Hōjō Masako

1157–1225 The Nun Shogun

Two centuries after early chapters of The Tale of Genji circulated at the Heian court, a brand new sort of literature was doing the rounds in Japan. Its delight in the intimate repartee that passes between a woman and a man would have been familiar to someone of Murasaki Shikibu’s time and temperament. And yet when a warrior woman called Tomoe Gozen chides a man named Uchida on his bad manners, we find the couple’s exchange taking place not via scented letter, nor in the moonlit garden of some magnificent mansion. They are on the battlefield, locked in hand-to-hand combat. And Uchida has Tomoe by the hair:

‘What is wrong with my manners?’

Tomoe answered: ‘Does a man good enough to close with a woman draw his dagger as they fight and let her see it? Uchida, you know nothing of the old ways.’

Then she clenched her fist and struck him hard in the elbow of his dagger arm. The blow was so powerful that the dagger fell out of his hand. ‘See …’ she cried, ‘I am from a mountain village in Kiso, acknowledged the best in the land. I am the combat instructor you need!’ And she stretched out her left hand, seized Uchida’s faceplate, and forced his head down on to the pommel of her saddle; then she slipped her hand under the faceplate, drew her own dagger, wrenched the head round and struck it off.

Something had clearly changed since Murasaki’s day.

A major point of reference for this new culture was a civil war, subsequent dramatizations of which credited a woman called Tomoe Gozen with playing an important part. She was lauded as a ‘warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or god, mounted or on foot’. Raging on and off between 1180 and 1185, across a country whose territory by now extended to the northern most tip of Honshū, the war ended with authority shifting from Heian-kyō to a military government in Kamakura. At the heart of this momentous change was Hōjō Masako, the wife of the first Kamakura shogun.

From a minor landowning family in eastern Japan, Masako rose to the pinnacle of power in the new regime. Later generations of Japanese would remember her as someone who had been quicker than many others to understand and respond to its novel combination of landed wealth, military strength, individual character and obligation, canny deal-making and family ties. Confucian virtues of filial piety and respect for ancestors now became fused more deeply than ever with Japan’s older clan mentality. Grasping all this, and making the most of it, Masako helped the new regime to survive – very much on her own terms, and those of the Hōjō family. What might, under other circumstances, have been a short-lived new political arrangement amidst turbulent times instead became an institution central to Japan’s history and sense of itself as a country and culture: bakufu, or military government.

Heian-kyō’s founder would barely have recognized his city in 1157, the year of Hōjō Masako’s birth. Emperor Kanmu’s palace complex had burned down and been rebuilt several times since the mid-900s, and the site was soon to be abandoned altogether. What was once the secular and sacred centre of an imperial state would end its days as a vegetable patch, its turnips said to be especially good. The nearby Park of the Divine Spring meanwhile embarked on a sad trajectory of its own, from Edenic recreational spot to dumping ground for rubbish and corpses. The city’s great southern gate, Rashōmon, was already no more than a memory. It had turned out to be less sturdy than it looked, and after succumbing twice to strong winds it had not been re-erected.

Some of Heian-kyō’s airy avenues and lanes, especially in its western half and around the periphery, were clogged these days by pedlars and prostitutes, beggars and gamblers. There were no-go areas, derelict houses and thieves so brazen that when it wasn’t on fire the Imperial Palace was at constant risk of being broken into. Just beyond the city lay danger of another kind. Kanmu had gazed upon the awesome mountains arrayed around his capital, and felt protected. Later emperors felt hemmed in. Those mountains had become home to wealthy and independently minded Buddhist sects, Tendai being the greatest amongst them, whose activities now ran to the recruitment and training of warrior monks or sōhei. They would muster up in the mountains, Buddhist robes bulging over the armour beneath, before descending into the ‘Capital of Peace and Tranquillity’ in their hundreds – sometimes thousands – to intimidate and attack religious rivals and political enemies.

Kanmu would have wept for his successors every bit as much as for his city. Imperial authority never recovered from the two centuries of Fujiwara clan rule beginning in 850. Change of a sort came in 1068, when Emperor Go-Sanjō ascended the throne. He was the first emperor in 170 years whose mother was not a Fujiwara. The result was a certain independence of spirit: Go-Sanjō retired to a Buddhist monastery in 1073, seeking to influence events at court from there. He died a few months later, leaving his son and successor Shirakawa to develop the novel trend for ‘cloistered rule’ (insei) that Go-Sanjō had inspired. Shirakawa was emperor for just fourteen years before retiring in 1086 while still in his mid-thirties. With the burden of his ritual role lifted, he spent the next forty years scheming behind the scenes to influence preferment for important official posts, shoring up his family’s finances, checking his rivals’ power and ensuring that his favoured candidates were well placed in the line of succession. The major disadvantage to all this was an ever more fractured politics. Parental interference in imperial rule effectively doubled, with an emperor now forced to contend both with his mother’s side of the family – frequently, still, the Fujiwara – and his father’s side, which might include one or more retired emperors with more time on their hands and more experience of government.

Out in the provinces, too – home to the vast majority of the population – the old ideal of a unified imperial state was falling away across the 1000s and 1100s. People still, in theory, leased their land from the state, paying taxes in return for permission to farm it. But an old imperial practice of relinquishing rights over small portions of land as a means of supporting religious institutions and paying government officials had morphed into a system whereby wealthy and well-connected temples and families accrued vast private holdings by having others sign over their lands to them – in return for political, financial or physical security. Everyone still recognized the legal authority of the Heian court, and sought charters to confirm the land they claimed. But real power in the provinces now lay in these large estates, known as shōen, often comprising holdings scattered across the country. Semi-autonomous provincial governors controlled tracts that remained nominally in the state’s hands, amounting to less than 50 per cent of the land in most provinces by the late 1100s.

Hōjō Masako was born into one of the many rural landowning families that emerged as beneficiaries within this system. Based in Izu Province on Japan’s east coast, the Hōjō were relatively minor players. They were not especially wealthy, and Masako’s father Tokimasa boasted little influence beyond the immediate locale. So when Masako’s mother died in childbirth, and it fell to a teenage Masako to take care of her family, that might well have been it for her: a difficult life destined to go unrecorded, with history happening elsewhere. Except that when Masako was three years old, a boy called Yoritomo, ten years her senior, had moved into the area. Brought up in Heian-kyō, he had relocated to the peninsula not for its inspiring scenery and fresh sea air: he was a political exile, a casualty of violent conflicts racking the country in recent years, which were far from over.

As the court’s authority waned and the shōen system developed, landowners had found that protecting their gains occasionally required the use of force. And with Kanmu’s conscript army rarely covering itself in glory, his successors had increasingly turned to smaller groups of seasoned fighters instead, some of whom had picked up tips from the ‘barbarian’ Emishi of the north-east, including an expertise in mounted archery. Warrior work emerged as a heritable profession in the 900s and 1000s, associated with two great families in particular: the Taira and the Minamoto.

Tracing their origins back to attempts from the ninth century onwards at downsizing the imperial family, by giving surplus members their own surnames (most often ‘Taira’ or ‘Minamoto’), these two warrior houses saw their power grow along with demand for their services. Landowners and provincial governors sought help with defence; the court, less cavalier about the countryside than the aristocratic literature of the era tended to imply, employed them to put down rebellions. And many a nobleman in Heian-kyō, anxious about rivals or the possibility of yet another monkish militia invading the capital, found that he slept more easily if men with blood on their hands stood vigil outside his door. In return for some combination of money, land and prestigious official positions, such men were willing to ‘serve’ or ‘attend’ – saburau. People started calling them ‘saburai’, later ‘samurai’, and the more successful of them gathered large bands of followers: hungry, in the early days, for the personal rewards of private military service, but willing in later generations to fight for the same master as their fathers before them.

Hōjō Masako’s family claimed ‘Taira’ descent, but they were only distantly related, if at all, to the most powerful lineage bearing that name, which dominated central and south-western Japan, enjoyed lucrative trade with China and under Taira no Kiyomori was called in to help settle a dispute over the imperial succession in the 1150s. The Taira ended up on the opposite side from the most powerful of the Minamoto families, and the two warrior houses shed one another’s blood on the streets of the capital before Kiyomori came out on top. By rewarding allies and making excellent marriages for his daughters into the imperial and Fujiwara families, he dominated the court during the late 1160s and into the 1170s, marking the moment when samurai exchanged service for rule.

And yet Kiyomori had made a mistake. He had his rival general Minamoto no Yoshitomo executed, along with his two eldest sons. But he let Yoshitomo’s two younger sons live. One, Yoshitsune, a baby at the time, was sent off into the care of Buddhist monks. The other, Yoritomo, was banished to Izu into the guardianship of a Taira ally whose hospitality he rewarded by getting his daughter pregnant. The guardian was forced to kill his own grandchild in order to prevent trouble with the Taira, while Yoritomo was hurriedly moved into the care of another Taira ally, one Hōjō Tokimasa.

While Tokimasa was away serving guard duty in Heian-kyō in the mid-1170s, Masako and Yoritomo began an affair. Tokimasa was furious when he found out, and hurriedly arranged an alternative match for Masako. But she was twenty years old by this point, and through some combination of maturity, independence, love for Yoritomo and anger at her father for recently getting married to a woman of around her own age, Masako resolved to resist. She and Yoritomo ran away together to a temple in the mountains, hiding out there until Tokimasa relented and agreed to take the biggest gamble of his life – allowing a Minamoto into the family fold.

It quickly began to look like a bad bet. There were those at court who had always felt that, despite his great victory, Taira no Kiyomori, born of a rustic father who had danced well enough but whose poetry had been terrible, did not belong in their elevated company. Kiyomori had forgotten his place and was now very much outstaying his welcome. A plot was hatched in 1180, calling on Minamoto warriors to rise up and assist in putting things right. With Japan now on the brink of civil war, Tokimasa threw in his lot with his son-in-law Yoritomo, who was beginning to gather together allies old and new from across eastern Japan.

Yoritomo went about this in a bold, even groundbreaking way. Where land rights and official posts were traditionally only granted by the imperial court, Yoritomo started to hand them out on his own authority. He was declaring independence of a sort, tying warriors and landowners to himself personally and taking as his alternative seat of government a small village called Kamakura, on the eastern coast of central Honshū.

Masako, meanwhile, was forced to seek refuge for herself and the couple’s daughter Ōhime in a mountain temple friendly to the Minamoto side, whose warrior monks would protect her. When it became safe for her to join her husband in Kamakura, she found she was no longer the daughter of a small provincial landowner. She was aristocracy: the wife of a powerful, up-and-coming leader – no matter that the war had only just begun and there was no telling yet where it would go. People started to address Masako as ‘Her Ladyship’, and according to a chronicle of the period called Mirror of the East (Azuma Kagami), compiled by members of the Hōjō family, her chambers were guarded at night by the best Minamoto archers. When her second child, Yoriie, was born around 1181, he was treated like a prince by Yoritomo’s supporters, who were by now hurrying to build homes in Kamakura. Ceremonies were held, gifts made of swords and horses, and several high-ranking wet-nurse (menoto) families were brought in to look after the boy during his early years.

All was not domestic bliss, however. Not long after Yoriie’s birth, Masako heard a rumour from her stepmother Lady Maki that while she was pregnant Yoritomo had been taking time off from plotting a war and planning a brand new system of administration to visit an old flame, Lady Kame. He had even set her up with a house in Kamakura. Someone else in Masako’s position might have concluded that such was the price a newly minted aristocratic wife must pay for her status. Instead, Masako had her stepmother’s brother, a man named Munechika, take a small band of warriors over to the place where Lady Kame was staying and set fire to the building. Lady Kame just managed to escape with her life.

There was precedent here. Aristocratic diaries of the era contained tales of uwanari-uchi or ‘acts of revenge against the next wife’. These were commissioned or even personally carried out by noblewomen against a husband’s new lover, and could include violent attacks on the person, property or family of the offending individual. Readers in later centuries would thrill to stories of such acts, sometimes with a supernatural flavour: for example, spurned wives transforming themselves into demons, the better to wreak their revenge.

But Masako may also have been setting down a marker early in her married life with Yoritomo – and with some success. Such was her influence over him, and the need he had of her father’s war support, that Yoritomo did not punish Masako for what she had done. Instead, the Mirror of the East has him inviting Munechika on an outing, and taking the opportunity to demand an explanation. With Munechika prostrating himself in apology, Yoritomo subjects him to a severe humiliation, cutting off his topknot. He concedes that ‘it was most praiseworthy of you to have carried out Her Ladyship’s orders’, but says that Munechika should at least have informed him first. Munechika flees the scene in tears.

Masako’s marriage survived her vengeance against Yoritomo’s lover. But it soon came under severe strain once again. With Taira no Kiyomori suffering serious reverses almost from the outset of the war, dying in 1181 having lost everything, Yoritomo’s prospects looked increasingly bright. Yet this was a complicated conflict. Known to later generations as the Genpei War – from a combination of ‘Genji’ and ‘Heishi’, using the Chinese readings of the first characters of ‘Minamoto’ and ‘Taira’, respectively – was not in fact simply a straight fight between families bearing those names. Forces claiming Taira and Minamoto connections fought on both sides in a series of uprisings that could only later and loosely be described as a ‘war’. The greatest worry for Yoritomo by 1184 was whether or not he could trust his own cousin, Kiso no Yoshinaka, who had himself taken up arms against the Taira in Heian-kyō.

Yoshinaka succeeded in forcing the Taira out of Heian-kyō, with the young emperor – Kiyomori’s grandson – in tow. And it soon became clear that Yoshinaka intended to set himself up in power. In 1184, Yoritomo had to send in his own army, under his brother Yoshitsune, putting Yoshinaka and his men to the sword and persuading the court to acknowledge Yoritomo’s rightful efforts at bringing peace to an unruly land.

All of this made life very difficult for Masako and her five-year-old daughter Ōhime. Yoshinaka had sent his eleven-year-old son Yoshitaka to stay with Yoritomo’s family as a sign of his good intentions. Masako and Ōhime had taken a great liking to the boy, and both seem to have expected that Ōhime and Yoshitaka would one day marry. Now that Yoshinaka was a traitor, and had died for it, Masako and Ōhime feared that Yoritomo would not allow Yoshitaka to live. So either mother or daughter – perhaps both, working together – persuaded Yoshitaka to dress up as one of Masako’s female attendants as a way of smuggling him away to safety. One of Yoshitaka’s men stayed behind, buying time for the escape by impersonating his master.

But the scheme was discovered, and five days later Yoshitaka was captured and killed. Once again Masako raged at her husband, accusing him of plunging their daughter Ōhime into serious illness with his cruelty against someone she had loved. And once again, Masako proved she could make an impact. There was no bringing Yoshitaka back, but Yoritomo was sufficiently chastened that he had the man who had murdered Yoshitaka executed in turn.

The Genpei War finally came to an end in 1185, when Yoshitsune caught up with what remained of the Taira forces and destroyed them in a major sea battle at Dannoura, off the southern coast of Honshū. The rival fleets engaged one another first with long-range archery and later at close quarters with swords and daggers, before Minamoto archers picked off Taira rowers and helmsmen, leaving their boats adrift. Some of the Taira forces switched sides during the fighting, while others took their own lives once they saw how it was all going to end.

This victory and other feats turned Yoshitsune into an early star of Japan’s new literary genre: the war epic. The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari) was one of its first and greatest instalments, based on tales told by travelling storytellers and first compiled as a single text around 1240. It focused primarily on the ‘Heike’ (‘Taira family’), but offered an enthralling, if heavily romanticized, account of the civil war in general. It was here that the famous, and at least semi-fictitious, female samurai Tomoe Gozen made one of her first appearances in literature: as the traitorous Yoshinaka’s foster-sister, and one of seven samurai retainers left defending him when Yoshitsune arrives to punish him in 1184, at what became known as the Battle of Awazu. Yoshinaka orders Tomoe to leave and save herself, and soon afterwards he is killed. With all now clearly lost, one of Yoshinaka’s last and most loyal retainers taunts his attackers – ‘Take a look, easterners! This is how the bravest man in Japan commits suicide!’ – before positioning the tip of his sword in his mouth and jumping head-first from his horse.

The Tale of the Heike later turns to the Battle of Dannoura, focusing on the fate of Taira no Kiyomori’s widow. Grandmother to the young emperor, and a Buddhist nun, she is lauded for her handling of the war’s tragic denouement:

The Nun of Second [court] Rank took the Emperor in her arms and walked to the side of the ship. The Emperor had turned eight that year, but seemed very grown up for his age. His face was radiantly beautiful, and his abundant black hair reached below his waist. ‘Where are you taking me, Grandmother?’ he asked, with a puzzled look.

She turned her face to the young sovereign, holding back her tears. ‘Don’t you understand? An evil karma holds you fast in its toils. Your good fortune has come to an end. Turn to the east and say goodbye to the Grand Shrine of Ise [where the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is enshrined], then turn to the west and repeat the sacred name of Amida Buddha, so that he and his host may come to escort you to the Pure Land. This country is a land of sorrow; I am taking you to a happy realm called Paradise.’

With tears swimming in his eyes, [the Emperor] joined his tiny hands, knelt towards the east, and bade farewell to the Grand Shrine. Then he turned towards the west and recited the sacred name of Amida. The Nun snatched him up, said in a comforting voice, ‘There is a capital under the waves, too,’ and they both entered the boundless depths.

With the fighting over in 1185, Yoritomo and Masako moved to take control. Japan’s Heian era had ended, and its Kamakura era had begun. Yoritomo appointed samurai estate-managers (jitō) to look after landholdings across the country, gathering to himself in Kamakura administrative and judicial power that had previously been in the gift of the imperial court alone. He later sent out a warrior-constable (shugo) to each province to keep the peace. Yoritomo’s dominant role in maintaining law and order across Japan was formalized in 1192 with the granting by the imperial court of the title Sei-i-Taishōgun or ‘Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Forces against the Barbarians’. The title of shogun had earlier been used in Kanmu’s era for a military leader tasked with securing the country’s northern border against the Emishi. Now it was bestowed upon a man with far more power: the head of Japan’s first military government (bakufu).

The court perhaps didn’t expect this new state of affairs to last very long. And indeed the years after 1185 turned out to be anything but plain sailing for Yoritomo and Masako. The first to begin squabbling over the great prize that had been won was Yoritomo’s own brother, Yoshitsune. The hero of Dannoura and countless other campaigns tried to turn his military reputation into civil power in Heian-kyō. Those dreams ended with his severed head being transported back to Kamakura in 1189, marinating in sweet sake to preserve it for identification by Yoritomo’s men. Next, the couple’s hopes of marrying their daughter Ōhime to an emperor were dashed through double-crossing at court and Ōhime’s death in 1197.

Two years later, Yoritomo died. Never really the swashbuckling samurai, Yoritomo met an ignominious end after falling off his horse on the way back from the ceremonial opening of a bridge. Such was Masako’s reputation as a jealous wife in later centuries that legends emerged suggesting that she must have killed her husband. Other stories about Yoritomo’s demise attributed it to the wreaking of ghoulish posthumous revenge by Yoshitsune or the drowned boy-emperor – anything, perhaps, to avoid the awkwardness of having a military government founded by a man who couldn’t ride a horse.

Like many a noble spouse, including the wife of Taira no Kiyomori, Masako took Buddhist vows after her husband’s death. For her, it served as a way of signalling an intention to forego remarriage in favour of exercising authority in her deceased husband’s name. Japan had only recently acquired its first fully fledged shogun. Now people began to talk of the ama shōgun – the ‘Nun Shogun’– who at moments of crisis stepped in to remind everyone of what Yoritomo had stood for and achieved in his life, and what they all owed him now after his death.

The Nun Shogun’s political gifts were called upon almost immediately. Yoritomo’s seventeen-year-old son Yoriie had been set to succeed his father ever since a ceremony at the age of six at which he had been presented with armour, bow and sword, and led around the garden on horseback. When the time came, however, Yoriie seemed to have romance rather than rule on his mind. He sent one of his vassals, Adachi Kagemori, away from Kamakura to take care of some bandits, who he claimed had been causing trouble. When Kagemori returned to Kamakura, having failed to locate any bandits, he found that Yoriie had set him up: getting him out of the way while he kidnapped one of his concubines and had her brought to his palace.

Masako may not have felt especially close to Yoriie at the best of times. He was raised away from her household, with wet-nurse families. And when he killed his first deer at the age of eleven, at the foot of Mount Fuji, this seminal moment in a young warrior’s life passed almost without comment from his mother. The Azuma Kagami (Mirror of the East) portrays Masako as sometimes indulging Yoriie, while also being driven to despair by his lack of interest or ability as shogun. But she did manage to make him listen to her, when he would rarely listen to anyone else. With Yoriie threatening a pre-emptive attack on the home of his wronged vassal, Masako went to stay in the house to protect its occupants. She cautioned her son in a letter that if he planned to kill people there, then ‘aim your first arrow at me’.

Yoriie was forced into a climbdown, and Kagemori’s concubine was duly returned. But Yoriie soon switched his sources of entertainment to drinking and the ball game kemari. Masako put a stop to one particular fixture, which Yoriie was due to play sooner than was decent after the death of one of his more important vassals. But she sometimes watched him play, perhaps realizing the potential of sports diplomacy. Kemari was associated with the imperial court and proved to be a useful means of maintaining relations with the capital after a difficult few years following the failure of Masako’s and Yoritomo’s attempted matchmaking for Ōhime. Retired Emperor Go-Toba even recommended an instructor for Yoriie.

Intolerable to Masako, however, was the way that her son increasingly allied himself with one of his old wet-nurses’ families: the Hiki, headed by Hiki Yoshikazu, under whose care he had chiefly grown up. Yoriie married one of the Hiki daughters, Lady Wakasa, and they had a son called Ichiman. When Yoriie fell seriously ill in 1203, he and Yoshikazu appear to have plotted the destruction of Masako’s family, the Hōjō, so that Ichiman could become shogun after him – without having to compete for power with Yoriie’s younger brother, Sanetomo.

In the Mirror of the East account, which perhaps unsurprisingly favours the Hōjō family as regents in Kamakura over their scheming enemies, Masako is credited with overhearing – through a set of paper doors – Yoriie and Yoshikazu hatching their plan. She raises the alarm and a series of clashes ensue between Hiki and Hōjō forces. Hiki Yoshikazu, Lady Wakasa and Ichiman are all killed, while Yoriie is exiled and Sanetomo becomes shogun.

Further plotting two years later forced Masako and her brother Yoshitoki to send their own father into exile. A decade of effective joint rule by Masako and Yoshitoki followed in Kamakura, until in 1219 Sanetomo was assassinated and the direct Minamoto line of shoguns came to an end. When Masako and Yoshitoki found themselves forced to install a distant relative of Yoritomo’s (still a baby at this point) as Kamakura’s fourth shogun, Retired Emperor Go-Toba spotted his opportunity to restore imperial authority in Japan.

Go-Toba had been quietly recruiting new fighters to his personal guard for a while by this point, most of them from central and western Japan, where the Kamakura bakufu had few close friends. He continued to do so, offering patronage in return – much as Yoritomo had once done – until by 1221 he had an army. Declaring Yoshitoki to be a rebel, Go-Toba issued an imperial order for warriors around the country to attack him. Yoshitoki urged senior Kamakura vassals to be cautious in their response, and many agreed: it would be a terrible thing to take up arms against an emperor, retired or not. But in a celebrated speech credited to her in the Mirror of the East, Masako reminded these vassals of their late lord, their duty to him and also their own basic interests:

Since the days when Yoritomo … put down the court’s enemies and founded the [Kamakura] regime, the obligations you have incurred for offices, ranks, emoluments and stipends have in their sum become higher than mountains and deeper than the sea. You must, I am sure, be eager to repay them. Because of the slanders of traitors, an unrighteous imperial order has now been issued. Those of you who value your reputations will wish [to fight] to secure the patrimony of the three generations of shoguns. If any of you wish to join the ex-emperor, speak out.

At this, the vassals were ‘choked with tears … determined to repay their debts with their lives’. They were soon riding for Heian-kyō, recruiting more men along the way until they were so numerous that – in words attributed by the Mirror of the East to an apprehensive imperial ally – ‘they resemble clouds and mist. Only divine intervention can save us from disaster.’

No such intervention was forthcoming, and in the intense fighting of what became known as the ‘Jōkyū Incident’, Go-Toba’s forces were quickly routed. Remnants were pursued through their home provinces, where ‘heads rolled constantly’, ‘naked blades were wiped over and over’ and ‘in their tilled fields not a sprout remained’.

As the bakufu army settled down in the capital, Go-Toba, his two sons and various of their allies separately embarked on long journeys into remote exile. A new emperor and retired emperor were found to serve as puppets for the Kamakura regime: the old imperial order would have its uses for many centuries yet. Property across the country totalling around 3,000 pieces of land was confiscated from the court and those who had sided with it, to be redistributed amongst the victorious warriors of eastern Japan. Having received a divine revelation of this great victory in a dream, Masako duly presented new lands to the Grand Shrine at Ise: she and the bakufu wished to be enemies only of ‘unrighteousness’, never of the court itself or its divine ancestors.

Meanwhile, Retired Emperor Go-Toba, not the last monarch to harbour impossible dreams of restoring imperial power, finally arrived at his lonely place of exile in the Oki Islands, out in the chilly Sea of Japan – there, as far as the Mirror of the East was concerned, to enjoy his just deserts:

No tidings were borne to him by wild geese or blue birds from across the silent, cloud-rimmed sea, in whose vast expanse north and south seemed one, nor could he discern [the passing of time] as he gazed at the mist-shrouded waves, in whose boundless tracks east merged with west. He thought of nothing but the misery of life.

The Nun Shogun faced one final test when her brother Yoshitoki died in 1224. His may have been that seemingly rare form of death in this era – the result of natural causes. But there were rumours that in yet another attempt to wrest power from the Hōjō, Yoshitoki was in fact poisoned by his second wife’s family. Masako is said to have seen off an incipient takeover bid for the bakufu both quickly and peacefully, remonstrating in person with the would-be plotters. With Yoshitoki’s son Yasutoki safely installed as the new regent for the young shogun, the continuing dominance of the bakufu by Masako’s family was assured. Yasutoki would go on to establish Kamakura’s reputation for solid rule: creating a new, broader council as its main organ of governance, issuing legal codes – previously the prerogative of the imperial court – and sharpening the bakufu’s administration of impartial justice in the many suits over land that became a feature of the period.

By the time Masako died in 1225, at the age of sixty-eight, she had outlived many of the most powerful men of the era: her husband, her father, her brother and her two sons. She had seen off a retired emperor and his army. She had proven herself one of the first great players of Japan’s new warrior politics, acknowledged as such in Heian-kyō with the rare award to a lay nun of official court rank. And against all the odds she had helped to secure a fresh form of government at Kamakura, under the regency of her own family, which would stand for another century and provide a model of warrior rule for another 500 years after that. This history would make profound and enduring contributions to the self-image of the Japanese in literature, theatre and film, in art and fashion, in politics and technology, in spirituality and that great warrior concern – self-cultivation.

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