The Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai, 1185-1333) is the historical period that corresponds to the rule of the Kamakura shōgun. It is named after the city of Kamakura where the shogunal government was located.

While 1333 - the year in which the Kamakura shogunate was destroyed - is the undisputed end of the period, historians have suggested different dates for its beginning: either 1185, the year in which Minamoto Yoritomo's brother Yoshitsune finally defeated the Taira in the sea battle of Dan-no-Ura, or 1192, when the imperial court officially recognised Yoritomo's military rule. Also in 1185, Yoritomo was granted the permission to appoint jitō (地頭, land stewards) and shugo (守護, military governors), offices that became distinctive features of all shogunal governments. Therefore, there appears to be a broader consensus among scholars on 1185 as the beginning of shogunal reign in Japan. The Kamakura and the Muromachi periods, spanning the years from 1185 to 1568, are considered to be Japan's feudal or medieval period.

The Kamakura Shogunate

The Kamakura bakufu is the first military government of Japan, established by Minamoto Yoritomo who was appointed shōgun in 1192 by the Japanese emperor. The organisation of the military government had already been set up in 1180, while, as pointed out above, the system of administrating the land through governors and stewards began in 1185. The Kamakura shogunate, therefore, lasted over 150 years and controlled mainly the eastern provinces and, much later though, the lands around the imperial capital Kyōto. It gained its support mainly from warrior bands who had previously been under the authority of the imperial court or landowners.

The Formation of the Shogunate

In 1180, Minamoto Yoritomo, head of the illustrious Minamoto clan also known as the Genji (源氏), organised an army in Izu Province (modern-day Shizuoka Prefecture) against their archenemy, the Taira family, who had gained control over the political affairs of the imperial court. Yoritomo's warriors pledged their allegiance as gokenin (御家人, "housemen"). After his forces had defeated a large Taira army at the Battle of Fujigawa, Yoritomo set up the bakufu, establishing de facto control over the eastern provinces. In 1183, his authority was sanctioned by the imperial court after the remaining Taira forces had been driven out of Kyōto. With the imperial permission to appoint governors, he forcefully held the military and administrative power over all (eastern) provinces. In 1192, the title of seii tai shōgun (征夷大将軍) was bestowed on Yoritomo; henceforward the shortened form shōgun became the standard appellation for the leader of the military government.

Characteristics of the Kamakura shogunate

The feudal character of the shogunate manifested itself in the lord-vassal relationship between Yoritomo and his gokenin on the one hand and on the network of governors and stewards who effectively controlled the land, on the other. Yoritomo used the jitō appointments to reward faithful vassals with land, thereby adding the first feudal elements to the shogunate. In the beginning, the actual power of the shogun was somewhat limited; his right to appoint jitō was restricted to the eastern provinces where the former territories of the Taira family and those who had rebelled against Yoritomo were located. Only after the Jōkyū Rebellion of 1221 (see below) was the right of appointment extended to the Kinai, the capital area.

Unlike during the Tokugawa shogunate, not the land itself but the land rights (職 shiki) were bestowed onto vassals. Those rights involved the official position (established under the shōen system) and the revenues generated by the land. This system constituted a compromise between shogunal right to bestow land and the rights of the aristocrats who owned the shōen (荘園 or 庄園, "manor").

Jōkyū Disturbance

The Jōkyū Disturbance (承久の乱 jōkyū no ran) was an attempt by the retired emperor Go-Toba to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate in 1221. The establishment of a military government had been a blow to the imperial court in Kyōto, and the kuge, the court nobility consisting mostly of Taira, was looking for a chance to regain power. When Minamoto Sanetomo, the third shōgun, was assassinated in 1219, they seized the opportunity and rallied around Go-Toba, planning a punitive expedition against the regent Hōjō Yoshitoki. In response, the latter and Hōjō Masako, Yoritomo's widow, moved against Go-Toba's supporters.

A large army under Hōjō Yasutoki defeated Go-Toba's forces at the Uji River near Kyōto and occupied the imperial capital. The shogunate then deposed emperor Chūkyō, who had reigned for not even two months, and replaced him with emperor Go-Horikawa (後堀河天皇, 1212-1234), a nephew of Go-Toba. Go-Toba himself was exiled to the Oki Islands, his sons Tsuchimikado and Juntoku, both retired emperors too, to Tosa and Sado. The shogunate confiscated the lands of those who had sided with the Go-Toba and assigned them to their vassals who were designated Shimpo jitō (新补地头, "newly appointed estate stewards"). To keep the imperial court under strict control, shogunal deputies (六波罗探题 rokuhara tandai) were established to administer the western provinces. The Jōkyū War consolidated the power of the shogunate and made it clear who ruled Japan.

Hōjō regency

Yoritomo's shogunate was effectively a one-man rule. He established his capital in Kamakura and set up an administrative system based on the Fujiwara house government with the following institutions: the samurai-dokoro (侍所, Board of Retainers) to control the gokenin headed by Wada Tarō Yoshimori, the mandokoro (政所, administrative board), the principal executive organ of the bakufu, and the monchūjo (問注所, Board of Inquiry), responsible for legal matters. After Yoritomo's death in 1199, his successor Minamoto no Yoriie, and Minamoto no Sanetomo, Yoriie's successor, were both young and inexperienced, and their mother Masako, a member of the Hōjō clan, a branch of the Taira that had allied itself with the Minamoto in 1180, took on the role of guardian. Through her, the Hōjō took control of the shogunate as shikken (執権, "supreme ruler" or "regent"), thereby resulting in the establishment of the Hōjō regency (1199-1256).

Under the Hōjō the shogun had become a powerless figurehead, just as the emperor had been no more than a figurehead under the bakufu. In the Jōkyū Rebellion the retired emperor Go-Toba (後鳥羽天皇 Go-Toba-tennō, 1180-1239) failed to recover political power from the shogunate. Thus the supremacy of the shogunate, or rather the Hōjō, in governmental matters was firmly established. The shogunate adopted a military code, the Goseibai shikimoku (御成敗式目), promulgated by the third shikken Hōjō Yasutoki in 1232 and set up the Hyōjōshū (評定衆), the Council of State, a supreme governing body that consisted of 11, later 15, gokenin; under the Hyōjōshū were the hikitsukeshū (引付衆), a group of co-adjucators to deal with the rising number of land claims.

The Decline of the Shogunate

In the late 13th century, during the period of the Mongol invasions, signs of political change and instability appeared. The council system had declined, and the gokenin were deprived of their political influence. Their power had shifted to the direct descendants of the Hōjō clan, known as the tokusō (得宗) and the Yoriai (寄合), a private Hōjō family council. At the same time, intensive farming and the rising surplus in produce resulted in the emergence of a good exchange economy: the status of the lower-class peasantry rose, and commercial professions such as the toimaru (問丸, specialised wholesale merchants) and the kashiage (借上, moneylenders) prospered.

In contrast, the power of the gokenin waned in the wake of the Mongol invasions, and many lost their land and income. The defence of Japan had cost enormous resources, but there were no confiscated territories to be redistributed as rewards. This and the introduction of new taxes resulted in mounting dissatisfaction with the Hōjō rule. In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate was overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo in what came known as the Kemmu Restoration.

The Kamakura shōgun

Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199)1192-1199
Minamoto no Yoriie (源頼家, 1182-1204)1202-1203
Minamoto no Sanetomo (源実朝, 1192-1219)1203-1219
Kujō Yoritsune (九条頼経, 1218-1256)1226-1244
Kujō Yoritsugu (九条頼嗣, 1239-1256)1244-1252
Prince Munetaka (宗尊親王, 1242-1274)1252-1266
Prince Koreyasu (惟康親王, 1264-1326)1266-1289
Prince Hisaaki (久明親王, 1276-1328)1289-1308
Prince Morikuni (守邦親王, 1301-1333)1308-1333

The Minamoto line ceased to exist in 1219; after that, there was no succession. Hōjō regents selected malleable members of the kuge and brought them to Kamakura to be installed as shōgun.

Shikken (regents) of the Kamakura shogunate

Hōjō Tokimasa (北条時政, 1138-1215)1203-1215
Hōjō Yoshitoki (北条義時, 1163-1224)1205-1224
Hōjō Yasutoki (北条泰時, 1183-1242)1242-1242
Hōjō Tsunetoki (北条経時, 1224-1246)1242-1246
Hōjō Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263)1246-1256
Hōjō Nagatoki 北条長時, 1229-1264)1256-1264
Hōjō Masamura (北条政村, 1205-1273)1264-1268
Hōjō Tokimune (北条時宗, 1251-1284)1268-1284
Hōjō Sadatoki (北条貞時 (守邦親王, 1271-1311)1284-1301
Hōjō Morotoki (北条師時, 1275-1311)1301-1311
Hōjō Munenobu (北条宗宣, 1259-1312)1311-1312
Hōjō Hirotoki (北条煕時, 1279-1315)1312-1315
Hōjō Mototoki (北条基時, 1286-1333)1316-1316
Hōjō Takatoki (北条高時, 1303-1333)1316-1326
Hōjō Sadaaki (北条貞顕, 1278-1333)1326
Hōjō Moritoki (北条守時, 1295-1333)1326-1333


  • Totman, Conrad; A History of Japan, Wiley-Blackwell; second edition 2005
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
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