The Kamakura Period (1186-1333) The Kamakura period

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The Kamakura Period (1186-1333)

The Kamakura period (1186 - 1333) is heralded by the location of political power in Kamakura, located about 28 miles southwest of modern-day Tokyo. The Imperial court gave recognition to the de facto rule of Minamoto Yoritomo by conferring on him the title shogun after he defeated the Taira family in 1185 decisively in the battle of Dan no Ura. Yoritomo established his base in Kamakura. The kamakura bakufu (tent government) was Japan's first military or warrior government. The bakufu controlled the counrty through a system of appointed governors and stewards. The bakufu's main area of control was in the eastern provinces far from Kyoto, where the emperor still lived. Warrior bands which had previously been under the rule of Kyoto gave their allegiance to the Minamoto and the system of bakufu rule. This shift in political power marks th ebeginning of the Medieval period in Japan, and era that lasted roughly until the beginning of the 17th century. This political change had long lasting effects; although various clans held power through the ages, the shogunate form of government lasted until the 19th century with the collapse of the Tokugawa in 1868.

What precipitated the political change that led to the loss of Fujiwara power in Kyoto and the shift of rule from the Imperial court to the military government in Kamakura? In the Heian period, the Imperial government had no military presence outside Kyoto and even within the city it could do little to curb crime. Buddhist monasteries in and around the city had large holdings and they established their own protective forces of "warrior monks" proficient in martial arts. The Court began to rely on favorite provincial clans as body guards and military police within the capital. The samurai, meaning "one who serves the Emperor" derived from this practice. The most important clans were the Taira, or Heike, with land holdings in the west, and the Minamoto, or Genji, with land holdings in the east. The Minamoto came to be called "the claws of the Fujiwara" for their suppression of provincial and city rebellion. The Taira also served the Fujiwara by subduing piracy on the Inland Sea and its important trade routes between Kyoto and Kyushu, Korea and China. By the 12th century both clans had connections with the court. Like the Fufiwara, they were also able to consolidate power by marrying their daughters to members of the Imperial family. This infiltration plus their military power made the Taira and the Minamoto stronger than the Fujiwara and other rivals in Kyoto.

In 1156 two factions of the aristocracy were at odds for control over the next successor to the throne. The Taira and the Minamoto each supported one of the rivals, and Taira Kiyomori (leader of the Taira) was able to prevail and place his candidate on the throne. By 1159 he had managed to eliminate all of the Minamoto clan from cour positions and influence. Taira Kiyomori now held almost complete power through his influence over the emperor. Kiyomori followed the same methods as the Fujiwara had done for centuries. He increased his wealth, his land, and his political clout. He filled government offices with his relatives and married his daughter tyo an emperor. By 1180 his infant grandson was on the throne and he was regent. The Taira were as much a part of the court and its elegant ways as the Fujiwara had been; their allegiance was not to the provinces from which they came but to Kyoto and its courtly culture.

We know from our reading of the Hojoki by Kamo no Chomei that the country was plagued at this time by famine, epidemics, natural disasters, and political disorder. The popular religious belief in mappo, the period of the Decline of the Law, supported the pessimistic conviction that an era of strife and unrest was to begin in 1052 and last 10,000 years before the coming of the law of the next Buddha, Maitreya. Kiyomori failed to look beyond Kyoto and to consolidate rule in the provinces. The upheaval of the times contributed to the political failure of the court under Kiyomori and to the decentralization of power among military clans outside the capital.

The power of Minamoto clan, under the rule of Yoritomo, continued to grow. He was able to consolidate support from many local warrior families. Yoritomo rewarded loyal clans with more land and with the promise of protection from the Taira. From 1180 to 1185, the Taira and the Minamoto forces battled each other until the Minamoto prevailed and thoroughly crushed the Taira at Dan no Ura. The Tale of the Heike is about the fall of the Taira clan. We might imagine that Yoritomo would want to destroy Imperial rule. On the contrary, he saw himself as defender of the throne against the tyrannical Kiyomori. He set up his government in Kamkura with the sanction of the court and it prvailed until 1333. [Text by Prof. Carole Cavenaugh]

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