The Japanese emperor Daigo II (1288-1339) attempted to restore the power of the throne upon the destruction of the country's first military government, or shogunate, in 1333.
Since the establishment of a centralized state in Japan under the influence of Chinese civilization in the 7th century, the Japanese sovereigns had gradually lost power. During most of the 10th and 11th centuries the Fujiwara family dominated the court at Kyoto as imperial regents. At the end of the 11th century and during the first half of the 12th, retired (or cloistered) emperors reasserted the authority of the imperial family in court politics. Yet, even as they did so, real power in Japan was shifting from the courtier class of Kyoto to an emergent warrior class in the provinces. This shift was climaxed by the founding of a shogunate by the warrior clan of Minamoto at Kamakura in the eastern provinces in 1185.
The founder of the Kamakura shogunate was Minamoto Yoritomo, who received the title of shogun, or "generalissimo," from the imperial court. But in the early 13th century actual control of the regime at Kamakura was seized by members of the Hojo clan, who established the office of shogunate regent. The Hojo regents allowed the imperial court little voice in the governing of the country. Emperors continued to reign but they did not rule.
The Hojo regents proved to be among the most effective administrators of medieval Japan, but by the end of the 13th century the Kamakura shogunate had nevertheless begun to decline. One of the chief reasons for this decline was the expense and effort required to repulse two attempts by forces of the Mongol dynasty of China to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281.
After the Mongol invasions there arose a dispute over succession to the throne in Kyoto. At first the dispute was of little concern to the Hojo, since the throne exercised no political power. As Hojo rule continued to weaken in the early 14th century, however, discontented members of both the courtier and warrior classes began to turn to the court in opposition to the Kamakura shogunate.
Meanwhile, the contending branches of the imperial family had temporarily agreed to the practice of alternately providing successors to the throne. But when Daigo II of the so-called junior branch became emperor in 1318, he objected strongly to this procedure and determined to hold the throne permanently for himself and his line of descendants. In response to attempts by the Hojo to force continuance of alternate succession with the senior branch of the imperial family, Daigo II began to scheme to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate and to restore imperial rule.
Daigo II was apparently privy to an anti-Hojo plot that was uncovered in Kyoto in 1324, and in 1331 he actively encouraged an armed rising in the region of Kyoto that had to be put down by forces of the shogunate. The Hojo attempted to settle this second incident by exiling the Emperor to an island in the Japan Sea. Nevertheless, sporadic, guerrilla-type fighting continued in the central provinces around Kyoto, and in 1333 several great warrior chieftains, who had previously been the vassals of Kamakura, defected to the loyalist cause of Daigo II and helped bring about the sudden overthrow of the shogunate.
Upon his triumphal return to Kyoto in 1333, Daigo II sought to take the administrative powers of the country directly into his own hands and to launch an "imperial restoration." But this restoration, which was an anachronistic attempt to reverse the course of several centuries of history, lasted only a brief 3 years. The warrior class was in the ascendancy in Japan, and the imperial court, which was imbued with the governing techniques of an earlier age, was ill-equipped to meet its demands or to fulfill its needs.
As dissatisfaction with the restoration government grew, warriors throughout the land began to look for leadership elsewhere. The chieftain who came to the fore and who increasingly gave indications of his wish to open a new shogunate was Ashikaga Takauji. However, Daigo II, who opposed the sharing of national powers with anyone, steadfastly refused to appoint Takauji as the new shogun. And when, in 1335, Takauji showed signs of assuming shogunlike authority even without imperial approval, the Emperor commissioned Nitta Yoshisada, a keen rival of Takauji, to chastise the Ashikaga.
The effort to check the Ashikaga plunged Japan into a civil war that lasted for more than half a century. In 1336 Takauji occupied Kyoto and forced Daigo II to abdicate in favor of a member of the senior branch of the imperial family. But in the final month of the year Daigo II fled to Yoshino in the mountainous region to the south of Kyoto and proclaimed that he was still the legitimate sovereign.
The government that Daigo II opened at Yoshino is known in history as the Southern court to distinguish it from the Northern court in Kyoto, and the period of opposition between the two, which lasted until 1392, is called the age of war between the courts. Daigo II died in 1339, and the last spark of his movement to restore the throne to power was extinguished in 1392, when the Southern court abandoned its resistance.
H. Paul Varley, Imperial Restoration in Medieval Japan (1971), provides a detailed analysis of Daigo II's attempt to restore imperial rule in the 14th century. For a good historical account of the country, and also Daigo's activities, see Sir George B. Sansom, A History of Japan (3 vols., 1958-1963).