Courtiers and Warriors in Medieval Japan


A review of Divided Loyalties and Shifting Perceptions: The Jōkyū Disturbance and Courtier-Warrior Relations in Medieval Japan, by Michael McCarty.

How does our picture of medieval Japan change, when we include literary texts with their fictional elements into our research focus? This is the leitmotif of Michael McCarty’s dissertation about early medieval perceptions and identities of courtiers and warriors, in which he argues that scholars often either underestimate the usefulness of literary sources or use these sources not critically enough. The unquestionable difficulty of interpreting narrative containing fictional elements is for many historians good reason to base their research on documents like government orders or lawsuits, and to read historiographical works by separating fact from fiction. But as McCarty points out, we should make the effort to analyse all sorts of sources, considering therefore also historical tales, war tales, diaries and biographies, and move beyond our modern division of historical and literary sources to gain a better understanding of past worldviews and social realities. Even fictional elements in historiography can tell us much about people from the past. Every time we try to get some answers from our sources we thus have to think carefully about the author’s possible personal, political and ideological motives, assumptions and agendas.

As his title indicates, McCarty makes the brief war between courtiers and warriors in the summer of 1221 (named after the era, the Jōkyū-Disturbance) the pivotal point for his thorough investigation of a broad range of different sources. The significance of focussing on this war is two-fold and concerns both theme and methodology. Firstly, the Jōkyū disturbance was a crucial event for the relationship between Kyōto and Kamakura, the two largest administrative centres in thirteenth-century Japan. Secondly, the majority of the sources concerning the conflict are narrative accounts rather than primary documentation, thus allowing McCarty to showcase the usefulness of his research approach. In his introduction, McCarty provides the reader with a helpful overview of the political background, most importantly, the rule by abdicated monarchs (insei) since the eleventh century and the events leading up to the warriors’ independent government in Kamakura.

In Chapter 1 (“A New Approach to Pre-Modern Japanese Texts”), McCarty starts with a discussion of premodern sources and the changes in how English language scholarship has handled them since the 1970s. For a long time, narrative sources from the fourteenth century like the famous “Tale of the Heike” (Heike Monogatari) and “The Great Peace” (Taiheiki), chosen often for their literary qualities, had been regarded as reliable accounts of their time. With the pioneering works on institutional history by John Hall and later Jeffrey Mass, however, these narratives came to be regarded as embellished sources that had better be avoided. Nonetheless, as McCarty notes, one major source for the Kamakura period (~1180-1333), the warrior government history Azuma Kagami, has escaped the scrutiny of this approach despite its fictional elements. And with Japanese scholarship still reading many literary sources not critically enough, McCarty rightly sees the need for a “research on the Kamakura period that combines the skepticism and rigor of Massian scholarship with the wider vision and source-base utilized in current Japanese scholarship” (p. 28).

For his own analysis, McCarty consequently draws on several sorts of sources. For the perspective of the court he chooses the Gukanshō, Rokudai Shōjiki, Masukagami and excerpts from courtier diaries. For the warrior perspective he focuses mainly on the Jikojibon Jōkyūki and its extant versions with additional references to the Azuma Kagami and the Baishōron. He also impressively scrutinizes Hōjō Masako’s speech, which played a crucial role in rallying the Hōjō’s vassals against the retired monarch Go-Toba who had outlawed Yoshitoki and thereby declared war on the warrior government. A further merit of Jeffrey Mass’ scholarship is that he translated many medieval documents into English, thereby giving students and scholars alike a solid basis to work on. With his own translation of the historical tale Rokudai Shōjiki (around 1223) appended to his dissertation, McCarty himself continues this commendable service for future research on medieval history.

Chapter 2 (“Japan on the Eve of the Jōkyū Disturbance”) aims to correct previous scholarship on the period between the Genpei War (1180-1185) and the Jōkyū Disturbance. While most scholars have argued that growing resentment of the court against the new warrior power almost necessarily resulted in open warfare, McCarty’s investigation uncovers a dimension of approval and even welcomed cooperation between the warriors and the court. After the assassination of Sanetomo in 1219, for example, the hope for a peaceful solution could be found on the sides of both the Hōjō and the Fujiwara (especially the Kujō-branch). To be sure, there were many aspects in which warriors often stood in direct competition with courtier officials (e.g. land revenues), and we cannot ignore the fact that the situation before 1221 was complicated, with open and secret struggles for power inside and between both administrative centres. Nonetheless, the qualities of cooperation and shared government, fuelled by real economical concerns, prevailed in many writings. In the case of power abuse in land estates, the warrior government was in fact an “alternate source of authority that could safeguard the economic rights of courtiers, religious institutions, and even local landowners“ as well, rather than merely those of  the Hōjō’s vassals (p.102f).

The obvious question to be addressed next is how and why the Jōkyū Disturbance broke out. This problem is taken up in Chapter 3, which naturally starts its examination with Go-Toba’s actions and intensions. By including Go-Toba in the list of retired, often abdicated, but ruling monarchs, McCarty reasonably expands the earlier insei-study by Cameron Hurst (1976). He follows Japanese scholars like Uwayokote Masakato and Kouchi Shōsuke who argue that the retired monarchs, rather than the warrior government in Kamakura, provided the dominant framework for politics in the thirteenth century. But even with Go-Toba recognized as the most important political player in Kyoto, it is still not completely clear why courtiers and warriors joined his forces. Earlier scholarship by Jeffrey Mass and Hiraoka Yutaka has already illustrated that Go-Toba’s forces mostly consisted of lower-ranking warriors with no or only weak connections to the Hōjō. But even vassals to Kamakura took up arms in favour of the throne. Mass mostly considered socio-economical motives responsible for defections, but McCarty shows that there is more to be said.  In detailed case studies of a selection of historical characters, McCarty observes a variety of considerations involved in picking a side. Moreover, the considerations that proved decisive were not so much idealistic sentiments of loyalty to the royal dynasty, but rather pragmatic ones; economical disenfranchisement, family relations, personal grudges, or even sheer social pressure. McCarty further argues that it was because of this disparity of motivations, that Go-Toba’s army was not supported by a unifying goal or ideology. Instead, loyalties were fluid and constantly shifting.

In a very informative section of the same chapter, McCarty investigates the medieval war tactics during the Jōkyū Disturbance. The question is, on what material grounds Go-Toba’s forces were so quickly defeated. Whereas most primary sources explain the loss by referring to the overwhelming number of fighters on the side of the Hōjō, scholars like Thomas Conlan and Wayne Farris have demonstrated that numbers of participating warriors have mostly been exaggerated and are not reliable. Building upon these results, McCarty further draws attention to the formulaic character of proportions given in some texts. The numbers mentioned in the Jikōjibon, for example, amount to a troop force ratio of exactly 10:1 in favour of the Hōjō, thus leading to the suspicion that numbers were chosen for easy memorization, rather than their basis in reality. McCarty thus adds text-internal evidence to critique the numbers by analysing narrative sources. He thereby demonstrates the significance of these sources also for political and military history. He further elaborates this point with a look at battle tactics. To be convincing to their readers, even the most imaginative author has to refer to mutually shared conventions and conceptions. As a result, small skirmishes with only a few hundred or a thousand warriors and ad hoc tactical decisions instead of a coordinated strategy defined thirteenth-century warfare. Yet concerning the more embellished description of warriors and their qualities, McCarty observes the beginning of a long process of mythologizing that would eventually lead to warrior ideals represented in later war tales.

Considering Go-Toba’s military defeat and the on-going fragmentation of courtiers in the following decades, McCarty goes on to addresses a serious question haunting many Japanese and Western scholars. Despite their success, Hōjō Yoshitoki and his son Yasutoki refrained from replacing the royal dynasty. They sent Go-Toba and his sons into exile, but they did not replace the political system of the court with their own warrior-style kingship. What protected the Japanese monarchs from a fate so well-known to many Chinese and European rulers? Was it, as has been argued before, a kind of special royal authority or sacredness? McCarty devotes Chapter 4 (“Shock Waves”) in arguing that it was not. On the contrary, “one of the fractures reverberating around the disturbance was an increased ability to criticize and blame the emperor himself” (p. 179). Especially the Rokudai Shōjiki is a good example of such direct criticism by making Go-Toba’s actions responsible for the catastrophe. Other sources like the Rufubon Jōkyūki present their objection on a more personal level, even calling Go-Toba an ordinary man (hito), rather than a retired monarch (in) or sovereign (kimi). Similarly, the Jikōjibon Jōkyūki focuses on the monarch’s personality, his flaws, bad habits, and ignoble interests, resulting in a kind of “iconoclastic treatment” (p.166) of Go-Toba. In contrast, the Masukagami, a nostalgic historical tale written much later than the previous sources, treats Go-Toba more favourably by making his karma primarily responsible for his fate.

McCarty thus concludes that medieval writers from different backgrounds often recognized and even wrote about the contradictions of the heavenly sovereign—being the representative of a notion of divine kingship and at the same time a fallible individual—just as much in need of salvation as anyone else according to the medieval religious worldview. The “fine line between recognizing the emperor’s humanity and extolling his divinity” (p. 168), he argues, is thus not a phenomenon of modern history only, beginning with the Meiji Tennō and ending, for most Japanese, with the famous renunciation of his alleged divinity by the Shōwa Tennō Hirohito in 1946. Yet the defeat and accompanying personal losses were a shock for many courtiers, not to forget seeing warriors from lower social strata taking on such important matters as the royal succession. Their reactions to these events also differed widely, with some like the author of the Rokudai Shōjiki arguing in Confucian terms for political reforms, and others, like the authors of the travel diary Kaidōki (after 1223) or the Masukagami, lamenting in Buddhist rhetoric a fading society and the overall sadness of existence. In other words, McCarty fruitfully reads his sources also as illustrative examples of ways in which people made sense of tragic events. This is undoubtedly a topic, as he remarks, with a truly universal human and timeless dimension and not limited to early medieval Japan.

In his fifth and last chapter (“Changing Perceptions of Warriors and Courtiers”), McCarty critically engages our understanding of the “rise of the warriors” in the medieval period. By surveying the subtle changes in representations of warriors and courtiers in an array of narrative sources, McCarty is able to show that in the thirteenth century neither of them had a fixed identity yet. He reveals how layers of meaning gradually accumulated around particular episodes through added or omitted details. Later writers understood the evolving courtier-warrior relationship according to their own time and thus presented the same incidents in a different light. Writers of Muromachi period war tales, for example, thought quite differently about topics like loyalty or bravery and reshaped many stories according to their own historical background of a much harsher reality of warrior rule and civil war. A very good example of this changing perception of warrior identity is the depiction of Minamoto no Yoritomo, which became increasingly ambivalent. Narrative sources thus again allow historians to draw conclusions about socio-historical change.

In summary, McCarty shows that whereas his sources portray a wide variety of warrior behaviour and personality, the courtiers rather lacked decisive characterization. What thus constituted a “courtier” or a “warrior” was still very much in flux in these times. Our present image of medieval warriors with virtues like loyalty and bravery or of nostalgic and powerless courtiers thus has to be understood as the result of a longer process of identity formation. A consensus on what it meant to be a warrior or a courtier was reached only after some decades of textual reflection after 1221.

With his careful textual analysis McCarty closes a gap in scholarship in showing how the vague pre-thirteenth-century representations of warriors and courtiers gradually solidified into the representations that now usually inform our understanding of medieval social groups. McCarty’s results thus urge us to caution in speaking about warrior and courtier identity in a timeless manner. The modern interpretation of the medieval period in terms of two competing, self-conscious social classes thus does not suit the reality of the thirteenth century. At least until the decades of civil war in the fourteenth century, medieval courtiers were not all powerless and warriors had not yet seized political dominion.

It is with his careful and very useful translation of the Rokudai shōjiki that McCarty concludes his in-depth dissertational study of Kamakura period history, in which he has convincingly shown how a critical analysis of literary texts for historical research can improve our picture of past realities.

Daniel F. Schley
University of Munich

Primary Sources
Rokudai shōjiki 六代勝事記
Jikōjibon Jōkyūki 持光寺本承久記
Jōkyūki Rufubon 承久記流布本
Masukagami 増鏡
Azuma Kagami 吾妻鑑

Dissertation Information
Columbia University. 2013. 251 pp. Primary Advisor: David B. Lurie.

Image: “Men to shōzō (Genshoku Nihon no bijutsu, No.21)”, Shōgakukan (小学館), 1980, Wikimedia Commons.

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