Painting of Hojo Masako

Painting of Hojo Masako

Hojo Masako was born in 1157 in Japan. She was the wife of the first shogun, or military commander. When he died, she became regent.

Masako was the second child and eldest daughter of a military family in the Izu Province (near present-day Tokyo). Her family was rather inconsequential, so she was not born into the life she later led. In 1160, her father became guardian to Minamoto Yoritomo, the son of a defeated Japanese noble from the capital. There are speculations about the relationship between Masako and Yoritomo, but actually facts are scarce. In any event, they did end up married, but whether that meant elopement or a love-struck jealous Masako, it is not known exactly.

The match between Masako and Yoritomo worked out in her father’s favor, as Yoritomo adeptly used his pedigree, the ambitions of local warriors, and upheavals in the imperial court to form power and authority. He established a government within the government, which had headquarters in Kamakura (southwest of present-day Tokoyo). He charged himself with overseeing Japan and the warrior class.

Minamoto Yoritomo, the first shogun of Japan

Minamoto Yoritomo, the first shogun of Japan

In 1199, Yoritomo died, and his rule passed over to his son, Yoriie. A power struggle quickly developed between Yoriie’s father in law, Hiki Yoshikazu, and his maternal relatives, the Hojo, led by Masako and his grandfather. In 1203, the feud got so great that the Hojo family directly attacked the Hiki family and eliminated them. They deposed Yoriie, and replaced him with his younger brother Sanetomo, who was only 11 years old and in need of a regency council. His maternal grandfather was the true ruler of Kamukura regime (what they called the shogunate). Two years after this, Masako and her brother deposed theor father and then reorganized the Kamakura power structure. They redefined the regime’s role in the country. Masako had recently become a larger member of the religious community, by shaving her head for religious reasons. She became known as the “nun-shogun”. Her brother became regent over the still young Sanetomo. Over the course of fifteen years, the brother and sister pair targeted and eliminated warrior houses in Japan that were potential or actual threats and competitors. They usually did this by cleverly inciting rebellion from the warrior clans.

In 1219, Sanetomo was assassinated, which gave Masako and her brother the excuse to declare martial law and became dictators over the shogunate. A very noteworthy achievement of theirs was their defeat over the army of the former emperor, which was raised and sent out to destroy the Kamakura regime. Due to this victory, they greatly expanded their rule.

Masako’s brother died in 1224. Some sources say he was poisoned by his wife, who wanted to wrest power away from the siblings and use it within her own family. Masako, who was 67 years old at the time, reportedly foiled the plot. Because of her quick thinking, she remained politically powerful until her death in 1225.

Legacy: Hojo Masako never saw battle, but is presumed to be the most important woman in Japanese military history. Her celebrity rivals that of a contemporary, Tomoe Gozen (who is on this blog) and Jingu Kogo (who is as well). Unlike Tomoe, she built her legacy on commanding warriors, instead of being one. And unlike Jingu Kogo, there is solid proof that Masako existed.

Bibliography:

Pennington, Reina. Amazons to Fighter Pilots: A Biographical Dictionary of Military Women. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2003. Print.

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