The Kamakura Period

The Kamakura period was a time in Japanese history that marks the rule of the Kamakura Shogunate. It was established officially in the year 1192 in Kamakura by the very first Shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo. The period was relatively known as the time when the samurai warriors  caste emerged, as well as the establishment of feudalism in the country.

The Kamakura Shogunate ruled from Kamakura city, which is located in the Kanto region. The period is said to have begun in the year 1185 when the Minamoto clan emerged victorious during the Genpei War. This marked the end of the Taira clan’s political rule and control.

Some others claim that the year 1192 was the beginning of the period since this was the time when the Kamakura Shogunate was established. In the year 1333, the Kamakura period ended with the destruction and fall of the Shogunate. This also included the quick re-establishment of the country’s imperial rule under Emperor Go Daigo.

A Transition to the Medieval Period

The Kamakura era also marks the country’s shift to the medieval period. An almost 700-year era wherein the court, the emperor, and the classic central government remained intact. However, these were relegated almost entirely to ceremonial functions. Civil, judicial, and military matters were managed by the Bushi.

The term feudalism is commonly utilized to describe this specific period. This term was somehow accepted by scholars. And just like Medieval Europe, the country also had land-based economies, a concentration of advanced and developed military technologies, as well as vestiges of earlier centralized states.

The lords of this time required the services of loyal vassals, who in return, were rewarded with their own fiefs. This period in the country differed from the traditional Shoen system in its extensive military emphasis.

Culture during the Kamakura Era

The cultural life during the Kamakura period combined elements that related to the court, warrior, and popularity. It was marked by the court’s continuous cultural predominance. This also includes the creation of a unique cultural warrior style that displayed the warrior values of Dori or Musha no Narai. This is the custom of the warriors.

Buddhist monks, as well as the monasteries, were highly active patrons to Japan’s culture. The age witnessed a popular improvement of Buddhist devotion, as well as dancing and musical entertainments. These included Dengaku, Taue Uta and Sarugaku which became quite popular in the countryside.

Minamoto no Yoritomo

Minamoto no Yoritomo was known as the Kamakura Shogunate’s founder and its first Shogun. He ruled from the years 1192 until 1199. Yoritomo’s buddhist name was Ougosho Atsushi-Dai Zenmon.

After his death in the year 1199, quarrels and rivalry over supremacy began with the Kamakura Bakufu and Kyoto’s Imperial court. These issues and disagreements for supremacy ended in the 1221 Jokyu disturbance. This was when Kamakura crushed the Imperial army in Kyoto. After clashes of swords and weapons, the regents in the area were able to gain full control over the country.

By redistributing the acquired land during the Jokyu disturbance, they were able to receive loyalty from every powerful individual throughout the country. The emperor and every remaining governmental office in Kyoto practically lost all of their effective power.

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Hojo Regency

After the death of Yoritomo, Hojo Tokimasa, the chief of Yoritomo’s widow, Hojo Masako, claimed the title of Shikken / regent to Minamoto no Yoritomo’s son, Minamoto no Yoriie. Eventually, he made this claim hereditary to the Hojo family.

Soon after, Tokimasa ousted Yoriie, then assisted his younger brother, Sanetomo, as the new Shogun of that time. Additionally, Tokimasa assumed the role of Shikken. The Minamoto clan remained as the Shoguns while the Hojo clan continued to hold real power. In the year 1219, Sanetomo was killed by his nephew Kugyo, and since Sanetomo did not have any children, the Minamoto line of Shoguns ended with him.

With the Regency present, an already unusual situation became even more peculiar when the Hojo clan assumed power from those who had usurped power from the Emperor. Despite this, the new regime proved to be stable enough to have lasted a total of 135 years. There was a total of nine Shoguns and sixteen regents. With the death of Sanetomo in 1219 A.D, his mother became the Shogunate’s real power. As long as she remained alive, the Shogun and regents would simply come and go while she stayed on the throne. Since the Hojo did not have any specific rank to select a Shogun from their members, Masako searched for a convenient puppet for this.

The problem was solved with the help of Kujo Yoritsune. He was known as a distant relative of the Minamoto and was the 4th figurehead and Shogun. Hojo Yoshitoki managed the day to day business. No matter how powerless, the future Shoguns would always be selected from the Fujiwara or the imperial lineage. This was to keep the purity of their bloodline and to provide authority to the rule. This succession continued for over a century.

In the year 1221 A.D Emperor Go Toba attempted to regain power in the Jokyu War; however, his attempts failed. With that, the Hojo clan’s power remained unchallenged; In the year 1324 A.D, Emperor Go Daigo arranged a plot to overthrow the Hojo, but again, the plan failed and was immediately foiled.

 

The Mongol Invasion

At the 13th Century, the Mongols were able to conquer China and establish the Yuan dynasty. They also became interested in Japan, thus, sent a couple of threatening messages to the Kamakura. All of these threats were ignored, which resulted to the very first invasion attempt in the year 1274. This was specifically on the island of Kyushu. Literally after a few hours of fighting, the large naval fleet of the Mongols had to pull back due to the bad weather.

The Japanese were very fortunate during this time since their odds against the Mongols were highly unfavorable.

Due to excellent preparations, the second invasion attempt in 1281 A.D has failed, the Japanese maintained a strong defense for several weeks. and again, the Mongols needed to pull back once more due to extreme weather. With that, Kyushu remained on the lookout for a possible invasion attempt. Fortunately, the Mongols had their own issues and concerns to even bother with Japan.

There were consequences for the continuous years of preparing against the Mongol invasions. It became fatal to the Kamakura government since they only ended up spending without gaining profits. With that, a lot of their loyal men who fought for the Kamakura, waited for rewards that their government couldn’t pay. This caused a lot of financial issues as well as the decrease in loyalty among the powerful lords. These were some of the reasons for Kamakura’s fall.

Civil War

The Hojo clan reacted to the subsequent chaos by attempting to place more power to the numerous family clans. To further decrease the power of the Kyoto court, the Bakufu chose to allow two opposing imperial lines – the Southern Court and the Northern Court. This was to have them alternate on the throne. The method was successful for several sequences until a member of the Southern Court moved up to the throne as Emperor Go Daigo.

Go Daigo attempted to overthrow the Shogunate and defied the Kamakura. He named his son as his heir. In the year 1331, they decided to put Go Daigo into exile. However, his loyalists rebelled and were aided by Ashikaga Takauji. Takauji turned against the Kamakura when he was instructed to put down Go Daigo’s rebellion. Simultaneously, another chieftain from the East, rebelled against the Shogunate. This eventually led to the defeat of the Hojo clan.

In victory, Go Daigo aspired to restore the imperial authority and 10th century Confucian practices. This period of reform which was called the Kenmu Restoration, focused on strengthening the Emperor’s position while reasserting the supremacy of the nobles over the warriors. The reality of this was that the forces who went against the Kamakura were set on defeating the Hojo. They really did not plan to support the Emperor. Ashikaga Takauji eventually sided with the Northern Court in a civil war that was represented by Go Daigo. The long War Between the two Courts lasted from the years 1336 to 1392 A.D.

Buddhism’s Rise of Popularity


The violence and conflict during the Kamakura period resulted in a deep pessimism. This caused people to seek spiritual salvation, which led
to the spread of Buddhism. The sects of Heian Buddhism had been mysterious, which made these attract more intellectuals instead of the masses. The monasteries at Mount Hiei had gained more political power; however, this appealed primarily to individuals who were capable of the standardized study of the sect’s teachings.

Two new sects – Jodo Shu (Pure-Land Buddhism) and Zen (Meditation), made Buddhism more accessible to the masses. The Jodo educated practitioners that salvation could be reached based on devotion, absolute faith, as well as prayer to Amida Buddha. All scriptural and temporal authority were rejected by the Zen and instead, put emphasis on moral character rather than intellectual attainments. Increasing numbers of samurai turned to and sought for the guidance of Zen masters. They were believed to be the epitome of truth.

Chinese Influence During the Kamakura Period

The influence of the Chinese continued to be strong during this period. There were new Buddhist sects introduced such as the Zen sect. It was introduced in the year 1191, and found an abundance of followers among the samurai warriors. Another Buddhist sect, the Lotus Sutra, was founded in the year 1253 by Nichiren.