Hojo Masako: the “Nun Warlord”

As I continue watching a Japanese historical drama, the Thirteen Lords of Kamakura, I have been delving more into the history of the Kamakura Period (12th – 14th century) of Japan, under the new military government. I know this era a lot less than I do the Heian Period, but while it is different, it is no less interesting.

The Shogunate of Kamakura, while nominally ruled by Minamoto no Yoritomo and his descendants, was actually controlled by their close allies, the Hojo (北条) clan, the same folks who gave us the Triforce symbol. Yoritomo was almost as bad as his dead rival, Taira no Kiyomori, and wasn’t above killing his various brothers and half-brothers who were potential rivals for the coveted title of Seii Shōgun (征夷将軍, generalissimo of Japan). The dynamic warlord, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (younger half-brother to Yoritomo) was killed shortly after earning the title from the Emperor, allowing Yoritomo to get the title himself by default.

In any case, for all of Yoritomo’s titles and power, he was less effective as a ruler, and the Hojo clan filled in this crucial role as regents and other administrative roles. The most important of these was in fact, Yoritomo’s wife, Hojo Masako. When Yoritomo died from illness a few years later, it was Hojo Masako, who by now took tonsure as a Buddhist nun, who filled in the role at a crucial time in Japan and kept things together. So effective was she at ruling Japan, that she earned the title ama shōgun (尼将軍), or “Nun Shogun” / “Nun Warlord” and so on.

Hojo Masako spying on one of her husband’s love trysts, painting by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1840’s) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In many ways, Hojo Masako fulfills a similar role to that of Empress Irene of the Byzantines: someone who has excellent leadership skills, but is prevented from openly leading armies by paternalistic society, so she played the role of a pious wife (later widow), while carefully pulling the strings.

As the wife of Minamoto no Yoritomo, she had to protect her family and descendants from Minamoto no Yoritomo’s constant philandering, but once he was gone, she stepped in to guide the Regency while her son and second shogun grew up. The Hojo clan regency was the true force behind the Shogunate, but as her son was now a member of that clan, she also wanted to ensure that lineage was safe from rival claimants. She is portrayed as crafty, but level-headed and responsible in contrast to her moody, and reckless husband.

Hojo Masako as played in the current drama, The Thirteen Lords of Kamakura, by the incredibly lovely and talented Koike Eiko.

So, what did Hojo Masako do that earned her such a prestigious title? When Minamoto no Yoritomo had prevailed over the Heike (Taira) Clan, he was the dominant power, but the title of Seii Shōgun wasn’t given willingly by the Emperor. In fact, the Emperor’s grandson, later Emperor Gotoba, would make one last effort to wrest true political authority. He rallied a large number of samurai clans, primarily from the West, away from the new capitol of Kamakura, with promises of titles and land.

The samurai clans allied to Minamoto no Yoritomo wavered in support. Going against the Emperor was never part of the deal, they rallied to stop the Heike Clan only, and they were hesitant to take up arms against their sovereign.

Hojo Masako, according to the Azuma Kagami, was said to have made the following speech:



“Since the days when Yoritomo, the late Captain of the Right, put down the court’s enemies and founded the Kantō regime, the obligations you have incurred for offices, ranks, emoluments, and stipends have in their sum become higher than mountains and deeper than the sea. You must, I am sure, be eager to repay them. Because of the slander of traitors, an unrighteous imperial order has now been issued.

Those of you who value your reputations will wish to kill [Fujiwara no] Hideyasu, [Miura] Taneyoshi, and the others at once in order to secure the patrimony of the three generations of shoguns. If any of you wish to join the ex-emperor, speak out.”

Translation by McCullough, William (1968). “The Azuma Kagami Account of the Shōkyū War”. Monumenta Nipponica. Tokyo: Sophia University. 23 (1/2): 102–155.

It is said that this put some backbone in the Shogun’s allies and they were able to crush Emperor Gotoba’s army, finally ending resistance from Kyoto. Later she was dispatched by her brother the regent to try and heal the political divide with Emperor Gotoba, among other important tasks. By the time she passed away, she attained the rank of Second Junior in the Imperial Court (still around, but largely ceremonial now), which is very high for someone of a more humble, warrior-class family.

Schoolchildren in Japan often learn about Hojo Masako when they learn Japanese history, including the famous phrase 山よりも高く、海よりも深い from the speech above: yama yori mo takaku, umi yori mo fukai (“[kindness is] higher than a mountain, and deeper than an ocean”). She was dynamic, intelligent, and charismatic leader who held together a fragile alliance of clans in a force that could resist Imperial power, and maintain a dynasty that lasted for 200 years.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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