, Hōgen monogatari, 1320), which detailed the nominal Hōgen Rebellion of 1156, which saw the Fujiwara clan's control over the Imperial succession contested by samurai from the Minamoto and Taira. Unlike later conflicts, a Minamoto leader (Yoshitomo) and a Taira leader (Kiyomori) were in fact in an alliance against their relatives and Imperial courtiers. The fallout of these events are covered in the next piece.
    • The Tale of Heiji (平治物語, Heiji monogatari, ca. mid-13th century), discussed the eponymous Civil War of 1159-1160. It would see Yoshitomo breaking his alliance with Kiyomori (with their supremacy as the leading clans of samurai drawing lines of loyalty throughout the nation). While Kiyomori would defeat Yoshitomo (and get him assassinated) and exile his sons, the bitter fallout of the events—as well as the perceived unsavory rise of the Heike—would once again color the next tale.
    • The Tale of the Heike (平家物語, Heike Monogatari, ca. before 1330), possibly the most popular out of the gunki-mono. Detailing the entire breadth of the Genpei War from 1180-1185, the tale starts with the primacy of the Heike (under an increasingly-dictatorial and megalomaniacal Kiyomorinote . This is followed by how the heirs of Yoshitomo would contend and bring them down. The exploits of beloved folk heroes Minamoto no Yoshitsune, his retainer Musashibo Benkei, the Lady of War Tomoe Gozen, and the Magnificent Bastard Minamoto no Yoritomo (the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate) all started here. Its reputation as a solid philosophical meditation on the Buddhist belief (and later, Japanese aesthetic) of wabi-sabi (侘寂, i.e. transience and imperfection) contributes to its popularity to this day. A 48-volume prose version, The Rise and Fall of the Minamoto and Taira (源平盛衰記, Genpei Seisuiki) also exists and is usually treated as a better historical source by contemporary historians.
    • The Chronicle of Yoshitsune (義経記, Gikeiki, ca. 14th century) is a record detailing the latter years of Yoshitsune's life, from when he was a fugitive from Yoritomo's wrath to his Last Stand.
    • The Mirror of the East (東鑑, Azuma Kagami, ca. 13th century), in contrast to the previous three, is an official compiled chronicle of the events of the Kamakura Shogunate as commissioned by the Hōjō Regency. Compared to the above, it is more like an archive of reports and writings by the people involved with the Shogunate and Regency—albeit very detailed and even involving narratives from outside the capital of Kamakura. Understandably, it has a Hōjō-centric bias. At the same time, its detail and scope make it one of the main source texts in studying the Kamakura period. As mentioned above, this is Ieyasu's favorite book.
    • The Taiheiki (太平記, "Chronicle of Great Pacification", ca. 14th century), arguably a Distant Finale to all the texts above, covers the period of the rise of Emperor Go-Daigo from 1318, the breakout of the Genko War between him and the Hōjō Regency (now in full control of the Kamakura bakufu) in 1331, the fall of the Hōjō in the Siege of Kamakura in 1333, to the breakout of hostilities between Go-Daigo and Ashikaga Takauji, which will lead to the rise of the Muromachi/Ashikaga shogunate.
  • From the 1930s and most of his career, novelist Eiji Yoshikawa would write modern adaptations/retellings of both the Tale of the Heike and the Taiheiki.

Live-Action TV

  • When NHK's Taiga Dramas do not cover either the Sengoku Period or the Meiji Restoration, they usually adapt the aforementioned literary texts above. Of particular significance would be the following:
    • Shin Heike Monogatari (新・平家物語, 1972), directly sourcing from Yoshikawa's texts. Unlike the original Tale of the Heike, Yoshikawa (and by extension, the series) focuses on the rise of Kiyomori from put-upon scion of the Taira to his road to power. Kiyomori, instead of the Historical Villain Upgrade that has permeated, casts him as a sensitive and revolutionary figure pushing for samurai mobility and prestige—again, much like Nobunaga would later be seen as. The series stars longtime Akira Kurosawa film veteran Tatsuya Nakadai as Kiyomori.
    • Taiheiki (太平記, 1991) adapts the eponymous chronicle as well as Yoshikawa's modernization. Another Perspective Flip, it casts Ashikaga Takauji (traditionally vilified as a traitor to the Imperial cause) and his rebellion (leading to the Muromachi bakufu) as a matter of principle and search for better popular governance. As a nod to this, Takauji is portrayed by leading man / action star Hiroyuki Sanada.
    • Hōjō Tokimune (北条時宗, 2001). At center stage is the eponymous regent (portrayed by kabuki actor Motoya Izumi), noted for facing the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281, seeing them off, as well as a patron of Zen Buddhism. The series also features Ken Watanabe as his father and predecessor regent, Hōjō Tokiyori.
    • Yoshitsune (義経, 2005). Focusing on the eponymous folk hero, the series incorporates oral tradition, folk legend, as well as elements of the Tale of the Heike and the Gikeiki. Capitalizing on the increasing tendency to render Yoshitsune a Bishōnen, the series casts heartthrob musician Hideaki Takizawa as the lead, with legendary Jidaigeki actor Ken Matsudaira as Benkei.
    • Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛, 2012), an updated remake of 1972's Shin Heike Monogatari. The series notably casts the Genpei War in Gray-and-Grey Morality, noting how despite the Heike's (arguably justifiable) villainization, even the Genji under his nemesis Yoritomo (and in fact the Imperial Court) have been—and will be—responsible for the century of bloodshed and conquest to come. Kenichi Matsuyama plays the titular role, a scrappy young Kiyomori seeking to understand the truth of his heritage, trying to chart his own path, only to find out he cannot.
    • The 13 Lords of the Shogun (鎌倉殿の13人; Kamakura-dono no Jūsan-nin, 2022) takes a Perspective Flip on the Genpei War and focuses on the family that eventually dominated the Shogunate: the Hōjō. Instead of looking at the traditional competing camps of the Minamoto and Taira, the storyline focuses on how the Hōjō family, struck by Conflicting Loyalty between their Taira relatives and the Minamoto son-in-law they accepted as their own (Yoritomo), eventually came to dominate what both own—at the expense of the clan's unity. Shun Oguri portrays the central character Hōjō Yoshitoki, the son of the power-grasping Tokimasa (the head of the Hōjō clan)—and they, together with 11 other men, serve as the titular thirteen that would eventually control the reins of government.note 

Video Games

  • Ghost of Tsushima is set during the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 which would be around the time that the Kamakura Shogunate existed.