Who was Minamoto Yoritomo

Minamoto no Yoritomoto the first Shogun of Japan

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Minamoto no Yoritomoto the first Shogun of Japan

In 1192, i.e. 815 years ago, Minamoto no Yoritomo was appointed Japan's first Shogun. The large Samurai family Minamoto founds the first Shogunate and heralds the Kamakura period. But what are shoguns and samurai and how did it come about that a warrior family got more influence than the emperor?

What are samurai?

Left picture: Samurai fully armed (around 1860)

After conscription was abolished in the Japanese Empire, the government increasingly relied on well-trained warriors from the lower landed gentry to defend the country and expand their territory. These warriors were called samurai (translated as servants or companions).

They held a position similar to that of the knights in Europe. They gained their great importance when they were lent land in the 9th century by the court nobility, who owned many areas in the province, which they were supposed to defend and administer for the landlord. This is how some samurai families became very prosperous and influential in Japan.

What is a Shogun?

The Shogun is the name given to the leader of all samurai families. The full title is Seii Taishogun, which translated means something like oppressor of the barbarians and great general. The shogun can be compared to the European duke, but over time he became even more influential and powerful than the Japanese emperor, the Tenno. The household and administrative apparatus of the shoguns is known as the shogunate or bafuku (tent or military government).

The way to the first shogun

In the middle of the 12th century, the two samurai families Taira and Minamoto fulfilled police and military duties. These families had a lot of influence through their large land holdings.

In 1156 there were military clashes between the Taira, who supported the current emperor, and the Minamoto, who were on the side of the old, abdicated Tennos. The Taira won, whereupon the leader of the Minamoto was killed.

The Minamoto were then sidelined and suppressed by the new regent of the Taira. To get out of this situation, they launched another attack that ended in the Battle of Uji.

The Gempei War

After the Taira had triumphed in the battle of Uji in 1180, Minamoto no Yoritomo now went to battle. By 1183 he had succeeded in re-conquering some Japanese areas for the Minamoto. When his brother Yoshitsune's army had defeated the successful Taira general Heiankyo, the Minamoto could launch a final attack. In the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura, the numerically superior Minamoto fleet finally defeated the Taira and the imperial court. That ended the five-year war.

The Kamakura Shogunate

Right picture: Minamoto no Yoritomo

In 1192 Minamoto no Yoritomo was declared Shogun by the defeated Tenno because of his military achievements, although he had always let his brother fight in the important battles. Since all samurai and landlords were subordinate to him as Shogun, and thus owned a huge country, he was more powerful than the emperor. He established a military rule in which the samurai administered the land. He ruled from Kamakura.

After Minamoto's death, the shogunate fell to the Hojo clan, to which his wife belonged. The Hojo now destroyed the imperial army and thus controlled the ranking of the next Tennos. In the period that followed, the empire was successfully defended against Mongolian invasion attempts twice.

Legend has it that the Mongolian fleet was destroyed by a god-sent typhoon, the kamikaze (god's wind). Then many samurai families turned their backs on the shogun because they did not receive any land reward for their service in the war. But this was not at all possible, since no areas were added to the empire in the defense against the Mongols. In 1333 the Kamakura shogunate was overthrown by the incumbent Tenno. It existed for 141 years.

If you are interested in the history of Japanese knights, then take a look at our WHAT IS WHAT volume 94: Samurai

08/08/2007; Text: Jan Wrede, pictures: Wikipedia  

Note: All images and links have been removed from the archive