Japan’s imperial Yamato Dynasty traces its origins to ancient myth and legend, but its imperial government apparatus really began to solidify around the 7th and 8th centuries, when the imperial family began to settle down and let its government administration and bureaucracy take root. A first permanent imperial capital was founded by the Yamato Dynasty at Nara (then called Heijo) in 710, and then the imperial court was moved to a new capital at Kyoto in 794, where a magnificent imperial palace enclosure was built that housed the imperial family and its court. In that time of government growth, the imperial family was aided by the Fujiwara family in administering the realm. Yet, by the 9th century, the Fujiwara ministers had created such a stranglehold over the imperial government that the imperial family found itself relegated to nearly just a symbolic and religious role.
Although the imperial dynasty learned to coexist with the Fujiwara clan, not all of the Yamato family members were content with the status quo. By the mid 11th century, emperors began significantly chipping away at Fujiwara influence. In particular, 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. He died, however, only a year after his retirement, 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. Nevertheless, not long after the emperors gained this advantage over the Fujiwara ministers, a new wave of political challenges arrived.
While the Yamato Dynasty and the Fujiwara family engaged in their political maneuvering, the militant Taira and Minamoto clans had been growing in power and were starting to feel the urge to join the fray of court politics. In the aftermath of the weakening of the Fujiwara monopoly on the government, the Taira clan made the first move to fill the void, with the clan’s leader, Taira Kiyomori, becoming the power broker of the imperial government by 1160. The Minamoto clan, however, made their bid for power two decades later. Under the leadership of Minamoto Yoritomo, the Minamoto clan defeated their Taira rivals in the Gempei War (1180-1185). Although Minamoto Yoritomo paid respect to the imperial family, he also reorganized the imperial administration into a military government (known as a bakufu or shogunate), which was dominated by the Minamoto family and its influential Hojō clan in-laws at a new headquarters in Kamakura.
With the Kamakura bakufu in power, the Yamato Dynasty in Kyoto once again found itself largely relegated to symbolic and priestly roles. As had happened during the time of Fujiwara influence, members of the imperial family longed to wrest back power from the government officials. In this sense, 1219 was a significant year, for by that time the line of Minamoto shoguns had died out and the future of the Kamakura bakufu was in question. Yet, despite the absence of shoguns to run the shogunate, the aforementioned Hojō clan, which had intermarried with the Minamoto family, declared themselves to be the regent rulers of the Kamakura bakufu. Seeing the precarious stance that the Hojō clan was putting itself in, members of the Yamato Dynasty began to feel hope that power and influence could be siphoned back from the bakufu. Yet, the hopeful atmosphere was blemished when a disaster struck Kyoto—the imperial palace enclosure, where the imperial family and their court were housed, severely suffered from a terrible fire in 1219. The blaze did widespread damage, but a campaign to rebuild the imperial compound was quickly mobilized. Despite the fire, perhaps the imperial family was upbeat that they, like their palace compound, could rise from the ashes and rebuild their control over the government.
Progressing from 1219, the Hojō clan continued to dominate the Kamakura Bakufu as regents, and the Yamato Dynasty became impatient in their rivalry with the new power brokers of government. Finally, on June 6, 1221, retired emperor Go-Toba (who had reigned from 1183-1198) decided to issue a public challenge against the authority of the Kamakura bakufu, insinuating that the Hojō clan, then led by Hojõ Yoshitoki, was in rebellion. Unfortunately for ex-emperor Go-Toba, the showdown between the Yamato Dynasty in Kyoto and the Hojō clan in Kamakura did not go the way he wanted. Hojõ Yoshitoki and the Kamakura bakufu pulled no punches in their response—they dispatched three armies against ex-emperor Go-Toba and his supporters, decisively defeating the dissident imperial faction 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. Additionally, the Kamakura government used the incident to impose further restrictions and controls over the imperial court at Kyoto.
Not long after the Kamakura government’s victory over ex-emperor Go-Toba, nature struck a timely and ironically symbolic blow against Kyoto. In 1227, the partially-rebuilt compound of the imperial palace enclosure caught fire once again and was destroyed. This time, no construction crews were called out, and the site was instead left to be reclaimed by nature. In fact, the grounds were later used for hunting. Stripped of their imperial palace enclosure, the Yamato Dynasty was then invited to stay at the luxurious homes of government ministers—accommodations that did not help the imperial family rid themselves of ministerial influence, at all.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Chiyoda Castle (Album of Men), dated 1897, by Yōshū (Hashimoto) Chikanobu, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan, translated with an introduction and notes by Helen Craig McCullough. New York: Tuttle Publishing/Columbia University Press, 1956, 1959.
- A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Third Edition), by Andrew Gordon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.