The Jokyu Rebellion: How Japan’s Imperial Family Failed to Retake Control of Their Nation

Tomb of Emperor Go-Toba and Emperor Juntoku, Kyoto
Tomb of Emperor Go-Toba and Emperor Juntoku, Kyoto

When a rebellion breaks out in an empire, it is usually against the emperor. During the Jokyu Rebellion of 1221, the Japanese Imperial family rebelled in an attempt to retake control of their nation.

Emperor, Shogun, Regent

Feudal Japanese politics was a strange system of layered figureheads. In principle, the country was led by the emperor, but he was so busy partaking in ceremonies he could only wield power after abdicating; when he ruled from behind his son’s throne.

Those ex-emperors were less relevant because of the shogunate. The shogun was a military dictator. In theory, he was a servant of the emperor. In reality, the shoguns ran the country, reducing the emperor to a figurehead and depriving the ex-emperor of power.

For most of the 13th century, there was an extra layer. The shogunate was weak. Real power lay with regents from the Hojo clan, who supposedly ruled in the shogun’s name. They kept the shoguns weak to retain their power. From 1219 to 1226 there was not even a shogun.

The Ex-Emperor Go-Toba

Into this mess stepped Go-Toba. In 1184, he became emperor at the age of four. He grew up within the shell game of Japanese politics. In 1198, he abdicated in favor of his son. He did not obtain the permission of the shogun but got away with it due to a tumultuous period during which the shogun was assassinated.

For the next 20 years, he lived in relative peace.

In 1219, the last of the Minamoto shoguns was assassinated. Hojo Yoshitoki, whose family had been regents since the shogun inherited his position at the age of 12, now had a chance to consolidate his power. He sought Go-Toba’s approval for a new shogun; a puppet Hojo could control.

Go-Toba found reasons to reject Hojo’s suggestions, maintaining the weakness of both the shogunate and the regent who ruled in its name. Meanwhile, he courted families whose military strength could help him restore the imperial family to real power.

The Sohei Rise

Outside the imperial city of Kyoto, Mount Hiei was occupied by warrior monks called sohei. As the defenders of their temples, the sohei had played an important part in previous wars.

In 1219, the sohei began to stir again. Old rivalries led to fresh violence. A land dispute brought them to descend from Mount Hiei and flex their muscles against Kyoto.

Go-Toba broke the sohei rising with a well-timed attack by his palace samurai.

Enemies Made Into Friends

The cunning ex-emperor now took the opportunity the sohei presented. A force of armed holy warriors was camped on his doorstep – why not turn them to use?

Instead of launching a revenge attack against their temple, he made a plea to them for support. The warriors of the east, as exemplified by the shogun and the regent, had shown little respect for the religious traditions of the monks. If they joined forces with him, together they could restore the dignity of the sohei and overthrow the shogunate in the emperor’s name.

Emboldened by his success, Go-Toba decided it was time to put his plan in motion.

An Imperial Revolt

On June 6, 1221, Go-Toba began his revolt. A royal decree announced that the Regent Hojo was an outlaw. Three days later, another decree declared that eastern Japan was in revolt.

The wording of those decrees was designed to gain the moral high ground. The east included Kamakura, from where the shogun and regent governed the country. Like rebels throughout history, Go-Toba was painting himself as the representative of legal power. The easterners were rebels defying the will of the emperor, and they needed to be put down.

Advance on Kyoto

At first, Hojo considered taking a defensive position. By closing mountain passes, he could block an attack on Kamakura by Go-Toba’s alliance of sohei and samurai.

Hojo had not gained power through such strategies. Instead, the regent’s forces set out toward Kyoto. They advanced in three columns – one along the coast, one through the mountains, and one around Lake Biwa to attack from the north.

The northern column faced the stiffest resistance. There were clans in the region who had never accepted the authority of the Kamakura shogunate. They fought against the advancing army.

Meanwhile, most of the sohei refused to come down from Mount Hiei and help the emperor. He was left with an army of nervous and inexperienced troops. They chose the Uji River as a defensive place to fight.

The Third Battle of Uji

On July 5, 1221, the forces of the ex-emperor Go-Toba made their stand. On the bridges of Uji and Seta, they tried to hold back the enemy forces advancing on Kyoto.

It was a desperate struggle fought through a long, hot summer’s day. Hojo’s strategy of a swift attack had paid off. Only a month after Go-Toba’s decrees, the regent was already hammering at his enemy’s door. There had been little time for dissatisfied lords to gather their forces and join the emperor, or for Go-Toba to talk more clans into joining his revolt.

The small and inexperienced army available to the ex-emperor was pushed back by the Hojo army. Despite heavy losses, the regent’s troops crossed the River Uji.

The End

Go-Toba’s forces retreated from Kyoto. Some of them burned and looted as they went.

Advance scouts from Hojo’s approaching army prepared the damaged city for their leader’s arrival. On July 6, Hojo’s eldest son made a grand entrance into the city, asserting his father’s authority. Go-Toba made his formal surrender, giving up on his short-lived act of defiance.

Go-Toba was banished into exile. Lands were confiscated from the rebels in punishment.

Hojo had shown that, even without a shogun to give his power a shroud of legitimacy, he could keep Japan under control.


Stephen Turnbull (1987), Samurai Warriors

Andrew Knighton

Andrew Knighton is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE