In the aftermath of the Gempei war, Minamoto Yoritomo succeeded in his aim of setting up a seat of centralised power at Kamakura to rival the established bureaucracy in Kyoto. Having done this, however, Yoritomo was faced with two major issues. Firstly, in the wake of the apparent power vacuum of war, many somewhat over-enthusiastic and unscrupulous warriors were inciting violence and unrest in the provinces, raiding farms, and towns. Secondly, despite having effectively ousted the rival Taira faction, Yoritomo still faced opposition in his effective administration and enforcement of law and order in the country from the bureaucrats in Kyoto. If he was ever going to take a firm grip on power in Japan then Yoritomo was going to have to do something drastic.
In an attempt to quell opposition and effectively exert his influence in the Imperial court in Kyoto, Yoritomo had appointed his brother, Yoshitsune as a sort of envoy to the Imperial court in 1184 , giving him the task of creating an office and thereby a foothold for Kamakura power in the capital. Unfortunately for Yoritomo, Yoshitsune soon started to become overly independent and rebellious, ignoring instructions from Kamakura. Yoritomo responded with characteristic overwhelming force, dispatching an army to Kyoto to lay his demands before the Emperor’s civil court. Yoshitsune fled north to Oshu and the Minamoto army laid bare its terms.
As a result, the Emperor Goshirakawa granted Kamakura the right to appoint the offices of Jito and Shugo. With this power in hand, Yoritomo could essentially subvert and ignore the processes of the Imperial court without having to depose the Emperor (which would have been a difficult act to pull off considering the Emperor’s position as the incarnation of a god!). It must be noted that the independence of Kamakura did not extend to all branches of government. Indeed much still rested with the bureaucrats in Kyoto, however the key power, over appointments and taxation was now held firmly by the Minamoto.
The Minamoto now needed to return the country to peace and prosperity if they were not themselves to face rebellion. Thus the office of Jito was used. The Jito was a local officer who was given an estate to hold and the responsibility for keeping order, collecting taxes and administering petty justice within his lands. Crucially, in return the Jito owed loyalty and military service to Kamakura, the seat of power that had appointed them. As the Jito were introduced, however, many whom Yoritomo had not elected to the position started claiming the title and exerting its associated privileges. These False Jito had to be stamped out, and as a result of the proliferation of pretenders, the office of Jito, while technically hereditary became incredibly fluid. This meant that it was not uncommon for Kamakura to decease even a legitimate Jito of their lands if that particular steward was causing problems. Notably in 1186, the Jito of Tamba province, Hojo Yoshitoki was removed from office. The edict, issued in the name of the now retired Emperor Goshirakawa lists the reason for this land seizure as being that “regular shrine services have been neglected” illustrating firstly just how close to home Yoritomo was willing to strike in order to maintain his legal integrity and just secondly just how minor a Jito’s misdemeanour needed to be to fall foul of the ever diligent Kamakura administrators. That said, the appointment of the Jito, for the most part, had the desired effect. Lawlessness was stamped out, taxes effectively levied and justice administered by these provincial landowners.
The Shugo had superficially analogous duties to the Jito, similarly charged with maintaining the revenues of the newly established bakufu as well as maintaining peace and administering justice. The Shugo were a rung up from the Jito however, administering whole provinces. When Yoritomo realised that the Kamakura government’s power was overstretched, especially in the north and east of the country where his government could not effectively respond to pleas from landowners to judge cases or maintain order, he came up with the Shugo as a solution. The Shugo was essentially devolved the powers of the Bakufu, but because he was only responsible for a single province, the government at Kamakura was able to keep aloof and central, able to delegate tasks to the Shugo of outlying provinces.
Along with the advent of the Shugo began the keeping of registers of vassals whose loyalty Kamakura trusted and who, therefore, were granted special privelages. These were known as gokenin. Authority for the grant of the title of gokenin was divulged by Kamakura to the Shugo, while the central government took to the practice of appointing men of low rank to the role of gokenin and Jito, reasoning that the debt that such men owed would be enough to ensure their loyalty.
Thus the beginnings of Japanese feudalism were laid, and cannot be underestimated in historical significance. Arguably Minamoto Yoritomo’s system caused Japan more problems that it solved. The eventual over independence of Shugo led to the ultimate collapse of the Kamakura government, and it was arguably sentiment from Yoritomo’s dealings with the Emperor Goshirakawa that set the precedent for maintaining the Emperor as a figurehead ruler; a status quo that would eventually make the Boshin war and Meiji restoration possible.
Jack Horatio Buckley Sharp 2016