History of Japan

KAMAKURA AND MUROMACHI PERIODS, 1185-1573

The Bakufu and the Hojo Regency

The Kamakura period (1185-1333) marks the transition to the Japanese "medieval" era, a nearly 700-year period in which the emperor, the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but were largely relegated to ceremonial functions. Civil, military, and judicial matters were controlled by the bushi class, the most powerful of whom was the de facto national ruler. The term feudalism is generally used to describe this period, being accepted by scholars as applicable to medieval Japan as well as to medieval Europe. Both had land-based economies, vestiges of a previously centralized state, and a concentration of advanced military technologies in the hands of a specialized fighting class. Lords required the loyal services of vassals, who were rewarded with fiefs of their own. The fief holders exercised local military rule and public power related to the holding of land. This period in Japan differed from the old shoen system in its pervasive military emphasis.

Once Minamoto Yoritomo had consolidated his power, he established a new government at his family home in Kamakura. He called his government a bakufu (tent government), but because he was given the title seii taishogun by the emperor, the government is often referred to in Western literature as the shogunate. Yoritomo followed the Fujiwara form of house government and had an administrative board, a board of retainers, and a board of inquiry. After confiscating Taira estates in central and western Japan, he had the imperial court appoint stewards for the estates and constables for the provinces. As shogun, Yoritomo was both the steward and the constable general. The Kamakura bakufu was not a national regime, however, and although it controlled large tracts of land, there was strong resistance to the stewards. The regime continued warfare against the Fujiwara in the north, but never brought either the north or the west under complete military control. The old court resided in Kyoto, continuing to hold the land over which it had jurisdiction, while newly organized military families were attracted to Kamakura.

Despite a strong beginning, Yoritomo failed to consolidate the leadership of his family on a lasting basis. Intrafamily contention had long existed within the Minamoto, although Yoritomo had eliminated most serious challengers to his authority. When he died suddenly in 1199, his son Yoriie became shogun and nominal head of the Minamoto, but Yoriie was unable to control the other eastern bushi families. By the early thirteenth century, a regency had been established for the shogun by his maternal grandparents-- members of the Hojo family, a branch of the Taira that had allied itself with the Minamoto in 1180. Under the Hojo, the bakufu became powerless, and the shogun, often a member of the Fujiwara family or even an imperial prince, was merely a figurehead.

With the protector of the emperor a figurehead himself, strains emerged between Kyoto and Kamakura, and in 1221 a war--the Jokyu Incident--broke out between the cloistered emperor and the H j regent. The Hojo forces easily won the war, and the imperial court was brought under direct bakufu control. The shogun's constables gained greater civil powers, and the court was obliged to seek Kamakura's approval for all of its actions. Although deprived of political power, the court was allowed to retain extensive estates with which to sustain the imperial splendor the bakufu needed to help sanction its rule.

Several significant administrative achievements were made during the Hojo regency. In 1225 the Council of State was established, providing opportunities for other military lords to exercise judicial and legislative authority at Kamakura. The H j regent presided over the council, which was a successful form of collective leadership. The adoption of Japan's first military code of law--the Joei Code--in 1232 reflected the profound transition from court to militarized society. While legal practices in Kyoto were still based on 500-year-old Confucian principles, the Joei Code was a highly legalistic document that stressed the duties of stewards and constables, provided means for settling land disputes, and established rules governing inheritances. It was clear and concise, stipulated punishments for violators of its conditions, and remained in effect for the next 635 years.

The Flourishing of Buddhism

In the time of disunity and violence, deepening pessimism increased the appeal of the search for salvation. Kamakura was the age of the great popularization of Buddhism. Two new sects, Jodo (Pure Land) and Zen (Meditation), dominated the period. The old Heian sects had been quite esoteric and appealed more to the intellectuals than to the masses. The Mount Hiei monasteries had become politically powerful but appealed primarily to those capable of systematic study of the sect's teachings. This situation gave rise to the Jodo sect, based on unconditional faith and devotion and prayer to Amida Buddha. Zen rejected all temporal and scriptural authority, stressing moral character rather than intellectual attainments, an emphasis that appealed to the military class. Growing numbers of the military class turned to Zen masters, regarded as embodiments of truth.

Mongol Invasions

The repulsions of two Mongol invasions were momentous events in Japanese history. Japanese relations with China had been terminated in the mid-ninth century after the deterioration of late Tang China and the turning inward of the Heian court. Some commercial contacts were maintained with southern China in later centuries, but Japanese pirates made the open seas dangerous. At a time when the bakufu had little interest in foreign affairs and ignored communications from China and Koryo (as Korea was then known), news arrived in 1268 of a new Mongol regime in Beijing. Its leader, Khubilai Khan, demanded that the Japanese pay tribute to the new Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and threatened reprisals if they failed to do so. Unused to such threats, Kyoto raised the diplomatic counter of Japan's divine origin, rejected the Mongol demands, dismissed the Korean messengers, and started defensive preparations. After further unsuccessful entreaties, the first Mongol invasion took place in 1274. More than 600 ships carried a combined Mongol, Chinese, and Korean force of 23,000 troops armed with catapults, combustible missiles, and bows and arrows. In fighting, these soldiers grouped in close cavalry formations against samurai, who were accustomed to one-on-one combat. Local Japanese forces at Hakata, on northern Kyushu, defended against the superior mainland force, which, after one day of fighting was decimated by the onslaught of a sudden typhoon. Khubilai realized that nature, not military incompetence, had been the cause of his forces' failure so, in 1281, he launched a second invasion. Seven weeks of fighting took place in northwestern Kyushu before another typhoon struck, again destroying the Mongol fleet.

Although Shinto priests attributed the two defeats of the Mongols to a "divine wind" (kamikaze), a sign of heaven's special protection of Japan, the invasion left a deep impression on the bakufu leaders. Long-standing fears of the Chinese threat to Japan were reinforced, and the Korean Peninsula became regarded as "an arrow pointed at the heart of Japan." The Japanese victory, however, gave the bushi a sense of fighting superiority that remained with Japan's soldiers until 1945. The victory also convinced the bushi of the value of the bakufu form of government.

The Mongol war had been a drain on the economy, and new taxes had to be levied to maintain defensive preparations for the future. The invasions also caused disaffection among those who expected recompense for their help in defeating the Mongols. There were no lands or other rewards to be given, however, and such disaffection, combined with overextension and the increasing defense costs, led to a decline of the Kamakura bakufu. Additionally, inheritances had divided family properties, and landowners increasingly had to turn to moneylenders for support. Roving bands of ronin further threatened the stability of the bakufu.

Civil War

The Hojo reacted to the ensuing chaos by trying to place more power among the various great family clans. To further weaken the Kyoto court, the bakufu decided to allow two contending imperial lines--known as the Southern Court or junior line and the Northern Court or senior line--to alternate on the throne. The method worked for several successions until a member of the Southern Court ascended to the throne as Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318- 39). Go-Daigo wanted to overthrow the bakufu, and he openly defied Kamakura by naming his own son his heir. In 1331 the bakufu exiled Go-Daigo, but loyalist forces rebelled. They were aided by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-58), a constable who turned against Kamakura when dispatched to put down Go-Daigo's rebellion. At the same time, another eastern chieftain rebelled against the bakufu, which quickly disintegrated, and the Hojo were defeated.

In the swell of victory, Go-Daigo endeavored to restore imperial authority and tenth-century Confucian practices. This period of reform, known as the Kemmu Restoration (1333-36), aimed at strengthening the position of the emperor and reasserting the primacy of the court nobles over the bushi. The reality, however, was that the forces who had arisen against Kamakura had been set on defeating the Hojo, not on supporting the emperor. Ashikaga Takauji finally sided with the Northern Court in a civil war against the Southern Court represented by Go-Daigo. The long War Between the Courts lasted from 1336 to 1392. Early in the conflict, Go-Daigo was driven from Kyoto, and the Northern Court contender was installed by Ashikaga, who became the new shogun.

Ashikaga Bakufu

The ensuing period of Ashikaga rule (1336-1573) was called Muromachi for the district in which its headquarters were in Kyoto after 1378. What distinguished the Ashikaga bakufu from that of Kamakura was that, whereas Kamakura had existed in equilibrium with the Kyoto court, Ashikaga took over the remnants of the imperial government. Nevertheless, the Ashikaga bakufu was not as strong as the Kamakura had been and was greatly preoccupied by the civil war. Not until the rule of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (as third shogun, 1368-94, and chancellor, 1394-1408) did a semblance of order emerge.

Yoshimitsu allowed the constables, who had had limited powers during the Kamakura period, to become strong regional rulers, later called daimyo (from dai, meaning great, and myoden, meanng named lands). In time, a balance of power evolved between the shogun and the daimyo; the three most prominent daimyo families rotated as deputies to the shogun at Kyoto. Yoshimitsu was finally successful in reunifying the Northern Court and the Southern Court in 1392, but, despite his promise of greater balance between the imperial lines, the Northern Court maintained control over the throne thereafter. The line of shoguns gradually weakened after Yoshimitsu and increasingly lost power to the daimyo and other regional strongmen. The shogun's decisions about imperial succession became meaningless, and the daimyo backed their own candidates. In time, the Ashikaga family had its own succession problems, resulting finally in the Onin War (1467-77), which left Kyoto devastated and effectively ended the national authority of the bakufu. The power vacuum that ensued launched a century of anarchy.

Economic and Cultural Developments

Contact with Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) China was renewed during the Muromachi period after the Chinese sought support in suppressing Japanese pirates, or wako, who controlled the seas and pillaged coastal areas of China. Wanting to improve relations with China and to rid Japan of the wako threat, Yoshimitsu accepted a relationship with the Chinese that was to last for half a century. Japanese wood, sulfur, copper ore, swords, and folding fans were traded for Chinese silk, porcelain, books, and coins, in what the Chinese considered tribute but the Japanese saw as profitable trade.

During the time of the Ashikaga bakufu, a new national culture, called Muromachi culture, emerged from the bakufu headquarters in Kyoto to reach all levels of society. Zen Buddhism played a large role in spreading not only religious but also artistic influences, especially those derived from Chinese painting of the Chinese Song (960-1279), Yuan, and Ming dynasties. The proximity of the imperial court and the bakufu resulted in a commingling of imperial family members, courtiers, daimyo, samurai, and Zen priests. Art of all kinds--architecture, literature, No drama, comedy, poetry, the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, and flower arranging--all flourished during Muromachi times.

There also was renewed interest in Shinto, which had quietly coexisted with Buddhism during the centuries of the latter's predominance. In fact, Shinto, which lacked its own scriptures and had few prayers, as a result of syncretic practices begun in the Nara period, had widely adopted Shingon Buddhist rituals. Between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, was nearly totally absorbed by Buddhism and became known as Ryobu Shinto (Dual Shinto). The Mongol invasions in the late thirteenth century, however, had evoked a national consciousness of the role of the kamikaze in defeating the enemy. Less than fifty years later (1339-43), Kitabatake Chikafusa (1293-1354), the chief commander of the Southern Court forces, wrote the Jinno sh t ki (Chronicle of the Direct Descent of the Divine Sovereigns). This chronicle emphasized the importance of maintaining the divine descent of the imperial line from Amaterasu to the current emperor, a condition that gave Japan a special national polity (kokutai). Besides reenforcing the concept of the emperor as a deity, the Jinno sh t ki provided a Shinto view of history, which stressed the divine nature of all Japanese and the country's spiritual supremacy over China and India. As a result, a change gradually occurred in the balance between the dual Buddhist-Shinto religious practice. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, Shinto reemerged as the primary belief system, developed its own philosophy and scripture (based on Confucian and Buddhist canons), and became a powerful nationalistic force.

Provincial Wars and Foreign Contacts

The Onin War led to serious political fragmentation and obliteration of domains: a great struggle for land and power ensued among bushi chieftains until the mid-sixteenth century. Peasants rose against their landlords and samurai against their overlords as central control virtually ceased. The imperial house was left impoverished, and the bakufu was controlled by contending chieftains in Kyoto. The provincial domains that emerged after the Onin War were smaller and easier to control. Many new small daimyo arose from among the samurai who had overthrown their great overlords. Border defenses were improved, and wellfortified castle towns were built to protect the newly opened domains, for which land surveys were made, roads built, and mines opened. New house laws provided practical means of administration, stressing duties and rules of behavior. Emphasis was put on success in war, estate management, and finance. Threatening alliances were guarded against through strict marriage rules. Aristocratic society was overwhelmingly military in character. The rest of society was controlled in a system of vassalage. The shoen were obliterated, and court nobles and absentee landlords were dispossessed. The new daimyo directly controlled the land, keeping the peasantry in permanent serfdom in exchange for protection.

Most wars of the period were short and localized, although they occurred throughout Japan. By 1500 the entire country was engulfed in civil wars. Rather than disrupting the local economies, however, the frequent movement of armies stimulated the growth of transportation and communications, which in turn provided additional revenues from customs and tolls. To avoid such fees, commerce shifted to the central region, which no daimyo had been able to control, and to the Inland Sea. Economic developments and the desire to protect trade achievements brought about the establishment of merchant and artisan guilds.

By the end of the Muromachi period, the first Europeans had arrived. The Portuguese landed in southern Kyushu in 1543 and within two years were making regular port calls. The Spanish arrived in 1587, followed by the Dutch in 1609. The Japanese began to attempt studies of European civilization in depth, and new opportunities were presented for the economy, along with serious political challenges. European firearms, fabrics, glassware, clocks, tobacco, and other Western innovations were traded for Japanese gold and silver. Significant wealth was accumulated through trade, and lesser daimyo, especially in Kyushu, greatly increased their power. Provincial wars were made more deadly with the introduction of firearms, such as muskets and cannons, and greater use of infantry.

Christianity had an impact on Japan, largely through the efforts of the Jesuits, led first by Saint Francis Xavier (1506- 52), who arrived in Kagoshima in southern Kyushu in 1549. Both daimyo and merchants seeking better trade arrangements as well as peasants were among the converts. By 1560 Kyoto had become another major area of missionary activity in Japan. In 1568 the port of Nagasaki, in northwestern Kyushu, was established by a Christian daimyo and was turned over to Jesuit administration in 1579. By 1582 there were as many as 150,000 converts (2 percent of the population) and 200 churches. But bakufu tolerance for this alien influence diminished as the country became more unified and the openness of the period decreased. Proscriptions against Christianity began in 1587 and outright persecutions in 1597. Although foreign trade was still encouraged, it was closely regulated, and by 1640 the exclusion and suppression of Christianity had become national policy.

Japan History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress