A History of Japan: From Mythology to Nationhood/The Kemmu Restoration

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Emperor Godaigo

The Kenmu (or Kemmu) restoration (建武の新政 Kenmu no shinsei) (1333–1336) is the name given to both the three year period of Japanese history between the Kamakura period and the Muromachi period, and the political events that took place in it. The restoration was an effort made by Emperor Go-Daigo to bring the Imperial House and the nobility it represented back into power, thus restoring a civilian government after almost a century and a half of military rule. The attempted restoration ultimately failed and was replaced by the Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1575). This was to be the last time the Emperor had any power until the Meiji restoration of 1867. The many and serious political errors made by the Imperial House during this three year period were to have important repercussions in the following decades and end with the rise of the Ashikaga shogunate.

The overthrow of the Kamakura Shogunate was accomplished by two groups acting more or less as allies. On the one side there was Godaigo Tenno who aspired to put an end to the Shogunate and reestablish centralized rule under the Emperor. On the other were disgruntled warriors, led by two branches of the Minamoto clan who aspired to overthrow the Hojo only but retain the Shogunate with themselves in control of it. Naturally enough, the two sides soon fell into conflict.

The resulting civil war is known as the War of the Northern and Southern Courts, because at one point the two sides came to each recognize one of two rival branches of the imperial clan. Except in its earliest stages this was not a normal war with front lines and organized strategies. It was highly episodic and practically everyone involved changed sides at least once. What actually happened was that Ashikaga Takauji established a new Shogunate commonly called the Muromachi Shogunate after the district of Kyoto where its headquarters was estabished. Anyone who had a quarrel with the Shogunate had the option of declaring himself a supporter of the Southern Court (there was a brief period where the Ashikaga officially supported the Southern Court and their enemies the Northern one, but it was usually the other way round) so that he was not a mere rebel.

What the war accomplished was to establish a general situation where legality was relatively unimportant and control of the ground by military force was everything. The system of provincial administration used by the Ashikaga relied completely on feudalism. Ashikaga vassals were appointed shugo of provinces and it was up to them to gain actual control of their provinces by forming their own feudal organizations within them. There were significant parts of the country which the Ashikaga made no attempt to rule directly, leaving it up to allies to form their own feudal groupings. However, by the end of the period covered by this chapter (1408, the death of Yoshimitsu the most able and most powerful of the Ashikaga Shoguns) the courts had been reunified and open opposition had been suppressed.

During this time most of the institutional arrangements that derived from ancient Japan disappeared. New forms of social organization appeared in the countryside, shoen disappeared and were replaced by a system rooted in self-governing peasant villages. Kyoto became a real city and new cities began to appear that were founded by and run by commoners. A money economy began to operate and there were early versions of industry and banking. Literacy spread rapidly and literature grew enormously compared to earlier times. This is the point in history when feudal Japan looked most like feudal Europe (as of the 13th century).


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Kusunoki Masashige

The Emperor's role had been usurped by the Minamoto and Hōjō families ever since Minamoto no Yoritomo had obtained from the Emperor the title of Shogun in 1192, ruling thereafter from Kamakura. For various reasons, the Kamakura shogunate decided to allow two contending imperial lines—known as the Southern Court, or junior line, and the Northern Court, or senior line—to alternate on the throne. The method worked for several successions until a member of the Southern Court ascended to the throne as Emperor Go-Daigo. Go-Daigo wanted to overthrow the shogunate and openly defied Kamakura by naming his own son his heir. In 1331 the shogunate exiled Go-Daigo but loyalist forces, including Kusunoki Masashige, rebelled and came to his support. They were aided among others by Ashikaga Takauji, a samurai who turned against Kamakura when dispatched to put down Go-Daigo's rebellion. At the same time, Nitta Yoshisada, another eastern chieftain, rebelled against the shogunate, attacking its capital (Siege of Kamakura (1333). The shogunate tried to resist opposing his advance, but quickly disintegrated.


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When Emperor Go-Daigo ascended to the throne in 1318, he immediately manifested his intention to rule without interference from the military in Kamakura. Historical documents show that, disregarding evidence to the contrary, he and his advisers believed that a revival of the Imperial House's and of the nobility's fortunes was possible, and that the Kamakura's shogunate was the greatest and most obvious of the obstacles. Another situation that begged for a solution was the land-ownership problem posed by the manors and their lands (see the article shōen). The great landowners (shugo (governors) and jitō (manor's lord)), with their political independence and their tax exemptions were impoverishing the government and undermining its authority, and Kitabatake Chikafusa, Go-Daigo's future chief adviser, discussed the situation in his works on succession. Chikafusa admitted that nobody had any intention of abolishing those privileges, so the hope of success on this front was from the beginning clearly very dim. What he planned to replace shugo and jitō with is unclear, but he surely had no intention of sharing power with the samurai class. However serious the land ownership problem, Go-Daigo and his advisers made no serious effort to solve it, partly because it was samurai from the manors in the western provinces that had defeated the Bakufu for him. In such a situation, any effort to regulate the manors was bound to cause resentment among key allies.

End of the Restoration

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In hindsight the Kemmu Restoration was a failure. It failed for a number of reasons, chief among these Emperor Go-Daigo's unrealistic desire to return to what he perceived to have been a golden age. Although there is no evidence he wanted to go back to Heian period policies like Chikafusa, there is clear evidence he believed it possible to restore not only imperial power, but also its culture. He even wrote a treatise called Kenmu Nenchū Gyōji for the purpose of reviving court ceremonies that had fallen out of use. In 1336 Ashikaga Takauji rebelled against the imperial court and proclaimed the beginning of a new warrior regime. After his proclamation, he was forced to retreat to Kyūshū after the imperialist forces of Kitabatake Akiie attacked and defeated him near Kyoto. This betrayal of the Kemmu Restoration by Takauji blackened his name in later periods of Japanese history, and officially started the Nanboku-chō War. Previous historical views tried to look at the failure of the Restoration at the level of ineffectiveness in the area of rewarding lands to the many petitions that flooded in from samurai; however, it is now clear that, at the most important level, the judicial organs that determined land dispute cases, the Restoration was effective. This forces us to conclude that Takauji's rebellion and desire to create a new warrior regime was a prime determinant in the Restoration's failure. His rebellion encouraged a large body of dissatisfied warriors (there were always those whose petitions were not granted) who desired to see the creation of another warrior regime modeled after Kamakura.

The Nanboku-chō War was an ideological struggle between loyalists who wanted the Emperor back in power, and those who believed in creating another warrior regime modeled after Kamakura. It was as if the two previous periods in Japanese history, the Heian and the Kamakura, were clashing on the ideological level. Noble warriors like Kitabatake Chikafusa were pragmatic about the need for warriors to participate in the Restoration on the instrumental level, but on the ideological level a severe divergence between Chikafusa and Takauji polarized the leaders for many years to come. Hammered together during war time, the emergence of the Muromachi regime followed on the heels of the Restoration's failure. In the next chapter we will see the North-South Courts Period (Nanboku-chō Period) which was an ideological battle between the shogunate with the Northern Court against the Southern Court, founded by Go-Daigo.

Japanese History

Prehistory through the Jomon Period – The Yayoi Period – The Kofun or Yamato Period – The Asuka Period – The Nara Period – The Spread of Buddhism in Japan – The Early Heian Period – The Middle Heian Period – The Late Heian Period – The Kamakura Period – The Kemmu Restoration – The Nanboku-chō Period – The Muromachi Period (Ashikaga) – The Warring States Period – The Azuchi–Momoyama Period – The Edo Period – The Meiji Restoration – The Meiji Period – The Taisho Period – The Rise of Militarism – World War II – The American Occupation of Japan – Post-War Japan – Japan Today
Further Reading