Genpei War: A Major Turning Point in Japan’s History

-By Shivam Pathak

After a baffling war of Genpei between Minamoto clan led by Minamoto no Yoritoma and Taira clan led by Taira no Kiyomori, Japan’s history took a radical turn that further paved way for the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate. Genpei war marked the genesis of Minamoto no Yoritoma as dominant figure in the land of Japan. Minamoto neither wanted to enthrone himself as the king nor did he try to pull down the imperial court. His desire was to install himself as brawny figurehead by seeking the title, Shogun (military leader), which he accomplished later
in 1192 by a legal machination.

His principal cause behind this was to grab the actual power of Japan, which formal authority couldn’t wield him. After succeeding the title he established his government known as Bakufu (military arm of the imperial central government). In order to keep himself at a safe distance from the court (which was in Kyoto) he established his base in Kanto region. His jito (steward) – shugo (protector or constable) system further cemented the roots of feudalism in Japan. With the passage of time Yoritomo realized that reliance on personal loyalty for the purpose of control wouldn’t last long.

So he began to suspect his close friends and family. His conspiracy against his younger half-brother, Yoshitsune, is served as a good example of what he had become due to his over-suspicious behaviour. Yoritomo’s death in 1199 raised pandemonium for a suitable Minamoto successor. His two sons Yoriie and Sanetomo each nominally became Shogun, but neither of them was competent enough to hold real
control amidst murder and intrigue that followed soon after Yoritomo’s death.

As a consequence both Yoriie and Sanetomo were directed and ultimately murdered by their own mother Hojo Masako. Following their death the government was controlled by Hojo Masako as a shogunal regent. This resulted in the decline of shogun position. As shogun position declined in the court, the manipulable court nobles being appointed as shogun and real power was exercised by the Hojo.

Hojo’s reign witnessed two Mongol invasions by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281, but neither of them was successful. The external menaces helped Japan to put an acute full stop to internal wars, but it also come up with a mounting discontent towards the Hojo shogunate because the financial cost of the defense severely depleted the shogunate’s finances. Go- Daigo tried twice to challenge the Shogunate, in 1324 and 1331, but failed on both occasions. Like Go Toba before him.

But somehow Go Daigo shortly broke free from the captivity of Kamakura shogunate, and managed to muster support in the western part of Honshu. Later in 1333, Ashika Takauji was sent by the Kamakura shogunate to deal with the mounting dangerous situation. When Takauij realized that he and Go Daigo had sizeable military strength between them, he turned his back on Kamakura Shogunate and declared his support for Go Daigo.

Within weeks another young general, Nitta Yoshisada, rebelled against the Kamakura shogunate and destroyed its power base at Kamakura. Therefore, the Kamakura shogunate was overthrown in the Kenmu Restoration under the Emperor Go Daigo, and marked the end of the Kamakura shogunate.