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Minamoto no Yoritomo
(1147-1199)

By J. Gilbert

Minamoto no Yoritomo was the first Seii Taishôgun and while his personal dynasty would not last long the system of government and the way of life he founded would endure until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Yoritomo was born a scion of one of the ancient houses. Minamoto no Yoritomo was born in 1147, the third son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Fujiwara no Saneori, in the capital of Kyoto. Yoshitomo was the heir of the Seiwa Genji branch of the Minamoto Clan, and Saneori was a daughter of the powerful Fujiwara regents. When Yoritomo was still young (in 1156) a civil war broke out between the members of the Imperial Clan of Yamato. On one side were Retired Emperor Toba and his son Emperor Go-Shirakawa, supported by Fujiwara no Tadamichi and Taira no Kiyomori, on the other was Retired Emperor Sutoku, supported by Fujiwara no Yorinaga. This civil war is known as the Hôgen Disturbance. Unfortunately the entire Minamoto Clan split on whom to side with, even down to the Seiwa Genji. Yoritomo’s grandfather and the leader of the Seiwa Genji, Minamoto no Tameyoshi, sided with Retired Emperor Sutoku. But Yoshitomo sided with Retired Emperor Toba and Go-Shirakawa. In the end it was Go-Shirakawa’s faction that won the civil war and his champion, Taira no Kiyomori, rewarded all supporters handsomely. This included Yoritomo’s father, who got the leadership of the Seiwa Genji upon Tameyoshi’s execution. In 1158 at the age of 12 Yoritomo was given his first Imperial Court title, on the basis of his Imperial blood (the Seiwa Genji could trace their lineage to Emperor Seiwa, 858-876 AD) and his mother’s family political maneuvering. But things soon took a turn for the worse when in 1159 another civil war broke out, called the Heiji Disturbance. In this war was newly crowned Emperor Nijo, supported by Taira no Kiyomori and Fujiwara no Nobuyori on one side. On the other side was Nijo’s father, Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, supported by Minamoto Yoshitomo and Fujiwara no Tadamichi. This war went badly for the Minamoto clan and all supporters of Go-Shirakawa were hunted down and executed, including Yoritomo’s father. In 1160 Taira no Kiyomori had the now 13 year old Yoritomo exiled to Izu in the Kanto Plains, then under the control of the Hojo Clan. Kiyomori also had Yoritomo’s two half brothers, Noriyori and Yoshitune exiled, the rest of the Seiwa Genji who sided with Yoshitomo perished. Yoritomo and his brothers would not return to Kyoto for 20 years.

Now in exile the Taira watched Yoritomo’s every move. Upon reaching Izu Yoritomo was forced to adapt and grow up in an environment which was rustic and very rugged. However Yoritomo would not spend his entire time in Izu, for before long it was discovered he had gotten his jailer’s, Ito Sukechika, daughter pregnant and the indignant father ran him out of Izu. Yoritomo was forced to wander and eventually came upon Hojo Tokimasa, the lord of the Kanto Plains. Tokimasa, who had no love for the Taira and was constantly looking for ways to undermine them, took in Yoritomo with open arms. In 1179 it was discovered that Yoritomo had been carrying on an affair with Hojo Masako, Tokimasa’s daughter. But Tokimasa was not indignant, but had been looking to forge stronger ties with Yoritomo. In 1180 he had Masako’s current fiancé, a staunchly pro-Taira governor assassinated and Yoritomo wed Masako. Meanwhile things were beginning to shake up in Kyoto.

 Tired of the abuses of Taira no Kiyomori, the Imperial Court looked for a champion. While Yoritomo forged a strong alliance with the Hojo relations between Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa and Taira no Kiyomori had reached the boiling point. The action responsible for this was Taira no Kiyomori’s blatant abuse of power when he placed his one year old grandson Tokihito on the Imperial Throne as Emperor Antoku. For Prince Mochihito and his father Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa this was the last straw. Mochihito issued a nation wide call to arms against the Taira clan, and it was the Minamoto who were first to answer. Before long Minamoto Yorimasa, a distant relative of Yoritomo, joined with Prince Mochihito and together they marched towards Kyoto. The two are killed and their forces defeated at the battle of Uji in June, 1180. This event marks the beginning of the five year long Gempei War .By September word had reached Yoritomo of the revolt and he rose in revolt himself from his center of power at Izu. All over the Kanto Plains war breaks out as the clans of the Kanto divide over who to support. Then in February 1181 Taira no Kiyomori dies, and his son Taira no Munemori takes command, it is the beginning of the end for the Taira. By the spring of 1181 most of the great families of the Kanto have aligned behind Yoritomo, despite his defeat at the hands of Oba Kagechika late the previous year. Following this Yoritomo sets up his base of power at Kamakura (10 miles south of modern Tokyo) and contents himself with consolidating his power in the Kanto. Meanwhile the death of Yorimasa had thrown the leadership of the Minamoto into chaos and Yoritomo makes a bid for control. He finally does establish a measure of control by founding a Samurai-Dokoro (English: Board of Retainers) but not all of his relatives agree with him. In mid 1181 Yoritomo offers peace to the Taira in exchange for recognized control of the Eastern Provinces. The reason for this offer has been debated by historians ever since the event, since Yoritomo was secure from Taira attack in the Kanto, it is commonly believed that the actions of Yoritomo’s wild cousin Minamoto “Kiso” (so called because of the region of Shinano Province from which he was born) no Yoshinaka had something to do with it. In any case Taira no Munemori rejects the offer out of hand. During harvest season the yield is so low that all hostilities cease for the entire year of 1182. In 1183 hostilities resume and Minamoto no Yoshinaka in a brilliant campaign captures Kyoto on August 17, 1183. The news shocks Yoritomo, and then news comes that Yoshinaka has been lobbying for control of the Minamoto. At first Yoritomo takes the news calmly and he sends envoys to the gain the support of Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who readily gives it. Once secure in the Emperor’s favor Yoritomo dispatches his best generals, his half brothers Minamoto no Noriyori and Minamoto no Yoshitune, who had rejoined their brother at an unknown date. In February, 1184 Yoshitune, the nominal commander in chief, launches the first of a series of brilliant campaigns and casts wild Yoshinaka out of Kyoto, Yoshinaka would later commit seppuku. When Yoritomo arrives in Kyoto his first action is to enthrone the half brother of Antoku, Prince Takahira, as Emperor Go-Toba. After the dust settles Yoritomo, with Imperial blessing, gives his brothers a mandate to destroy the Taira Clan. Yoshitune proves to be a brilliant strategist and wins a great victory at Ichi-no-Tani in March, 1184. Yoritomo however is worried about the strength of the Taira and orders a halt to their activies, this lasts for six months. During this time Yoritomo consolidates his control over the land, to this end he uses an Imperial edict (which was unfortunately lost) that gives Yoritomo control over all the lands he controls, with the understanding that he would return those lands to Imperial control. However Yoritomo manages to manipulate the wording of the edict to make himself, for all intents and purpose, supreme military dictator of Japan. Using this now found power Yoritomo creates the Kumonjo (English: Board of Public Papers) and Monchujo (English: Board of Questioning) and places them in Kamakura. In October Yoritomo, feeling secure enough to risk it, sends out Noriyori to pacify Kyushu. Yoritomo keeps Yoshitune in Kyoto and makes him his deputy; this is made official in early 1185. As deputy Yoshitune makes great progress in keeping the peace within Minamoto lands and generally keeping everything neat and clean. However a rift soon formed between brothers. Yoritomo refused to allow Yoshitune to assume any Court titles, Yoshitune often questioned this decision, and Yoritomo explained it as simply keeping his little brother out of court politics. Yoshitune refused to believe this as the real reason (and he was probably right) and this would set the stage for what would come. Yoritomo would send out Yoshitune in March, 1185 and he won a great victory at Yashima. With the Taira on the run Yoritomo would send his brother, men and ships (Yoshitune was operating on water) to boost his numbers. On April 24, 1185 Yoshitune would win his greatest victory of all time in the naval battle of Dan-no-ura. In this battle the entire Taira leadership was either killed or drowned, and the false Emperor Antoku with them. With this great victory the last great obstacle to Minamoto supremacy was destroyed, and now Yoritomo would face the threat from within.

With the Taira destroyed Minamoto no Yoritomo would turn towards his own family and then greater power. Yoritomo was ecstatic with the final victory over the Taira, but his joy was short lived when he learned that Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa and Yoshitune were conspiring together to limit his power. The reason for this was that Yoritomo had created two new posts shugo (military provincial administrator) and jito (estate manager) and had forced the Emperor Go-Toba to accept them. Yoritomo was furious and, flying into a rage, drove his brother out of Kyoto. Yoshitune found refuge with his old protector during his Taira imposed exile, Fujiwara no Hidehira in Mutsu Province. However Hidehira’s son Fujiwara no Yasuhira was afraid of the retribution of Yoritomo, so he had Yoshitune killed in 1189 (In many Japanese dramas and operas Yoshitune commits seppuku). Yoritomo hears of this and flies into another rage, in which he destroys the Oshu Fujiwara (the branch of the family that protected Yoshitune). The death of Yoshitune and destruction of the Oshu Fujiwara sends shockwaves throughout Japan. Following this Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa reconciles with Yoritomo. In 1192 there is two versions of what happened next, one has Go-Shirakawa on his deathbed bestowing the title of Seii Taishôgun (English: Great General who crushes Barbarians) on Yoritomo. The second version had Yoritomo taking the title for himself after Go-Shirakawa’s death, since no one could stop him. In any case in 1192 Minamoto no Yoritomo became Japan’s first Shôgun. In order to be free from all of the ritual and politics of Kyoto Yoritomo chose his old HQ of Kamakura to be the capital of his Shôgunate (Japanese: Bakufu) government. Due to Yoritomo’s actions in the Gempei War and the creation of the shugo and jito titles all of the real power in Japan was not in the hands of the Imperial courtiers but in the hands of the feudal lords, who in turn owed their allegiance to the Shôgun in Kamakura (and later Muromachi during the Ashikaga, then Edo during the Tokugawa), this system would last until the Meiji Restoration. For the next seven years Yoritomo ruled Japan from Kamakura, spending most of time easing relations between the feudal lords, Imperial courtiers, and Buddhist sects. Thanks to the most part Yoritomo’s great political skills coupled with the shûgo and jito relations between the Bakufu in Kamakura and the Emperor in Kyoto were stable and friendly, for the most part. In 1198 for reasons unknown Yoritomo forced Emperor Go-Toba to retire; in his place Yoritomo put Prince Tanehito on the throne as Emperor Tsuchmikado. In 1199 at the age of 52 Minamoto no Yoritomo passed away after suffering from a serious illness, his second son Minamoto no Yori’ie succeeded him to the title of Shôgun.

In conclusion Minamoto no Yoritomo was one of the greatest men in Japanese history. While charged with being unnecessarily cruel for driving his cousin to seppuku and being indirectly responsible for the death of his brother modern historians have classified him with Oda Nobunaga as being cruel because of the times in which he lived.