Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-Seven


The Southern and Northern Courts

Between 1318 and 1339, the Kamakura shogunate falls, the Ashikaga shogunate rises, and the Chrysanthemum Throne divides

THE MONGOL INVASION OF JAPAN had failed, twice. The island still lay safe off the coast, a protective wall of water between the samurai and the Mongol soldiers of the Yuan dynasty.

But Japan’s convoluted, two-court arrangement was fragile; and in the aftershocks of the Mongol attacks, it shivered apart.

At the peak of the Mongol threat, the imperial court in Kyoto had divided over the succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne. A complicated argument between two brothers—one the oldest son of the emperor, the other his favorite—eventually resolved itself into an arrangement where the sons and grandsons of the older brother (the senior line) and the descendants of the younger alternated on the throne.

Like most compromises, this one made everyone unhappy. The two royal families grew increasingly hostile to each other. The junior line followed Confucianism, the senior Buddhism; the junior line patronized Chinese-style scholarship, the senior preferred Japanese literature written in traditional Japanese script. Within the clans, individual families quarreled over the right to put the next emperor on the Chrysanthemum Throne.1

Meanwhile, the military government headquartered at Kamakura, run by a regent on behalf of the figurehead shogun, grew slowly more tyrannical. After the Mongols were driven back, the shikken Hojo Tokimune and his successors began to act more and more autocratically: granting government positions to friends and allies, distributing land to loyalists, electing more and more Hojo clan members to be the military governors (the shugo) who ran the provinces farther away from Kyoto and Kamakura.2

As the grip of the Hojo fist tightened, lawlessness ballooned. Highwaymen flourished. Gangs of outlaws called akuto (“evil bands”) roamed across the countryside. Pirate fleets haunted the ports and shores. To each problem, the Hojo answered with more force, more regulation, and more punishment. Additional warriors were sent to each shugo, tasked specifically with hunting down outlaws. All ships were forced to register and to show the name of the owner and the port of registration at all times. Muggings on land and robbery at sea, once punishable with exile, were now capital offenses. Stealing crops before harvest, once a civil matter, now became a crime.3

And yet the disorder grew worse and worse. Piracy moved west, with fleets of ships sacking, stealing, and kidnapping along the coasts of China and Goryeo. The hordes of the akuto increased year by year, until the bands were often a hundred strong, armed with swords and bamboo spears, robbing villages and blocking roadways. “They pay no attention to the laws of the bakafu [the Kamakura shogunate], and the attempts of the shugo to suppress them have borne no fruit,” writes a fourteenth-century priest from Harima. “In this way, their numbers have swelled with each passing day.” Reports from the outlying provinces complained of night raids and roadside murders, burned farms and stolen crops, temples closed because the monks were too afraid to stay.4

IN 1318, THE EMPEROR HANAZONO ABDICATED. He was a son of the senior line, and so his cousin Go-Daigo, who belonged to the junior branch, was crowned the next emperor.

But his enthronement came with conditions. The two years before Hanazono’s abdication had been taken up with an increasingly bitter argument between the families. Although Go-Daigo was clearly next in line, most of the junior branch preferred his nephew, Kuniyoshi; but the principle of alternating succession meant that, after Go-Daigo, the crown would have to pass to the other clan, cutting Kuniyoshi out completely.

To prevent a total breakdown at Kyoto, the shikken in Kamakura ordered a compromise. Go-Daigo would be coronated, but none of his sons would be eligible for the title of crown prince; Kuniyoshi would follow him, but after that, the crown would revert to the senior line. And, to give more candidates a shot at the throne, all emperors would have to abdicate after ten years of rule.5

Go-Daigo was only thirty-one. Forced to swear away not only his own future as emperor but that of his sons as well, he began to plot to bring the Kamakura shogunate down.

His first step was to get more power back into his own hands. The Cloistered Emperor, theoretically more powerful than the sitting emperor, was his own father Go-Uda (thanks to rapid abdications, there were three living retired emperors, and Go-Uda was the oldest). But Go-Uda was more inclined to piety than to administration. “I passed four years touching the dust of the capital,” he later wrote, of his brief stint as Cloistered Emperor. “I lost my bonds with the propagation of [Buddhist] esoteric teachings . . . my bonds and my duties pulled me this way and that. Very strongly, thoughts of retirement welled up inside me.” Go-Daigo took advantage of his father’s natural inclinations; during the fourth year of his rule, he talked Go-Uda into giving up the traditional lawmaking powers held by the Cloistered Emperor and returning them to the throne.6

Over the next years, Go-Daigo ruled directly: a strange state of affairs, made bearable to the rival family only by his apparent intention to abide by the shikken’s ruling and abdicate after ten years. But in 1326, the designated Crown Prince, Kuniyoshi, fell suddenly ill and died within two weeks. “The distraught members of his household felt as though a light had gone out,” says the poetic chronicle The Clear Mirror, and soon the darkness of civil war spread across Japan. Go-Daigo suggested that, since the original arrangement had clearly designated another member of the junior line as his successor, one of his own sons should now become Crown Prince. The senior branch argued for the immediate reversion of the title to the senior line. The quarrel dragged on; without a clear successor, Go-Daigo remained on the throne past his ten-year expiration date. At the same time, he was developing a strong alliance with the notorious warrior monks on Mount Hiei; he sent two of his sons to study there, one becoming a priest, the other an abbot.7

The military government at Kamakura was slow to intervene this time. The young shikken, Hojo Takatoki, had been appointed in 1311 at the age of eight; his chief minister and competent grandmother had handled the earlier succession crisis, but now Takatoki had taken power in his own right and had turned out to be easily distracted from matters of state. The fourteenth-century chronicle Taiheiki says that he had developed a passion for dog fighting and was even willing to accept dogs in lieu of taxes owed. Dogfights were staged twelve days out of every month, and the best dogs were

fed on fish and fowl, kept in kennels having gold and silver ornaments, and carried in palanquins to take the air. When these distinguished animals were borne along the public thoroughfares, people . . . had to dismount and kneel in obeisance. . . . Thus, the city of Kamakura presented the curious spectacle of a town filled with well-fed dogs, clothed in tinsel and brocades and totaling from four to five thousand.8

Preoccupied with his entertainments, Hojo Takatoki paid little attention to the rumblings in Kyoto.

By 1331, Go-Daigo’s intentions of staying on the throne indefinitely had become perfectly clear to the senior line. Clan members sent an urgent and unambiguous message to Kamakura: “Most dangerous of late are the sovereign’s rebellious plottings. Let the military make inquiry quickly, lest disorder afflict the realm.” On advice of his councillors, Takatoki sent an army towards the imperial capital; Go-Daigo answered him with a call for open rebellion against the corrupt and weakened shikken.9

Samurai flocked to the new war. Some fought in support of the emperor, others in support of the Hojo shikken, and still others for themselves, hoping to seize a piece of the political pie. The most notorious of these samurai was Ashikaga Takauji; and in the course of the war, he rotated between all three loyalties.

The Ashikaga clan, an offshoot of the once-powerful Minamoto, hailed from the northeastern province of Shimotsuke, distant enough from both shogun and emperor to feel no overwhelming loyalty towards either. In the first six months of fighting, Ashikaga Takauji joined the forces of the shogunate, which quickly turned out to be the winning side; the Kamakura army drove Go-Daigo and his samurai into the mountains near Kyoto and trapped them there, and Go-Daigo was forced to surrender with embarrassing speed. He was taken back to Kyoto and housed in a shack behind the palace, where he was forced to listen to the joyous coronation of a prince from the senior line as the new emperor. He was then escorted under guard to Yasuki Harbor, west of the capital, and was taken by ship to desolate Oki Island: “almost devoid of human habitation,” says The Clear Mirror, “only distant structures marked a spot where fisherfolk boiled water for salt.” Here he lived for two years in makeshift housing, while the new Emperor Kogon ruled in Kyoto and Hojo Takatoki went back to his dogfights in Kamakura.10

But the shikken’s incompetence won him no new friends, and the Emperor Kogon was widely regarded as his puppet; he had not even been properly coronated, since Go-Daigo had refused to hand over the imperial scepter and regalia to his rival. From Oki, Go-Daigo was able to quietly assemble a network of supporters—samurai, fishermen, and pirates—who wanted to be rid of Hojo Takatoki’s rule. In the winter of 1333, a small band of pirates and fishermen helped Go-Daigo escape from his island. He landed on the shores of Hoki Province and found an army there already assembled, waiting for his leadership.11

At the news, Hojo Takatoki dispatched his own army from Kamakura, led by Ashikaga Takauji and another commander. Nitta Yoshisada, also a descendant of the Minamoto clan. But Ashikaga Takauji felt that the shikken had been slow in rewarding his loyalty; contemplating a change in allegiance, he had been carrying on a secret correspondence with Go-Daigo for the last year. Once out of Kamakura, he swapped sides, followed closely by Nitta Yoshisada and most of the army. Together, the men led a two-pronged attack against Hojo power; Ashikaga Takauji took part of the force into Kyoto and drove out the Hojo officials there, while Nitta Yoshisada led the rest directly against Kamakura.12

Both attacks succeeded. Emperor Kogon and the military governor of Kyoto fled together to the east but were quickly overtaken; the governor was killed on the spot, Kogon brought back to Kyoto and imprisoned. Nitta Yoshisada and his men fought a five-day battle at Kamakura against the Hojo supporters. Driven steadily back, facing almost certain defeat, the Hojo generals and officials began to commit suicide, one after another. On July 5, 1333, Hojo Takatoki retreated with three hundred supporters to the Kamakura temple where his ancestors were buried. “Kill yourselves quickly!” he shouted to them. “I’ll go first to set the example!” He swigged down a bowl of wine, passed it to his closest companion, and then “plunged his dagger into his left side, cut a long gash extending all the way to his right flank, pulled out his guts, and fell prostrate.” Nitta Yoshisada’s men were already setting fire to the temple, and Takatoki’s men followed him; the Taiheiki says that nearly eight hundred men killed themselves on that single day.13

Go-Daigo returned to Kyoto, claiming that he had never actually abdicated and ignoring Kogon’s brief stint on the throne entirely. In the next three years, known as the Kemmu Restoration, he attempted to take back direct rule of the country, as though the intervening exile had never happened. But Ashikaga Takauji was simultaneously angling for the vacant position of shikken. He had already set himself up in the emptied shogunate offices of Kyoto, and from there he appointed military governors just as the Hojo shikken had done. In 1335, he moved himself to Kamakura and began to give out grants of land.

He still had not claimed for himself the title of either shikken or shogun. But Go-Daigo had intended to free himself from the dictates of the shogunate, not simply replace one voice of authority with another. While Takauji was in Kyoto, he had avoided an outright confrontation. Now that his onetime ally was in Kamakura, the emperor declared him an “enemy of the throne.” Again, war was in the open.14

Ashikaga Takauji’s men marched towards Kyoto. The emperor’s forces, led by the loyal Nitta Yoshisada, met them in the summer of 1336 on the banks of the Minato river. Once more, the climactic battle took place in the July heat. After six hours of violent fighting, Nitta Yoshisada ordered a strategic retreat of one wing; this turned out to be a ghastly mistake that divided the emperor’s army and left it vulnerable. Thousands of imperial soldiers died.15

Go-Daigo fled south into the mountains with his remaining loyalists and established a new imperial capital there, at Yoshino. Takauji claimed Kyoto for himself, building military headquarters in the section of the city called Muromachi. He did not attempt to declare himself emperor; the connection of the imperial right to rule with the bloodline of the royal family was impossible to break. Instead, he declared Kogon’s younger brother Yutahito to be the new emperor.16

In 1338, finally in complete control of Kyoto, Ashikaga Takauji named himself shogun of Japan. Now, instead of a shogunate and a shikken at Kamakura and an imperial capital at Kyoto, Japan had two imperial capitals, two emperors, two courts, one shogun, and no shikken. The Kamakura Shogunate had ended; the Ashikaga Shogunate, which would survive for more than two hundred years, had begun.*


67.1 The Southern and Northern Courts

But the southern court held out. Go-Daigo died in Yoshino in 1339, aged fifty, but his sons continued to resist from the mountains. The beginning of the Ashikaga Shogunate was also the start of the Nambokucho era: the age of the “Southern and Northern Courts,” a royal schism that would last for sixty years. The ongoing spat between the junior and senior imperial lines had turned into an open breach; the junior line ruled in the south, the senior in the north.17

The divided sovereignty turned Japan into a series of military zones. Unlike the Kamakura shogunate, the Ashikaga shogunate never claimed the loyalty of most of the warrior class; it had a much smaller base of samurai support. And while the Kamakura shogunate had attempted to keep peace between the junior and senior royal branches, the Ashikaga had thrown its fortunes in with the senior line and turned against the junior. Before long, the Ashikaga could claim to be in power only over Kyoto and the lands nearby. Governors of the more distant provinces took control for themselves. Nowhere was there peace; nowhere, order.18

“From the time of the heavenly founder,” wrote the political theorist Kitabatake Chikafusa, from his place at the Southern Court, “there has been no disruption in dynastic succession in Japan.”

Our country has been ruled without interruption by the sovereigns of a single dynastic line. . . . In our country alone, the imperial succession has followed in an unbroken line from the time when heaven and earth were divided until the present age. . . . This is entirely the result of the immutable mandate of Amaterasu, and is the reason why Japan differs from all other countries. The way of the gods is not readily revealed. Yet if the divine basis of things is not understood, such ignorance will surely give rise to disorder.19

The rule of the divine imperial line was entwined with the origin, the ancient history, the very identity of Japan. A strongman could seize Kyoto, but military rule would always bring chaos.


*The Ashikaga Shogunate is also known as the Muromachi bakafu, after the district where its headquarters were located.

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