Yoshino Civil Wars

The emperor Go-Daigo, working with one of the shogunate’s generals, Ashikaga Takauji, tried to seize power from the Minamoto shogunate and the Hōjō regents. However, Ashikaga turned against Go-Daigo, forcing him to flee to Yoshino, and then set up another emperor in the capital, initiating more than fifty years of civil war between the two factions.

Summary of Event

As a result of the Gempei War (1180-1185) Gempei War (1180-1185) between the powerful Minamoto Minamoto family and Taira Taira family families, the victorious Minamoto superseded the power of the imperial family and formed what was essentially the first military government in Japanese history. However, the power of the Minamoto shogunate was short-lived. The Hōjō Hōjō family[Hojo family] , another powerful warrior family with marriage ties to the Minamoto, managed to gain power over the shogunate and began to exercise power from behind the scenes. The Hōjō were so powerful that they even able to go so far as to appoint shoguns and imperial successors. [kw]Yoshino Civil Wars (1336-1392)
[kw]Civil Wars, Yoshino (1336-1392)
[kw]Wars, Yoshino Civil (1336-1392)
Yoshino Civil Wars (1336-1392)
Japan;1336-1392: Yoshino Civil Wars[2770]
Government and politics;1336-1392: Yoshino Civil Wars[2770]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1336-1392: Yoshino Civil Wars[2770]
Ashikaga Takauji
Kusunoki Masashige
Kusunoki Masatsura
Nitta Yoshisada

This state of affairs continued until the fourteenth century, when, in 1326, the emperor Go-Daigo Go-Daigo insisted on his right to appoint his own son as heir to the throne against the wishes of the Hōjō family. Go-Daigo had many allies among the warrior families, who were not satisfied with the conduct of the Hōjō and desired change. The failure to provide adequate rewards to soldiers who defended Japan during the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281 had damaged the prestige of the Hōjō and the shogunate in general.

In 1331, the Hōjō, desperate to preserve their power, acted by sending troops to Kyoto in an attempt to force Go-Daigo’s abdication. Go-Daigo, unprepared to mount a defense despite the support of several capable generals such as Kusunoki Masashige Kusunoki Masashige , fled the capital and took refuge on Mount Kasagi. He was captured, however, and exiled to the Island of Oki in 1332. The exile was short-lived, as Go-Daigo succeeded in escaping in 1333. By June of that year, he was restored to Kyoto, thanks to the efforts of Ashikaga Takauji Ashikaga Takauji , a general sent by the Hōjō to chastise Go-Daigo but who switched sides and began to campaign in support of the emperor. Takauji destroyed the Hōjō in the shogunate capital, Kamakura, but once again switched sides, this time turning against Go-Daigo in an attempt to seize power for himself. The period from 1333 to 1336, when Go-Daigo had reestablished imperial control is known as the Kemmu Restoration Kemmu Restoration .

Takauji sought the title of shogun, which could be conferred only by imperial decree, and he concluded that the best way to arrange this was to chase Go-Daigo into exile and place a puppet emperor on the throne. In early 1336, this plan came to fruition, and Go-Daigo was again forced to flee from the capital. Takauji installed an emperor of his choosing in Kyoto, while Go-Daigo attempted to build a power base to the south of the city. This chain of events marked the beginning of the period of the Northern and Southern Courts Northern and Southern Courts (Japan) (Nanboku-cho; 1336-1392) and a civil war that would drag on for more than fifty years.

In 1336, Takauji used his control over the imperial court at Kyoto to rally support against those loyal to Go-Daigo. He was especially successful in gaining support form several smaller warrior families on the island of Kyushu. When traveling back to Kyoto along the coast of the Inland Sea, Takauji’s army was confronted by the loyalist forces at Minatogawa. Go-Daigo’s armies were led by the generals Nitta Yoshisada Nitta Yoshisada and Kusunoki Masashige Kusunoki Masashige . Kusunoki, in particular, knew that this battle was a lost cause, and his death in the fighting came to be held as the pinnacle of loyalty to the throne. In line with Kusunoki’s prediction, the battle was a decisive victory for the Ashikaga forces. Kusunoki Masashige was killed in the fighting but Nitta as well as Kusunoki’s son Masatsura Kusunoki Masatsura managed to escape and continued the resistance against the Ashikaga.

Go-Daigo fled to the mountains of Yoshino to the south of Kyoto, where he endeavored to continue his reign despite the military pressure of the Ashikaga. The Ashikaga continued to appoint a series of puppet emperors in Kyoto and during this period of civil war, Japan had a pair of imperial courts.

Takauji continued to increase his power and, in 1338, took the title of shogun that was previously held by the Minamoto. Also in that year, Nitta, the leader of the loyalist forces, was killed. Go-Daigo died the following year while in exile. These setbacks were tremendous but did not immediately defeat the loyalist cause. Go-Daigo was succeeded by the twelve-year-old Go-Murakami, and Kusanoki Masatsura became leader of the loyalist armies and continued to carry out guerrilla-style raids against the Ashikaga forces until he was killed in battle in 1348. This marked the end of serious loyalist resistance, although several warrior families continued to fight for the court, more out of a desire for conquered land than sincere loyalty.

The Yoshino court was able to sustain itself during this period by playing one warrior family off against another, but it never restored the type of military power that it had during the lifetime of Go-Daigo, and its influence never extended beyond its immediate environs. The real center of power in Japan continued to be the Ashikaga stronghold at the capital of Kyoto. This state of affairs continued until the southern court surrendered without violence in 1392.


The important immediate impact of the war between the northern and southern courts was the consolidation of power in the hands of the Ashikaga family. The shogunate under Takauji’s grandson, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (ruled 1368-1394), is considered a high point in the development of Japanese culture. Yoshimitsu was known as a patron of art, architecture, religion, and drama. He reopened trade with China, once again allowing continental influences to enter Japanese cultural circles and accelerating economic development.

Despite this short period of prosperity, this period of civil strife undermined the ordered system of government and land distribution that had been built up under the Minamoto shoguns and the Hōjō regents. The Ashikaga were able to maintain their influence over the court and the surrounding area of central Japan for more than one hundred years, but they were never able to fully control the disparate warrior clans that continued to consolidate their power at the local level at the expense of central authority. This failing of the Ashikaga power structure led to the family becoming little more than puppets by the late fifteenth century, and the emperors that they controlled became the pawns of pawns. This chaotic situation ushered in the century-long period of civil war known as the Warring States period Warring States period (Japan) (also known as the Sengoku period; 1476-1615).

The war between the northern and southern courts had a great impact on Japanese literature and culture. The struggles of Go-Daigo and Kusunoki Masashige were immortalized in one of the most enduringly popular Japanese historical chronicles, the Taiheiki (c. 1330’-1370’; The Taiheiki
Taiheiki, The , 1959), which ironically translates as “record of the great peace.” Other writings, such as those of Go-Daigo’s supporter Kitabatake Chikifusa, sketched out an emperor-centered vision of Japanese history, one that would become an increasingly important part of Japanese thought in the future. Literature;Japan

In addition, the battles of this period proved to be a model of the virtues of loyalty and sincerity in later Japanese history. Kusunoki Masashige has been an exceedingly popular historical figure. During the period of ultra-nationalism before and during World War II, Kusunoki was famous as a symbol of loyalty to the throne, and the tactics that he used in defending it were cited as an influence by the army and navy officers who planned the war against the Western powers.

Further Reading

  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan from 1334-1615. Vol. 2. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1962. The second volume of Sansom’s three-volume study of Japanese history remains a detailed and authoritative work on the subject.
  • Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai. New York: Overlook Press, 1995. Contains a great deal of information concerning the samurai tradition, including selections from The Taiheiki and other original sources concerning the period of the Yoshino Civil Wars.

  • The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan. Translated by Helen Craig McCullough. 1959. Reprint. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1979. A translation of the most important contemporary account of the Yoshino Civil Wars.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook. New York: Arms and Armour, 1999. This work provides detailed information concerning the weapons and tactics employed during the Yoshino Civil Wars.