Genko War, 1331-33

Major Figures
Outbreak of War
The Period of Resistance
Fall of Kamakura


The Genko War (1331-33) was a struggle between the supporters of the Emperor Go-Daigo and the Kamakura Shogunate which ended as an Imperial victory and led to the short-lived Kemmu restoration, the only period in which the Emperor held direct power between 1192 and the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the nineteenth century.

Although Japan was officially ruled by a line of emperors who claimed descent from the sun goddess, real power lay with the Shogunate. This was a military government which had first emerged after the Gempei War (1180-85), in which the Minamoto clan defeated their great rivals of the Taira. In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo was given the title of shogun, officially recognising his authority. This date marked the foundation of the Kamakura Shogunate (or Kamakura Bakufu), named after Yoritomo's base at the city of Kamakura. The situation became more complex after Yorimoto's death. His heirs were less competent, and in 1203 power was seized by the Hojo family. They ruled as shikken, or regents, for the shoguns. The shogun himself became little more than a figurehead, and by the end of the Kamakura Shogunate the post was held by members of the Imperial family. 

Since the death of the Emperor Go-Saga in 1272 the Imperial cause had been weakened by a dispute within the Imperial family. This began with Go-Saga, who reigned from 1242 to 1246 when he abdicated. Go-Saga became a 'cloistered emperor', retaining much of his power. He was followed by his fourth son, Emperor Go-Fukakusa. In 1259 Go-Saga forced Go-Fukakusa to abdicate in favour of Go Saga's seventh son, Emperor Kameyama. Go-Fukakusa founded the senior line of the Imperial family, Kameyama founded the junior line.

In 1272 Go-Saga died, and in 1274 Kameyama abdicated in favour of his son. This made him the second Emperor from the junior line, and in 1287 the retired Emperor Go-Fukakusa began to dispute this succession, and he was able to push his own son onto the throne. The Shogunate forced the two branches to accept a compromise, with the throne alternating between the two. When one branch had the Emperor, the other had the heir to the throne. A series of four short reigns followed, none lasting more than eleven years.

In 1318 Go-Daigo of the junior line came to the throne. He soon made it clear that he had no intention of abdicating, and would rule for the rest of his life. This act of defiance meant that a clash with the Shogunate was probably inevitable, and would have come at the point when they decided it was time for the senior branch to take the throne. In 1321 Go-Daigo made a second important step when he abolished the cloistered government, removing the power of the increasing number of abdicated former emperors. Until this point most of Go-Daigo's duties had been ceremonial, while the cloistered emperors had held what limited power remained with the court. From 1321 Go-Daigo attempted to combine those roles.

In the same year the Japanese era name was changed to Genko, but this first Genko era only lasted for three years and should not be confused with the Genko era that began in 1331 and gave its name to the civil war. This second Genko era would have different lengths in the Northern and Southern Courts. In the Southern Court, where Go-Daigo remained emperor, the era lasted from 1331-34. In the Northern Court, where a prince of the senior line was crowned in 1332 the second Genko era ended in that year. The two courts then used different eras until the end of the Southern and Northern courts period in 1392.

Go-Daigo thus had a period of ten years, between the abolition of cloister rule in 1321 and the outbreak of civil war in 1331 to try and reform the Imperial government. He revived the Record Office, once an important body of government and made it into a court of law. The formal offices of the cloister system were taken over by Imperial appointees and new advisory councils were created.

At the same time Go-Daigo and his supporters began to prepare for an open break with the Shogunate. The first major plot against the Bakufu was discovered in 1324. Go-Daigo's supporters had formed a society called the 'Free-and-Easy', which held parties at which normal social conventions were ignored, a move that allowed junior and senior conspirators to talk without the normal limits. These meetings and their purpose soon became general knowledge in Kyoto, but not at the Bakufu's Kyoto headquarters, the Rokuhara. However one plot against the Shogunate was uncovered in 1324, the lead plotters arrested and the scheme disrupted. The Bakufu responded with surprising moderation at this point, accepting the Emperor's denial of involvement and only inflicting light punishments.

Over the next few years the Emperor continued to prepare for an open break. He made sure that some of his sons held positions of power in the important monasteries. These great monasteries were also great military powers and a super source of information. Go-Daigo hoped that the monks would win a victory that would encourage nearby warriors to join his cause, giving him a chance against the Shogunate.

Major Figures

Emperor Go-Diago

Go-Daigo was born in 1288 and was the son of the Emperor Go-Uda. His father abdicated in the year before Go-Daigo's birth, during a period in which the Imperial title alternated between two branches of the Imperial family. Go-Daigo became heir to the throne in 1308 and acceded to the throne in 1318. He soon made it clear that he wasn't going to abdicate after a short reign, and prepared to resist the Shogunate. He was in exile from 1332, and the Shogunate installed a prince from the senior line as Emperor Kogon. Go-Daigo returned from exile in 1333 and began a short period of personal rule. This Kemmu Restoration was short-lived. Go-Daigo failed to keep the support of many of the warriors who had restored him to the throne. Ashikaga Takauji led a successful rebellion and seized Kyoto. Go-Daigo fled to Yoshino, beginning the long civil war of the Nanboku-cho period (Northern and Southern Courts period). Go-Daigo died in 1339, and was succeeded in the southern court by his son Noriyoshi, who became the Emperor Go-Murakami.

Prince Morinaga or Prince Daito (1308-1335)

Also known as Prince Daito (Prince of the Great Pagoda) or by his Buddhist name of Prince So'nun.

Prince Morinaga was the third son of Go-Diago. His father appointed him an abbot of the Enryaku-ji temple on Mount Hiei, a major Buddhist centre. Morinaga's role was to gain the support of the powerful warrior monks of Mount Hiei and to gather intelligence for his father. After the outbreak of the Genko War Prince Morinaga helped keep his father's cause alive, successfully resisting the Bakufu until several supports of the Bakufu changed sides, overthrowing the Kamakura Shogunate.

Ashikaga Takauji

Ashikaga Takauji was a high ranking supporter of the Shogunate who decided to rebel against them during 1333. He led his army into the Imperial camp and took part in the successful attack on Kyoto that ended the Shogunate's power in the west. He soon rebelled against Go-Daigo and installed an alternative Emperor from the senior line, beginning a long period of civil war (the Nanboku-cho or South and North Courts Period). 

Nitta Yoshisada

Nitta Yoshisada was another high ranking supporter of the Shogunate who chose to rebel against them during 1333. He led the campaign that ended in the capture of Kamakura and the destruction of the Hojo family. He was an opponent of Ashikaga Takauji, and after Ashikaga's revolt remained loyal to the Emperor Go-Daigo. He committed suicide during a siege in 1338.

Hojo Takatoki

Hojo Takatoki was the last ruler of the Kamakura Shogunate, although by the time of the Genko War he wasn't officially the Hojo Regent (Shikken), having retired into a monastery in 1326 after an illness. His immediate successor lasted for less than a year, and the last official Shikken, Hojo Moritoki, was dominated by Takatoki, who remained head of the clan.

Kusunoki Masashige

Kusunoki Masashige was a middle ranked warrior who decided to support Go-Daigo early in the war. He maintained resistance during the darkest days of 1332 and was richly rewarded after the Imperial victory. He remained loyal to Go-Daigo after Ashikaga Takauji's rebellion and he committed suicide after being defeated at the battle of Minatogawa (1336).



Bakufu is the Japanese term for the Shogunate, the military government of the Shoguns. Bakufu translates as 'tent office' or 'house of the general', and reflected the military origins of the Shogunate. Under the Shogunate the Bakufu was the collective title for the shogun and his officials, making it a useful way to describe the government of the Kamakura Shogunate.


Shogun translates as 'commander of a force', but it became an abbreviation for 'seii tai shogun', 'Great general who defeats eastern barbarians', the title adopted by the military rulers who controlled Japan for seven hundred years. By the time of the Genko War the Shoguns were themselves puppets of the Hojo family.

Kamakura Shogunate

The Kamakura Shogunate was founded by Minamoto Yoritomo, and took its name from its effective capital at Kamakura in eastern Japan. After Yoritomo's death effective power passed to his widow Hojo Masako, who founded a line of regents (Shikken). Power moved permanently to the Hojo family, although the later regents were less powerful than the head of the clan. After the death of the last Minamoto shogun a series of figurehead shoguns were appointed, the first two from the Kujo family and the last four from the Imperial family. At the time of the Genko war Prince Morikuni was shogun and Hojo Moritoki was shikken, but real power in the Shogunate was held by Hojo Takatoki, the head of the clan.


The Rokuhara was the headquarters of the Kamakura Shogunate in the Imperial capital of Kyoto. It was established after the Jokyu war of 1221, an earlier attempt to restore Imperial rule, and was headed by two officials. During the Genko War the Rokuhara was led by Hojo Nakatoki and Hojo Tokimasu.

Outbreak of War

In the spring of 1331 Fugiawara Sadufusa, one of the Emperor's three main advisors, betrayed the plot. The Bakufu sent some officers to Kyoto, arrested a number of key conspirators and took them to Kamakura where they were questioned. Go-Daigo attempted to raise enough support to seize the Rokuhara, but before he could move the Bakufu sent a force to Kyoto and arrested a number of his key supporters. Finally, in September, the Bakufu sent a force to Kyoto to arrest the Emperor and force him into exile.

This force, consisting of two messengers and 3,000 horsemen, reached Kyoto on the 22nd day of the eighth month (24 September 1331). They wasted the next two days, and on the evening of the 24th day (26 September) Prince Morinaga discovered their orders and sent a message to the Emperor. The Prince suggested that his father should flee to Nara (the southern capital), while sending a trusted minister, posing as the Emperor, to Mount Hiei. The Bakufu would attack Mount Hiei, provoking its warrior monks. A victory at Mount Hiei would encourage support for the Emperor and perhaps allow him to return to Kyoto and seize control of the city.

When the news reached the Imperial Court the Emperor held a brief council of his senior advisors. They agreed with the prince and the Emperor escaped from Kyoto, slipping past the Bakufu's guards at the gates by pretending to be an Imperial Princess on a normal journey. His first destination was the Todaiji temple at Nara, but although he found some support there he also found supporters of the Bakufu, and so was forced to move on. On the 26th day of the eighth month he moved north-east to Mount Juba at Watsuka, but this was too remote and so on the following the day the Emperor and his party moved south to Mount Kasagi.  

In the meantime one of Go-Diago's most important advisors had posed as the Emperor and moved towards Mount Hiei. The Bakufu responded by sending a cavalry force after the decoy, and a battle developed around Mount Hiei (Battle of Karasaki Beach, October 1331). The monks of Mount Hiei defeated the forces of the Bakufu, but after the battle discovered that the Emperor wasn't with them, and support for him collapsed. The victory over the forces of the Bakufu did encourage the monks at Kasagi and a number of local warriors to support the Emperor, and began to undermine the military reputation of the Kamakura Shogunate.

This success was short-lived. The Bakufu besieged Kasagi, which fell on 31 October 1331. Go-Daigo escaped, but was captured a few days later. During this brief period of independence he had won over some key supporters, including Kusunoki Masashige, a medium ranked warrior from Kawachi province. Kasagi was captured by the troops already around Kyoto. A large force of reinforcements coming from the east moved to attack Akasaka, and that castle fell after a week-long siege (November 1331). Kusunoki escaped, and began to build up a resistance force. Prince Morinaga also had a lucky escape at this time, hiding in a Chinese box used to store Buddhist texts when soldiers came to search the monastery he was hiding in. The prince escaped to Yoshino, where he also began to raise a resistance force.

Back in Kyoto the Bakufu decided to depose Go-Daigo. Although the Emperor refused to abdicate, they enthroned Prince Kazuhito, the heir from the senior branch of the Imperial family. There was a delay while the Bakufu attempted to get their hands on the genuine Imperial regalia, but Prince Kazuhito was enthroned in 1332. In the spring of that year Go-Daigo was exiled to the island of Oki, off the north-west coast of Honshu, and his cause appeared to be doomed.

The Period of Resistance

During 1332 resistance to the Bakufu rumbled on. Prince Morinaga found safe refuge in Yoshino and began to gather support, eventually finding a base at the Kimpusan Temple on Mount Kimpu, close to the Yoshino River.

Kusunoki was more active. On 28 April 1332 he recaptured Akasaka, and then moved north and captured Izumi and Kawachu provinces (in the Osaka area). This triggered a response from Kyoto, but the Bakufu army was defeated on the Yodo River (14 June 1332) and retreated back to the city. Another attempt to defeat Kusunoki was made in August, but this was defeated without any fighting.

During the summer of 1332 revolts broke out elsewhere in Japan, most notably in Harima province (to the west of Kyoto and the main fighting so far). This was led by Akamatsu Norimura, who gathered an army, blocked the roads from the west and prepared to defy the Bakufu.

These rebel successes convinced the Bakufu that they needed to send more men to Kyoto. According to the Taiheiki more than 307,500 horsemen left Kamakura on the 20th day of the Ninth month (10 October 1332) with the leading elements arriving at Kyoto on the eighth day of the tenth month (27 October 1332).

On the last day of the first month of 1333 (30 January 1333) this vast army was split into three divisions. One division was to advance towards Yoshino, where Prince Morinaga was based. The second was to head towards Akasaka and Kusunoki. The third was sent towards Mount Kongo, where there were more strongholds held by Go-Daigo's supporters.

At about the same time Doi Jiro and Tokuno Yasaburo rose in support of the Emperor on Skikoku and defeated a Shogunate army sent from Nagato (battle of Hoshigaoka, 28 January 1333).

The vast Bakufu army achieved some early successes. Akasaka Castle was taken yet again (March 1333). Prince Norinaga was forced to flee from Yoshino Castle to Koyasan (February 1333 - at this point the dating in the Taiheiki is clearly suspect, as this siege is dated as having happened before the army left Kyoto). The three divisions then reunited and moved to attack Chihaya, a strong fortress on Mount Kongo. This siege would be the turning point of the war. Kusunoki had greatly strengthened the defences of Chihaya, and the Bakufu forces were unable to take it.

As the siege dragged on the absence of Bakufu forces from other parts of Japan encouraged more revolts. Akamatsu Norimura in Harima was greatly encouraged by the failure of the Shogunate, and his revolt became much more serious. He was able to block the roads to the west of Japan, and then advanced toward Kyoto. Akamatsu reached Maya, about forty miles to the west of Kyoto, where he stopped to build a castle. The Shogunate sent an army out to deal with Akamatsu, suffering defeats at Maya (27 March 1333), Sakabe (24 April 1333) and Segawa (25 April 1333). On the next day Akamatsu advanced towards Kyoto, but was defeated at the edge of the city (battle of the Twelfth Day of the Third Month, 26 April 1333).

Akamatsu only pulled back a short distance, and attempted to blockade the city. A Rokuhara force sent out to push him away was defeated at Yamazaki (29 April 1333). The monks of Mount Hiei launched an unsuccessful attack on the city of their own a few days later. Akamatsu returned to threaten the capital again, but with no more success (battle of the Third Day of the Fourth Month, 17 May 1333).


By the start of 1333 Go-Daigo was sufficiently encouraged by his supporter's successes to make an attempt to escape from exile. In early May he escaped from captivity in a litter, passing himself off as a pregnant lady. On 8 May he sailed from Oki Island and despite being pursued reached safety on the north-west coast of Honshu.

After waiting for a month Go-Daigo decided to escape on his own. He escaped by hiding in a litter and pretending to be a pregnant lady. On the night of the 23rd day of the 3rd month he headed to the coast (7-8 May 1333). He quickly found a ship and at dawn on the next day (8 May) Go-Daigo sailed from exile. Once on Honshu he gained the support of Nawa Nagatoshi. His jailor on Oki tracked Go-Daigo down, but his attempt to recapture him ended in defeat (battle of Funanoe, 13 May 1333). News of the Emperor's return soon spread and a sizeable army gathered around his court in exile. Part of this army was sent towards Kyoto, but was defeated outside the city. The Emperor's commander Tadaaki joined the existing Imperial forces outside the city. They were also joined by a number of deserters from the Shogunate army, including Yuki Chikamitsu, a senior commander.

The Bakufu responded to the series of attacks on Kyoto and the return of the Emperor by sending yet another army west. This time command was split between Nagoshi Takaiye (or Nagoya Takaie) and Ashikaga Takauji. This would prove to be a fatal decision. Ashikaga resented the authority of the Hojo family, who he believed he should outrank. He had also just lost his father and was suffering from an illness. He decided to get in contact with Go-Daigo as he approached Kyoto and an Imperial mandate reached him before he reached Kyoto.

After the Shogunate army reached Kyoto the two commanders agreed to attack the Imperial army at Yamazaki. Nagoshi would attack from the front and Ashikaga from the rear. Only the frontal assault actually took place. Nagoshi was killed by an archer while Ashikaga's men rested near a river (battle of Koganawate, 10 June 1333). When Ashikaha was informed of Nagoshi's death he led his division of the army away from the city. This alerted some of his men to his change of allegiance, and they managed to warn the Rokuhara.

Ashikaga now joined forces with the Imperial army outside Kyoto and on the night of 19-20 June the combined force advanced on the city. The defenders were pushed back into the newly fortified Rokuhara, but the outer defences were soon breached. On the night of 20-21 June most of the remaining defenders deserted. The Lords of Rokuhara attempted to escape to the east, taking the Emperor Kogon with them, but they were intercepted. Kogon was captured and taken back to Kyoto, while most of the rest of the party committed suicide. The news of the fall of Kyoto soon reached Chihaya. The Bakufu army abandoned the siege, and also attempted to escape to the east, again without success. Its leaders and some troops reached Nara, where they found a temporary sanctuary, but the last major Shogunate army in the west had been defeated.

The good news soon started to reach Go-Daigo at Funanoe. On the 12th day of the 5th month (24 June 1333) messengers arrived with the news that Kyoto had fallen. Go-Daigo and his supporters were still worried about the army besieging Chihaya, but that army also dispersed and on the 23rd day (5 July) Go-Daigo left Funaneo at the start of his return to the Imperial capital. His camp was still worried about the danger from Kamakura, but on the last day of the month (12 July) messengers arrived from Nitta Yoshisada with the news of the fall of Kamakura and the destruction of the Hojo. On the 5th day of the 6th month (17 July) Go-Daigo reached the Eastern Temple, and on the following day (18 July) he made his formal entry into Kyoto.

Fall of Kamakura

While the Shogunate's position in central Japan was collapsing, their base at Kamakura also came under threat. Earlier in the year Nitta Yoshisada had received a mandate to rebel from Go-Daigo (dated to February 1333 and received on the eleventh day of the third month, 24 April 1333). He feigned illness, abandoned the siege of Chihaya, returned home and began to raise an army.

Nitta Yoshisada's revolt was at least partly motivated by resentment of the lowly position of his family. The Nitta family ranked below the Ashikaga, and had little influence within the Shogunate. The repeated calls to provide troops, money and supplies for the Bakufu army were causing an increasing amount of anger, and triggered the eventual revolt. When tax collectors arrived at his estate and threatened his overseer Yoshisada responded by seizing them and executing one of their leaders.

Hojo Takatoki responded by ordering the armies of Musashi and Kozuke province to attack the Nitta. After a short debate Yoshisada decided to lead his army directly towards the Shogunate's capital at Kamakura. He raised his banner on the 8th day of the 5th month (20 June 1333) at the shrine at Ikushina. Some accounts place these events one month earlier, missing out the intercalary second month in the Japanese calendar for 1333.

As he marched south Yoshisada was joined by an increasing number of supporters. On the 9th day (21 June) he crossed into Musashi province, where according to the Taiheiki his army swelled until it was 200,000 strong.

The leaders in Kamakura decided to send two armies against Yoshisada. The first, 50,000 strong and commanded by Kanazawa Sadamasa, governor of Musashi, was sent east into Kazusa and Shimosa provinces to raise reinforcements and attack the rebels from the rear. The second, 60,000 strong and commanded by Sakurada Sadakuni, was sent north to the Iruma River, with orders to prevent the rebels from crossing the river.

This second army suffered two defeats in two days. They were unable to prevent the rebels from crossing the Iruma River, and suffered a minor defeat at Kotesashi (23 June 1333). This was followed by a more serious setback at Kumegawa (24 June 1333). The morale of the Bakufu force slumped until reinforcements arrived from Kamakura. The reinforced army came close to victory in the two-day long battle of Bubaigawara (27-28 June 1333). On the first day of the battle Yoshisada attacked without realising that his opponents had been reinforced and was forced to retreat. He then received reinforcements himself, and on the second day of the battle inflicted a heavy defeat on the Bakufu army.

Yoshisada then attacked Kamakura itself. The resulting siege of Kamakura (30 June-4 July 1333) was a hard-fought battle, with the defenders of the city taking advantage of its strong natural defences. Yoshisada finally broke into the city by advancing along a beach around the headland to the west of the city and attacking from the unfortified south. After two days of fighting in the city Hojo Takatoki and most of the surviving members of his family committed suicide in the Toshoji temple. The Kamakura Shogunate had been destroyed.


There was still some tidying up to do. The Bakufu deputy in Kyushu was killed near his base at Hakata (battle of Tsukushi, 7 July 1333). The deputy at Nagato surrendered and was pardoned. Emperor Kogon of the senior line (Prince Kazuhito) was given some estates and treated as an ex-emperor. He remained in retirement for the rest of his life.

The question now was how successful would Go-Daigo be as a real Emperor, with real power (the Kemmu Restoration). It didn't take long for Go-Daigo's shortcoming to be exposed. One of his first mistakes was to order the construction of a new Imperial palace, a move seen as a waste of money in the aftermath of a costly civil war. He failed to adequately reward many of the warriors who had brought him to power. Crucially he soon lost the support of Ashikaga Takauji. He failed to protect his son Norinaga from Ashikaga, and the prince was arrested and later executed.

By 1335 Ashikaga was in open revolt. The Imperial armies were defeated and Go-Daigo was once again forced into exile. This began the Period of the Northern and Southern Courts, a fifty-year long civil was fought between the new Ashikaga shoguns (and their figurehead Emperors from the senior or northern line) and Go-Daigo and his successors of the junior or southern line. The eventual result of Go-Daigo's revolt against the power of the Kamakura Shogunate was the creation of a new Ashikaga Shogunate, which removed the last remaining powers of the Emperor.

Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan, trans. Helen Craig McCullough. A modern English translation of the first twelve chapters of the Taiheiki, covering the period of the Genko War, a civil war that saw the Emperor Go-Daigo briefly overthrow the Shogunate and restore direct Imperial rule.
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A History of Japan, 1334-1615, Sir George Sansom. A classic history of Japan, covering the period from the fall of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1330s to the battle of Sekigahara of 1600 and the end of the civil wars in 1615. A little dated now, but it still provides an excellent narrative history of this period, with more detail on the military events than in most more modern works.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 December 2012), Genko War, 1331-33 ,

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