Shoguns and Mongols - Medieval Japan - Japanese History
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Medieval Japan

japanese man seated wearing voluminous black robes
Minamoto Yoritomo (maybe),
by Fujiwara Takanobu

February 2017 - The first shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo, established the system: all officials were pretty much military officials. Japan broke up into a lot of small kingdoms, which were always fighting each other. There were a lot of wars, mostly involving mounted archers, and there was a lot of violence even in between the wars.

When Yorimoto died in 1199 AD, his wife, Hojo Masako, took control of Japan. She was a warrior from the Hojo family (a branch of the Taira), and through her the Hojos got into power. The Hojos controlled Japan through most of the 1200s, mostly as regents, or Shikken for the official shogun (who's already ruling in place of the emperors). When the emperors tried to regain power in 1221, it was a total failure. Ten years later, Hojo Yasutoki issued a new law code formalizing the samurai government. In the new code, trials required witnesses and cross-examination, and relied on the precedent of earlier cases. That made the law more fair for men. But women lost even more rights: they couldn't control even their own property anymore.

The samurai government of Japan had not been in contact with either China or Korea in a long time. But in 1268 AD, Japan got a message from the new Mongol conqueror of China, Kublai Khan, demanding tribute. The shogun refused to pay, and the Mongols attacked in 1274 with more than 600 Chinese ships full of soldiers. When the Mongol fleet was destroyed by a typhoon (a hurricane), Kublai Khan sent a second huge fleet - and then another hurricane destroyed that fleet, too! So that was the end of the Mongol invasions of Japan.

japanese man seated wearing robes
Emperor Go-Daigo (1300s AD)

People were happy to stay independent and proud to be free of Mongol rule. Their new pride resulted in a revival of their native Shinto religion. Maybe out of a desire to keep up with Chinese weapons, Japan began to experiment with gunpowder and small bronze cannons. But samurai government caused more and more inequality. By 1300 AD, while the rich got richer, many people couldn't pay their taxes. A lot of people were falling into debt. Many people lost their farms and became sharecroppers or debt-slaves, and some of them became bandits and outlaws instead.

In 1331, Emperor Go-Daigo tried to get power and end the rule of the shoguns. With the help of other powerful families, he pushed the Hojo family out of power. Go-Daigo thought about redistributing land to the farmers, but the rich people who had helped him wouldn't hear of it. And really those other families just wanted power for themselves. By 1338, they drove out Go-Daigo, and chose a new shogun from the Muromachi family, and the shogunate continued without any reforms.

Learn by doing: check out a modern hurricane on the news (or if one comes where you are!)
Late Medieval Japan
More about Kublai Khan
Ming Dynasty China
More about Japan

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Japan:

Late Medieval Japan
More about Japan
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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