Minamoto Yoritomo Becomes Shogun

In the mid-twelfth century, rival clans of provincial warriors challenged the court aristocracy for political dominance. The Taira first gained ascendancy, but Yoritomo’s Minamoto clan defeated the Taira in the Gempei War and established the shogunate in Kamakura, initiating seven centuries of feudal rule.

Summary of Event

Through the Heian period Heian period (794-1185), Japan’s monarchy weakened as Fujiwara regents and then retired emperors ruled in the emperor’s stead, and state income shrank as taxed farmlands were converted to tax-free estates (shōen). Shōen
Shōen[shoen] were privately governed and even had their own militia. Courtiers and temples that accumulated shōen paved the way for feudalism by depriving the central government of revenues and local authority while fostering a provincial warrior class independent of court control—a grave situation because the national conscript army was abolished early in the period. [kw]Minamoto Yoritomo Becomes Shogun (1156-1192)
[kw]Yoritomo Becomes Shogun, Minamoto (1156-1192)
[kw]Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo Becomes (1156-1192)
Minamoto Yoritomo
Kamakura shogunate
Japan;1156-1192: Minamoto Yoritomo Becomes Shogun[2010]
Government and politics;1156-1192: Minamoto Yoritomo Becomes Shogun[2010]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1156-1192: Minamoto Yoritomo Becomes Shogun[2010]
Taira Kiyomori
Minamoto Yoritomo
Hōjō Tokimasa
Minamoto Yoshinaka
Minamoto Yoshitsune

The warrior class was dominated by the Taira Taira family (Heike) and Minamoto Minamoto family (Genji) clans, both of royal descent. The Minamoto were dubbed the “tooth and claws of the Fujiwara” for helping them intimidate rivals and quell rebellions, but the court typically played the two clans off against one another. The Fujiwara’s dangerous game of using warriors for political muscle proved costly when two factions called warriors to the capital in 1156. The resulting Hōgen disturbance Hōgen disturbance (1156)[Hogen disturbance (1156)] was settled by a single battle, won by Minamoto Yoshitomo, who along with Taira Kiyomori Taira Kiyomori was among those defending Go-Shirakawa Go-Shirakawa , the reigning emperor, against the abdicated emperor Sutoku Sutoku (r. 1123-1142) and Minamoto Tameyoshi Minamoto Tameyoshi . Tameyoshi was executed; Sutoku was exiled.

Angered when the court promoted Kiyomori while slighting him and demanded capital punishment (unused for 350 years) of fifty “rebels,” including his father and brother, Yoshitomo attempted a coup (Heiji disturbance, 1159 Heiji disturbance (1159) ), with disaffected courtiers. He and his two eldest sons were killed. Yoritomo, the oldest surviving son at thirteen, was imprudently exiled to Izu, near many Minamoto chieftains. Hōjō Tokimasa Hōjō Tokimasa , his second warden, later allowed Yoritomo to wed his daughter Masako and became his vassal.

Kiyomori gradually strengthened his position, insinuating his family into the court, marrying one daughter to a Fujiwara regent and another to an emperor, and securing many Taira governorships. In 1179, after a plot against his family (Shishigatani affair, 1177) Shishigatani affair (1177) and Go-Shirakawa’s repossession of lands of two of Kiyomori’s deceased children, Kiyomori forcibly established dictatorial rule and installed his two-year-old grandson the emperor Antoku Antoku (r. 1180-1185).

Kiyomori’s arrogance provoked rebellion by a passed-over prince, Mochihito Mochihito , and an aging Minamoto courtier, Yorimasa Minamoto Yorimasa , initiating the Gempei War (1180-1185) Gempei War (1180-1185) . They soon died, but in Izu, Yoritomo took up Mochihito’s call to expel the Taira. Many Genji initially refused to join him. His small force was overwhelmed in his first battle (Ishibashiyama, Ishibashiyama, Battle of (1180) August, 1180). However, by converting former opponents and confirming the land holdings of recruits, he expanded his force dramatically. In his next and final engagement with the Taira (Fujigawa Fujigawa, Battle of (1180) , November, 1180), the Taira fled without a fight. He turned back to Kanto, coercing Genji holdouts to join him. At his new base, Kamakura, Kiyomori established the first of his governmental organs, the samurai dokoro
Samurai dokoro (office of samurai), through which he curbed warrior lawlessness and organized his forces. The fact that he would have several years to develop a de facto government in the east changed Japanese history.

Widespread famine and epidemics brought a two-year hiatus in the war. Its decisive phase began when Taira attacked Yoritomo’s cousin Minamoto Yoshinaka Minamoto Yoshinaka in Chubu (spring, 1183). A bold, skilled tactician who controlled five provinces and caused Yoritomo grave concern, Yoshinaka routed a larger Taira force and soon drove them from Kyoto. Urged by the court to pursue them, he dallied, fearful of Yoritomo. After unsuccessfully seeking an alliance with the Taira against him, Yoshinaka forced Go-Shirakawa to authorize an attack on Yoritomo. However, the retired emperor secretly appealed to Yoritomo, who sent an army under his half brothers Noriyori Minamoto Noriyori and Yoshitsune Minamoto Yoshitsune . They quickly crushed Yoshinaka and pressed west. When they attacked Ichinotani, Ichinotani, Battle of (1184) Yoshitsune, with seventy men, struck unexpectedly from steep mountains behind the startled Taira. In disarray, they fled to Shikoku (March, 1184).

Yoritomo (seated left), jealous of Yoshitsune’s generalship and popularity, turned on his brother.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Lacking boats to pursue them, it was six months before Yoritomo sent forces west under Noriyori, who was ineffective. However, Yoritomo created two more governing entities, a secretariat (kumonjo, later renamed mandokoro), headed by Ōe Hiromoto, and a judicial board (monchūjo), headed by Miyaoshi Yasunobu (November, 1184). These men were experienced Kyoto scholar-administrators who contributed much to the emerging bakufu
Bakufu (tent government), whose core institutions were now in place.

The Gempei War’s climax came when Yoritomo gave Yoshitsune a new army. Again audacious and strategically brilliant, Yoshitsune sailed to Shikoku in a storm with a modest force, surprising the Taira at Yashima. They fled by ship to the west. A month later, having assembled new allies and a fleet, he destroyed them at Dannoura, Dannoura, Battle of (1185) where Kiyomori’s emperor-grandson drowned at sea (April, 1185).

Shockingly, Yoritomo quickly turned on Yoshitsune. Envious of his generalship and popularity even after Ichinotani, Yoritomo had failed to reward him, though others far less deserving received governorships. Thereafter, Yoshitsune accepted court appointments from Go-Shirakawa without Yoritomo’s authorization, which Yoritomo had prohibited. Now Yoritomo ordered Yoshitsune to Kamakura, refused him entry, then sent him back to Kyoto, followed by an (inept) assassin. Forced to rebel, Yoshitsune was outlawed. A fugitive in the home provinces for many months, he found sanctuary in the north with Fujiwara Hidehira.

Before Yoshitsune’s flight, the court had authorized him to attack Yoritomo, who used this to shackle the court, demanding dismissal of those supporting the authorization, creation of a court advisory council chosen by him, and appointment of his friend Fujiwara Kanezane Fujiwara Kanezane as imperial adviser. More significant, on the pretext of the danger posed by Yoshitsune, Yoritomo gained power to appoint provincial constables (shugo) and estate stewards (jitō), and to impose a 2 percent land tax. These measures helped finance the bakufu and extend its local control, though placement of these officials was gradual. The final use Yoritomo made of Yoshitsune was to attack his hosts, the Ōshū Fujiwara, with a huge army after coercing them to exact his suicide. Because new western vassals were asked to demonstrate their loyalty by joining this campaign, it gave Yoritomo both control of northern Japan and a firmer grip on the west. Go-Shirakawa died in 1192. Unchallenged at court, Kanezane persuaded boy-emperor Go-Toba Go-Toba (r. 1183-1198) to grant Yoritomo what Go-Shirakawa had long denied: the title of shōgun (generalissimo; August, 1192). Thus, the bakufu became the shogunate, an institution that endured until 1867.

Having executed Noriyori a year later on trumped up charges, Yoritomo left no adult male relatives when he died at age fifty-two. His two immature sons were pushed aside and eventually murdered. His father-in-law, Hōjō Tokimasa, became shogunal regent, a position also held by his son and a succession of members of the Hōjō family Hōjō family[Hojo family] , one of the most competent political families in Japanese history.

Eventually, court aristocrats (1219), then princes (1252) were made figurehead shogun. The last significant expansion of Kamakura’s power over the court followed Go-Toba’s quixotic rebellion in 1221. Once crushed, the Hōjō confiscated many shōen from complicit court families, extended the jitō system throughout Japan, and established the Hōjō-manned office of deputy shogun in Kyoto, rendering the court politically inconsequential.


Yoritomo’s establishment of the Kamakura shogunate (1185-1333) marked a permanent power shift to provincial warriors and their feudal lords in Kamakura. While court culture remained seductive to military chieftains, courtiers never regained political power. Though Yoritomo revolutionized Japan, politically his instincts were conservative. He was outwardly pious, lavishly supported religious institutions, and respected the court as a source of legitimacy. Moreover, the bakufu’s central organs were not new, being modeled on the private “house offices” though which the Fujiwara governed their shōen and retired emperors ruled the late Heian court.

Ruthless with potential rivals and particularly appalling in his treatment of the most brilliant general in Japanese history, his brother Yoshitsune, Yoritomo earned little love from his countrymen. However, he gave the warrior class discipline, reasonable justice, and the personal and property security that were the cornerstones of feudalism. His was the strongest national government Japan had yet achieved—one that would successfully rebuff two invasions by the mighty Mongol Empire (1274 and 1281). Warrior rule endured seven centuries, and the values of the bushi (warriors) remain prominent in contemporary Japan.

Further Reading

  • Mass, Jeffrey P. Warrior Government in Early Medieval Japan: A Study of the Kamakura Bakufu, Shugo, and Jitō. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. A solid analysis of the regime Yoritomo established.
  • Mass, Jeffrey P. Yoritomo and the Founding of the First Bakufu. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Revisionist work stressing Yoritomo’s conservatism and the slow implementation of his system.
  • Mass, Jeffrey P, ed. Court and Bakufu in Japan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Valuable on post-Yoritomo Kamakura Japan.
  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Vol. 1. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. A well-written, insightful classic.
  • Shinoda, Minoru. The Founding of the Kamakura Shogunate, 1180-1185, with Selected Translations from the Azuma Kagami. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. Fine history of the Gempei War and the bakufu’s genesis.
  • Sugawara Makoto, “Bushidō.” The East 16-19 (1980-1983). Interesting, very detailed narrative based on Japanese historical documents.

  • The Tale of the Heike. Translated by Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. A translation of the famous war epic by a respected scholar of classical Japanese. Contains an introduction by the translator that sets the literary work within the historical context.