Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Hojo Tyranny

Under the rule of Yoritomo Japan had two capitals and two governments, the mikado ruling at Kioto, the shogun at Kamakura, the magnificent city which Yoritomo had founded. The great family of the Minamoto was now supreme, all its rivals being destroyed. A special tax for the support of the troops yielded a large revenue to the shoguns; courts were established at Kamakura; the priests, who had made much trouble, were disarmed; a powerful permanent army was established; a military chief was placed in each province beside the civil governor, and that military government was founded which for nearly seven centuries robbed the mikado of all but the semblance of power. Thus it came that the shogun, or the tycoon as he afterwards named himself; appeared to be the emperor of Japan.

We have told how Yoritomo, once a poor exile, became the lord of the empire. After conquering all his enemies he visited Kioto, where he astonished the court of the mikado by the splendor of his retinue and the magnificence of his military shows, athletic games, and ceremonial banquets. The two rulers exchanged the costliest presents, the emperor conferred all authority upon the general, and when Yoritomo returned to his capital city he held in his control the ruling power of the realm. All generals were called shoguns, but he was the  shogun, his title being Sei-i Tai Shogun (Barbarian-subjugating Great General). Though really a vassal of the emperor, he wielded the power of the emperor himself, and from 1192 until 1868 the mikados were insignificant puppets and the shoguns the real lords of the land. Such was the strange progress of political evolution in Japan. The mikado was still emperor, but the holders of this title lay buried in sloth or religious fanaticism and let their subordinates rule.

And now we have another story to tell concerning this strange political evolution. As the shoguns became paramount over the mikados, so did the Hojo, the regents of the shoguns, become paramount over them, and for nearly one hundred and fifty years these vassals of a vassal were the virtual emperors of Japan. This condition of affairs gives a curious complication to the history of that country.

In a previous tale it has been said that the father of Masago, the beautiful wife of the exiled prince, was named Hojo Tokimasa. He was a man of ability and was much esteemed and trusted by his son-in-law. After the death of Yoritomo and the accession of his son, Tokimasa became chief of the council of state, and brought up the young shogun in idleness and dissipation, wielding the power in his name. When the boy reached manhood and began to show ambition to rule, Tokimasa had him exiled to a temple and soon after assassinated. His brother, then twelve years old, succeeded as shogun. He cared nothing for power, but much for enjoyment, and the Hojo let him live his life of pleasure while they held the control of affairs. In the end he was murdered by the son of the slain shogun, who was in his turn killed by a soldier, and thus the family of Yoritomo became extinct.

From that time forward the Hojo continued pre-eminent. They were able men, and governed the country well. The shoguns were chosen by them from the Minamoto clan, boys being selected, some of them but two or three years old, who were deposed as soon as they showed a desire to rule. The same was the case with the mikados, who were also creatures of the Hojo clan. One of them who had been deposed raised an army and fought for his throne. He was defeated and exiled to a distant monastery. Others were deposed, and neither mikados nor shoguns were permitted to reign except as puppets in the bands of the powerful regents of the realm.

None of the Hojo ever claimed the office of shogun. They were content to serve as the power behind the throne. As time went on, the usual result of such a state of affairs showed itself. The able men of the Hojo family were followed by weak and vicious ones. Their tyranny and misgovernment grew unbearable. They gave themselves up to luxury and debauchery, oppressed the people by taxes to obtain means for their costly pleasures, and crushed beneath their oppressive rule the emperor, the shogun, and the people alike. Their cup of vice and tyranny at length overflowed. The day of retribution was at hand.

The son of the mikado Go-Daigo was the first to rebel. His plans were discovered by spies, and his father ordered him to retire to a monastery, in which, however, he continued to plot revenge. Go-Daigo himself next struck for the power of which he possessed but the name. Securing the aid of the Buddhist priests, he fortified Kasagi, a stronghold in Yamato. He failed in his effort. In the following year (1331) an army attacked and took Kasagi, and the emperor was taken prisoner and banished to Oki.

Connected with his exile is a story of much dramatic interest. While Go-Daigo was being borne in a palanquin to his place of banishment, under a guard of soldiers, Kojima, a young noble of his party, attempted his rescue. Gathering a party of followers, he occupied a pass in the hills through which he expected that the train would make its way. But another pass was taken, and he waited in vain.

Learning their mistake, his followers, disheartened by their failure, deserted him. But the faithful vassal cautiously followed the train, making various efforts to approach and whisper hope to the imperial exile. He was prevented by the vigilance of the guard, and finally, finding that either rescue or speech was hopeless, he hit upon a plan to baffle the vigilance of the guards and let the emperor know that friends were still at work in his behalf.

Under the shadows of night he secretly entered the garden of the inn where the party was resting, and there scraped off the outer bark of a cherry-tree, laying bare the smooth white layer within. On this he wrote the following stanza:

"O Heaven, destroy not Kosen

While Hanrei still lives."

The next morning the soldiers noticed the writing on the tree. Curious to learn its meaning, but unable to read, they showed it to their prisoner, who, being familiar with the quotation, caught, with an impulse of joy, its concealed significance. Kosen was an ancient king of China who had been deposed and made prisoner, but was afterwards restored to power by his faithful follower Hanrei. Glad to learn that loyal friends were seeking his release, the emperor went to his lonely exile with renewed hope. Kojima afterwards died on the battle-field during the war for the restoration of the exiled mikado.

But another valiant soldier was soon in the field in the interest of the exile. Nitta Yoshisada, a captain of the Hojo forces, had been sent to besiege Kusunoki, a vassal of the mikado, who held a stronghold for his imperial lord. Nitta, roused by conscience to a sense of his true duty, refused to fight against the emperor, deserted from the army, and, obtaining a commission from Go-Daigo's son, who was concealed in the mountains, he returned to his native place, raised the standard of revolt against the Hojo, and soon found himself at the head of a considerable force.

Letter writing in Japan


In thirteen days after raising the banner of revolt in favor of the mikado he reached the vicinity of Kamakura, acting under the advice of his brother, who counselled him to beard the lion in his den. The tyranny of the Hojo had spread far and wide the spirit of rebellion, and thousands flocked to the standard of the young general,—a long white pennant, near whose top were two bars of black, and under them a circle bisected with a zone of black.

On the eve of the day fixed for the attack on the city, Nitta stood on the sea-shore in front of his army, before him the ocean with blue islands visible afar, behind him lofty mountain peaks, chief among them the lordly Fusiyama. Here, removing his helmet, he uttered the following words:

"Our heavenly son [the mikado] has been deposed by his traitorous subject, and is now an exile afar in the west. I have not been able to look on this act unmoved, and have come to punish the traitors in yonder city by the aid of these loyal troops. I humbly pray you, O god of the ocean waves, to look into the purposes of my heart. If you favor me and my cause, then bid the tide to ebb and open a path beside the sea."

With these words he drew his sword and cast it with all his strength into the water. For a moment the golden hilt gleamed in the rays of the setting sun, and then the blade sank from sight. But with the dawn of the next day the soldiers saw with delight that there had been a great ebb in the tide, and that the dry strand offered a wide high-road past the rocky girdle that enclosed Kamakura. With triumphant shouts they marched along this ocean path, following a leader whom they now believed to be the chosen avenger of the gods.

From two other sides the city of the shogun was attacked. The defence was as fierce as the assault, but everywhere victory rested upon the white banner of loyalty. Nitta's army pressed resistlessly forward, and the Hojo found themselves defeated and their army destroyed. Fire completed what the sword had begun, destructive flames attacked the frame dwellings of the city, and in a few hours the great capital of the shoguns and their powerful regents was a waste of ashes.

Many of the vassals of the Hojo killed themselves rather than surrender, among them a noble named Ando, whose niece was Nitta's wife. She wrote him a letter begging him to surrender.

"My niece is the daughter of a samurai house," the old man indignantly exclaimed. "How can she make so shameless a request? And why did Nitta, who is himself a samurai, permit her to do so?" Wrapping the letter around his sword, he plunged the blade into his body and fell dead.

While Nitta was winning this signal victory, others were in arms for the mikado elsewhere, and everywhere the Hojo power went down, The people in all sections of the empire rose against the agents of the tyrants and put them to death, many thousands of the Hojo clan being slain and their power utterly destroyed. They had ruled Japan from the death of Yoritomo, in 1199, to 1333. They have since been execrated in Japan, the feeling of the people being displayed in their naming one of the destructive insects of the island the Hojo bug. Yet among the Hojo were many able rulers, and under them the empire was kept in peace and order for over a century, while art and literature flourished and many of the noblest monuments of Japanese architecture arose.

Go-Daigo was now recalled from exile and replaced on the imperial throne. For the first time for centuries the mikado had come to his own and held the power of the empire in his hands. With judgment and discretion he might have restored the old government of Japan.

But he lacked those important qualities, and quickly lost the power he had won. After a passing gleam of its old splendor the mikadoate sank into eclipse again.

Go-Daigo was ruined by listening to a flatterer, whom he raised to the highest power, while he rewarded those who had rescued him with unimportant domains. A fierce war followed, in which Ashikaga, the flatterer, was the victor, defeating and destroying his foes. Go-Daigo had pronounced him a rebel. In return he was himself deposed, and a new emperor, whom the usurper could control, was raised to the vacant throne. For three years only had the mikado remained supreme. Then for a long period the Ashikagas held the reins of power, and a tyranny like that of the Hojo existed in the land.