Hōjō Family Dominates Shoguns, Rules Japan Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Hōjō family gained control over the shoguns, reducing them to figureheads while increasing the power and prestige of the office of shogun.

Summary of Event

The position of shogun was not important politically until 1185, when Minamoto Yoritomo Minamoto Yoritomo defeated the Taira family in the Gempei War (1180-1185) Gempei War (1180-1185) . Before 1185, political power had been centered in the imperial court in Kyoto, where, since 600, the emperor had been reduced to a figurehead controlled by families at court. The position of sei-i-tai shōgun (“great barbarian-subduing general”) had existed since the 640’s as a title conferred by the emperor on a warrior who fought on the Japanese frontier (the area around present-day Tokyo), defending Japan from hostile tribes. Shogun was an honorary position, not a politically powerful one. [kw]Hōjō Family Dominates Shoguns, Rules Japan[Hojin] (1219-1333) [kw]Shoguns, Rules Japan, Hōjō Family Dominates (1219-1333) [kw]Japan, Hōjō Family Dominates Shoguns, Rules (1219-1333) Hōjō family[Hojo family] Japan;1219-1333: Hōjō Family Dominates Shoguns, Rules Japan[2290] Government and politics;1219-1333: Hōjō Family Dominates Shoguns, Rules Japan[2290] Minamoto Yoritomo Hōjō Masako Hōjō Yoshitoki Minamoto Yoriie Minamoto Sanetomo

When new territory in the northern half of the main island of Honshū was added to the kingdom after 900, the court had less control of this newly settled region. That land and its agricultural resources were controlled by warrior families who lived there. In fact, the imperial court increasingly called on these families for services it could not provide, such as protection of property and policing. Around 900, a professional warrior class made of samurai Samurai began to evolve within these northern warrior families. However, these samurai were seen as crude and vulgar and were generally not accepted socially by the court aristocracy. The Taira family was one of these frontier samurai families, but by 1168, some of its members had managed to find a place for themselves in the sophisticated culture of court life in Kyoto and, using their wealth and military resources, had gained control of the imperial system. They lost that control when long-standing disputes between the Minamoto Minamoto family , another northern samurai family, and the Taira Taira family came to a head in the Gempei War.





During the war, Minamoto Yoritomo began to work on a system for controlling Japan. Unlike the Taira, Yoritomo did not care for life at the imperial court; in fact, he saw it as perilous to the vigor of his samurai family and regime and avoided it whenever possible. When he implemented his government, he located its headquarters at a distance from the court in Kyoto, in the town of Kamakura Kamakura shogunate , on the coast southeast of present-day Tokyo.

All positions in Yoritomo’s government were filled by the samurai class. He developed a central administration in Kamakura with regional commanders (shugo) and local land stewards (jitō) throughout Japan. These positions coexisted with the imperial administration. Originally, the imperial administration dealt with civil matters, and the shugo and jitō dealt with military affairs, but the military bureaucracy, directed from Kamakura, gradually gained political control. Yoritomo was the first person to understand that the samurai class could rule Japan without using the imperial government structure.

Yoritomo died in 1199 after being thrown from a horse. The question arose as to which son, Yoriie Minamoto Yoriie or Sanetomo, would succeed him. The first successor was Yoriie, who acted as shogun but was not officially appointed until 1202. Many in the shogun system doubted that the quick-tempered, headstrong Yoriie was a good choice. Yoritomo’s wife, Hōjō Masako Hōjō Masako , who came from a family of early supporters of the Minamoto, managed to have Yoriie “pushed” out of power in favor of her second son, Sanetomo Minamoto Sanetomo , in 1203. Yoriie died from a long illness in 1204, but many historians accuse his mother and her family of having ordered his murder. Sanetomo was assassinated in 1219, leaving no heirs. Again, many historians accuse his mother and her family of arranging the murder.

Masako and her father then conspired to have Minamoto nephews and cousins appointed shogun and for the Hōjō family to serve them as regents. Masako and her brother Hōjō Yoshitoki Hōjō Yoshitoki managed to quiet the disputes within the Kamakura system and secured permanent control of the shoguns. By 1219, shoguns were mere figureheads controlled behind the scenes by Hōjō regents. In fact, the shoguns were not even direct descendants of Minamoto Yoritomo because Sanetomo had been the last direct heir. It was Masako and Yoshitoki who later engineered the Hōjō regency’s victory in the Jōkyū War (1221) Jōkyū War (1221)[Jokyu War (1221)] , a last effort by Emperor Go-Toba Go-Toba and his supporters to reassert imperial authority. Masako is credited with changing the Hōjō strategy from a defensive posture to an offensive one, which won the war. The Hōjō continued to control shoguns until events weakened their grasp and they were driven from power in 1333.

It is ironic that under the Hōjō, the person chosen as shogun lost political power while the office of shogun increased in power and prestige. Minamoto Yoritomo had been appointed sei-i-tai shōgun by the emperor in 1192, but he resigned from the office in 1195 to become military director, a position he felt was more important. While Yoritomo did not see the position of shogun as particularly powerful, it was the one position the Hōjō could control. Therefore, to rule Japan from behind the scenes, they had to imbue the office with more power and prestige.

In theory, the emperor of Japan was the source of all political power. He was also the source of all moral and religious authority and was officially proclaimed a “god on earth” in the 640’. The moral and religious authority of the emperor was considered more important than his political authority and involved the emperor’s conducting elaborate and almost constant rituals and pilgrimages for the good of his subjects. To perform these religious functions, the emperor delegated his political authority to administrators who oversaw the mundane tasks of ruling Japan. For the Hōjō, the appointment of shoguns by the emperor was the official delegation of political authority for the shogun to rule Japan. This ideology was used by the Ashikaga (1338-1573) and further elaborated by the Tokugawa (1603-1867) as the basis of their right to rule until it was undermined by imperial supporters in the mid-1800’.


The combination of Minamoto Yoritomo’s government structure and the Hōjō’s efforts to strengthen the position of shogun became the basis of Japanese government. The golden age of the shogun system came during the rule of the Tokugawa family, 1603 to 1867. The Tokugawa period saw the height of premodern Japan’s prosperity and contained a span of more than two hundred years when Japan was not involved in any wars, domestic or foreign.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mass, Jeffrey. The Development of Kamakura Rule, 1180-1250. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1979. Mass is an American pioneer in the study of medieval Japanese history. This volume (one of four concerning the Kamakura shogunate) deals with a major conflict, the Jōkyū War (1221), and justice in the Kamakura system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mulhern, Chieko Irie, ed. Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1991. Margaret Fukuzawa Benton’s article on Hōjō Masako is the best source in English about the woman and her actions in the rise of the Hōjō family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perkins, George W., trans. The Clear Mirror: A Chronicle of the Japanese Court During the Kamakura Period, 1185-1333. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Although this account is focused on the imperial court, it does shed light on the actions of the major players in Kamakura and Hōjō Japan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruch, Barbara, ed. Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2002. Martin Collcutt’s article on Hōjō Masako covers political events and also studies her religious faith after she took tonsure as a Buddhist nun following Minamoto Yoritomo’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. Contains what is still the most detailed account of this period and its impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Souyri, Pierre Francois. The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society. Translated by Käthe Roth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Discusses the Hōjō period while exploring the sweeping changes in Japan during the period from 1185 to the late 1500’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yamamura, Kozo, ed. The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. 3. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A good general introduction to Japanese history with articles written by major historians. The article by Jeffrey Mass discusses the institutions created by Minamoto Yoritomo, particularly the shugo and jitō. The article by Ishii Susumu discusses the events and actions that led to the fall of the Hōjō.

Categories: History