The Warrior State: The Kamakura Period (1185–1333)


Second Mongol Invasion of Japan

In 1185 Minamoto no Yoritomo was the most powerful figure in the land. However, he neither sought the throne for himself or his descendants, nor tried to destroy it. Instead, he sought from the court legitimisation of his power through the title seii tai-shōgun (‘barbarian-subduing great general’), generally abbreviated to shōgun. This was granted to him in 1192.

The particular nature of the relationship between legitimacy (formal authority) and actual power in Japan is an ongoing feature of the nation’s history and society. Typically, a high authority does not wield a similarly high degree of actual power, but instead confers legitimacy – often in the form of some title, and often under pressure – on those who do hold actual power and claim to use it in the name of that higher authority. The fact that the higher authority is the guarantor of the power-holder’s legitimacy gives the higher authority too a certain guarantee of protection. The recipient of legitimacy may in turn confer legitimacy on those below them, and so on. It is in one sense a diffusion of responsibility, and in another a hierarchical ordering of authority. Yoritomo provides an especially clear example of the process.

Mainly because of this need for legitimacy – but also partly because it has long been a practice in Japan to maintain some degree of continuity with the past amidst change – his government was a mixture of old and new. It became known as the bakufu (tent headquarters), a term used of the headquarters of commanders in the field, and in theory was merely the military arm of the imperial central government. The old central institutions were left largely intact, though weakened. Old titles were retained, though often given a new meaning. Kyūto still remained the official capital, and the court stayed on there.

Recent research has suggested that the court retained a greater vitality than previously believed, especially with regard to bureaucratic matters, and that religious institutions also played a significant role in the political world. In that sense, rather than simple warrior rule such as characterised the succeeding Muromachi period, it was perhaps more a case of cooperative rule during the Kamakura period.

Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that in practice the real power – or more exactly the greatest real power – of government was now with the bakufu (shōgunate). It was based not in Kyūto but in Kamakura in the Kant region. This was Yoritomo’s traditional support-base, and he was moreover suspicious of the intrigues and undesirable influences in Kyūto. He preferred to keep himself a safe distance from the court.

What was also new was that the core of the government was now a single lord-vassal group, spread rather thinly throughout the nation. Yoritomo rewarded his loyal vassals with estates and offices such as jitū(steward) and shugo (protector or constable). They administered the provinces under their charge on the basis of local custom and military house laws, rather than the centrally imposed legal codes of the previous ritsuryū system. They also collected dues for the bakufu, and were entitled to retain a portion of the produce of the land for themselves. Through this system Yoritomo exercised a relatively direct control over much of Japan, and also further eroded the revenue of the noble court families and central government.

It was a feudal system, and in that regard Japan shared common ground with the medieval western world. However, feudalism in Japan was distinctive in that it operated through the traditional central civil administration. The lord-vassal relationship was also far more personal than in the west, where the contractual type of relationship was more common. In Japan it was of a paternalistic and almost familial nature, and some of the terms for ‘lord’ and ‘vassal’ used ‘parent’ (oya) and ‘child’ (ko) respectively. At the same time, and rather paradoxically, family bonds do not seem to have counted for much in the warrior’s world, and so it is perhaps more accurate to see this personalisation simply as an expression of dislike for the abstract. The strength of the family was to be greatly exaggerated by later propaganda.

Personal loyalty was a major factor in Yoritomo’s control over his own men. He may not have had a particularly endearing personality, but he nevertheless seems to have had a strong personal charisma that drew men to him. However, reliance on personal loyalty as a means of control is not very successful. It is inconsistent, hard to institutionalise, and fades with time.

Partly because he realised this, and partly because he was highly suspicious by nature, Yoritomo was ever alert to any remote suggestion that his power might be challenged. This led him to suspect the worst even of close friends and family, and to take decisive steps against them. His treatment of his younger half-brother Yoshitsune is a good example. Fuelled by jealousy over Yoshitsune’s popularity and widely acknowledged military prowess, and suspecting him of plotting, Yoritomo gave orders for Yoshitsune’s assassination. Finally, after four years as a fugitive, in 1189 Yoshitsune was surrounded by Yoritomo’s forces and killed himself, along with his wife and infant children. He was to become immortalised in Japanese literature and legend as the archetypical tragic hero.

For good measure those who hunted Yoshitsune down were themselves attacked and killed by Yoritomo shortly afterwards. More of Yoritomo’s own relatives and associates were also ‘terminally eliminated’ as potential threats.

Stating the obvious, Yoritomo’s elimination of relatives may not have been in the best interests of the family. When he was killed in 1199 by a fall from his horse – not in battle, but in rather suspicious circumstances – there was no really suitable Minamoto successor. He left two sons, Yoriie (1182–1204) and Sanetomo (1192–1219), and each nominally became shōgun. However, neither of them was strong enough or mature enough to achieve real control in the chaos of murder and intrigue that followed Yoritomo’s death.

It was no time or place for the faint-hearted or those swayed by sentimental concerns such as family ties. Both Yoriie and Sanetomo were controlled and eventually murdered by their own family. Behind many of the intrigues was their mother, Yoritomo’s widow Hūjū Masako (1157–1225). In effect, she controlled the government, and became popularly known as the ‘nun-shōgun’ (ama shōgun, a reference to her having taking nun’s vows on Yoritomo’s death).

One of the devices used by Masako was the institution of a shgunal regent. This reduced the position of shōgun to a nominal one, with manipulable court nobles generally being appointed as shōgun and real control being exercised by the Hūjū.

The Hūjū shōgunal regents became particularly dominant after 1221, when they survived a challenge to their power from the retired emperor Go-Toba (1180–1239, r.1183–98). Go-Toba had memories of the Genpei War when he had been installed as an infant emperor after Antoku’s death, and had long opposed the Minamoto and Hūjū. Following his unsuccessful challenge the shōgunate based a shōgunal deputy in the capital to help keep a check on the court. Go-Toba himself was banished to remote Oki Island, off present-day Shimane Prefecture, and was eventually to die there. He is yet another well-known tragic figure of Japanese history.

The political and military power wielded by Masako raises the often asked question of whether there were female warriors. There were indeed a number of them, right through until the late 1860s, though in some cases it is difficult to separate legend from fact. They were certainly not as numerous as, for example, Celtic female warriors. Among the better-known female warriors, one of Yoritomo’s relatives, his cousin Yoshinaka (1154–84, whom Yoritomo had killed), had a concubine Tomoe Gozen (ca.1160–1247) who is credited with taking a number of heads during the Genpei War, and in modern history Nakano Takako (1847–68) was killed fighting in the Boshin War of 1868–69. However, female warriors were not formally recognised as samurai. The term applied to them was onna bugeisha, meaning literally ‘women skilled in martial arts’.

Though clearly much was happening at home, two of the most important events during the period of Hūjū supremacy were of external origin. These were the attempted Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281. These foreign threats probably helped the Hūjū to retain power nationally, for, together with periods of national alert before and after, they created a state of national emergency that over-rode any internal dissent for some thirty years.

When Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai (1215–94) came to power as Emperor of Great Mongolia in 1260, the Mongol Empire already covered Korea, northern China, and indeed much of Eurasia. Kublai’s next main target was southern China, the base of the Sung (Song) forces. However, he also turned his attention to Japan. In 1268 he sent a letter to the ‘King of Japan’ threatening invasion if the Japanese did not recognise Mongol overlordship and agree to submit tribute to him. The Japanese authorities – court and shōgunate alike – ignored this and subsequent letters, but nevertheless the shōgunate put the coast of northwestern KyŌshŌ, where any attack was expected to occur, on military alert.

The first attack came in November 1274. As expected, it came in north-west KyŌshŌ. On this occasion Kublai sent about 900 vessels from Korea carrying some 40,000 men. They landed at Hakata, and the invaders immediately forced the Japanese defenders inland. However, instead of pressing on, that night the Mongol forces returned to their ships. Shortly afterwards these suffered extensive damage, along with considerable loss of life of those on board, when a violent storm blew up. The invaders withdrew to Korea, their numbers reduced by a third.

The Japanese were alarmed at their own inferiority in terms of weaponry and cavalry tactics, and strengthened their preparations for an expected second attack.

The Mongol invasion force of June 1281, which again landed at Hakata, was much larger. It comprised no fewer than 4,400 warships and 140,000 men. By this stage Kublai had secured victory over the Sung in 1279, becoming founder of a new dynasty of rulers of China. He had also suffered the insult of having his envoys to Japan beheaded in 1275 and again in 1279. This time he was serious.

But, large as the Mongol forces were, they were met with staunch resistance and were unable to secure a real foothold. Reinforcements arrived a few weeks later from southern China, but, just as the invaders were planning a massive combined assault, another storm blew up in the form of a typhoon and destroyed most of their fleet. Once again they were forced to withdraw, this time with more than half their men lost.

The two Mongol defeats were partly due to the spirited Japanese resistance and partly to their reliance on recently subjugated Chinese and Korean troops, who had little commitment to the Mongol cause. However, the two storms also had an undeniable and very major influence on the outcome. The storm winds became known as shinpŌ or kamikaze – literally ‘divine wind’, reflecting a Japanese belief that Japan was the Land of the Gods and had been protected by them. The same term was later to be used in the Second World War of the suicide pilots who gave their life in the same cause of protecting the nation.

The recent discovery and recovery of numerous sunken vessels off the island of Takashima, where most of the typhoon damage occurred during the major assault of 1281 under the leadership of a general as opposed to an admiral (Kublai himself took no physical part in either of the actual assaults), reveals that any ‘divine hand’ that may have intervened was definitely assisted by human hands. At that time, Chinese vessels were considered the best in the world, but it is quite clear that poor workmanship, such as looseness in the mast-step (the hole in the central beam that holds the main mast steady), was in the case of many vessels a contributing factor to their inability to ride out a storm. This may have been a result of deliberate sabotage on the part of the Chinese and Korean boat-builders, or it may have been a case of Kublai wanting to attack as soon as possible and putting too much pressure on the workers, ending up with vessels built in haste and by apprentices rather than master shipwrights. The latter scenario, of Kublai’s needless urgency, is strongly supported by the use of so many keel-less river boats, totally unsuited to oceanic conditions and easily capsized in a storm. In short, Kublai and his advisers were no sailors, and botched the job. With the loss at sea of an estimated 70,000 men it still ranks as the world’s greatest-ever single nautical tragedy, and it is surely one of the classic cases of folly in human history. Kublai did not give up his intention to invade Japan, and planned a number of subsequent attacks. On each occasion he was diverted by instability elsewhere in his empire. The Japanese knew of his intent and maintained an alert at least till his death in 1294, after which Mongol interest in Japan appears to have waned.

Japan’s victories and survival resulted from a mixture of spirited fighting on their part, poor organisation and morale on the enemy’s part, and sheer good fortune. No doubt the same applies to most military victories regardless of time and place, but in Japan’s case they were particularly favoured by fortune and circumstance.

The external threats may have helped prevent internal fighting, but they also contributed to mounting discontent towards the Hūjū shōgunate. The financial cost of the defence and long-term state of military alert was very great, and severely depleted the shōgunate’s finances. It was unable to pay promised rewards to warrior families, or even basic compensation for their contribution to the nation’s defence. This was particularly galling to those families who felt that they themselves, rather than the Hūjū, had won the victory. Further discontent was caused by the Hūjū decision to instal shōgunal deputies in KyŌshŌ and to concentrate even more posts into their own hands.

Despite the financial problems of the shōgunate and many warrior families, the nation’s economic situation as a whole improved during the period, partly as a result of the relative peace and stability that prevailed under the jit-shugo system. The shen (estates) became more productive, though they were still far from fully efficient. Increased productivity helped the prosperity of maritime traders who distributed rice and other goods around the nation. Guilds also became stronger.

The life of the common people during the Kamakura era was marked by the emergence of new Japanese forms of Buddhism. The most distinctive characteristic of these was their appeal to the people at large, as opposed to Heian-period Buddhism which had generally been esoteric and confined to the ruling class. The Jūdo (Pure Land) Sect, founded by the priest Hūnen (1133–1212), believed salvation could be attained by chanting the name of Amida Buddha. The Jūdo Shin (True Pure Land) Sect, founded by Hūnen’s disciple Shinran (1173–1263), simplified this further to just one sincere invocation of Amida’s name. The type of Buddhism promoted by Nichiren (1222–82) was similarly simple, but focused on the Lotus Sutra rather than Amida.

Not all forms of Buddhism established in the Kamakura period were popular in their appeal, however. Zen Buddhism, with its stress on austerity and self-discipline, appealed more to warriors than to commoners of the day. Elements of Zen had been present in Japan for some centuries, but it took particular root following two trips to China by the priest Eisai (1141–1215), and presently developed into a number of sects.

Dissatisfaction towards the Hūjū shgunal regents came to a head under the unusually assertive emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339). Acceding to the throne in 1318, he was determined to re-establish direct imperial rule.46 He was inspired in this by the former emperor Go-Toba, who had shown a similar resolve – albeit unsuccessfully – a hundred years earlier.

Go-Daigo tried twice to challenge the shōgunate, in 1324 and 1331, but failed on both occasions. Like Go-Toba before him, he was banished to the Oki Islands. However, unlike Go-Toba, Go-Daigo soon managed to escape, and succeeded in mustering considerable support in the western part of HonshŌ.

In 1333 the Kamakura shōgunate sent one of its ablest generals, Ashikaga Takauji (1305–58) to deal with the situation. Takauji, the young head of a branch of the Minamoto family, was an opportunist. Realising that he and Go-Daigo had considerable military might between them, he turned traitor to the shōgunate and, declaring his support for Go-Daigo, attacked the shōgunal offices in Kyūto. Within weeks another powerful young general of Minamoto descent, Nitta Yoshisada (1301–38), also rebelled against the shōgunate and destroyed its base at Kamakura.

A new era was nigh.

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