Hojo Masako: The Nun Shogun

One of the unexpectedly side effects of writing this book on women warriors* is that I’m accumulating stories of amazing women who don’t fit in the book. Some of them don’t fit the definition I’ve struggled to craft. In some cases, there isn’t enough information available–or at least not enough information available in a language I read.** Or I simply have too many examples of a certain type of warrior to use them all.***

The good news? Lots of blog post material. Which brings us to Hojo Masako, known as the nun shogun. (Sometimes translated as the “nun general”–which is how she landed on my list.)

Hojo Masako

By Kikuchi Yosai (1781-1878), a Japanese painter known for his monochromatic portraits of historical figures

As the widow of the first Japanese shogun, the mother of two shoguns, and the power behind the “Hojo regency,” Hojo Masako (1157- 1225) shaped the political institutions that would define Japan for seven centuries.

At the end of the Genpei War (1180-85) Minamoto Yoritomo, seized power in Japan. Instead of toppling the ruling emperor from his throne, Yoritomo proclaimed himself the first shogun and created a new institution, the shogunate. Under the rule of the shogunate, the emperor was relegated to a secondary position and Japan was controlled by the military dictator known as the shogun.

Hojo Masako was Yoritomo’s wife. The two met when the thirteen-year-old Yoritomo was exiled to the Izu Peninsula, after his father’s defeat and death in a civil war between rival military clans.**** Masako’s father, who was the head of an unimportant warrior family on the peninsual, became Yoritomo’s guardian, or perhaps more accurately his keeper. There are numerous stories regarding the relationship between Yoritomo and Masako–including sibling rivalry, a runaway marriage, and violent jealousy.***** Many scholars believe that she played an important role in his success. It’s hard to know.

What is clear is that Masako was a powerful figure in Japanese politics after Yoritomo died in a riding accident in 1199.

His eldest son, Yoriie, succeeded him as shogun. Masako took vows as a Buddhist nun–not an unusual step for a widow at the time. But she didn’t remain secluded from the seat of power for long. She became involved in a power struggle between the new shogun’s in-laws and her own family over who would control the young shogun–a struggle that resulted in Yoriie being deposed as shogun, forced to take the tonsure of a Buddhist monk, and murdered about a year later by his own grandfather, Hojo Tokimasa. He was replaced as shogun by his eleven-year-old brother, Sanetomo. Tokimasa was now the real power in Jaapan–the shadow ruler behind a puppet shogun, who ruled behind a puppet emperor.

Two years later, Tokimasa proposed a new candidate for shogun. (Perhaps a pre-teen boy was too hard to manage?) Together Masako and her brother deposed their father and packed him off to a monastery. (They also had the pretender shogun murdered. This should not come as a surprise.) Her brother took over the official position of regent for Sanetomo and the siblings began to systematically destroy every warrior house in Japan that could be a serious competitor for power.

In 1219, Sanetomo was assassinated by his nephew. (In case you’re losing track, his father was the ill-fated Yoriie.) Masako and her brother used it as an excuse to declare martial law. They then arranged for the first of six infant puppet shoguns for whom her brother served as regent–a period known as the Hojo regency. Not surprisingly, none of them survived to take over the reins of power.

Not a role model perhaps, but undoubtedly important.

*I have mentioned that I’m writing a book on women warriors, right? (Cue the manic laughter here)
**When you’re writing a global history of anything you are inevitably dependent on the kindness of strangers secondary sources and the translations of others.
***This is a good problem to have.
****An example of a good act coming back to bite you. Most of the Minamoto allies and their children were executed, as was typical at the time. (Things weren’t much better in Europe. Execution of a defeated opponent and his sons was common. The alternate punishment was blinding and/or castration–making it impossible for said opponent to return to the battlefield or to sire sons who would want revenge. Daughters were often mutilated to take out of the marriage market and thus remove them from the gene pool as well. Nothing like the romantic Middle Ages, eh?) The head of the rival Taira clan chose instead to exile Yoritomo and his brothers. Twenty years later, the Minamoto brothers pulled together an army and kicked Taira butt.
*****Literal violence. In one story, Masako was so jealous of her husband’s interest in another woman that she sent an army to destroy his lover’s house.

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