Kamakura Period in the Japanese History

Published 26 Apr 2017

Before describing the history of the Kamakura period, it is reasonable to talk about the social conditions that were created by the samurai class. It was called Bakufu government. Among the newly emerged class of samurai in the province were two names – Minamoto and Taira clan, which had a huge dominance in the western and eastern districts of Nippon. Since Nipponians always had respect for the Imperial Dynasty, the names of Taira and Minamoto, derived from the lateral lines of the Imperial House, were more respected than other families, and they were accustomed to look at them as the focus of the unity of their class in their respective spheres of dominance. The internecine wars of the Hoheng and Heiji periods contributed to the outreach of these clans.

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These wars occurred as a result of the internal struggle in the name of Fujiwara because of questions related to the Imperial succession, and the fighting parties took advantage of the armed strength of the samurai. The internal political situation of the notables turned out to be completely dependent on the samurai. After 1160, Fujiwara no longer possessed power, and Minamoto also weakened, and their most significant soldiery leaders were killed; the surname of Taira reached uncontested power when her leader Kanemori was appointed in 1165 to the high political post of Dad-zyo-Daidzin. However, their domination was not lasting. Meanwhile, Minamoto again gathered strength, and the great leader Yoritomo led them, who overthrew Taira and adjusted political control over the whole country. Taira fought under the red banner, and their rivals – under the white. The war was fought throughout Nippon bravely and mercilessly until the forces of Taira were destroyed in a decisive naval battle in 1175 near Dannour near the present Shimonoseki. The great victory at Dannour provided Minamoto with undisputed power. Their leader Yoritomo declared Kamakura the political center of his regime where his ancestors lived for a long time and gave the samurai class the opportunity to develop a strong soldiery tradition free from the sophistication of Heian Kyo. To strengthen his newly acquired power and sustain the imperial dominance, Yoritomo established new military and managerial apparatus comprising three main bodies. It includes soldiery, managerial and judicial branches. Samuraidokoro, a kind of disciplinary court, was in charge of soldiery affairs and police duties. The managerial body was called Kumondzo. They were not new institutions peculiar to the new feudal regime but were modeled after the institutions by which the Heian notables managed their estates. However, the judiciary of Monchuzzo was a new institution. It was a tribunal for the final settlement of cases that could not be resolved locally. In addition to the soldiery, managerial and judicial branches of the polity, new bodies have been set up, for example, various Kuji-bugyo, appointed by the new regime to perform various police functions. The organization of these new bodies in different parts of the country testifies to the gradual strengthening and dissemination of the power of the new order.

The growth and dissemination of the Kamakura regime had as a consequence a general shock to the old social and economic system and caused a serious confusion in the souls and minds of those whose existence was wholly dependent on the previous order. The disturbing changes created widespread pessimism. People with despair watched as the lands passed into other hands and their economic grounds disappeared before their eyes; they came to the conviction that the last days had come and the end of the world is near. This pessimistic mood began towards the end of the Heian period, but became predominant in the Kamakura period, when the old order began to crumble with the rise of the samurai. The notables in Heian Kyo believed that all sorrows were the result of predestination. However, there was a common desire to really overcome these disasters. Among the capital’s nobility were supporters of the view that the best solution under these circumstances would be to establish cooperation with Kamakura.

The main feature of the Kamakura story is the complex relationships and interactions between the notables, the clergy, and the samurai. All war conflicts were the result of it. All the armed clashes that had occurred since the Genpei wars before the Shokuyu War were the result of frictions between these three influential groups, each possessing almost the same amount of land that was their economic base. A completely new class of usurers began to appear.

Notables, clergy, and samurai had the same source of existence; it was rice crops in their estates. However, when the circulation of money began, and the price of rice began to be expressed in money, price fluctuations began. To prevent price movement, the Imperial Court and the Kamakura regime took different measures, such as the determination of firm prices already at the very beginning of the Kamakura period, but as price fluctuations depended on the development of industry, these measures were unable to master the situation. Over time, this trend has become even more noticeable. Then the collection of land taxes in money instead of rice began. But due to price fluctuations, all those whose income depended on the land constantly met with the uncertainty of the economic situation that created a general concern. On the other hand, usurers have strengthened their importance in society, issuing loans for land support. Their affairs prospered, and the wealth grew.

There was another factor that contributed to the shock of the foundations of society. This was the law of the primogeniture, which was applied during this period and changed the usual order of inheritance. Since estates were bequeathed to the eldest son, the other members of the family had to rely only on their means of subsistence; this created family strife, a general economic frustration and led to civil wars.

These changes required a complete reorganization of society. The development of money economy, the growth of the authority of Kamakura, the constant transfer of lands into new hands and the law of primogeniture led to the wide spread of social unrest, since then there was no force capable of carrying out such a reorganization. Many turned into vagabonds, adventurers, and thieves; girls were sold into slavery. Due to these circumstances, the Kamakura period was a period of extreme need and suffering in Japanese history.

Such were the social conditions that gave rise to the new Buddhist movements. For example, the famous priests of Hohnen, Sinran, and Ippei maintained hope in the suffering masses, convincing them that although their present life is difficult and unsecured, they will be happy in the next life if they retain absolute faith in the Buddha. The spread of these religious movements was significant at that time. But it was not so easy to overcome the difficult reality.

When Nippon was engulfed by such social turmoil, Kublai, the great Mongol Khan, winner of half of Europe sent a large fleet with about tens of thousands of soldiers to invade this country. Immediately, all internal turmoil was abandoned. The whole people, as one person, rose to defend the Fatherland against a foreign conqueror. When the Mongols approached Nippon, the Nippon forces not only defended their shores but also rejected the attackers with great losses.

Since the Mongol invasions, the country has undergone many internal changes. The emergence of a class of moneylenders contributed to the rapid progress of trade and industry. Merchants and artisans organized associations to protect the interests of their members. Artisans were descendants of their remote ancestors Kakobe and were originally attached to the Imperial Court or to temples and monasteries, but when the rapid transfer of land from hand to hand began, and their existence became unsecured, they began to leave the estates and move to cities; there they worked for themselves and sometimes organized in cooperation, somewhat resembling workshops. Everyone was engaged in a single industry. Many of the surviving from that era products indicate the great art of artisans.

The causes of the decline of the Kamakura regime were not only social and economic: they were also included in the mental currents of the end of this period. The Heian notables, discouraged by the loss of land and dominance, plunged into pessimism and sought solace in Buddhism. However, at the same time, they continued to live in traditional interests, especially in the field of literature. Thanks to this study, they understood deeper how their ancestors lived and thought. The result was a revival of antiquity, a desire to return to the past. The Mongol invasions, which awakened a common desire for national preservation, stimulated nationalism, helped revive the traditional principle of the State. The teachings of Sun and Buddhist Zen sect, transferred from China, gave impetus to the Nippon mind and in their new environment contributed to the development of truly Nippon characters, complementing the theoretical basis of the Imperial principle. They have learned to study and think critically. Thus, a critical point of view was adjusted on the Kamakura regime, not only among the notables but also among its supporters. These mental currents crystallized in an in-depth understanding of the true relationship between the Sovereign and the subjects and in a certain decision to restore the traditional system of polity. One day an aspiration turned into practical action. The regime of Kamakura fell and Go-Daigo Tenno, who was in exile, was returned to the Imperial capital by his faithful supporters and took over all polity power.

Works Cited

Kamakura Kototen: Ima Kangaeru Nihon No Koto: Kamakura Kototen KirokushuÌ. Kamakura-Shi, Kamakura Kototen JikkoÌ Iinkai, 1990.

“Kamakura Period.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 July 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamakura_period. Accessed 20 July 2017.

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