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Compelling Question: Who had real
power in Japan?
INSTRUCTIONS: Read the texts below and annotate for SPICE characteristics of Japan. Then, answer the analysis questions.
Article Title: The Samurai and the Kamakura Shogunate, 1185–1333
The gradual rise of a warrior elite
over the course of the Heian period finally
brought an end to the domination of the
Fujiwaras and other Heian aristocratic
families. In 1156 civil war broke out between
the Taira and Minamoto warrior clans based
in western and eastern Japan, respectively.
Both clans relied on skilled warriors, later
called samurai, who were rapidly becoming a
new social class. A samurai and his lord had a
double bond: in return for the samurai’s
loyalty and service, the lord granted him land
or income. From 1159 to 1181 a Taira named
Kiyomori dominated the court, taking the
position of prime minister and marrying his
daughter to the emperor. His relatives
became governors of more than thirty
provinces, managed some five hundred taxexempt estates, and amassed a fortune in
the trade with Song China and Koryŏ Korea.
Still, the Minamoto clan managed to defeat
Kamakura Shogunate, 1185–1333
the Taira, and the Minamoto leader,
Yoritomo, became shogun, or general-inchief. With him began the Kamakura Shogunate (1185–1333). This period is often referred to
as Japan’s feudal period because it was dominated by a military class whose members were
tied to their superiors by bonds of loyalty and supported by landed estates rather than
Military Rule
The similarities between military rule in Japan and feudalism in medieval Europe during
roughly the same period have fascinated scholars, as have the very significant differences. In
Europe feudalism emerged out of the fusion of Germanic and Roman social institutions and
flowered under the impact of Muslim and Viking invasions. In Japan military rule evolved from
Analysis Questions:
1. How did the Taira family gain power in Japan?
2. How did the Minamoto family gain power in Japan?
3. Based on this text, what is a “feudal” system?
a combination of the native warrior tradition and Confucian ethical principles of duty to
The emergence of the samurai was made possible by the development of private
landholding. The government land allotment system, copied from Tang China, began breaking
down in the eighth century (much as it did in China). By the ninth century local lords
[daimyos] had begun escaping imperial taxes and control by commending (formally giving)
their land to tax-exempt entities such as monasteries, the imperial family, and high-ranking
officials. The local lord then received his land back as a tenant and paid his protector a small
rent. The monastery or privileged individual received a steady income from the land, and the
local lord escaped imperial taxes and control. By the end of the thirteenth century most land
seems to have been taken off the tax rolls this way. Each plot of land could thus have several
people with rights to shares of its produce, ranging from the cultivator, to a local lord, to an
estate manager working for him, to a regional strongman, to a noble or temple in the capital.
Unlike peasants in medieval Europe, where similar practices of commendation occurred,
those working the land in Japan never became serfs. Moreover, Japanese lords rarely lived on
the lands they had rights in, unlike English or French lords who lived on their manors.
resembled European
knights in several ways.
Both were armed with
expensive weapons, and
both fought on
horseback. Just as the
knight was supposed to
live according to the
chivalric code, so
Japanese samurai were
expected to live
according to Bushido (or
“way of the warrior”), a
code that stressed
military honor, courage,
The Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo in Court Dress This wooden
stoic acceptance of
sculpture, 27.8 inches tall, was made about a half century after
hardship, and, above all,
Yoritomo’s death for use in a shrine dedicated to his memory. The
loyalty. Physical hardship
bold shapes convey Yoritomo’s dignity and power. ( Yoritomo
was accepted as routine,
[Minamotono-Yoritomo], wood with colored painting and quartz eyes,
and soft living was
Kamakura Period, 1300/National Museum, Tokyo, Japan/akg-images)
despised as weak and
unworthy. Disloyalty brought social disgrace, which the samurai could avoid only
through seppuku, ritual suicide by slashing his belly.
4. Who were the daimyo, and what power did they
have in Japanese society?
5. Who were the samurai, and what was their role in
Japanese government?
The Kamakura Shogunate derives its name from Kamakura, a city near modern Tokyo
that was the seat of the Minamoto clan. The founder, Yoritomo, ruled the country much the
way he ran his own estates, appointing his retainers to newly created offices. To cope with
the emergence of hard-to-tax estates, he put military land stewards in charge of seeing to the
estates’ proper operation. To bring order to the lawless countryside, he appointed military
governors to oversee the military and enforce the law in the provinces. They supervised the
conduct of the land stewards in peacetime and commanded the provincial samurai in war.
6. When and why did the Shogunates start to lose
power? Was this an internal or external cause?
Yoritomo’s wife, Masako, protected the interests of her own family, the Hōjōs,
especially after Yoritomo died. She went so far as to force her first son to abdicate when he
showed signs of preferring the family of his wife to the family of his mother. She later helped
her brother take power away from her father. Thus the process of reducing power holders to
figureheads went one step further in 1219 when the Hōjō family reduced the shogun to a
figurehead. The Hōjō family held the reins of power for more than a century until 1333.
The Mongols’ two massive seaborne invasions in 1274 and 1281 were a huge shock to
the shogunate. The Kamakura government was hard-pressed to gather adequate resources
for its defense. Temples were squeezed, farmers were taken away from their fields to build
walls, and warriors were promised generous rewards in return for their service. Although the
Hōjō regents, with the help of a “divine wind” (kamikaze), repelled the Mongols, they were
unable to reward their vassals in the traditional way because little booty was found among
the wreckage of the Mongol fleets. Discontent grew among the samurai, and by the
fourteenth century the entire political system was breaking down. Both the imperial and the
shogunate families were fighting among themselves. As land grants were divided, samurai
became impoverished and took to plunder and piracy, or shifted their loyalty to local officials
who could offer them a better living.
The factional disputes among Japan’s leading families remained explosive until 1331,
when the emperor Go-Daigo tried to recapture real power. His attempt sparked an uprising
by the great families, local lords, samurai, and even Buddhist monasteries, which had
thousands of samurai retainers. Go-Daigo destroyed the Kamakura Shogunate in 1333 but
soon lost the loyalty of his followers. By 1338 one of his most important military supporters,
Ashikaga Takauji, had turned on him and established the Ashikaga Shogunate, which lasted
until 1573. Takauji’s victory was also a victory for the samurai, who took over civil authority
throughout Japan.
7. How did Mongol invasions impact the internal
power of the Shogunates?