The Rise of the Minamoto: Japan’s First Shogunate

The samurai, through most of Japan’s history, were the ruling warrior class. But that wasn’t always so. Discover how Japan transitioned under the Minamoto.

Apr 16, 2024By Michael Smathers, BA HIstory w/ focus on Medieval Periods

rise minamoto japan first shogunate


Japan, 1180. For decades, the Chrysanthemum Throne had been under the tentative sway of two rival families: the Taira and the Minamoto, both of them vying for control of the Imperial Court and with it, power over the whole of Japan. The Taira at the time was by far the most dominant power, having seeded family members throughout the court in positions of power and influence, as well as owning land all across the country. The Minamoto had been largely disgraced because they sided with an unfavored contender for the throne and were  exiled from the capital.


The Taira Rise to Power

taira o kiyomori
Taira No Kiyomori, c. 1300, Source: Archives Japan


The Taira clan consisted of members of the royal family who had been stripped of their rank and given positions of nobility by Emperor Kanmu, who reigned from 782 to 805 CE. This was done to prevent confusion when passing rulership down. Otherwise, the grandsons and relatives of previous Emperors would potentially compete for succession by claiming legitimacy. Of course, this ended up happening anyway despite his efforts. Even an Emperor who abdicated the throne could still wield enormous influence, making their endorsement invaluable for aspiring nobles.


The main figure in this conflict on the Taira side was Taira Kiyomori, the ruler of the clan in the latter half of the 1100s. Kiyomori supported the former Emperor Go-Shirakawa, and during the Heiji Incident of 1156, saved him from the Minamoto. As a reward, Kiyomori became daijo daijin, the highest office of the government aside from the throne itself. Using this power, he seeded loyal followers throughout the provinces and made use of the Taira skill at seafaring to bolster their trade relations with Song China. The Taira clan were also called the “Heike,” the on’yomi (Sino-Japanese) reading of the kanji for their name.


Enter the Minamoto

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Minamoto no Yoshitomo, by Yashima Gakutei, 1821, Source:


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Like the Taira, the Minamoto were another branch of the Emperor’s lineage and one of the most numerous. At its height, the clan contained 21 branches, several of whom would figure prominently in later eras, with both the Ashikaga and Tokugawa shogunates claiming descent from the Minamoto. Here we will look at the Seiwa Genji—“Genji” being the on’yomi reading of the kanji for “Minamoto.”


Almost from their inception, the Minamoto had a reputation as fierce warriors, and Takeda Shingen would continue their legacy centuries later. The Fujiwara, another once-powerful clan who were often imperial regents, allied with them in this period in the hope that maybe they could one day use the Minamoto as a boost to reclaim the power and influence they had previously held. Some of the Minamoto were indeed skilled warriors, but skill at arms alone would not prevail. They needed to also have skills in diplomacy, negotiation, and subterfuge to succeed.


The Heiji Rebellion and the Exile of the Minamoto

Night Attack on Sanjo Palace, 13th century, Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts


When Taira Kiyomori took some time out to make a pilgrimage, Minamoto Yoshitomo seized the opportunity to take the palace and oust the Taira clan from power. Alongside him was Fujiwara Nobuyori.


Unfortunately for Yoshitomo, although the initial assault was successful, he didn’t plan his next move or make any decisive entrenching actions, which allowed Kiyomori to return and regain control. Yoshitomo was killed, but his three youngest sons Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune were only exiled. Yoritomo and Noriyori went to Izu, while Yoshitsune went to Kurama-dera and studied with the monks there before relocating to the north of Japan.


Beginnings of the Genpei War

Actor as Emperor Antoku with Tsuki-no-tsubone, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1856, Source:


The Genpei War — named after the alternate readings of the kanji of the two clans — began in 1180, when Taira Kiyomori installed his grandson Antoku as Emperor after the prior Emperor abdicated. Antoku at the time was barely a toddler. The Crown Prince Mochihito, having been denied his presumed rightful place, sent out a rallying call to those who wished to see the downfall of the Taira. Minamoto Yorimasa answered, gathering a group of warriors to his banner and marching on Kyoto. After a failed assault on the palace, they fled across the Uji River and lit the fires of rebellion.


Yoritomo Minamoto, the eldest son of Yoshitomo, rapidly took over the Kanto region and the other eastern provinces. His charisma, battle acumen, and a dose of already-present hatred of the Taira allowed him to gain a large army sufficient to challenge them. The Battle of Fujikawa was the death knell for the idea of unquestioned Taira supremacy: The Taira army broke and fled from the encroaching Minamoto forces.


The stress of dealing with the Minamoto and uprisings in other provinces led to Taira Kiyomori’s death by illness in 1181, and his second son took over the clan leadership but did not measure up to Kiyomori’s abilities. His first son, on the other hand, had already perished.


The Yowa Famine

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Pictures of Flowers of Japan, by Ogata Gekko,1898, Source: Japanese Prints


In any agrarian society, the prevailing weather can mean the difference between life and death. Starting in 1180, the Yowa Famine, which lasted over two years, ravaged western Japan. Food stockpiles depleted because not enough could grow and the various armies throughout the countryside took what was left. Death from starvation was rampant in the western provinces, and the Taira could not sustain their assault on the Minamoto.


While the Taira ruled Japan from the capital, the Imperial court lay low. Like everyone else, they were starving; to get food, they would often try to sell their precious treasures, with limited success. After all, during a famine, no one cares about gold or gemstones. The people of the city fled to the nearby mountains hoping to make their way in the wild.


Yoritomo offered peace if the Taira would recognize the Minamoto clan’s rule of eastern Japan, but this was rejected. Little did the Taira know that Yoritomo was in secret contact with Go-Shirakawa, convincing him to push the court into legitimizing the secondary government of the Minamoto. Their warriors also received the authority to act as peacekeepers throughout Japan, suppressing uprisings, protecting the interests of the nobility and laying the groundwork for samurai rule.


Kiso Yoshinaka and the Flight of the Child Emperor

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Tomoe Gozen, by Kitao Masayoshi, Edo Period, Source:


While Yoritomo held the Kanto plain, Yoshitsune became a ward of the Fujiwara remnants in the north. A distant Minamoto cousin Yoshinaka (who took the surname Kiso for the mountain range in his home province) fought to the northwest in Shinano. Yoshinaka was a fearless and impetuous general who, rather than focus on the larger goal of Minamoto independence, simply wanted to fight the Taira on his own terms. With the aid of his consort Tomoe Gozen, his army took over Kyoto. The remaining Taira fled, taking Emperor Antoku and the Imperial Regalia with them to the west.


Yoshinaka decided that because he had been the one to conquer the city, leadership of the Minamoto clan should be his by right of conquest. He had no sense of rulership, etiquette, or any of the other qualities that had allowed Yoritomo to be successful. Yoritomo commanded his brothers Yoshitsune and Noriyori to eliminate the wayward Yoshinaka, which they did at the Battle of Awazu. The legend of Tomoe (as well as Tomoe herself) and Yoshinaka’s last stand has seen numerous depictions in pop culture.


Yoshitsune’s Campaign

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The Battle of Ichi-no-Tani, on folding screen, late 1600s, Source: Wikimedia Commons


After Yoshinaka’s death and the flight of the Taira and the Emperor, Yoritomo commanded Yoshitsune and Noriyori to pursue them, wiping out any opposition. Their first target was the fortress of Ichi-no-tani. It was heavily defended from three directions; the rear was set against a steep cliff. Yoshitsune led his men in a near-impossible ride down the slope, taking the fortress easily and thus depriving the Taira of a critical supply point and foothold on the mainland. They retreated again, this time to Yashima in Shikoku.


Noriyori split his force from Yoshitsune and made his way along the coastline, harried by Taira detachments and ships the whole way, but he made it to the tip of Honshu before sailing to land further down Kyushu and holding position in the face of starvation. Meanwhile, Yoshitsune accumulated victory after victory on land. Because people wanted to be on the winning side and saw a chance at freedom from the Taira, they supplied ships and warriors to his army.


Although the formal code of bushido did not exist at the time, Yoshitsune is held up as an early exemplar of what a samurai should be: brave, skilled, loyal, and noble.



utagawa yoshitoshi yoshitsune dan no ura
Yoshitsune Leaps Over Eight Boats, by Utagawa Yoshitoshi, 19th century, Source: The Art of Japan


Yoshitsune used his newfound naval power to sail through the Seto Inland Sea. His fleet engaged the Taira fleet at Dan-no-Ura, a beach at Shimonoseki Strait, on April 25, 1185. The Minamoto had 300 ships and the Taira had 500. The Minamoto army had also taken a hostage, the son of one Taguchi Shigeyoshi, a Taira general.


At first, the prevailing tide allowed the Taira fleet to maneuver freely. The two fleets exchanged arrow volleys until the tide shifted, robbing the Taira of their advantage. The Minamoto closed distance, keeping their ships in tight formation to, in effect, fight a land battle at sea, similar to what the Mongols would try a century later.


Taguchi Shigeyoshi, who was at the rear of the Taira fleet, defected and fought alongside the Minamoto, also revealing the location of Emperor Antoku’s flagship. Antoku’s grandmother leapt overboard, taking the child Emperor as well as the Imperial Regalia with them and sank to the bottom of the sea rather than facing capture and execution or torture at enemy hands. To this day the sacred sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi has not been found, although a replica was made. The Taira were utterly defeated.


The Kamakura Shogunate

Hunting at the Foot of Mount Fuji, by Utagawa Kunisada, 1820, Source: Japanese Prints


After the defeat of the Taira, Yoritomo decided he wanted no competition and eliminated his loyal commanders Yoshitsune and Noriyori. In 1199, after defeating the remnants of the northern Fujiwara, Yoritomo received the title of sei-i-taishogun (lit. “commander of the barbarian-quelling army”) and ruled from his capital at Kamakura. The Kamakura Shogunate would last for 150 years, laying the foundation for samurai rule through the Ashikaga and Tokugawa shogunates until the Meiji Restoration, in 1867.

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By Michael SmathersBA HIstory w/ focus on Medieval PeriodsI am an avid student of history with a focus on medieval periods, specifically the Kamakura period of Japan. I am four years into a BA in history at the University of West Georgia. I also study various martial arts disciplines and have an interest in ancient mythologies.