- Shogun: (actually an abbreviation of "Seii Taishogun") The highest general rank in feudal Japan. The shogunate (bakufu) was the practical power in Japan throughout the late Middle Ages.
- Daimyo: (literally, "great name") The lords who served under the Shogun/Emperor. Somewhat like European Dukes.
- samurai: the warrior nobility of feudal Japan, this was both a profession and a social class. Similar to European knights, but with a stricter code of honor and behavior.
- seppuku: a form of ritual suicide. Read all you ever wanted to know about it here.
Heian period - 794-1185:
Japan's emperors are traditionally considered to hold divine authority. It is said that the first emperor, Jimmu, was crowned in the year 660 BC, and was a descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.
Whether those dates are correct or not, firmly documented emperors do stretch back in an unbroken line through Kimmei, in 539 AD.
While Europe was carrying out the first Crusades, Japan was undergoing a cultural Renaissance. In 794 AD, emperor Kammu had moved the Japanese capital to Kyoto (literally, "capital city". Originally, it was named "Heiankyo"). This move was apparently an attempt to reduce the Buddhist influence on the court by moving to a new city far from the influence of the powerful Buddhist monks.
Whatever its reasons, this move is generally considered the start of the Heian ("peace") period, considered a golden age in Japanese culture and society. The art, poetry and literature of the Heian period is still praised by Japanese scholars, and many Japanese throughout the Middle Ages would consider this the "high point" of Japanese culture.
Cloistered Rule - 1086-1155:
This period of peace and cultural development lasted for some 400 years. As so often seems to be the case, it was romance and nepotism that helped bring it to an end.
Since 1086, the Japanese emperors had started a new way of exercising their power: what is commonly referred to as "cloistered rule". Traditionally, emperors would retire after a certain age - a fairly young age, by our standards. They would then become Buddhist monks, and supposedly spend their lives in contemplation and the quest for enlightenment. Naturally, not all of them were satisfied with this idea, and eventually they began to find a way to exercise real power even from their supposed retirement (while "cloistered" in a monastery).
Emperor Toba knew about this system well, because he was on the receiving end of it. Shirakawa In, who had begun the entire system of cloistered rule in 1086, managed to hang on for another 43 years after his supposed retirement. He was thus the practical ruler throughout the entire 21-year reign of Toba's father Horikawa, and Toba's 16-year reign!
Once the old man finally passed on, Toba took up the same practice himself, lording it over his son Sutoku. He wasn't content to leave it at that, however: not being celibate, Toba still had a favored consort, and in 1139 she bore him a son.
Two years later, Toba forced his son Sutoku to abdicate the throne in favor of the two-year-old son of his beloved consort, a boy by the name of Konoe. Konoe never got to enjoy much of real rule, however, as he died at the age of 16.
Sutoku was still around at that point, but Toba instead decided to see that his half-brother, Go-Shirakawa, inherited the throne. For Sutoku, that was the last straw. When Toba died (apparently of natural causes) the year after, the situation exploded.
Hôgen Rebellion - 1156:
The Fujiwara clan had been serving as ministers to the emperor for generations; in fact, before the period of cloistered rule began, it was often these Fujiwara who would exercise control over young emperors as regents and chancellors.
One such man, Fujiwara Tadazane, had been regent to the now-deceased emperor. His two sons held titles of their own. The elder, Fujiwara Tadamichi, decided to side with Go-Shirakawa, while the younger, Fujiwara Yorinaga, sided with Sutoku.
Both sides immediately started calling for help from the Minamoto and Taira samurai clans.
An important thing to realize is that the Minamoto and Taira were themselves distant relatives of the Imperial family. During the Heian period, it had become common for the emperors to bestow these as honorary surnames on relatives who could not inherit the throne for whatever reason. (Those who were too distantly related, for example.)
Each of these clans naturally had several families within them, since more than one person was granted these names. Thus, the Minamoto included such famous names as Ashikaga and Takeda, while the Taira clan included Hojo and Chiba, among others.
These samurai were important nobles of royal blood, but they had not previously played an important part in the succession to the throne. That was all about to change, however. In response to the (two) emperors' calls, many of the samurai chose one side or the other. Go-Shirakawa got the support of the head of the Taira clan, Taira Kiyomori, as well as Minamoto Yoshitomo. Meanwhile, the head Minamoto, Minamoto Tameyoshi, joined with Sutoku, as did Taira Tadamasa.
Again, all these people were related. Yoshitomo was Tameyoshi's eldest son. Tadamasa was Kiyomori's uncle. No less than in Europe, the noble families of Japan in this period were closely tied together by bonds of blood and marriage... but that didn't stop them from killing each other when the time came.
This contest is called the Hogen Rebellion (or Insurrection, or Disturbance, or "Incident"). It was rapidly concluded in the month of August, ending in one dramatic battle in which Go-Shirakawa's armies attacked at night and defeated their foes. Fujiwara Yorinaga was killed by an arrow, reportedly while fleeing the scene. Minamoto Tameyoshi and Taira Tadamasa were captured and put to death. Ex-emperor Sutoku, also captured, was exiled to the Sanuki province.
This cleared the way for Go-Shirakawa to place an emperor named Nijô on the throne... and, of course, begin cloistered rule himself.
Heiji Rebellion - 1159:
The story didn't end there, however. The samurai clans had gotten a taste of the power and authority they could wield, and decided to take advantage of it. Three years after the Hogen Rebellion, Minamoto Yoshitomo decided to make his own play for power.
With the aid of Fujiwara Nobuyori, he seized Sanjo palace, placing Go-Shirakawa under a kind of "house arrest" (and incidentally killing his advisor Fujiwara Michinori). However, Taira Kiyomori, already having received promotions in return for his help during the Hogen Rebellion, led a counter-attack. He was successful, defeating Yoshitomo and killing his two eldest sons in battle. He had Nobuyori put to death, and freed Go-Shirakawa, assuring a place for himself in the cloistered emperor's court.
He also seized Minamoto lands, and banished Yoshitomo's surviving sons (Yoritomo, Noriyori and Yoshitsune). Twenty years later, he would suffer the consequences of that decision... but, for the time being, the Taira clan was in charge.
Taira dominance - 1160-1180:
In 1165, Nijô retired and Rokujô took the throne. In 1167, Taira Kiyomori received official recognition of his status, being appointed Daijyo Daijin (Grand Minister of State), and effective co-ruler with Go-Shirakawa (who was still giving commands from his cloister). Shortly after that, Rokujô was succeeded by emperor Takakura.
Kiyomori was already in great authority, but he wasn't about to stop there. In 1171, he forced emperor Takakura to marry Taira Tokuko, Kiyomori's daughter. When they had a son, Tokihito, seven years later, Kiyomori was ready to seize power in name as well as in fact.
In December of 1179, Kiyomori ahd Go-Shirakawa placed under house arrest once again. He forced his opponents to resign from their government posts, replacing them with his own relatives and allies. Then, in March, he forced Takakura to resign in favor of his son, two-year-old Tokuhito (who was given the imperial name Antoku). A familiar scenario was playing out once again, with even more devastating consequences.
Gempei War - 1180-1185:
Kiyomori had reached too far. Many of the samurai were alarmed at his gathering of power, and the Imperial family was enraged. In May, Takakura's brother Prince Mochihito beseeched the samurai to help restore the integrity of the imperial household.
Many of the Minamoto responded: most notably, Yoshitomo's eldest surviving son, Minamoto Yoritomo. There followed a dramatic five-year war to decide the fate of Japan. Kiyomori himself died of illness in March of 1181, but his sons carried on the battle for his clan's power.
Yoritomo's victory was far from assured. In fact, he suffered many early defeats, and in September of 1181 suggested a power-sharing arrangement with the Taira, but they didn't take the bait. A famine that fall put the war on hold for a year, but in 1183 it started up in full force.
A dramatic victory at the Battle of Kurikawa in June of 1183 turned the war in favor of the Minamoto clan, and the Taira were forced to flee the capital. Yoritomo then had a falling out with his clanmate Kiso Yoshinaka, who had actually led the victory at Kurikawa. Yoritomo triumphed in the battle for control of the clan, however, in February of 1184. He returned to finishing off the Taira forces, and didn't have much trouble doing it.
That war finally reached its end at the battle of Dan-no-Ura on April 24, 1185. This was one of the most important naval battles in Japanese history. At the climax of the battle, old Kiyomori's widow, Nii-no-Ama, leapt into the sea with her seven-year-old grandson, the emperor Antoku. She also took with her the Imperial Regalia.
*It was said long afterwards that the spirits of Taira warriors haunted the straits at Shimonoseki. Even in modern times, fishermen would find crabs that seemed to have human faces on their shells, and throw them back in. Carl Sagan remarks on this in "Cosmos", and offers some interesting theories regarding it.
Rise of the Shogun - 1185-1199:
Minamoto Yoritomo was granted great authority for his valiant efforts (and powerful armies). In 1192, he was appointed Seii Taishogun, thus becoming the first "Shogun". But he did not, in the end, restore true power to the emperors. Instead, he began the line of the Shogunate, which would itself become a hereditary position.
The Shoguns would continue to hold true power in place of the figurehead emperors for most of the next 800 years, until the Meiji "restoration". Of course, the dramatic circumstances of the Gempei War had many more consequences. Among them:
- Shortly after the Miramoto victory, Yoritomo and his brother Yoshitsune had a falling out, in which Yoshitsune sided with old Go-Shirakawa. He was betrayed and killed, however, by one of the Fujiwara, becoming a Japanese folk hero in the process.
- Yoritomo himself died in early 1199, reportedly from complications suffered after being thrown from his horse.
- Yoritomo's wife, Hôjô Masako (ironically a Hojo and thus a member of the Taira clan) steered her own relatives into true power after Yoritomo's death, with even the Shogun only serving as a puppet for the next few generations.
- The Emperor who gave Yoritomo his title, Go-Toba, eventually tried to rise up against the Hojo dominance (some time after his offical "retirement"). He failed, however, and was stripped of his power and exiled to the islands of Oki. There he spent the rest of his winter years studying the art of sword-making, working to forge a new Imperial Blade. He had been the first emperor to be without such a blade, since the old one had gone beneath the waves with Antoku. In addition to filling this void, his sworn purpose was to create a blade to slay the Hojo regent.
A host of Japanese epics cover this dramatic period, which is considered one of the most important in the development of Japanese history. It began the true age of samurai, daimyo and shogun that most people think of when they think of medieval Japan.