Summary of the Middle Ages in Japan

Justin Aukema
May 12, 2016

(Battle at Awazuhara" from The Tale of Heike)

“In the sound of the bell of the Gion temple echoes the impermanence of all things. ... The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring night's dream. And the mighty ones, too, will perish like dust before the wind.” (East Asia for Educators)

This is one of the opening lines from the Tale of Heike (mid-13th c.) which describes the battle between two powerful military families, the Taira (Heike) and the Minamoto (Genji) during the Genpei war (1180-1185) which rocked the capital in Kyoto and ultimately resulted in the victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo establishing his military government (bakufu) in Kamakura in 1192 (ii-kuni). The story is related mostly from the victims’ perspective and conveys strong Buddhist overtones throughout the text.

In some respects, the Kamakura bakufu bore similarity to the earlier methods of rule used by the Fujiwara rulers. For example, they continued to acknowledge the emperor and imperial line as the head of power, while the leader in Kamakura was the emperors’ appointed Shogun (military general) and de-facto ruler.

However, the differences to the earlier Fujiwara rule during Heian were more numerous. One notable aspect were the challenges to the ritsuryō system of administrative laws that the Kamakura government presented by setting up estate stewards (jitō) who administered land and collected taxes at the state level. Another was that the two seats of power in Kyoto and Kamakura resulted in the development of a vast network of increasingly travelled roads. The trade that flourished along these routes also contributed to an influx in business including inns, baths, and markets (Huffman 39-40).

Yoritomo and his successors at Kamakura, namely those from his wife’s family, the Hōjō, initiated a number of legal reforms based on the idea of a warrior code (bushido). One example of this was the Jōei Code, a series of fifty-one articles that dictated issues ranging from land rights to the punishment of criminals. The Jōei Codes are particularly interesting in that they grant considerable land-owning rights to women as well.

“Legal scholars have held that, although sons and daughters differ in gender, they are equal in terms of the benefits bestowed upon them by their parents. Hence, a gift to a daughter should be as irrevocable as one to a son” (de Bary, 416).

“From the time of Lord Yoritomo to the present day it has been a fixed rule to allow a childless woman to bequeath her land to an adopted child” (de Bary, 417).

The Kamakura government was also notable for patronizing Zen Buddhism. Zen was made popular by monks, many of whom had conducted study in China, such as the Sōtō school founder, Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253). He emphasized that anyone could achieve enlightenment simply by practicing sitting meditation (zazen).

(Sanmon gate at Enkakuji, Kamakura. Wiki commons)

“We teach: For all the Buddha dharma–preserving Zen ancestors and Bud- dhas, sitting upright in the practice of self-actualizing (jijuyu ̄) sama ̄dhi [con- centration] is the true path of awakening” (de Bary, 321)

“If you, for however short a while, imprint all your activities with the Buddha- mind Seal by sitting upright in sama ̄dhi, then all things in the entire dharma realm become imprinted with the Buddha-mind Seal, and the entire cosmos becomes awakening” (de Bary, 321)

The warrior government at Kamakura was severely tested, however, during the Mongol invasions between 1268 and 1281. This was the first foreign attack on Japanese soil in 500 years. Under Kublai Khan, the Mongols sent ships with thousands of troops to attack Japan in 1274 and again in 1281. While Japanese forces met the troops in battle, the Mongols were eventually routed and sunk both times by strong winds and typhoons. This latter was mythologized as the “divine wind” (kamikaze) that saved Japan from invasion. Despite this seeming turn of good fortune, the Mongol invasions greatly strained the Kamakura bakufu coffers, and led to great discontent among those who contributed to the war effort but felt that they were not sufficiently compensated. Eventually, this discontent descended into all out lawlessness, as bands of akutō (“evil bands”) roamed the countryside demanding land and lower taxes (Huffman 41-2).

In 1330, power is restored to the emperor in the Kemmu Restoration and, with the initial help of formerly-exiled emperor Godaigo, the Ashikaga family drives the Hōjō from power and sets up a new capital in the Muromachi area of Kyoto. Since the Ashikaga lack any great power of their own, however, they rely on alliances with regional lords (daimyo). Ashikaga Yoshimitsu also establishes a tributary trade relationship with China and in return receives the title “King of Japan.” Trade with the Chinese Ming Dynasty continued to flourish for 150 years afterward.

Yet the Ashikaga’s reliance on alliances with the daimyō and the failure to decide the next Shogun eventually resulted in the Ōnin Upheaval (Ōnin no ran) from 1467 to 1477. During this state of turmoil, which Huffman calls “an orgy of violence” (44), Kyoto is essentially destroyed, the imperial family is reduced to poverty, and the Ashikaga are rendered powerless. In the resulting power vacuum, the daimyo attempt to strengthen their own positions vis-à-vis their competitors in a state of nearly constant warfare known as the Sengoku Period (1467-1603).

In fact, there were many cultural and economic developments during the Sengoku Period. Daily life for average people become better with advances in health, medicine, and improved agriculture techniques. The country become even further integrated through a system of roads which linked the many castle towns that sprung up under the rule of the daimyo. Regional lords also conducted trade with China, Southeast Asia, and Okinawa during this period, and private trade flourished, too (Huffman, 45-7).

Read the above summary as well as the Huffman text. Next, answer the reading analysis questions from the handout.

Battle at Awazuhara" from The Tale of Heike. Accessed at

De Bary, Wm Theodore de, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley. Sources of
Japanese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600. Columbia University
Press, 2010

Columbia University. East Asia for Educators. "Excerpts from The Tale of  the Heike." Accessed 

Huffman, James L. Japan in World History. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Popular Posts