Emperor Go-Toba (後鳥羽天皇) (August 6, 1180 – March 28, 1239) was the 82nd emperor of Japan, according to the traditional order of succession. His reign spanned the years from 1183 through 1198.
This 12th-century sovereign was named after Emperor Toba, and go- (後), translates literally as “later”; and thus, he is sometimes called the “Later Emperor Toba”. The Japanese word go has also been translated to mean the “second one”; and in some older sources, this emperor may be identified as “Toba the Second” or as “Toba II”.
Events of Go-Toba’s life
Go-Toba took the throne at the age of three.
September 8, 1183 (Juei 2, 20th day of the 8th month): In the 3rd year of Antoku-tennō ‘s reign (安徳天皇3年), the emperor fled the capital rather than give in to pressures for his abdication. In Antoku’s absence, the cloistered former-Emperor Go-Shirakawa then elevated his young brother by decree; and the young child was given the acceptance of abdication (juzen) rites. The anti-Taira faction intended that the succession (‘‘senso’’) was received; and shortly thereafter, Emperor Go-Toba is said to have acceded to the throne (‘‘sokui’’).
Although these formal rites and ceremonies were taking place in Heian-kyō, the imperial regalia were still held by Antoku. Thus, the senso and sokui of Go-Toba became the first in history to omit the ritual transmission of the sacred treasures from a sovereign to his successor.
In 1192 Go-Shirakawa died and the first shogunate was established by Minamoto no Yoritomo, and the emperor became a figurehead.
In 1198, the shōgun forced Go-Toba, who was still in his teens, to abdicate. Two of Go-Toba’s sons succeeded him on the throne, but they were each in turn also forced to abdicate.
Go-Toba reigned as cloistered Emperor from 1198 till 1221 during reigns of three emperors, but his power was more limited than former cloistered Emperors in the Heian period.
It was during this time that Go-Toba decreed that the followers of the Pure Land sect in Kyoto, let by Hōnen, be banished or in some cases executed. Originally this was prompted by complaints of clergy in Kyoto who were concerned about the rise in popularity of the new sect, but Go-Toba personally ordered the decree after two of his ladies in waiting converted to the sect without his knowing.
In 1221, the shōgun installed Go-Toba’s three-year-old grandson, Emperor Chūkyō, as emperor, but Go-Toba chose to stage a rebellion in an attempt to reclaim the throne and overthrow the Kamakura shogunate. This is known as the Jōkyū War after the era in which it occurred. Samurai around Kyoto who were against the Shogunate supported him but most of samurai, particularly in Kantō supported the Shogunate with encouragement of Hōjō Masako, the widow of Yoritomo. She persuaded samurai gathering in Kamakura that if they would not support the Shogunate, then the contemporary status and privileges that samurai had attained would be lost, and the court and kuge would regain their power and influence. Go-Toba’s rebellion was defeated and Chūkyō was replaced as emperor by Go-Horikawa, a nephew of Go-Toba.
After the rebellion Go-Toba was exiled to the Oki Islands. He died and was buried there. Later a part of his body was buried in Ohara, Kyōto.
“Letting the radiance of his power and majesty shine forth unobscured, at the same time he amused himself with every variety of art and accomplishment. In all of these he was second to none, so that people wondered when and how he had gained such proficiency. And many who were experts at one or another of these arts were enabled by the ex-emperor’s interest to attain fame and fortune. It is said that the Buddha leads all men to salvation, even those guilty of the ten evils and five deadly sins. For his part, the ex-sovereign showed an interest in every accomplishment, even those which seemed of the most trivial and insignificant kind. so that all sorts of people who had any claim to knowledge of these matters were summoned to his presence, where, it appears, they could petition freely for his favor.
Among all these arts, his skill in Japanese poetry might be said to leave one at a loss for superlatives. People might think that to speak in this way is to make much out of nothing. But since a great many of the ex-sovereign’s compositions may be easily found in various collections, anyone can judge for himself. It may be imagined what must have been his skill in other arts and accomplishments. But as long as endure the texts of his poetic compositions as people have written them down and preserved them, even remote generations may see for themselves the extent of his poetic mastery.”
—Minamoto Ienaga, private secretary, Zenchukai
Despite the limits on his political powers, he developed skills as a calligrapher, painter, musician, poet, critic, and editor, although the majority of his activities took place after his abdication aged 18 (as the abdication freed him from ‘the ceremonial prison of the imperial palace’).
Besides his enthusiasm for archery, equestrianism, and swordsmanship, Go-Toba was a great lover of swords themselves, and over the course of several years summoned the most talented sword smiths in the land to his court where they were given honorary titles and invited to teach the emperor their craft. He became a respectable sword smith himself, and it was his patronage and encouragement of this art that gave birth to Japan’s ‘Golden Age’ of blade smithing. His contribution to the art is still held in such high esteem, that even today a tradition is maintained in sword literature that he is the first sword smith to be discussed.
His greatest contribution to literature is the Shin Kokinshū (The New Anthology of Ancient and Modern Waka), which Japanese has considered one of three major influential waka anthologies along Man’yōshū and Kokin Wakashū. He ordered its creation and took part in the working group as an editor. He revived the Office of Waka (和歌所) and made it the headquarters of this edition. He held many utakai (waka parties) and utaawase (waka competitions). Not only the creator and organiser, he acted as a critic, and wrote the style of waka in general and criticism of his contemporary poets.
During his exile, he continued to recite hundreds of waka and to edit both anthologies from his creation in Oki Islands and a private edition of Shin Kokinshū for 18 years, getting rid of around 400 wakas from the former edition, while its edition had been officially declared to be completed in 1204, and further elaborations finished even in 1216. While he declared his private edition should be authentic, today the 1216 version is considered as the authentic and others as variants. His edition is today called Oki-bon Shin Kokinshū (Oki edition). It is probable that during his exile, he also wrote his Go-Toba no In gokuden (“Secret Teachings”), a short work on aesthetic criticism; the “Secret Teachings” are particularly valuable as a major source on Go-Toba’s complicated relationships with his former client, the greatest poet of the age – Fujiwara no Teika.
One of his 31-syllable poems was chosen by Fujiwara no Teika as Number 99 in the popular anthology Hyakunin Isshu.