Talk the Talk

During the Kamakura Period, the country was run on a type of feudal system much like the one in medieval Europe. 

Samurai warlords were expected to be loyal to the shogun and as a reward for their service were given fiefs of their own in which they held political and military control. 

In turn, the samurai warriors who fought for the warlords were required to give them their total devotion and loyalty. 

They had to be ready to fight and die for him in any given moment and in return, the best of them would have financial rewards bestowed upon them, along with land and titles.

Walk the Walk

One of the major achievements under Hojo rule was the implementation in 1232 of the country’s first military law code. 

Known as the Joei Code, it was a set of rules that would help govern Japan for the next 635 years and gave a clear reflection of the nation’s transition into a militarized society. 

The Joei Code made clear the duties of various military and civil positions of office, gave guidelines for settling land disputes, established new inheritance laws and laid out in a clear and precise manner the punishments that would be inflicted on those who broke the law.

Samurai History Fact

It was during the Kamakura Period that Zen Buddhism took root in Japan. Previously, Buddhism had appealed much more to educated people as it emphasised the need for systematic study of written texts. 

Another Buddhist sect that emerged during the period was the Jodo, which taught the need for unconditional faith, devotion and prayer to the Amida Buddha. 

 However, Zen rejected both these concepts, believing instead that moral character was the most important aspect of a person’s spiritual life, a belief that would go on to heavily influence the samurai class throughout the middle ages.

The Reading Corner

The Birth of the Samurai ~ The Development of a Warrior Elite in Early Japanese Society.

The Kamakura Period and the Kemmu Restoration

The Kamakura Period began in 1185 when Yoritomo Minamoto (pictured right) became the first shogun of Japan after defeating his rivals the Taira Clan in the Gempei War. 

He set up a military government called the bakufu (tent government) and moved away from the traditional western capital city of Heian-kyo, (modern Kyoto) to the city of Kamakura. 

In doing so, he became the most powerful man in the country though he did allow the emperor to keep his title. 

Two years earlier, Yoritomo had given his blessing for Go-Toba to become the emperor after his predecessor, Emperor Antoku had fled the capital. 

However, the shogun ordered Go-Toba to remain in Heian-kyo and serve more as a ceremonial figurehead than a ruler, a situation that stayed the same for most of the ensuing centuries up to the Meiji Restoration in 1867. 

The Rise of the Hojo Clan 

Despite the shogun having control over much of the country there was still some resistance. This came from the once very powerful Fujiwara Clan in the north and while it was weakened, the Emperor’s court continued to hold jurisdiction over much of the land in the west. 

However by the time of his death in 1299, Yoritomo had eliminated most serious challenges to his rule but under the reign of his son and heir Yoriie, Minamoto rule soon began to crumble. Yoriie did not have the support from other samurai leaders that his father had enjoyed and early into his shogunate, his maternal grandparents set up a regency to take over official business. 

The new regents (Shikken) were all from the Hojo Clan, a branch of the Taira who had sided with the Minamoto during the Gempei Wars. From this time the shogun, often selected from the ranks of the Fujiwara, became a figurehead like the emperor and the office lost virtually all of its power. 

The Mongol Invasion 

In 1274 and again in 1281, Japan was attacked by a superior Mongolian army. At this time, when in battle the samurai fought one on one contests on horseback with bows then with swords if they found themselves on the ground. However they had been no match for the coordinated tactics used by the Mongols which included archers who retreated after each volley of fire to be followed by the next wave of attackers. 

They also employed fire bombs developed in China and siege weapons but despite their superior tactics, both times the invaders were thwarted by the extreme weather of the typhoon season known as the Divine Wind (Kamikaze), which smashed up the Mongol ships killing thousands of their men in the process. 

While they had successfully defended against the Mongols, the invasions did take a heavy toll on the country. Defences needed to be maintained in case of another attack which meant heavy taxes being implemented on the leading Japanese families. 

Further problems were caused because the warriors who fought in the battles against the Mongols were not compensated as the usual custom was to give them lands and goods from the defeated enemy, a custom that was impossible to uphold when the enemy was a foreign invader. 

These factors, combined with divided families and lands as a result of new inheritance laws led to many landowners having severe money problems, which in turn would lead to the decline of the Kamakura government. 

Civil War 

In an attempt to reduce the chaos that came after the attack of the Mongols, the Hojo government assigned more power to the leading clans. They also allowed two rival emperors to exist and alternate the throne in a bid to further weaken the court in Heian-kyo and reduce its continued threat to the Kamakura power base. 

This ultimately led to civil war when Emperor Go-Daigo ascended to the throne of the southern Imperial line in 1318. He openly opposed the Hojo and despite being exiled in 1331, managed to organise a rebellion. 

With the help of forces from the East and Ashikaga Takauji, a general of the Hojo forces who switched sides when sent to quash the rebellion, the Imperial forces were successful and in 1333, the Kamakura bakufu lost its stranglehold in the country. 

The Kemmu Restoration 

For the next three years, Go-Daigo implemented Imperial rule which became known as the Kemmu Restoration. However Ashikaga (pictured below preparing his fleet for war), whose family were direct descendants of the Minamoto line, had his own agenda and when he was denied the title of shogun, he rose up against the Imperial forces. 

Many of the clans sided with Ashikaga because like the Hojo before him, Go-Daigo failed to reward their efforts in war, opting instead to give titles, lands and fiefs that were taken from the Hojo to Imperial court officials. 

Civil war hit Japan once again and after a decisive battle in 1336, Go-Daigo’s forces were defeated and he was replaced on the throne by Emperor Komyo. However this was not the end and soon after, Go-Daigo, who had retreated to Yoshino in the south, declared that he was, in fact, still the legitimate emperor. 

This began and a time when Japan had two concurrent emperors, one in the Southern Court based at Yoshino and one in the Northern Court based at Heian-kyo. However after more decisive victories on the battle field, the Northern Court had autonomy over most of Japan by 1338, ushering in the Muromachi Period

Emperor Komyo named Ashikaga as the shogun and as it was he, not the Emperor who had the loyalty of the leading samurai warlords, this made him the most powerful man in the country. Conflict with the Southern Court would continue right up until 1392, but never with the intensity the country had witnessed in the 1330s. 

Further Reading 

Ashikaga Takauji. [Internet]. 2013. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available from: [Accessed April 03, 2018]. 

Ashikaga Takauji - 1305 – 1358. [Internet]. 2013. Samurai Archives. Available from: [Accessed April 03, 2018]. 

Bender, M. [Internet]. 2013. Timeline of East Asian History – Introduction. Ohio State University. Available from: [Accessed October 23, 2013]. 

Dolan, R.E. & Worden, R.L. [Internet]. 1994. Early Japan. Sam Houston State University. Available from: [Accessed October 23, 2013].

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