The Kamakura Period

Shogun Rule and Zen Buddhism in Japan

Portrait of Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Kamakura Period in Japan lasted from 1192 to 1333, bringing with it the emergence of shogun rule. Japanese warlords, known as shoguns, claimed power from the hereditary monarchy and their scholar-courtiers, giving the samurai warriors and their lords' ultimate control of the early Japanese empire. Society, too, changed radically, and a new feudal system emerged.

Along with these changes came a cultural shift in Japan. Zen Buddhism spread from China as well as a rise in realism in art and literature, favored by the ruling warlords of the time. However, cultural strife and political divides eventually led to the shogunate rulership's downfall and a new imperial rule took over in 1333.

The Genpei War and a New Era

Unofficially, the Kamakura Era began in 1185, when the Minamoto clan defeated the Taira family in the Genpei War. However, it was not until 1192 that the emperor named Minamoto Yoritomo as the first shogun of Japan — whose full title is "Seii Taishogun," or "great general who subdues the eastern barbarians" — that the period truly took shape. 

Minamoto Yoritomo ruled from 1192 to 1199 from his family seat at Kamakura, about 30 miles south of Tokyo. His reign marked the beginning of the bakufu system under which the emperors in Kyoto were mere figureheads, and the shoguns ruled Japan. This system would endure under the leadership of different clans for almost 700 years until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

After Minamoto Yoritomo's death, the usurping Minamoto clan had its own power usurped by the Hojo clan, who claimed the title of "shikken" or "regent" in 1203. The shoguns became figureheads just like the emperors. Ironically, the Hojos were a branch of the Taira clan, which the Minamoto had defeated in the Gempei War. The Hojo family made their status as regents hereditary and took effective power from the Minamotos for the remainder of the Kamakura Period.

Kamakura Society and Culture

The revolution in politics during the Kamakura Period was matched by changes in Japanese society and culture. One important change was the increasing popularity of Buddhism, which had previously been limited primarily to the elites in the emperors' court. During the Kamakura, ordinary Japanese people began to practice new types of Buddhism, including Zen (Chan), which was imported from China in 1191, and the Nichiren Sect, founded in 1253, which emphasized the Lotus Sutra and could almost be described as "fundamentalist Buddhism."

During the Kamakura era, art and literature shifted from the formal, stylized aesthetic favored by the nobility to a realistic and highly-charged style that catered to warrior tastes. This emphasis on realism would continue through the Meiji Era and is visible in many ukiyo-e prints from shogunal Japan.

This period also saw a formal codification of Japanese law under military rule. In 1232, the shikken Hojo Yasutoki issued a legal code called the "Goseibai Shikimoku," or "Formulary of Adjudications," which laid out the law in 51 articles.

The Threat of Khan and Fall to 

The greatest crisis of the Kamakura Era came with a threat from overseas. In 1271, the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan — grandson of Genghis Khan — established the Yuan Dynasty in China. After consolidating power over all of China, Kublai sent emissaries to Japan demanding tribute; the shikken's government flatly refused on behalf of the shogun and emperor. 

Kublai Khan responded by sending two massive armadas to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281. Almost unbelievably, both armadas were destroyed by typhoons, known as the "kamikaze" or "divine winds" in Japan. Although nature protected Japan from the Mongol invaders, the cost of the defense forced the government to raise taxes, which set off a wave of chaos across the country.

The Hojo shikkens tried to hang on to power by allowing other great clans to increase their own control of different regions of Japan. They also ordered two different lines of the Japanese imperial family to alternate rulers, in an attempt to keep either branch from becoming too powerful. 

Nonetheless, Emperor Go-Daigo of the Southern Court named his own son as his successor in 1331, sparking a rebellion that brought down the Hojo and their Minamoto puppets in 1333. They were replaced, in 1336, by the Ashikaga Shogunate based in the Muromachi part of Kyoto. The Goseibai Shikimoku remained in force until the Tokugawa or Edo Period.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Kamakura Period." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). The Kamakura Period. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Kamakura Period." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).