The Kemmu Restoration (建武の新政 Kenmu no Shinsei) was the attempt of Emperor Go-Daigo in the years 1333-1336 to restore direct imperial rule following the overthrow of the Kamakura shogunate. Kemmu refers to the era name (年号 nengō) that Go-Daigo inaugurated in 1334. Go-Daigo's policies were reactionary, and within just three years his restoration government was in turn overthrown by Ashikaga Takauji who established the Muromachi shogunate.

Imperial restoration

It is the belief rooted in ancient myths on the divine origins of Japan that a single dynastic line descended from Amaterasu Ōmikami was mandated to rule the land. Since the early ninth century, however, Japanese emperors have seldom held any real political power. The idea of imperial restoration, restoring power to the throne, has been periodically adopted by political factions to further their own selfish goals, a recurring phenomenon last manifested in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the "Showa Restoration" in the 1920s and 1930s. As in all historical instances of imperial restoration, the emperor served as nothing more than a figurehead of symbolic importance. In the Kemmu Restoration, however, the fourteenth-century emperor Go-Daigo played a pivotal role and was determined to reclaim the powers of direct rule reputedly exercised by emperors of the past.

Historical background

In 1185, with the foundation of the Kamakura shogunate military rule was established for the first time in Japanese history; yet the imperial court and the courtiers retained significant economic influence through their landed estates (荘園 or 庄園 shōen). Following emperor Go-Toba unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the shogunate in the Jōkyū Disturbance in 1221, the court was wholly subordinated to Kamakura to the extent that even the succession to the throne was dictated by the shogun. Kamakura was therefore remiss in its duties when - upon the death of the retired emperor Go-Saga in 1272 - it failed to make a firm decision as to which line should succeed: that of his older son, the former emperor Go-Fukukusa, or his younger son, Emperor Kameyama.

In fact, the shogunate may have had any interest in keeping the imperial court divided, as its resources were already stretched by the defence against the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281. An anti-shogunate movement in the court would have further strained the Kamakura regime. Once the peril of invasion had vanished in the late thirteenth century, the shogunate accepted the practice of alternate succession to the throne by members of the senior Go-Fukukusa or Jimyōin (持明院統 Jimyōin-tō) line or the junior Kameyama or Daikakuji (大覚寺統 Daikakuji-tō) line. By this time, the imperial house had divided into two branches, each with their holdings of estates, and developed a rivalry so intense that reconciliation seemed impossible.


When emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇) ascended the throne in 1318, the Kamakura shogunate was already on the decline. In 1324, in what came to be known as the Shōchū Conspiracy (正中の変), he plotted with the courtiers Hino Suketomo and Hino Toshimoto against the shogunate which supported the retired emperor Go-Fushimi of the Jimyōin line who sought to install his son instead of Go-Daigo's of the Daikakuji line. They managed to raise an army, but their coup was discovered by the Rokuhara tandai, the shogunal deputy stationed in Kyōto. Go-Daigo denied his involvement and survived. In 1331 in the Genkō Incident (元弘の変), he refused to abdicate and fled to Nara. The shogunate installed emperor Kōgon in his place and managed to arrest Go-Daigo in the following year. He was exiled to the Oki Islands, but his son Prince Morinaga continued resistance with the support of Kusunoki Masahige and other local warriors. Go-Daigo eventually escaped from exile in 1333, and the whole country was thrown into a civil war. Ashikaga Takauji, the general sent by Kamakura to suppress the rebellion, saw an opportunity to become shōgun himself and changed sides, capturing Kyōto in Go-Daigo's name. The other leading Kamakura general, and a descendant of the Minamoto just like Takauji, Nitta Yoshisada (新田 義貞), also betrayed the shogunate and marched on Kamakura, destroying the Hōjō and thereby ending the Kamakura shogunate.

In 1333, Go-Daigo returned to Kyōto in triumph to restore imperial power. Consequently, he neither appointed a Fujiwara regent nor bestowed the title of shōgun on a warrior leader. In selecting the name Go-Daigo ("Latter Daigo") he expressed his desire to model his rule on emperor Daigo (r 897-930) who reigned before the Fujiwara had consolidated their control over the throne. The new emperor was ill-prepared to cope with a political landscape based on a warrior-dominated society. His government was unable to settle the frequent land disputes and to satisfy the needs of the warrior chieftains: both Ashikaga and Nitta were generously rewarded for their roles in the Kemmu Restoration, but whereas Yoshisada took an active role in the Kemmu government, Takauji remained conspicuously absent. Since all the spoils were shared between Takauji and Yoshisada and the offices of shugo and jitō in more than fifty provinces went to nobles and courtiers, the warriors were left with nothing.

The end of the restoration

Takauji had always been resolved to assume the title of shōgun. Go-Daigo, however, refused to comply with his wishes, even when he directly requested the title in 1335 to quell the remnants of the former shogunate's supporters who had risen in the east. After putting down the rebellion, Takauji remained in the east, prompting the court after that to accuse him of insubordination and sending an army under his arch-rival Yoshisada against him. Takauji and his brother Tadayoshi had been able to garner the support of the warrior class and the peasants and managed within less than a year to overthrow the restoration government when they entered Kyōto in 1336.

Go-Daigo fled to Yoshino, while Takauji established the Muromachi shogunate. The event also started the long struggle known as the war between the courts, lasting from 1336 to 1392 which saw the Southern Court of Go-Daigo and his descendants in Yoshino pitted against the Northern Court of the senior branch in Kyōto which was supported by the Ashikaga shōgun.

Go-Daigo's restoration is generally seen as little more than an intervening period between the first and the founding of the second shogunate, historically significant only due to the only major dynastic schism in Japanese history.

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