The Man Who Held It All Together: Hojo no Yoshitoki

I’ve talked about several aspects (and people) of a fascinating by tumultuous period of Japanese history from the late 12th to the early 13th centuries. The climatic battle between the Genji (Minamoto) and Heike (Taira) clans led to the establishment of Japan’s first military government (a Shogunate) away from the aristocratic Imperial court. This new “Kamakura Shogunate” was a fragile set of alliances, punctuated by more than a few shady murders by rivals.

So for today, I wanted to focus on the one man who, in spite of everything, managed to hold this house of cards together: Hōjō no Yoshitoki (北条義時, 1163 – 1224).1

Cover for “北条義時 歴史を変えた人物伝” (“Yoshitoki: Biographies of Figures Who Changed History”), available through Kodansha Press. I happened to buy this book early in 2022 and have been reading it from time to time.

Hojo no Yoshitoki was the younger brother of the famous “Nun Warlord” Hojo no Masako, and later became head of the Hojo clan after his older brother died in war, and his father was exiled by Masako.

Yoshitoki served as the “regent” of the Shoguns, eventually becoming the de facto ruler. I watched the NHK “Taiga Drama” series, The 13 Lords of the Shogun,2 and was super excited to visit the city of Kamakura once again (more on that in a later post) when we visited in December. One of the first things I noticed was how prominent the drama, and in particular Hojo no Yoshitoki were. His visage was everywhere:

Hojo no Yoshitoki in the center, surrounded by the other 13 lords on a box of chocolate mochi. The mochi was excellent, by the way.
A billboard in Kamakura featuring the museum exhibit for the show. Note the “triforce” in the background, the symbol of the Hojo clan.

The drama portrays Hojo no Yoshitoki as a somewhat tragic, but stalwart figure. He serves the new Shoguns as their close advisor and ally, but also they force his hand sometimes to do the dirty work necessary to keep the Shogunate functioning. As he gets older, and the subsequent Shoguns are increasingly ineffective, he steps in his role as shikken (執権) and asserts control along with his sister Masako. Thus, the Shogunate centered in the city of Kamakura was effectively run by the Hojo clan and Yoshitoki in particular.

A poster for The 13 Lords of the Shogun, portraying Hojo no Yoshitoki (played by Oguri Shun). All rights held by NHK.

Yoshitoki’s story, like his sister Masako’s, is pretty dramatic. His father, Hojo no Tokimasa, allied himself with Minamoto no Yoritomo who later led the Genji clan as they rallied back and destroyed the Heike. This was a big deal since the Hojo were descended from the Heike, but for various reasons had fallen out with them. The Hojo’s alliance also convinced other local warlords to side with the Genji as well. The Hojo were the glue that made it all happen.

The trouble was was that after the war was over, the shoguns weren’t particularly great rulers. Yoritomo, the first shogun, was mercurial and had many of his rivals killed including his various half-brothers (often forcing Yoshitoki to get involved). He also slept around a lot, infuriating his wife Hojo no Masako. The second shogun, Yoriie,3 was combative and had little patience for the subtleties of government, and was eventually stripped of his power by his retainers. He plotted to overthrow the Hojo, but failed. Yoriie’s younger brother Minamoto no Sanetomo was a more gentle figure, but had little power or force of will, and by this point the shogun’s power was so diminished that it was little more than a fancy title. Then, Sanetomo was killed by his nephew (Yoriie’s second son) Kugyo, ending the Minamoto line.

And that was all before the Emperor Gotoba attempted to restore the power of the Imperial Court through the Jokyu War. Hojo no Masako’s role in rallying the troops has been covered in other posts, but Yoshitoki had a strong hand in this too.

In fact, while brother and sister frequently clashed with one another, they still worked together to keep everything functioning. Yoshitoki often functioned as the administrator, while Masako was the “spirit” behind everything, especially after her husband died, and especially when they had to exile their own father Hojo no Tokimasa for his autocratic tendencies.

Sadly, due to holiday schedule, and traveling, I missed the final episodes of the NHK drama, so I don’t know how it ended (I have already pre-ordered the DVDs), but it’s clear that Yoshitoki and his sister Masako held the government together under very difficult circumstances.

The manga above is just one of several published over the years that I found covering the life of Hojo no Yoshitoki. He is a figure regarded in Japanese history as an able leader, a loyal retainer to the Shogun, and while his hands weren’t clean, he still came out of it all with a good reputation. Given how much backstabbing and plotting went on by his family, his allies, and his enemies, that no small feat.

Yoshitoki was, to put it mildly, the man who held it all together.

P.S. Japanese family names precede given names, hence Hojo the family name comes first. Also, in Japanese antiquity, the “no” was used by people of pedigree, implying they were from an important clan or house. Hence, Minamoto no Yoritomo would, roughly translated into English, mean “Yoritomo of the House of Minamoto”.

1 In Japanese ō and o are pronounced the same (e.g. as “oh”), but ō is two beats, while o is just one beat. This may seem odd to English speakers, and to us it sounds the same, but it makes a big difference in pronouncing Japanese correctly. More on that in a latter post. For the purposes of this post, Hojo and Hōjō are basically the same.

2 I originally mistranslated 鎌倉殿の13人 as The 13 Lords of Kamakura in earlier posts … oops.

3 Pronounced like Yo-ri-i-e (it’s easier to parse in Japanese than in Romanized script).

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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