Minamoto no Yoritomo

Minamoto no Yoritomo (Japanese 源 頼朝; * May 9, 1147;  February 9, 1199) was the third son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo. He succeeded in getting the emperor to confer on him hereditary the title of Sei-i-taishōgun (征夷大将軍), which was endowed with special powers.

Until then, the title with its powers had been conferred on a commander only for a limited time in the event of a national emergency (by which was meant the fight against the Ebisu).

The name and life of Minamoto no Yoritomo are associated with the end of the Heian period (794-1185/1192), an epoch in Japanese history, and the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

In a five-year war against the Taira, who dominated court politics, the Taira force was annihilated in the naval battle of Dan-no-ura (Gempei War).

As a result of these events, Minamoto no Yoritomo became the most powerful man in Japan on April 25, 1185: he ousted the emperor of the time and founded the samurai state, although it was actually his brother Minamoto no Yoshitsune who had fought all the important battles for him.

He was appointed Shōgun by the Tennō Go-Toba in 1192, establishing not only the Kamakura Shōgunate, but also the Ashikaga and Tokugawa Shōgunates - both families could trace back to the Minamoto.

In the Heian period, the imperial court in Kyōto dominated politics. During this period, local warlords gradually emerged in the provinces. These leaders were descendants of emperors who aspired to public office in the province.

Although the political center was still in the capital Kyōto, real political power increasingly shifted to the provinces to local nobles with descent from the Japanese imperial house.

The imperial court neutralized this newly emerged warrior class by 1185, pitting their kin against each other, as Friday (1992) points out. With Yoritomo, not only did the political center of gravity finally shift away from the imperial court to the Shōguns; the geographical epicenter of politics also resettled in the province.

The person of the Tennō was not shaken, but he was politically disempowered.

Minamoto no Yoritomo Origin

Minamoto no Yoritomo was a scion of the Minamoto clan, more specifically the Seiwa Genji branch of the family. The Minamoto family is one of the four great Japanese noble families, which also included the Taira, the Fujiwara and Tachibana, who dominated court politics during the Heian period.

These families all trace their ancestor back to a member of the Japanese imperial family. In the case of the Minamoto, the family can be traced back to Emperor Seiwa (850-880).

Yoritomo was the third son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo. He in turn was the eldest son of Minamoto no Tameyoshi. Yoritomo's father earned great merit during the Hōgen Rebellion in 1156; however, he is not as generously remembered as Taira no Kiyomori.

Minamoto no Yoritomo Early years and exile

Yoritomo was born in Atsuta (Nagoya).

In January 1160, in Yoritomo's 13th year, during a brief absence of Taira no Kiyomori from Kyōto, his father Yoshitomo decided to participate in the Heiji Rebellion.

Secondary sources are not consistent in dating. Some give 1160 as the date, while some place the start of the rebellion in 1159, since Kiyomori left with his family in December 1159 on a pilgrimage to his favorite shrine.

These sources therefore do not reckon from January, but from December, when Kiyomori left Kyōto. Yoritomo served in his father's troops.

The rebellion lasted only a short time, and Kiyomori drove the rebels out of the city, who sought their salvation by fleeing eastward (the Taira had their power base in the west of the island archipelago, particularly Kyūshū Island, while the Minamoto ancestral lands were in the east, northeast).

Yoshitomo was killed while trying to escape. In a snowstorm on Mount Ibuki of Mino Province (today: Gifu Prefecture), Yoritomo is separated from his companions. Followers of the Taira family picked him up and took him to the Taira headquarters.

Kiyomori spared Yoritomo's life due to the intercession of Ike no Zenni, Kiyomori's stepmother, a Taira noblewoman. Instead, Yoritomo was exiled to Izu Province (now Shizuoka Prefecture).

His brothers were placed in temples. Yoritomo and his brothers were still children. Yoshitomo, like his brothers, had perished in the Hogen or Heiji Rebellion. For Kiyomori, the youngest scions of the Minamoto family no longer posed a threat.

As a guardian, Kiyomori initially designated Itō Sukechika, later it became Hōjō Tokimasa from a collateral branch of the Taira family. Yoritomo is said to have had romances with the daughters of both guards. While still in exile, Yoritomo married Hōjō Masako, Tokimasa's daughter.

Tokimasa granted Yoritomo some liberties, allowing him to keep abreast of current political events in the capital, practice military activities, and eventually even maintain contact with local leaders.

When the conflict between the Taira and Minamoto broke out again, Tokimasa supported Yoritomo.

The Taira-Minamoto War

The Taira-Minamoto War, also known as the Gempei War, lasted from 1180 to 1185. The trigger was a call by Prince Mochihito to the Minamoto, loyal warriors and temples to revolt against Kiyomori and the Taira.

The call reached Yoritomo in May 1180 and he immediately began preparations for a campaign. Although the prince was killed in July, Yoritomo still decided to attack the local Taira governor.

In September 1180, Yoritomo crossed Hakone Pass into Izu at the head of a small group of Hōjō warriors.

This attack turned into a fiasco, but Yoritomo was able to escape. In the months that followed, Yoritomo received a large influx of followers, and in further conflicts he was able to successfully assert himself militarily against the Taira.

Yoritomo initially concentrated on unifying the east before moving on to take the war to the western provinces and fight the Taira.

From 1180 to 1183, Yoritomo moved into headquarters in Kamakura and built it into a political and economic base, focusing on the Kantō region. During this period, Yoritomo laid the foundation for the later military administration.

The first measure involved the selection of retainers regardless of bloodline or traditional ties. He offered protection to the various local nobles in exchange for loyalty and certain services.

The protection already manifested itself in Yoritomo confirming his domain to the nobles or even giving them new land for fief. The next measure was the expansion of Kamakura as a ruling center with administrative, religious, as well as representative buildings.

Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a relative of Yoritomo, sided with Yoritomo but refused to submit to him, making himself suspect to Yoritomo and the Taira alike. Yoshinaka succeeded in defeating the Taira forces in 1183, who took the Child Emperor Antoku with them as they fled westward.

Yoshinaka did not pursue the Taira, but settled in Kyōto. Yoritomo then dispatched his brothers Noriyori and Yoshitsune in January 1184 to subdue Yoshinaka. With the conquest of the Kyoto region, Yoritomo's status changed to protector of the imperial court.

In order to attack the Taira in the west and on the islands of Shikoku and Kyūshū, Yoritomo had a fleet built, which sailed in March 1185.

The naval battle of Dan-no-ura, at the southern tip of Honshū in Nagato Province, saw the final and decisive naval battle between Taira and Minamoto forces, which the Minamoto won. The child emperor Antoku drowned in the process.

The consolidation of rule

After the elimination of the Taira as a power factor, Yoritomo was the most powerful man in Japan. The relationship with his brother Yoshitsune remained problematic, and that the northern part of Honshū was not under his control.

Moreover, his de facto rule had not yet been confirmed by the court. Yoritomo exerted "political pressure," again aided by his former guard Hōjō Tokimasa, who acted for him on the ground.

All these problems were to be settled when Yoshitsune fled to the north from Yoritomo's henchmen.

Yoshitsune was classified as a rebel. In addition, the imperial court acceded to Yoritomo's request to grant him the authority to appoint a Shugo for the provinces and a Jitō for the fiefs, as well as a rice tax, the Hyōrōmai, of five Shō per tan on all land.

Helpful in persuading the imperial court to grant Yoritomo these rights, besides the presence of troops, was the general unrest in the country after the five years of war and turmoil.

Yoritomo was the only one who had the ability to not only appoint Shugo and Jito, but to enforce that. Although Fujiwara no Hidehira had Yoshitsune killed, Yoritomo sent troops who then conquered the northern provinces.

Yoritomo succeeded in installing Tennō Kujō Kanezane as imperial ruler and, in the following period, impressed the imperial court with his power during several meetings in Kyōto beginning in 1190. In 1192, Yoritomo was finally granted the title of Shōgun.

Minamoto no Yoritomo Death and the aftermath

In 1199, Yoritomo, now 52 years old, returned from a public ceremony. On his way home, Yoritomo was thrown from his horse and succumbed to his injuries.

After his death, his sons were successively installed as shoguns, the last being Sanemoto, with whose death in 1219 Yoritomo's own bloodline ended. The shogunate in Kamakura had established itself and was to continue in a similar form until 1868.

This continuity was ensured during the Kamakura Bakufu period by the Hōjō family, which secured important offices in the shogunate early on and eventually determined policy, while the shogun had little more representative function. An irony of history is that the Hōjō were a branch of the Taira family.

The achievements of Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Minamoto no Yoritomo's major achievement is considered to be the establishment of the first shogunate government in Japan, whose structures lasted until 1868, replacing those of the old Kyoto capital administration.

Within 20 years, Yoritomo succeeded in rising to the position of ruler over Japan without following the usual political paths. Perhaps few others could accomplish this feat at the time.

Growing up in Kyoto, Yoritomo was immersed in court life. From the age of 13, he lived as a provincial warrior. He combined in himself the characteristics of the Heian period and those of the newly dawning samurai period.

Nevertheless, the time that remained to Yoritomo was not sufficient to transfer his charisma as a leader into appropriate institutions that would have allowed his descendants to rule independently of their personal charisma.

Things to know about Minamoto no Yoritomo


Minamoto no Yoritomo is considered the founder of yabusame, a ritualized form of mounted archery.

Religious commitment

Yoritomo was a generous benefactor of many Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines. As a kami, he is venerated at Kamakura Shirahata Shrine and two Hanawo shrines in Kagoshima Prefecture, among others.

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