Hojo Masako (1157–1225)

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Hōjo Masako (1157–1225)

Japanese regent who significantly strengthened the rule of the Kamakura Shōgunate, the warrior government of medieval Japan, which had been established by her husband Minamoto no Yoritomo. Name variations: Hojo Masako; popularly known as "the nun-general." Pronunciation: HOE-joe mah-SAH-koe. Born in Izu Province, Japan, in 1157; died in Kamakura, Japan, in 1225; eldest daughter of Hōjo Tokimasa, a warrior; married Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–1199), shōgun, founder of the Kamakura Shōgunate; children: (sons) Yoriie and Sanetomo; (daughters) Ohime and one other.

"Hōjo Masako … was one of the most powerful and influential women the male-dominated society of pre-modern Japan ever produced," writes Kenneth D. Butler. "Depending on one's viewpoint, she is also either one of the most tragic or one of the most Machiavellian figures in Japanese history." Hōjo Masako significantly strengthened the rule of the Kamakura Shōgunate, the warrior government in which a military general (shōgun) governed on behalf of the emperor. Historical chronicles have portrayed her as a treacherous schemer, but her reputation has been rescued by feminist historian Nagai Michiko , who has interpreted Masako more positively, in the context of medieval Japanese marriage practices and family customs.

Against the wishes of her father, who wanted to arrange her marriage to another warrior, Masako married her childhood sweetheart, Minamoto no Yoritomo, in 1177. At the time, Yoritomo was bringing warrior groups of Japan under his control. In 1185, he decisively defeated his enemies and established the Kamakura Shōgunate, becoming the first shōgun. Masako's relationship with Yoritomo was troubled because of his interest in other women. In one particularly infamous incident, Masako hired goons to destroy the house of one of her rivals. Motivated in part by jealousy, she was nevertheless exercising a socially accepted practice of defending her status as Yoritomo's main wife and protecting her son's right to succession.

After Yoritomo's death in 1199, Masako became a Buddhist nun, but she continued her involvement in politics, choosing a successor to her husband. Masako became regent for her elder son. Eventually with the assistance of her natal family, in the first of many moves which earned her a reputation for treachery, she deposed him for his incompetence. She would subsequently repeat this act with her younger son. Historical chronicles have interpreted these deeds as evidence of her favoring her natal family over her own sons. In reality, she had not been permitted to raise her sons—custom dictated that they be raised by foster families—and they were generally thought to have been unfit for ruling the warrior government. Later, Masako exiled her father when he attempted to conspire against her. She appears to have placed the highest value on maintaining and strengthening the shōgunate government.

In 1221, when the emperor tried to regain the political authority lost to the shōgunate and declared against Masako, she rallied warriors to defeat him (the Jokyu Disturbance). Until her death, four years later, Masako ruled the shōgunate through the Hōjo (her natal family) regents.

sources:

Beard, Mary. Women as a Force in Japanese History. Washington DC: Public Affairs Press. 1953.

Benton, Margaret Fukazawa. "Hōjo Masako: The Dowager Shōgun," in Heroic With Grace: Legendary Women of Japan. Chieko Irie Mulhern, ed. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. 1991, pp. 162–207.

Butler, Kenneth B. "Woman of Power Behind the Kamakura Bakufu," in Great Historical Figures of Japan. Murakami Hyoe and Thomas J. Harper, eds. Tokyo: Japan Cultural Institute, 1978, pp. 91–101.

Linda L. Johnson , Professor of History, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota

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