Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty


The Jokyu War

Between 1203 and 1242, the emperor challenges the shogunate, and the shogunate triumphs

IN 1203, the new shogun of Japan found himself under house arrest. He was twenty-one, and had been shogun for less than four years.

The shogunate itself was only eleven years old. It had been the masterwork of his father, Yoritomo; and at Yoritomo’s death, in 1199, it was still a complicated and delicately balanced creation. Kamakura, the eastern city that served as the shogunate’s headquarters, was filled with samurai who had a shot at real political power for the first time. Samurai had wielded plenty of clout in Japan over the previous century, but they had always done so in the service of someone else: a government minister, a clan leader, an ambitious official. Samurai swords could determine the outcome of a war, but the samurai themselves had never ascended high enough in the Japanese bureaucratic hierarchy to decree what issues were worth fighting over.1

Yoritomo, himself a soldier, had spent much of his life in exile, far from the courts of influence. He had been an outcast with no political pull, and so he had forged a new path back into the center of the official hierarchy. At the beginning of his rebellion, he had promised the samurai in the east that if they swore an oath of allegiance to him, he would guarantee them the estates, the titles, and the offices that none of them yet owned.2

When he made the promise, he possessed none of the things he had sworn to give away; nor would he have them, unless the samurai swore the oath and joined their strength to his. The shogunate had begun as a lottery: he had convinced them to buy their way into it, and only then had been able to create the pool of power he would then share out. That he was able to do so, based only on his family name and what must have been astounding personal charm, changed Japan’s political landscape forever.

Under Yoritomo, the samurai began to take hold of that promised political might. But the shogunate at Kamakura (also called the Kamakura bakufu, or “system of government”) could not possibly control Japan. Minamoto Yoritomo did not command the sort of administrative network needed to run a country. Even his warriors were still banded together in traditional uneven clusters, owing loyalty to different lords and obligations to different clans; there was no accepted military structure, no clear lines of command. The Kamakura bakufu could not replace the ancient authority of the emperor in Kyoto; instead, the shogun would have to make use of it.3

Which meant keeping a cordial relationship with Kyoto.

Yoritomo knew this. His negotiations with the pragmatic Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, right after the victory of 1185, had gotten him official, imperial recognition of his Kamakura-based military government in the east. (“I have been unselfishly taking upon myself the concerns of the Emperor for the sake of the Imperial House,” he reportedly told Go-Shirakawa. “With . . . military backing I was able to subdue the Emperor’s enemies.”) The shogunate would not take over the rule of Japan; instead, it would exist as one of two powerful cores around which Japan’s political elite traveled, in an elliptical and unstable orbit. The emperor retained his ritual importance; the cloistered emperor, his administrative authority; and the shogun at Kamakura, the power to use force.4

Almost the first law issued by the new government at Kamakura was a regulation called Goseibai shikimoku: “No person, even one whose family have been hereditary vassals of the shogun for generations, shall be able to mobilize troops for military service without a current writ.”5 Sanctioned violence would remain the exclusive right of the shogunate for the next century and a half.

That right was a prize to be grasped, and when Yoritomo’s twenty-year-old son Minamoto Yoriie became shogun in 1202, his grandfather grasped it. Hojo Tokimasa, father of Yoritomo’s redoubtable widow, declared himself to be regent for his grandson. In 1203, Tokimasa set up a thirteen-man council to assume the power of the shogunate. He himself kept the ultimate power of the regency, naming himself shikken (Regent of the Shogun) and keeping Yoriie himself under close armed guard at a distant mountain temple near the coast. There Yoriie was said to have “entered the priesthood,” which was a euphemism for house arrest.6

This made the dual government of Japan even more complicated. At Kyoto, the emperor on the throne did not exercise actual authority; that belonged to the Cloistered Emperor. And at Kamakura, farther east, the shogun in name did not rule either; his shikken made decisions for him. The two powerful cores of Japanese policy had evolved into binary stars.

When young Yoriie showed a disinclination to fade meekly into the woodwork, instead attempting to organize an armed uprising against his grandfather, Tokimasa arranged for his assassination. “Lay Priest Yoriie,” says a contemporary account, “was . . . stabbed to death at the Shuzen Temple. We hear that because Yoriie could not be easily subdued, his enemies killed him by tightening a rope around his neck and pulling out his testicles.”7

Tokimasa then appointed the dead man’s younger brother Sanetomo shogun in his place, keeping for himself the power of the regency. At this, Yoritomo’s widow—Hojo Masako, a vigorous and active woman in her late forties, who had always ridden by her husband’s side, eaten with the men, and taken an active part in military matters—turned against her father. She suspected that he was arranging the assassination of Sanetomo as well, and she rallied her own followers against Tokimasa.

These allies included her older brother Yoshitoki, who was equally appalled that their father had been plotting against his own grandchildren. Gathering armed retainers behind them, the brother and sister arrested Tokimasa and forcibly exiled him to the eastern province of Izu. Yoshitoki took the title of shikken, and the siblings controlled the shogunate together. “In the eastern provinces,” says the court priest Jien, who in 1219 wrote a history of Japan called the Gukansho. “Yoshitoki and his sister Masako administered the affairs of the military government. . . . So this country of Japan really is a state where ‘women are the finishing touches.’”8

This had saved Sanetomo’s life, but the young man, aged twenty-one when he became shogun, lasted only six miserable years. Sanetomo, not unreasonably, became increasingly paranoid and drowned his fears in wine. In 1219 he was assassinated by his own nephew, son of the dead Yoriie, for vengeance’s sake.

For seven years, the shogunate remained empty, while the shikken and his sister ruled the east. And this gave the Cloistered Emperor at Kyoto a chance to unbalance the system.

Crowned at age three, Go-Toba had been only twelve when the Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa died and Yoritomo became shogun. He had remained on the throne six more years, fathering a son at sixteen. In that time, Japan had no Cloistered Emperor, which struck Jien—serving, at the time, as Go-Toba’s personal priest—as less than ideal. “Go-Shirakawa [used to] administer state affairs,” he writes in the Gukansho. “It was . . . now strange to have no Retired Emperor performing such functions.”9

Finally, in 1198, Go-Toba had retired to the role of Cloistered Emperor, leaving his toddler son on the throne. This was not, in his eyes, a retreat. “Go-Toba himself wanted to abdicate,” Jien says, “because he wished to conduct state affairs in his own way.” As Cloistered Emperor, Go-Toba aspired to be as powerful as his grandfather Go-Shirakawa. He controlled court appointments; he approved or denied requests for promotions; he managed domestic crises; he arranged for his own young son, rather than the future heir of the reigning emperor, to become Crown Prince. His personal crest, a double flower with sixteen petals, was later adopted by the Japanese court as a symbol of the imperial right to rule; from this, the emperor’s seat acquired the nickname of the Chrysanthemum Throne.10

Go-Toba also came increasingly to believe that the siblings Yoshitoki and Masako intended to split Japan in half: two countries, one ruled by emperor, the other by shogun. And gossip that reached him from the east led him to think that the samurai—particularly those farther west—were tired of the dominance of the Hojo, the clan of Yoshitoki and Masako. The fourteenth-century Japanese chronicle known as The Clear Mirror, fictionalized in places and taking poetic license in many others, nevertheless preserves the Cloistered Emperor’s suspicions—and his decision to take action against the shikken and his allies.

The whole realm had fallen under the sway of Yoshitoki, a man whose power all but surpassed that of Yoritomo in the old days. Naturally enough, his shocking excesses inspired secret thoughts of opposition in Retired Emperor Go-Toba’s mind. The senior nobles and courtiers close to the ruler, the junior north guards, the west guards, and all the other private sympathizers with the imperial plans engaged in military pursuits day and night. . . . Meanwhile, news of Retired Emperor Go-Toba’s plans leaked out in spite of every effort at secrecy, and the authorities in Kamakura . . . adopted countermeasures.11

With his cover blown, Go-Toba ordered his imperial retainers to attack the shogun’s representative in Kyoto, an inoffensive deputy who panicked and disemboweled himself when he saw the emperor’s men bearing down on him. (“The retired emperor,” says The Clear Mirror, “considered it a good beginning.”)12

In retaliation, Yoshitoki ordered “a mighty host, a veritable cloud of warriors, to march against the capital.” Go-Toba had the bridges destroyed in their way, but the shogunate’s attack was short and devastating. The army from Kamakura “burst into the capital like a tidal wave on a rocky shore,” concludes The Clear Mirror, “causing indescribable dismay and confusion among people of all ranks . . . [and] the imperial army went down to defeat after a poor show of resistance.”13

Go-Toba, taken captive, was politely but firmly exiled to a distant island off the western coast, where he spent the last eighteen years of his life writing despairing poetry. The reigning emperor, his twenty-four-year-old son Juntoku, was exiled to a separate island.

To replace them, the shikken and his sister chose both another emperor and another Cloistered Emperor, coronating Go-Toba’s half brother Go-Takakura for the latter job (even though he had never been an actual emperor) and Go-Takakura’s ten-year-old son Go-Horikawa for the Chrysanthemum Throne itself. Permanent representatives of the shogunate were installed in Kyoto and given the job of directing the new royal family. Go-Toba’s supporters lost their estates; instead, the Hojo siblings awarded them to Kamakura supporters, displacing western support for the emperor and replacing it with eastern strength.14

The grandly named Jokyu War had been brief, and Go-Toba’s rebellion had backfired. The shogunate at Kamakura had gained power, and Kyoto had lost it; the balance had tipped towards the shogun.

For the next two decades, it would sink yet further towards Kamakura. In 1224, the shikken Yoshitoki died at sixty-one; his son Yasutoki became the third shikken. When the redoubtable Masako died, the following year, Yasutoki finally had real power. Aged forty-two, he was an experienced soldier (he had led the attack on Kyoto in 1221) and well liked: “trustworthy and wise,” one account tells us, “. . . a compassionate man, benevolent towards the people . . . he appreciated the quality of reason.” Until his death in 1242, he worked to create the layers of administration that the shogunate lacked: inventing new positions for secretaries and executives, constructing a hierarchy of councils and committees, and collecting into a single lawbook the laws that would govern the Kamakura shogunate.

This book, the Goseibai Shikimoku, was a grab bag of fifty-one unconnected regulations, some new and some already long observed, disorganized and lacking in the “quality of reason” that Yasutoki prized. But it served the shogunate as a starting place; over decades, it would be amended, added to, and edited. And it concluded with a solemn promise that turned the shogunate firmly away from its untidy beginnings, towards a more rational future:

In deciding upon matters of right and wrong, the members of the Council will disregard family ties and likes and dislikes, and will follow where reason directs, stating their views according to the knowledge deep within their hearts, without fear of colleagues or powerful families.15


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