Japan: Kamakura period (AD 1185-1333)

Kamakura is a small coastal town about 400 kilometres east of Kyoto across a mountain range. During the Heike wars (1180-85) between the Taira and Minamoto clans, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-99) chose Kamakura for his headquarters because of its remote position. He defeated the Taira in 1185 and was made the first Shogun in 1192. The Shogunate (warrior government) remained at Kamakura until the Ashikaga Shoguns took over in 1333.

The emperors still reigned as cultural and religious figureheads in Kyoto, but the ruling power moved from a civil aristocracy to a provincial warrior class. Yoritomo reorganized the country. He created governing boards, appointed local governors and officials and demanded absolute loyalty from his vassals. Yoritomo's wife's family, the Hōjō, took over after the death of his sons and there was comparatively stable government for almost two hundred years. The ritsuryō system disappeared and the economy, based on private landed estates, improved rapidly.

There was an increase in popular forms of Buddhism, such as the Jōdo (Pure Land) sect which assured salvation to commoners. Zen Buddhism, with its attendant arts, took a firm hold on the samurai classes because of its emphasis on self-discipline and simplicity. Wooden sculpture, realistic portraiture and narrative painting all flourished. The Shin Kokinshū poetry anthology of 1285, the military prose epic Heike monogatari ('Tale of the Heike') and the pessimistic Hōjōki are outstanding literary works of the period.

The Hōjō family successfully fought off two invasion attempts by the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. However, many warriors who had not been properly rewarded for their efforts turned against the Shogunate, and, led by Ashikaga Takauji, they defeated the Hōjō in 1333.

Related galleries