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History, The Kamakura Shoguns

Kamakura government, Minamoto Yoritomo, Zen sect, Kamakura shogunate, Amida Buddha

During the course of the civil war, Minamoto Yoritomo created a new set of governmental institutions at Kamakura in eastern Japan as an alternative to the decrepit central imperial government. By the end of the war, Yoritomo’s government had extended its control beyond Kyoto to Kyushu. The imperial court empowered Yoritomo to appoint two new kinds of officials: provincial constables (shugo), charged with maintaining law and order in the provinces, and land stewards (jito), who were assigned to private estates to protect the rights of their proprietors.

In 1192, after Yoritomo’s forces subdued a powerful branch of the Fujiwara family based in northern Honshu, the imperial court granted Yoritomo the title of shogun. This made him the country’s supreme military commander with powers to preserve domestic peace. In effect, Yoritomo had become a feudal warrior monarch, sharing power with the civil imperial monarch at Kyoto. The new style of military government was called a bakufu, often referred to in English as a shogunate. Yoritomo ruled through a network of personal vassals (gokenin) who pledged complete and unconditional loyalty to him. These personal vassals held offices at Kamakura or were appointed as constables or land stewards. Their influence in the provinces was usually greater than that of the provincial governors and district chiefs appointed by the imperial court.

After Yoritomo’s death in 1199, real power in the Kamakura shogunate passed to his widow’s family, the Hojo. No Hojo ever became shogun; instead the family prevailed upon the imperial court to appoint figurehead shoguns, often children, while a Hojo leader served as regent. In 1221 the Hojo succeeded in crushing a rebellion led by the retired emperor Go-Toba, who attempted to take back the reins of government.

In 1232 the Kamakura shogunate promulgated a new 51-article legal code, now known as the Joei Code. It laid out the rights of the warrior class and clarified the duties of constables and other Kamakura officials. The code also attempted to restrain and discipline unruly warriors by enjoining them to respect the rights of other groups, including those of the religious establishments attached to temples and shrines. A set of practical laws based on local customs and practices, this new legal code replaced the elaborate Chinese-modeled codes adopted by the imperial government in the 8th century.

The era of Hojo rule also witnessed the spread of new forms of popular Buddhism. The large Buddhist monasteries and temples in the capital catered to the needs of the aristocratic families who patronized them, but the new schools of Pure Land Buddhism stressed personal salvation for ordinary believers. Two great religious leaders, Honen and Shinran, preached reliance on the power of the Amida Buddha. According to these teachers, all believers could enter paradise by simply repeating the chant namu amida butsu, an invocation to the Buddha. Nichiren, another influential but contentious Buddhist leader, insisted that believers should instead invoke the name of the Lotus Sutra, a central Buddhist text. The Zen sect, stressing meditation and intense self-discipline, also took hold among the warrior class, and the warrior leaders at Kamakura patronized its monasteries and temples.

While the Hojo enjoyed a reputation for fairness and efficiency, their authority was seriously shaken by two attempted Mongol invasions. In the 13th century the Mongol Empire stretched across the entire Eurasian landmass, from Central Asia to China and Korea, just off Japan’s shores. After the Kamakura government brusquely refused the Mongols’ demand that Japan acknowledge the suzerainty of the Mongol leader, Khublai Khan, a Mongol invading force of about 40,000 landed in northern Kyushu in 1274. The Japanese had prepared extensive defensive fortifications, but before they were fully tested against the battle-wise Mongols, a sudden storm (later known as “the divine wind,” or kamikaze) destroyed much of the invading fleet. A second invasion force of 140,000 met a similar fate seven years later, in 1282.

The defeat of the Mongols had a high political cost. Warrior families who had mobilized men, weapons, and other resources to defend Kyushu demanded rewards for their efforts, but the Kamakura government had no confiscated land or booty to satisfy their claims. As a result, confidence in the Hojo declined, and warrior discontent grew in the provinces.



Article key phrases:

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