Southern Court

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  • Japanese: 南朝 (nanchô)

The Southern Court was one of two rival imperial courts which during the Nanbokuchô period ("period of Northern and Southern Courts") of the 14th-15th centuries claimed to be the one and only legitimate imperial court in Japan. For much of the 14th century, while one emperor continued to rule in Kyoto, a second emperor from a closely-related rival lineage ruled in Yoshino, to the south of Kyoto. While the Kyoto-based "Northern Court" enjoyed the support of the Muromachi shogunate (also based in Kyoto), this Yoshino-based "Southern Court" was supported by many of the powerful samurai families of Kyushu, and maintained a headquarters in Kyushu known as the Seiseifu (headquarters for the subjugation of the west) which had a mutually supportive relationship with various wakô groups.


The Northern and Southern Courts were born out of a short-lived alternation between two imperial lineages known as the Daikakuji and Jimyôin lines. Over the course of the 13th century, the Imperial succession came to be divided, or confused, with some emperors being descended from Emperor Go-Fukakusa (r. 1246-1259), and some emperors descended from Go-Fukakusa's younger brother, Emperor Kameyama (r. 1259-1274). Combined with the practice of emperors abdicating and retiring, a situation emerged in which multiple retired emperors were concurrently active in Court politics, multiple of whom had first sons with legitimate claims to the succession.

The descendants of Emperor Go-Fukakusa, including Emperor Fushimi, came to be known as the Jimyô-in line, while the descendants of his brother Emperor Kameyama, including Emperor Go-Uda and, later, Emperor Go-Nijô, came to be known as the Daikaku-ji line. In 1297, the Kamakura shogunate created a succession dispute by interfering with the succession and asserting that Emperor Go-Uda should abdicate in favor of his cousin Emperor Fushimi, against the wishes of the Retired Emperor Kameyama. This dispute was quickly resolved by a compromise, however, and for the next several decades, from 1297 until 1334, the imperial succession alternated between these two lineages.

Emperor Go-Daigo, seeking the restoration of fuller imperial power and the weakening or elimination of the shogunate, however, attempted to put an end to this system. Taking up residence in Yoshino, he gathered supporters around him and asserted the illegitimacy of his rivals still ruling in Kyoto (and supported by the newly-founded Muromachi shogunate).

Though the conflict between the Northern and Southern Courts may have been at its core one of rival claims to the imperial throne, the conflict extended physically, politically, and geographically far beyond the boundaries of genealogical charts or the walls of Kyoto-area palaces. Each side enjoyed the support of numerous powerful samurai families, and as a result, each "Court" could claim fortresses (castles) and considerable swaths of territory as "belonging to" or being loyal to that Court. Numerous battles were fought not only in the capital region but across various areas of the archipelago, between supporters of the two rival Courts.

While some significant branches of the Shimazu clan supported the Northern Court, the Southern Court enjoyed the support of many powerful Kyushu houses, including some members of the Shimazu, as well as the Kimotsuki, Nawa, Kikuchi, and Murakami clans, as well as the Kitabatake clan of Ise province. The Date and Utsunomiya clans supported the Southern Court initially, but later turned to support the Northern Court.

Prince Kaneyoshi, son of Emperor Go-Daigo and head of the Seiseifu on his behalf, was a particularly prominent agent of the Southern Court. Based at the Dazaifu from 1360 to 1372, and in various locations around Kyushu after that, Kaneyoshi (d. 1383) and his son & successor Prince Yoshinari supported and were supported by numerous wakô groups, who contributed significantly to supplying and funding Southern Court armies with loot raided from Korean coastal communities and elsewhere. Kaneyoshi also briefly received investiture as "King of Japan" from the Ming court, authorizing him to engage in official trade with China, and establishing himself in some sense as head of a (quasi-)independent state in Kyushu.

End of the Southern Court, and Revival

Following the fall of the Southern Court, many of its wakô allies fled south, into the Ryûkyû Islands and elsewhere, seeking both to escape from the forces of the reunited imperial court and the Muromachi shogunate, and to find new bases from which to continue their maritime activities.

The Nanbokuchô period is generally said to end in 1392, with the end of multiple rival emperors and the reunification of imperial authority in a single lineage. However, the Southern Court was revived in 1414, when Emperor Go-Kameyama fled Kyoto and took up residence in Yoshino. Supporters of the Southern Court reemerged and participated in various skirmishes or conflicts in the 1420s-1430s; some wakô associated with the Seiseifu may have returned to Japan during this time as well. In 1443, supporters of the Southern Court even got their hands on Yasakani no magatama (the royal "jewel"), one of the three Imperial Regalia or "Imperial Treasures." Though these supporters suffered a major defeat only three years later in 1446, and challenges from Yoshino quieted down completely by 1470, in the intervening time, the Southern Court or its supporters continued to play an active role in the region.[1]

The Dai Nihon Shi ("Great Japan History") produced by the Mito school scholars of the 17th to early 20th centuries, takes the Southern Court as the legitimate imperial line and ends its narrative of the history of the imperial line and of "Japan" with the events of 1392.[2]

Emperors of the Southern Court


  1. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 59.
  2. Schirokauer, et al., A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 146.; Luke Roberts, Performing the Great Peace, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 167-168, 173.