Kamakura shogunate

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  • Dates: 1192-1333
  • Japanese: 鎌倉幕府 (Kamakura bakufu)

The Kamakura shogunate was the first of three shogunates to govern Japan. Based at Kamakura, roughly 30 miles southwest of the villages that would later develop into Edo and then Tokyo, the Kamakura shogunate was founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo following his victory over the Taira clan in the Genpei War of 1180-1185.

This first shogunate left much intact from the preceding Imperial period, including tax structures and the system of shôen, or private estates. The bakufu was a rather small government, with only three offices: one administering and enforcing shogunate policy, one overseeing shogunal retainers, and one which dealt with judicial matters. Shôen holders continued to enjoy their tax exemptions, collecting and keeping taxes within their own lands, and taxes likewise continued to be collected in much the same way as they had been under the Heian court, with a portion of the taxes going to the shogunate and its retainers, and the remainder going to the Imperial Court. Shogunal retainers are believed to have numbered only around 2,000 in the period from 1185-1221, and around 3,000 afterwards. The total population of the archipelago may have been around 9.75 million in 1300.[1]

The Imperial Court retained considerable power during this period, with some scholars describing the Kamakura period as one of dual governance. While the shogunate appointed military governors (shugo) and stewards (jitô) to the provinces, the Court continued to appoint civil governors (kokushi), who also worked to govern these regions and to collect taxes; the Court also continued to exercise more direct control over the areas around Kyoto. Powerful Buddhist temples, retired emperors, and court nobles also continued to wield considerable wealth and influence.

Following Yoritomo's death in 1199, his widow Hôjô Masako and her father Hôjô Tokimasa seized power over the shogunate, by establishing a hereditary claim on the position of shogunal regent (shikken). Yoritomo was succeeded as shogun by his son Minamoto no Yoriie, and then by his other son, Minamoto no Sanetomo, who was assassinated in 1219, marking the end of less than thirty-five years of Minamoto rule. For the remainder of the Kamakura period, members of the court aristocracy, or imperial princes, served as shogun.

During this time, was not uncommon for women in samurai families to be trained in archery and other martial arts, and to enjoy considerable legal rights on a par with men, including the ability to inherit and own property; in a few cases, women even inherited formal titles and posts. As the importance of military service and warrior mentality more generally gained strength, however, women began to lose such legal privileges, and began to be pushed into a more domestic role. As the size and strength of a family's land holdings became more important, the practice of dividing one's land among all of one's sons and daughters was replaced with the practice of male primogeniture, in which the eldest son (or son-in-law, adopted as heir) inherited all.

The shogunate successfully suppressed an Imperial attempt to overthrow it in 1221, but was significantly weakened in the wake of two failed attempts by the Mongols to invade Japan. Though the Mongol invasions were unsuccessful, the shogunate's defense efforts incurred considerable expenses, and, the defeat of the Mongols left little by way of spoils of war to be given to those who fought, in return for their service.

The Kamakura period came to an end as the forces of Emperor Go-Daigo, led by samurai Ashikaga Takauji, rose up against the shogunate, attracting many of the shogunate's own vassals to the Emperor's side and putting an end to Hôjô rule in 1333. The Emperor's restoration of Imperial rule was short-lived, however, as Ashikaga Takauji betrayed him, setting up his own shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto, marking the beginning of the Muromachi shogunate.

Kamakura Shoguns

Preceded by:
Heian Period
Kamakura Shogunate
Succeeded by:
Kemmu Restoration


  • Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 35-41.
  1. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 410.