This chapter is a continued part of Chapter 6| Kamakura Period History (1192 – 1333). Please read chapter 6 before reading this section. Some of the information here may overlaps with Chapter 6 since this is the continued part.
The red circle above indicates the time we discuss in this section
Chapter 6| Kamakura Period History described there were two major samurai groups, the Genji (源氏) and the Heishi (平氏) at the end of the Heian period. The head of the Genji was Minamoto no Yoshitomo (源義朝), and the head of the Heishi (or Heike) was Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛). They were childhood friends. Yet, because of the political situation and circumstances, they became enemies by the time they grew up to adulthood. After their several power struggles, the Genji side lost, and Taira-no-Kiyomori became very powerful. He favored his men and gave high positions to them, and had his daughter married to the emperor. As a result, Kiyomori’s power went even beyond the emperor. This was the time people would say, “if you are not a part of the Heishi family, you are not a human being.” A situation like this created too many opponents against him. Eventually, the suppressed Genji and other samurai groups gathered and raised an army, fought against the Heishi, and defeated them.
While Taira-no-Kiyomori was in power, he actively started trading with China, contributing to Japan’s economic prosperity. The picture below is the Itsukushima Jinja Shrine (厳島神社) built by Taira no Kiyomori. It is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Wikipedia. The photo is in the public domain. Author: Rdsmith4 File Itsukushima Floating Shrine.jpg 8 /05/04
Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝) was a son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo(源義朝). After Yoshitomo was defeated by Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛 ), the direct bloodline of Genji, Minamoto no Yoritomo was sent to Izu Island. He was in his early teens.
Yoritomo grew to be a young man in Izu Island and eventually met Hojo Masako (北条政子) there. She was a daughter of Hojo Tokimasa (北条時政) who was a local government official. While Tokimasa was on a business trip to Kyoto, Yoritomo and Masako had a baby. Tokimasa was afraid that if the Heishi found out about his daughter and Yoritomo, the Hojo family would get into trouble. So, he planned to have Masako marry somebody else. But she eloped with Yoritomo the night before the wedding. It is said that this story was written in the famous Japanese history book called “Azuma Kagami: 吾妻鏡” and in a few other books. People started to believe this is how it happened between them. However, some say the story may not be exactly how it happened.
In the meantime in Kyoto, the Heishi became very powerful and tyrannical in the central government called Chotei (朝廷) and suppressed the opponents. All the angry, dissatisfied groups formed an army to attack the Heishi. Minamoto no Yoritomo was the head of those opposing groups, and his army grew bigger and stronger with the help of Masako‘s father, Hojo Tokimasa. By this time, Hojo Tokimasa had realized he would have had a better chance if he had sided with his son-in-law. The Genji‘s army pushed the Heishi all the way to the southern part of Japan. The Heishi was defeated in a place called Dan no Ura (壇ノ浦) near Kyushu (九州) in 1185.
Yoritomo set up Kamakura Bakufu (Kamakura government) in Kamakura. After Yoritomo‘s death, his wife Masako proved herself as a very able leader, and she saved Kamakura Bakufu when it was attacked by Chotei, the central government.
Here is one famous story about her. When Yoritomo used to go around to see other women in the town of Kamakura, Masako sent her men to follow her husband and had them set fire on the house of the woman whom her husband was after. In her mind, the Hojo was the one who made Yoritomo the head of the Kamakura Bakufu. Without aid from the Hojo family, Yoritomo had no chance to be what he became.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura Author: Urashimataro From Wikipedia Photo is public domain
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is one of the major shrines in Kamakura. It is a walking distance from Kamakura train station. In the photo above, there is a big shrine at the top of the long steps. Every year on Dec 31, a large number of people come to the shrine to listen to the Joya-no-Kane (除夜の鐘: the night watch bells on New Year’s Eve)
Minamoto-no-Yoritomo (源頼朝) had several half-brothers. Taira-no-Kiyomori (平清盛) saved those young boys’ lives on the condition that they would become a monk when they grew up. For Kiyomori, they were childhood friend’s sons, after all. One of them was Ushiwak- maru (牛若丸: later Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune源義経) who was raised by Taira-no-Kiyomori while he was an infant, believing Kiyomori was his father. Later Yoshitsune was raised in Kurama Yama Temple.
He spent his life there until he became mid-teens. After that, he went to live with the Oshu Fujiwara (奥州藤原) family. They were in the northern part of Japan, quite some distance away from Kyoto. Oshu Fujiwara was a very wealthy clan. They had a luxurious culture there. Because of the distance from Chotei (central government), they behaved as if they were living in an independent country. They created great wealth by mining gold and trading it with some countries outside of Japan.
Yoshitsune lived there rather happily for a while, but when he heard his half-brother Yoritomo raised an army to attack the Heishi, he decided to join them. Yoshitsune was quite skillful in the battles. He won many famous battles, which were very critical for Genji to win the war.
Yoritomo had a big political plan on how to proceed to take over the Heshie’s power. But Yoshitusune did not understand that. He was a good warrior but not a politician. That made Yoritomo irritated and angry at him. On top of that, Yoshitsune became very popular in Kyoto. That made Yoritomo anxious, and he decided to get rid of Yoshitsune.
Yoshitsune fled to O-shu Fujiwara’s. In the beginning, O-shu Fujiwara protected Yoshitsune but could not hold against Yoritomo’s army. Yoritomo destroyed O-shu Fujiwara entirely at the end. Today, a grand architecture built by O-shu Fujiwara was restored. You can visit “Konjiki-do: 金色堂” inside the “Chuson-ji Temple: 中尊寺”.
Chinese knew about the wealth of O-Shu Fujiwara. Later, Marco Polo heard about the wealthy small country further into the East. He mentioned this wealthy small island in his book, “The travels of Marco Polo.” In this book, he wrote, “All the houses are made of gold”, this described O-shu Fujiwara. Of course, all the houses were not made of gold.
Marco Polo introduced Japan as “Zipangu” in his book. It means the golden country. The name “Zipangu” evolved into Japan. However, we, the Japanese, don’t call our country Japan. We call it “Nihon” or “Nippon,” and both are correct.