The Kamakura Bakufu
The establishment of . . .the . . .
   bakufu . . . by Minamoto Yoritomo was the single most tranformative event of early Japan. The bakufu , or "tent government" (because soldiers lived in tents), was more or less a military government. It primarily functioned as a separate government concerned primarily with military and police matters. The Emperor's government in Kyoto continued to function as before: the court still appointed civil governors, collected taxes, and exercised complete control in the area surrounding the capital.

   The real power of the state, however, became more concentrated in the hands of the Kamakura shogun. The term comes from the title that Minamoto Yoritomo demanded when he defeated the Taira: Sei i tai shogun , "barbarian conquering supreme general." The shogun, and the military government beneath him, really did not control much of Japan. For all practical purposes, the provinces of Japan were independent even though local lords (daimyo) swore allegiance to the shogun.

   The shogunate, however, did not remain in Minamoto hands for very long. When Yoritomo died in 1199, his widow, from the clan of the Hojo, usurped power from the Minamoto clan. She was a Buddhist nun, so she was known as the "Nun Shogun." She displaced the son who had inherited from his father and installed another son, who was soon assassinated. From that point onwards, the Hojo clan ruled the bakufu while the Minamoto nominally occupied the position of shogun. The relationship between the bakufu and the imperial government had never been very friendly; in 1221, the imperial court led an uprising against the bakufu , but failed. By this point, however, the ideology of loyalty had become fully ingrained in the bakufu structure; the imperial court had little luck persuading people to break that loyalty.

   The defining moment for the Kamakura bakufu was the invasion of Japan by the Mongols. In 1258, Kublai Khan conquered the Korean peninsula and in 1266, he declared himself Emperor of China. In that glorious year for the newly formed Yuan dynasty, Kublai set his sights on Japan. In 1266, representatives of the Mongolian court came to Japan and demanded its immediate surrender to Mongolian rule. The imperial court was terrified, but the Hojo decided to stand its ground and sent the representatives home. In 1274, Kublai Khan sent a vast fleet to invade Japan but it was destroyed by a hurricane—the Japanese called this fortunate hurricane kamikaze, or "wind from the gods." Again in 1281, Kublai launched the largest amphibious assault in the history of the ancient and medieval worlds. The Chinese army was a terrifying invasion force. They had the latest technology including gunpowder bombs and "fire-sticks," or guns, and their waves of archers dealt out death and destruction with astonishing efficiency. But the Hojo managed to keep them from landing on the coast, for they had built a vast wall against the invaders. Finally, another hurricane struck, and the bulk of the Chinese army sank with the fleet.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 6-28-97