Japan’s imperial dynasty, the Yamato Dynasty, traces its origins back to times of myth and legend, but its imperial government apparatus really began to solidify around the 7th and 8th centuries. Those were the centuries when the imperial family began to settle down and let its government administration grow. Notably, permanent imperial capital cities were planned, with the first permanent imperial headquarters being founded by the Yamato Dynasty at Nara (then called Heijo) in 710, but then the imperial court was moved to a new capital at Kyoto in 794. Growing alongside the Yamato Dynasty was the Fujiwara family, which developed a monopoly on appointments in the imperial bureaucracy. By the 9th century, the Fujiwara ministers had created such a stranglehold over the imperial government, that the imperial family was largely relegated to symbolic and religious roles. Certain members of the Yamato Dynasty, however, decided to push back against the smothering influence of the Fujiwara bureaucrats.
The imperial family’s counter-attack came about slowly (occurring in the mid-11th century), but when the plan was launched, it did reduce the Fujiwara family’s power significantly. Emperor Go-Sanjō (r. 1068-1072) caused a stir when he retired and formed what came to be called a ‘cloistered government’ in opposition to the Fujiwara administration. Ex-emperor Go-Sanjō died only a year after his retirement, however, putting the future of the government in question. Yet, the next emperor, Shirakawa (r. 1072-1086), decided to repeat the maneuver, retiring as emperor in 1086 to oversee his own cloistered government until his death in 1129. This trend continued, and through this system, the Yamato Dynasty was able to regain considerable power in their rivalry with the Fujiwara bureaucracy. Curiously, the power shift did not do much to improve the freedoms of actual reigning emperors, for the retired royals and their cloistered governments were just as domineering as the Fujiwara family over the youthful occupants of the throne.
Unfortunately for the Yamato Dynasty, they would soon realize that the Fujiwara family was not the only political contender in medieval Japan. The new players in the game of power were the Taira and Minamoto clans, who ascended into prominence by being reliable warriors that the imperial court could call upon to suppress revolts or counteract angry warrior-monks. By the 12th century, however, the Taira and Minamoto clans came to the realization that they wanted more power and control in Japan. The Taira made the first move, with Taira Kiyomori leading the Taira clan to supplant the Fujiwara as the new power brokers in the bureaucracy of imperial government by 1160. Yet, the Minamoto clan, led by Minamoto Yoritomo, ultimately defeated the Taira clan in the Gempei War (1180-1185). In the aftermath of the war, the imperial administration was reorganized into a military government (known as a bakufu or shogunate) that was dominated by the Minamoto family and its influential Hojō clan in-laws at a new headquarters in Kamakura. Once again, the Yamato Dynasty, its emperors, and the cloistered governments found themselves relegated to largely symbolic and priestly roles.
As had happened when the Yamato Dynasty was under pressure from the Fujiwara ministers, certain members of the royal family also began to plot for ways to weaken the new influence of the Minamoto clan. Once again, the royals bided their time, and a major challenge to the status quo was not launched until the next century. Perhaps hoping to bring back the prominence of the cloistered government system, Emperor Go-Toba (r. 1183-1198) retired from the throne and began attempting to influence the imperial court and government. He was patient while Minamoto shoguns were in power (Yoritomo [d. 1199], Yoriie [d. 1204/1204], and Sanetomo [d. 1219]), but his patience ran thin once the Hojō clan imposed themselves as regents of the Kamakura bakufu after the Minamoto line had died out.
Ex-emperor Go-Toba finally made his move on June 6, 1221, by publishing a public criticism of Hojõ Yoshitoki, the regent of the bakufu at that time, and he went so far as to label the Hojō clan as rebels. It was the opening salvo of a verbal war between the Yamato family at Kyoto and the Hojõ clan at Kamakura. Yet, unfortunately for ex-emperor Go-Toba, Hojõ Yoshitoki and the Kamakura government decided to respond to the challenge with overwhelming force. Transitioning the conflict from debate into open war, the Kamakura bakufu dispatched three armies against ex-emperor Go-Toba and his supporters. The dissident ex-emperor was no match for the forces of the military government, and the Kamakura regime’s armies decisively quashed Go-Toba’s influence by July 6, 1221. In the aftermath of the conflict, ex-emperor Go-Toba was banished to the Oki islands, and his sons, Juntoku and Tsuchimikado were similarly sent into exile. Ultimately, the Kamakura government used the incident to impose further restrictions and controls over the imperial court at Kyoto. It was not until the reign of Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318-1339) that the Kamakura government was finally overthrown. After his victory, Emperor Go-Daigo attempted to appoint his own son as the next shogun, but that decision prompted a successful revolt by Ashikaga Takauji (c. 1305–58), who seized the shogunate and founded the Ashikaga bakufu with the support of a rival branch of the imperial family.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of scroll 1, section 14, from an Illustrated Handscroll of The Tale of Genji, attributed to Ryūjo (Tatsujo), dated 1594, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Met).
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- A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Third Edition),by Andrew Gordon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.