A Woman to Know: Hojo Masako

The 'nun shogun' may never have wielded a sword in anger. — Joyce Lebra

(image via Wikimedia Commons)


Hojo Masako's torrid romance with Minimato no Yoritomo, Japan's first shogun ruler, ultimately defined her life and legacy -- and their marriage also came to define 12th century Japan, with their family's shogunate rule lasting for almost a century.

As besotted newlyweds, Hojo and Yoritomo survived multiple catastrophes: her family disapproved of their marriage and kicked Hojo out of the house; Yoritomo's political rivals temporarily exiled him from the country; and Yoritomo's multiple affairs ignited a fierce jealousy in his wife, one that led to ongoing conflict.

Just seven years after he was crowned shogun, Yoritomo died in 1199. Hojo declared herself a Buddhist nun, left the hustle and bustle of imperial life -- and proceeded to direct politics as a shadow ruler, called the "ama shogun" (nun shogun). From her cloister in Izu province, Hojo set up her sons as succeeding shoguns, counseling them on military affairs and even ordering one's assassination when he refused to follow her orders.

Japan's prominent leaders lived in fear of this little bald nun. When she won a lifetime achievement award in 1220, just five years before her death, she didn't even show up at the palace to accept it. "Such an honor is of no use to an old country nun," she said.

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