Minamoto no Yoritomo

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Portrait of Yoritomo, copy of the 1179 original hanging scroll, attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu. Color on silk.

Minamoto no Yoritomo (源 頼朝) (May 9, 1147 – February 9, 1199), was a Japanese warrior and clan leader who founded the bakufu, a system of feudal lords which governed Japan for seven centuries, and became the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate of Japan. The surviving heir of the Minamoto clan, which was crushed after the Heiji Rebellion in 1159, he lived in exile for twenty years before issuing a call to arms and rising up against the Taira clan. He established a headquarters in Kamakura, from which he began to organize the war lords and samurai into an independent government.

After the Taira clan was defeated in 1185, Yoritomo established the administrative offices of shugo (constables) and jito (district stewards) throughout Japan, and rewarded his samurai retainers with strategically-placed feudal estates. With the assistance of scholars recruited from the imperial court, he created a system of administration which effectively undermined the control of the imperial court. In 1192, a few months after the death of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, Yoritomo titled himself seii taishogun, becoming the supreme commander over the feudal lords and the first shogun of Japan. He ruled from 1192 until 1199, but the feudal system of government which he established remained in place for seven centuries.

Early Years

Minamoto no Yoritomo was born May 9, 1147, the third oldest son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the heir of the Minamoto (Seiwa Genji) clan, and his official wife, Fujiwara no Saneori, who was a member of the illustrious Fujiwara clan. As a descendant of the Emperor Seiwa, he was of royal lineage. Yoritomo was born in Heian (now known as Kyoto), then the capital of Japan. At that time Yoritomo's grandfather, Minamoto no Tameyoshi, was the head of the Minamoto.

In 1156, factional divisions in the court erupted into open warfare within the capital itself. The Cloistered Emperor Toba and his son Emperor Go-Shirakawa sided with Fujiwara no Tadamichi, the son of Fujiwara regent, Fujiwara no Tadazane, as well as with Taira no Kiyomori (a member of the Taira clan), while Cloistered Emperor Sutoku sided with Tadazane's younger son, Fujiwara no Yorinaga. This conflict was known as the Hōgen Rebellion, or the 'Hogen Disturbance'.

The loyalties of the Seiwa Genji were divided. Minamoto no Tameyoshi, the head of the Minamoto, who was Yoshitomo's father and Yoritomo's grandfather, sided with Cloistered Emperor Sutoku. Minamoto no Yoshitomo (who was Tameyoshi's son and Yoritomo's father), sided with Cloistered Emperor Toba and Emperor Go-Shirakawa, as well as with Taira no Kiyomori.

In the end, the supporters of Emperor Go-Shirakawa won the civil war, thus ensuring victory for Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Taira no Kiyomori. Cloistered Emperor Sutoku was placed under house arrest, and Fujiwara no Yorinaga was fatally wounded in battle. Minamoto no Tameyoshi, Yoshitomo's father, was executed, in spite of numerous pleas by Yoshitomo that his life be spared. Emperor Go-Shirakawa and Taira no Kiyomori ruthlessly ignored his pleas, and Minamoto no Yoshitomo found himself as the head of the Minamoto clan, with Yoritomo as his heir.

Since Yoritomo was descended from the imperial family on his father's side and the Fujiwara noble family on his mother's side, he received his first court title and was appointed an administrator. In Kyoto, the Taira clan, now under the leadership of Taira no Kiyomori, and the Minamoto clan, under the leadership of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, began to factionalize again.

Taira no Kiyomori supported the Emperor Nijō, who was the son of Go-Shirakawa. Kiyomori had the support of Fujiwara no Nobuyori. Meanwhile, Minamoto no Yoshitomo supported the now cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, their old ally Fujiwara no Tadamichi and the scholar-courtier Fujiwara no Michinori. In 1159, during the Heiji Rebellion, Minamoto no Yoshitomo made an attempt to destroy Taira no Kiyomori. The Minamoto were not well prepared, and the Taira took control of Kyoto. In the aftermath, harsh terms were imposed on the Minamoto and their allies. Fujiwara no Michinari and Fujiwara no Tadamichi were executed, and the palace of Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa was burned down by the Taira. Minamoto no Yoshitomo fled the capital just as the Taira marched in (1160), but was betrayed and executed by a retainer in Owari Province. Thirteen-year-old Yoritomo, now the new head of the Minamoto clan, was not executed by Kiyomori because of pleas from Kiyomori's stepmother Lady Ikenozunni, but was exiled to Hirugashima, an island in Izu province (on the Kanto Plain), which at that time was under the rule of the Hōjō clan. Taira no Kiyomori and the Taira clan were now the undisputed leaders of Japan.

Minamoto no Yoritomo remained in exile under the surveillance of the Taira for twenty years. Yoritomo's half brother, Minamoto no Noriyori, was also exiled, and Minamoto no Yoshitsune, another half-brother, was forced to enter a monastery. All their other siblings were executed. In 1179, Hōjō Masako, daughter of the head of the Hōjō clan, Hōjō Tokimasa, fell in love with Yoritomo. Her father tried to intervene, but the couple fled to the Izu mountains and married, living there under the protection of warrior monks. Friends of Yoritomo kept him apprised of the situation in Kyoto.

Call to Arms and the Genpei War (1180-1185)

Taira Kiyomori, the head of the Taira clan, alienated the Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa by exerting his power over the imperial court. Many of the aristocracy and the heads of the great temples and shrines also resented the Taira clan's domination of the emperor.

In 1180, Prince Mochihito, a son of Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, humiliated by the Taira-backed accession to the throne of his nephew, Emperor Antoku (who was half Taira himself), called the Minamoto clan to arms in various parts of Japan to rebel against the Taira. He was joined by Minamoto Yorimasa, another member of the Minamoto clan. Taira Kiyomori sent his men to capture Mochihito, who retreated to Miidera, at the foot of Mount Hiei, then fled across the River Uji, to the Phoenix Hall of the Byōdō-in. There they were caught by the Taira forces, and fought the Battle of Uji. Much of the fighting took place on the bridge over the River Uji. The Minamoto warriors smashed the planks of the bridge to stop the Taira from crossing, but eventually they were forced back into the Phoenix Hall, where Yorimasa committed seppuku. Prince Mochihito escaped to Nara, but was captured on the way and killed soon afterward.

Although Prince Mochihito’s plan to overcome the Taira clan had failed, the Battle of Uji prompted Minamoto no Yoritomo to take up arms in a rebellion of his own, with the support of Hōjō Tokimasa and the Hōjō clan. He succeeded in attracting the support of feudal lords in the eastern provinces, and from members of the Taira clan who felt they were being ignored by Taira Kiyomori. Yoritomo immediately advanced to Kamakura (about ten miles south of modern Tokyo) and set up a capital there. Yoritomo was defeated in his first major battle, the Battle of Ishibashiyama, but he continued to consolidate his power over the warrior aristocrats in the Kanto area, most of whom accepted his authority peaceably. Yoritomo set himself up as the rightful heir of the Minamoto clan, but his uncle, Minamoto no Yukiie, and his cousin Minamoto no Yoshinaka conspired against him.

In 1181, Taira no Kiyomori died, and the leadership of the Taira clan was taken over by Taira no Munemori. Munemori was much more aggressive against the Minamoto, and attacked Minamoto bases from Kyoto, but Yoritomo was well protected in Kamakura. From 1181 to 1184, a de facto truce with the Taira-dominated court allowed Yoritomo the time to build an administration of his own, centered on his military headquarters in Kamakura. His half-brothers, Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Minamoto no Noriyori defeated the Taira in several key battles, but they could not keep up with Minamoto no Yoshinaka. In 1183 Minamoto Yoshinaka, Yoritomo's cousin, occupied the Hokuriku district and invaded Kyoto, the seat of the Imperial court, chasing the Taira south. The Taira took Emperor Antoku with them; the Minamoto entered the capital and enthroned the half-brother of Antoku, Emperor Go-Toba, as their new emperor. Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, whose strategy was to set his supporters, as well as enemies, against each other in order to regain some of the substance of imperial power, called on Yoritomo to put an end to Yoshinaka's ambitions. Yoritomo's half brothers, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経) and Minamoto no Noriyori (源範頼), drove Yoshinaka out and executed him, and took Kyoto in the name of Yoritomo.

Yoritomo now established the Kumonjo (“Board of Public Papers”) and Monchujo (“Board of Questioning”), and set up an independent political government in the east that was recognized by the central imperial court in Kyoto. In 1184, Yoritomo’s armies, under the command of his two younger half-brothers Noriyori and Yoshitsune, engaged in battle with the Taira in what they hoped would be a decisive campaign, but they did not achieve a final victory until 1185, when the Taira suffered a terrible defeat at the Battle of Dan-no-ura. The Taira clan was wiped out; Munemori was executed, and the remaining Taira (including the young Emperor Antoku) were either executed, or committed suicide by drowning. Minamoto no Yoritomo was now the undisputed leader of Japan.

Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa began to support Minamoto Yoshitsune in an attempt to restrain Yoritomo's power. Yoritomo immediately expelled Yoshitsune and imposed on the emperor the establishment of administrative offices of shugo (constables) and jito (district stewards) throughout Japan, ostensibly to capture Yoshitsune, but actually to strengthen Yoritomo's power nationwide. Soon after, Yoritomo succeeded in having Yoshitsune and Noriyori put to death.

The Kamakura Shogunate

The shugo each had the function of administering and policing the Minamoto vassals in a single province, and of conducting judicial proceedings in cases of murder and rebellion, so that in each region they had military power. The jito levied taxes and undertook the management of individual estates. Both the shugo and the jito became feudal lords, thus undermining the administrative power of the imperial court's central government. Yoritomo later attempted to rule over remote such as Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island.

In 1185, he demonstrated his intention to create a power structure independent of the capital in Kyoto by destroying Fujiwara Yasuhira, an independent noble in the Tohoku area of southern Japan. In 1192, a few months after Go-Shirakawa's death, Yoritomo titled himself seii taishogun (“barbarian-quelling generalissimo”), becoming the supreme commander over the feudal lords. The Kamakura shogunate was now nominally complete. Yoritomo had thus established the supremacy of the warrior samurai caste and the first bakufu (shogunate) at Kamakura, beginning the feudal age in Japan which lasted until the mid-nineteenth century.

After 1192, Yoritomo developed policies to relieve the strain between the military lords and the court aristocrats, and the powerful temples and shrines. The institutions of shugo and jito helped to maintain stable relations between the court of Kyoto and Yoritomo's government at Kamakura. Yoritomo died in 1199.


Yoritomo is often charged with cruelty, particularly because of the execution of his own cousin and half-brothers. The political circumstances of his time were difficult, with bitter clan rivalries threatening to disrupt the establishment of any permanent government. Yoritomo had seen his own parents and siblings executed by the Taira after the Heiji Rebellion, in 1160. Yoritomo’s priority was to eliminate any factions which might create discord among his vassals, or attempt to set up power bases in opposition to his government.

In order to undermine the influence of the imperial court and its centralized administration, Yoritomo set up a feudal system by rewarding his samurai retainers with strategically-located estates. These fiefs later became the basis of the power of the daimyo (feudal lords). With the assistance of scholars recruited from the imperial court, Yoritomo set up an administrative network that soon took over as the central government, and was stable enough to maintain its power for the next seven hundred years.

The shogunate of Minamoto no Yoritomo marked the beginning of a vigorous period in the history of Japanese culture, during which Zen Buddhism was officially sponsored and the bushido system of military virtue was cultivated.

Preceded by:
None (Founder)
Succeeded by:
Minamoto no Yoriie

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allen, Kenneth. 1979. Great warriors. London: Macdonald. ISBN 0382063848
  • Asakawa, Kan’ichi. 1933. The founding of the Shogunate by Minamoto-no-Yoritomo. Praha: Institut Kondakov.
  • Asakawa, Kan’ichi. 1965. Land and society in medieval Japan; studies by Kan'ichi Asakawa. Tokyo: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.
  • Mass, Jeffrey P. 1999. Yoritomo and the founding of the first Bakufu: the origins of dual government in Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804735913
  • Oyler, Elizabeth. 2006. Swords, oaths, and prophetic visions: authoring warrior rule in medieval Japan. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaiì Press. ISBN 0824829220


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