History of
Kamakura (1)
Minamoto Era

Roughly 900 years ago in the 12th century, the capital of Japan was Kyoto. Back at the time, there was a big civil war being waged across the country between the Minamoto {pronounced me-nah-moh-toh} and the Taira {tie-rah} military clans. The Minamoto was also called Genji {ghen-gee} and the Taira as Heike {hay-keh} with its different reading of Chinese characters. The civil war was like Japan's War of Roses, as Genji was represented with "white" and Heike with "red" as their symbol colors. The Minamoto clan was almost completely defeated in 1159, and all its family members were either killed or forced to take their own lives except a few. One of the few was Yoritomo {yoh-re-toh-moh} Minamoto (1147-1199), the most notable samurai warrior as the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate and the military dictator of Japan.

Yoritomo Minamoto

He was the only legitimate child of the Minamotos, but was just 13 years old when his father was killed in 1160. Instead of killing him, the chieftain of the Taira clan banished him away from Kyoto to the countryside of the Izu {e-zoo} Peninsula, 90 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. Glorious days of the Taira continued. At age 30, Yoritomo married Masako Hojo {mah-sah-ko hoh-joe} (1157-1225), a daughter of a local warlord, and slowly but steadily gained momentum. There were still a number of samurai clans in eastern Japan who supported Yoritomo because of his pedigree.
When Yoritomo was 33 years old, he initiated the first battle at the foot of the Peninsula against the local warlords who belonged to the Taira clan. Though he was defeated, the news spread quickly, and quite a few Minamoto supporters, mainly in eastern Japan, declared one after another that they would take sides with the Minamotos and fight against the Taira clan. Getting help from plenty of provincial warlords, Yoritomo won at skirmishes against the local factions of the Taira, and set up his headquarters in Kamakura 1180. Kamakura was a natural fortress surrounded north, east and west by hills, though no higher than 150 meters, and the south bordered by the ocean or the Bay of Sagami {sah-gah-me}.

The civil war between the Minamoto led by Yoritomo and the Taira clan got off to a start anew and intensified. Meanwhile, Yoritomo had a cousin named Yoshinaka {yoh-she-nah-kah} (1154-1184) living in Nagano Prefecture. He was also among those who rose up in arms against the Taira clan in 1180. Yoritomo had a half-brother Yoshitsune {yoh-she-tsu-neh} (1159-1189) by a different mother. He was living in Hiraizumi {he-rah-e-zoo-me}, northern part of the Honshu island, under the custody of another powerful clan named Fujiwara {foo-gee-wah-rah}. Hearing Yoritomo's rally, he rose to an action and joined the Yoritomo's troops. Yoritomo stayed in Kamakura to watch and check the movement of enemies sporadically scattered around the Tokyo area. Yoshitsune as well as Yoshinaka outmaneuvered the enemy with brilliant strategies and continued to win a series of overwhelming victories. Yoshinaka who occupied Kyoto was nominated and named as the Supreme Commander by the Imperial Court in 1184, which, however, incurred Yoritomo's distrust against him. In fear that Yoshinaka might secure the ruling power in Kyoto, Yoritomo ordered Yoshitsune to kill him. Yoshitsune and his troops rushed to Kyoto and eventually killed Yoshinaka destroying his forces completely.

Not only did Yoshitsune beat Yoshinaka, but he also wiped out the remaining Taira clan to the westernmost of the Honshu island in 1185. Yoritomo, however, did not necessarily appreciate Yoshitsune's achievements. In addition, the fact that Yoshitsune accepted, without getting prior approvals from Yoritomo, the Imperial Court's conferment of high-ranking titles made Yoritomo upset. When Yoshitsune returned from Kyoto to Kamakura to report the victory, Yoritomo did not allow him to enter Kamakura, let alone to meet him. Furthermore, Yoritomo decided to kill Yoshitsune, who from then on turned fugitive. He escaped to Hiraizumi seeking refuge at the Fujiwaras where he grew up. Yoritomo had difficulties finding him at first, but his troops finally tracked down. As the former head of the Fujiwaras had been dead, Yoshitsune was no longer able to get full support from the new Fujiwara chief, and was eventually caught and killed. Even today, he is often referred to as a tragic hero and his saga appears in a number of Kabuki and Noh plays.

These behaviors by Yoritomo killing his cousin and half-brother were based on the strict samurai-code, and demonstrated that anyone, even his next kin, would not be forgiven unless his order was strictly honored. Earlier, Yoshinaka Kiso had sent his son to Kamakura as a hostage to pledge his loyalty toward Yoritomo. But, Yoritomo even killed this 10-year-old boy as soon as he knew he was betrayed by Yoshinaka.

In 1192, there was no longer any clans that matched Yoritomo's power and the Imperial Court gave him the official title of the Supreme Commander. Thus the first Shogunate or the military government started in Kamakura with Yoritomo as a military and political dictator of the entire nation. Establishing a typical feudal system, he protected his vassals appointing them as provincial administrators. The government office was placed east of the present-day Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. However, Yoritomo's days of glory came to a sudden end. He accidentally fell from a horse and lost consciousness in late 1198. He never recovered and died in early 1199.

It was a rule those days that the seat of the Shogun be succeeded by the first legitimate son of the Shogun. Yoritomo had two sons. The first was Yoriie {yoh-re-e-eh} (1182-1204), who was only 17 years old when his father died, too young to show leadership as the Shogun. This created a power struggle between the Hojos, his mother's family and the Hikis {he-key}, the family of Yoriie's wife. The struggle developed to a civil-war type battle and the Hikis were defeated ending with near extermination. Included among the victims were Yoriie's wife Wakasa {wah-kah-sah} and their 6-year-old son. Yoriie was forced to take responsibility for this disturbance and deported down to the Izu Peninsula in 1203.

Although Yoriie had another son Kugyo {koo-gyo} (1200-1219) by a different woman, the Shogun was succeeded by Yoriie's younger brother Sanetomo {sah-neh-toh-moh} (1192-1219) as a consequence of the dispute between the two families, thereby the Hojos began to exert greater influences in the government and developed into a real powerhouse. At the time Sanetomo took the post of the Shogun in 1203, he was also only 11 years old. He admired and adored culture in Kyoto, tanka or 31-one-syllable poem in particular, while showing little interest in politics. His keen interest in Kyoto made the Imperial Court trust him, and he won speedy promotions. Back then, the Imperial Court had still a solid authority to give official court titles and the Shogunate paid deference to them. Sanetomo's rapid promotion may have worked ill, however. Kugyo envied his promotion. Had there not been Sanetomo, Kugyo might well have been the Third Shogun, he thought. Nursing this delusion, Kugyo took an extreme action. At the ceremony for Sanetomo's promotion taken place at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in winter of 1219, Kugyo abruptly assassinated Sanetomo with his sword. In retaliation, Kugyo himself was killed immediately by members of the Hojo faction. The bloodline of Yoritomo died out at this moment.