Hōjō Masako, by Kikuchi Yōsai.

Hōjō Masako was the wife of the first Shogun, or military dictator, of Japan. She held great power throughout her life and ruled from the background.

Hōjō Masako was born in the Inzu province of Japan in 1157. She fell in love with her husband, Yoritomo, when he came to stay with her family. He had been exiled from the capital by a rival clan of his family. Masako persuaded her father to allow them to marry in 1180. After their marriage, Yoritomo had the support to start his military and political campaign against the rival clan in power and the Emperor. After several years, he formed the Shogun system in Japan with the establishment of shugo and jitō.

After the death of her husband, Masako became a nun. That didn’t mean she retired from politics, however. She worked with her father to expand their control and influence over Kamakura. She established a council of elders to curb the powers of her son who had taken over as Shogun.

After a series of tragedies, the male heirs of Yoritomo and Masako were lost so an infant and distant relative of her husband became Shogun with Masako as his guardian. She protected the Shogun from several challenges to his rule. In 1221, when the Emperor sought to rebel and re-establish his authority, Masako rose to the challenge. She roused the Shogunate samurai to arms, and 190,000 samurai took Kyoto and exiled the emperor.

Hōjō Masako died in 1225 at the age of 69. She was a formidable woman and one of the most powerful women in Japanese political history. She is sometimes referred to as the “nun Shogun.”

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