The Kamakura period in Japanese history was marked by the Kamakura shogunate, which received its appellation from the capital, Kamakura. The Kamakura period began in approximately 1185 and ended in 1333. The period is particularly significant in Japanese history since it marked the beginning of 600 years of organized feudalism.
From remote antiquity, the Japanese were loosely ruled by an imperial family. In reality, much power was maintained by individual families.
In the seventh century, an attempt was made to strengthen the imperial court. The Taika Reform, as it was known, aimed at nationalizing all Japanese land and then distributing it equally among the Japanese citizens, formulating a systematic government structure and levying various taxes on the population.
The Taika Reform failed, largely due to the fact that it was based on Chinese concepts that did not adapt to the Japanese culture. Instead of strengthening the imperial court, the effects of the reforms caused a rise in shoens, large estates owned by a religious order or by a lord that were worked by peasants. The lords provided essential security to their peasants. In time, the lords became increasingly feudal.
In the mid-1100s, feudal warfare broke out. From 1180–85 Minamoto no Yoritomo fought against the Taira clan, in what is known as the Genpei War. The Genpei War was much more extensive than most feudal conflicts. Battles took place from Eastern Japan to the Western tip, with fighting also in central parts of the country. The war embroiled all classes of Japanese society, including the imperial family. Temples and shrines were drawn into the conflict, some due to their principles and some due to their association with the warring families.
Yoritomo defeated the Taira clan during the Genpei War. After the war, Yoritomo established a shogunate in Kamakura. The shogunate was also known as the Bakufu.
Yoritomo did not wage war against the Taira with the intention of creating a shogunate; rather his shogunate arose as a response to various events. The 12 years between 1180 and 1192 were years of fighting and political events. Academics give six different dates for the start of Yoritomo's shogunate during these 12 years. However, it is generally accepted that by 1185, Yoritomo's government was functioning as the de facto government for the country and had received some recognition from the imperial court.
After Yoritomo's death, the power of the shogunate was transferred to the Hojo clan. Hojo Tokimasa, the clan chief of Yoritomo's widow, claimed the title of regent (shikke) to Yoritomo's son, Minamoto no Yoriie. From then on, the title of regent was passed down in the Hojo clan.
Throughout the Kamakura period, attempts were made to counter the power of the shogunate. In 1221, Emperor Go-Taba tried to reclaim the power for the imperial court. His attempt, called the Jokyu War, was unsuccessful. More than 100 years later, in 1324, Emperor Go-Daigo initiated a plot against the Kamakura. However, his plot was foiled.
In 1331, Emperor Go-Daigo fought against the Kamakura. Kamakura's Ashikaga Takauji defeated him. Ashikaga was then sent from Kamakura to attack the imperial forces at Kyoto. He betrayed the Kamakura and supported the emperor. Another warlord, Nitta Yoshisada, took the opportunity to attack Kamakura. His attack was successful. In 1336, Ashikaga established his own shogunate.
The Kamakura period marked a change in Japanese culture. Previously, Japanese culture was strongly influenced by the Chinese. However, Kamakura was in the East, far away from China. The Kamakura period marked the decline of Chinese influence on Japanese culture.
During the Kamakura period, three main sources of governmental authority coexisted:
1. The imperial emperor's court was secured by the Fujiwara clan. The emperor was usually a young man or child who performed symbolic functions while a regent exercised power in his name.
2. At times, there was an insei (cloister government) with a chancellery. These insei were often staffed by men who were considered less influential by the imperial government because of their family position.
3. The shogunate was ruled by the Kamakura shogun. The shoguns were the de facto rulers of Japan.
During the Kamakura period, shogunate scribes and officials attempted to write and compile shogunate records. These records were compiled in 52 chapters, under the title Azuma Kagami.