The Kamakura shogunate

November 28 2013

In Japan the period 935-1185 saw a progressive transfer of power and wealth from the exotic Imperial Court at Kyoto to provincial barons, and a concomitant lapse from domestic peace into civil disorder. The peace of the capital itself was disturbed more and more frequently and rudely by incursions of the armed forces of adjacent Buddhist monasteries. A civil war between two provincial families of Imperial descent, the Taira and the Minamoto, culminated in 1185 in the victory of Yoritomo Minamoto and his establishment of an effective dictatorship over the whole of Japan from a base at Kamakura – just beyond the southwestern extremity of the Kanto, the biggest of the rare plains on the main island, Honshu. [An hour out of Tokyo by train.] The Imperial Court and its sophisticated culture were allowed to survive at Kyoto, but the Kyoto Government was deprived of effective power. De facto, the Imperial Government at Kyoto had been controlled by regents belonging to the Fujiwara family since at least as early as 858, and, after Yoritomo Minamoto’s death in 1199, the regency for the Bakufu (military government) of the Shogun (Commander-in-Chief) at Kamakura was acquired in 1203 by the Hojo family, who stayed in the saddle till 1333 and maintained effectively, till about 1284, the regime that Yoritomo Minamoto had instituted.

Japan had never before been so efficiently governed as she was from 1185 to 1284, and the gross national product increased, though there was also an increase in the inequality of its distribution. Japan was fortunate in having a strong government during this century; for the Mongols invaded Japan in 1274, and again in 1281, after the completion of their conquest of the Sung Empire in 1279. On both occasions Japanese valour was assisted by storms that made havoc of the invaders’ ships. In 1274 the Mongols’ expeditionary force was small, and it broke off its attack after only one day’s fighting. In 1281 the invading force was on a large scale, and the attack was kept up for two months [before it was repulsed].

The military government of Kamakura was more in tune than the civil government at Kyoto with the cultural and social conditions of twelfth-century and thirteenth-century Japan. Yoritomo Minamoto and the Hojo regents who carried on his regime at Kamakura had contemporaries who played a corresponding role in the field of religion. The earliest forms of Mahayana Buddhism that were introduced into Japan via China and Korea were abstruse in their metaphysics – though some monasteries of these sects became crudely militaristic in their practice on Japanese soil. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Buddhism was presented to the Japanese people in simplified forms in which it was comprehensible and congenial to wider circles. A sect of Zen (Ch’an, Dhyana) Buddhism was introduced into Kamakura in 1191. The Zen spiritual technique of achieving sudden enlightenment through severely disciplined meditation was attractive to the soldiers [samurai].

Zen was the Japanese variant, introduced under the Kamakura shogunate, of Chán, a Chinese school of Mahayana Buddhism which emphasised dhyana, concentrated meditation.

Honen (1135-1212) [Jōdo-shū school] and Shinran (1173-1262) [Jōdo Shinshū school] appealed to the masses by concentrating on the repetition of the name of the bodhisattva Amida (Amitabha) as a talisman for securing admission, after death, to the “Pure Land”, Amida’s paradise.

Lastly,

Nichiren (1222-82) concentrated on chanting the praise of the Lotus Sutra. He was more akin to the ninth-century-B.C. Israelite prophets Elijah and Elisha than to any traditional Buddhist sage. Nichiren combated all other Buddhist sects, intervened actively in politics, got into trouble with the Bakufu, but won popularity by preaching resistance to the Mongols. Each of these twelfth-century and thirteenth-century Japanese simplified forms of Buddhism still had numerous adherents in the 1970s.

Toynbee himself, at the end of his life, knew and recorded a dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda.

Ikeda in his youth had joined a lay organisation founded in 1930 which propagated Nichiren Buddhism among the urban rootless called Soka Gakkai. In 1960 he became its President. In 1975 he set up Soka Gakkai International as an umbrella organisation for Soka Gakkai-affiliated groups around the world. After Toynbee’s death, the Nichiren Shōshū priesthood cut off relations with Soka Gakkai and Soka Gakkai International and excommunicated Ikeda.

Polly Toynbee on Ikeda.

Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura

Mid-thirteenth century bronze Amida Buddha (a giant Buddha or Daibutsu) at the Jōdo-shū Kōtoku-in temple, Kamakura

Mankind and Mother Earth, A Narrative History of the World, OUP, 1976, posthumous

2 Responses to “The Kamakura shogunate”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    In the terms of the Study, the last phase of the Kamakura shogunate saw the beginning of Japan’s Time of Troubles, which was continued during the Ashikaga or Muromachi period and ended by the Universal State of the Tokugawa.


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