Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Kamakura and Nanbokucho Periods (1185–1392)

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  • The Kamakura period was marked by a gradual shift in power from the nobility to landowning military men in the provinces. This era was a time of dramatic transformation in the politics, society, and culture of Japan. The bakufu, or government by warrior chieftains (shogun) or their regents, controlled the country from their base in Kamakura, near modern Tokyo. Because the emperor remained the titular head of state in his capital in Kyoto, a binary system of government, whereby emperors reigned but shoguns ruled, was established and endured for the next seven centuries.


    In 1333, a coalition of supporters of Emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339), who sought to restore political power to the throne, toppled the Kamakura regime. Unable to rule effectively, this new royal government was short-lived. In 1336, a member of a branch family of the Minamoto clan, Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), usurped control and drove Go-Daigo from Kyoto. Takauji then set a rival on the throne and established a new military government in Kyoto. Meanwhile, Go-Daigo traveled south and took refuge in Yoshino. There he established the Southern Court, in contrast to the rival Northern Court supported by Takauji. This time of constant strife that lasted from 1336 to 1392 is known as the Nanbokucho period (Period of Southern and Northern Courts).


    The Kamakura and Nanbokucho eras were remarkable for the shift that occurred in the Japanese aesthetic. The highly refined sensibilities of the superceded aristocracy did not interest the new patrons. Instead, the warrior class favored artists who treated their subjects with a direct honesty and virile energy that matched their own. What followed, then, was an age of realism unparalleled before the late eighteenth century. This renascence was not limited to art. Religious movements experienced a similar resurgence, and reform and counter-reform currents animated and transmuted Kamakura Buddhism. While the courtly and warrior elites perpetuated the Heian traditions of Amida worship and Esoteric Buddhism, for the first time in its history Buddhism was also actively proselytized among the Japanese masses.


    Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art