Ascension to the Throne
Emperor Gotoba was born in 1180, as the 4th son of Emperor Takakura (1161–1181, the 80th emperor in traditional order of succession). Before his ascension to the throne he was known as Imperial Prince Takahira. He was one of the grandsons of Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127–1192) and the younger brother of Emperor Antoku (1178-1185) who succeeded their father as 81st Emperor of Japan.
In 1183, the struggle for political power known as the Genpei War intensified. The maternal grandfather of Emperor Antoku, Taira-no Kiyomori (1118–1181), was the head of Taira clan, bitter enemies of the Minamoto clan. When they lost dominance in their struggles, the Taira clan moved out of the capital, taking Emperor Antoku with them. Away from Kyoto, they plotted their next move.
With Emperor Antoku missing from the capital, the Imperial Court was in disarray. That was why Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa decided to elevate Retired Emperor Takakura’s 4th son, only four years old at the time, as the 82nd Emperor of Japan.
Two years later, Antoku lost his life in the Battle of Dan-no-ura. The Three Imperial Regalia he carried, the insignia of the imperial throne, though temporarily lost to the sea, were later reclaimed.
Time of the Cloistered Rule
In 1198, the 19-year-old Emperor Gotoba abdicated and was succeeded by his firstborn son, Emperor Tsuchimikado (1196–1231). As was customary of a retired emperor in that time period, he moved his residence to a Buddhist monastery, but continued to involve himself with the court politics, de facto ruling as a cloistered emperor.
Little has been said about the time when he actually was on the throne. Some theorize it might have been due to his young age, as well as the strong position and influence of his grandfather, Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa.
When Gotoba became a retired emperor himself, he didn’t devote himself solely to the official matters. He applied his good judgment and skills to the revival of court culture and was known for his profound knowledge and proficiency in such fields as waka poetry, sword-making, archery, sumo wrestling, the game kemari and playing the musical instrument biwa. Moreover, in 1201, he re-established the bureau responsible for editing anthologies of Japanese poetry and tasked it with compiling the Shin Kokin Wakashū. Working on this project were, among others, Fujiwara Sadaie (1162–1241) and Fujiwara no Ietaka (1158–1237).
On one hand, promoting such projects aligned with his personal interests and hobbies. On the other hand, some studies suggest it created an image of the Imperial Court as one that brings about revival after long periods of unrest in the changing times, keeping up with the present while learning about the past.
The major conflict that in 1221 divided the country went down in history as the Jōkyū Disturbance. While in the past it was often portrayed as a power struggle between the aristocrats and the military families, more recent studies tell us it was a result of more complex circumstances of that time period.
Typically regarded as the starting point of the Jōkyū Disturbance is the imperial decree Retired Emperor Gotoba issued to have Hōjō Yoshitoki (1163–1224) killed. However, there are many more reasons that combined to lead to this conflict. They include: social unrest, the differences in handling land tax between western and eastern provinces, and differences in how powerful people in the provinces responded the strategic imperial policies. In other words, the conflict did not break out at the Retired Emperor’s whim, as is discussed in the newest publications on this subject.
Although it was the retired emperor’s order that triggered the conflict, it was the forces of the Kamakura shogunate, backed by many warrior groups that emerged victorious. Famous in that time was the speech Hōjō Masako (1157–1225), the wife of Minamoto no Yoritomo called the “nun shogun,” delivered to rouse the Kamakura vassals. She pointed out that the enemy they ought to defeat wasn’t the emperor or retired emperor, but those who advised them into misguided actions.
Journey to the Islands
After his forces were defeated, Retired Emperor Gotoba was exiled to Oki Islands. Before he set out on the journey, he had his portrait painted by Fujiwara no Nobuzane, and presented it to his late mother, Shichijō-in (1157–1228). Nowadays it is in possession of Minase Shrine in Osaka. There are a couple of theories about which route he took on his way to the islands. Even though it’s impossible to confirm which one is correct, the most prevalent one says he travelled from the capital via Osaka, present-day Hyōgo Prefecture and Okayama, then moved onwards along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. After that, he made a turn towards the San’in region, travelling along a route similar to the present JR Hakubi Line. At the shores of Mihonoseki he got on a boat, and on the evening of the very same day he arrived at Nakanoshima Island (Ama Town).
Before making the last part of his journey to the islands, he was forced to wait a number of days at Mihonoseki for good winds. He is thought to have spent that time in Bukkoku-ji Temple.
There is also a legend about the “Imperial Pine Tree” in the Agarimichi area (Sakaiminato). One day when he was waiting for better winds, the retired emperor supposedly took a short break under its branches and as he rested, he was entertained by the local people. That event became the origin of a local festival.
Upon his safe arrival to the islands, suitable lodgings had to be arranged. Retired Emperor Gotoba sat down on a rock as he waited – that, in turn, gave name to many locations in the vicinity of the rock. Also, since there were no houses in the area good enough to host such an esteemed guest, it is said that he spent that night at Miho Shrine.
Next day, he boarded the boat at the shores of Saki, travelled to Tsutsumi, and then proceeded to the place where he would reside.
Life on the Islands
Azuma Kagami, the chronicles compiled in the 13th century, note that the retired emperor resided in Oki Province, Ama-gun, Katta settlement. Today that place is marked with a monument in his honor, but up until the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912) it was the site of Genpuku-ji Temple where he is said to have resided for 19 years.
Life on the islands was completely different than in the capital, so he sought comfort in poetry. His endeavors in this field were very fruitful, including but not limited to the anthologies Entō Hyakushū and Oki Gohyakushū Waka. They are thought to have perfected the art of waka poetry, composed to this day, and regarded as a handbook of sorts for the aspiring poets. They also serve as a precious source of information on the landscapes and lifestyles of the Oki Islands 800 years ago. We can find connections to the local history through the poetry of the retired emperor.
In addition, the anthology Entō Utaawase was compiled through the letter correspondence between Oki Islands and the capital – so we can say that it was the fruit of a long-distance collaboration.
When it comes to studies about Retired Emperor Gotoba, there is research based in objective fact, but there is also research that is influenced by the contemporary state of affairs during the researchers’ time. For a long time the narrative about Gotoba was that he spent his days on the islands in sadness, and then he died. In recent years, however, the researchers paint a very different picture. According to them, he led his life on the Oki Islands just like he would have back in Kyoto, devoting his energy to studies in the traditional Japanese culture and innovations.
Also, while there is no certain evidence, there is a legend saying that a craftsman who was dedicated to Gotoba followed him from the capital and moved to the Oki Islands to continue forging swords for him (legend of Oki Go-Bankaji project). No matter what situation the retired emperor found himself in, to be in his favor was deemed as very important.
In the later years of his life, he compiled Mujō Kōshiki, a text with Buddhist teachings that remains to this day. Perhaps the proactive attitude displayed, even when living on a remote island, led him to dwell on the impermanence of things.
At that time the position of shugo (a local official appointed by the feudal domain) of the Oki Province was held by Sasaki Family, based on Dogo Island. Sasaki was in charge of supervising the retired emperor, and it is believed that he has sent his retainers to Ama to serve and oversee the actions of Gotoba, although no documents proving this remain today.
It would be very interesting to know what the retired emperor ate and how he lived on a daily basis, but unfortunately, at present we can only make educated guesses.
He was 41 years old when he travelled to Ama. Never allowed back to Kyoto, he lived on this remote island for 19 years and here, at the age of 60, he passed away.
The local government official, Sasaki Yoshikiyo (1161–1242), is said to have been deeply saddened by this news – testament to the retired emperor’s character. We can conclude that he was the kind of person that drew other people in – even those who were ordered to supervise him.
Texts such as Will and Testament of Emperor Gotoba with Handprint (Otein Okibumi), thought to have been written by him shortly before his death, remain to this day. Their replicas are exhibited as treasures of Oki Shrine in the Ama Town Emperor Gotoba Museum.
After His Death
The body of Retired Emperor Gotoba was cremated on Nakanoshima Island, but his ashes were returned to Ōhara-no-sato in Kyoto where Sanzen-in Temple stands today. In addition, a small mausoleum was erected on the grounds of Genpuku-ji Temple, to commemorate the fact that the retired emperor had once lived here.
There are very little written records about the maintenance of that mausoleum until the Edo period (1603–1868) – or more precisely, until a court noble Asukai Masakata (1585–1626) was exiled to the islands after the Inokuma Incident in 1609. He was pained to see the site neglected, so he used his family’s influence to have it restored.
When Matsudaira Naomasa (1601–1666) later became the feudal lord of Matsue Domain (which Oki Province was under), he ordered a survey of the land under his rule. From then on, Matsue Domain was responsible for maintaining the site.
It is thought that the actual maintenance works were entrusted to Genpuku-ji Temple and the Murakami family, who was serving as village head. On one occasion, the village head was asked by the Minase family, a family with deep ties to the retired emperor, to pay respects at the mausoleum in their place on the anniversary of Gotoba’s death. The clothing he wore on that day is displayed in the municipal Murakami-ke Musuem, along with other objects, and documents describing religious festivals that were held in Gotoba-in Shrine.
In the latter half of the Edo period, the small mausoleum was replaced with a shrine dedicated to the retired emperor – called Gotoba-in Shrine. Local people held festivals there with ushi-tsuki bull sumo performed as an offering. Ushi-tsuki bull sumo on the Oki Islands is closely tied to Gotoba. It is said he was greatly amused by the sight of frolicking calves he saw on the island, as it reminded him of a scene from the illustrated scroll Chōjū-giga (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals), very popular at the time.
It was probably around that time the local people started to him as a deity of their island, rather than a spirit that ought to be offered memorial services. They referred to the shrine with affectionate familiarity, calling it “Gotoban-san” – a nickname that at present is also given to other things in relation with the retired emperor.
The Meiji period (1868–1912) had huge changes in store for the local Gotoba-in Shrine. It was decided that from then on, the three emperors – Gotoba, Tsuchimikado, and Juntoku (1197–1242) – were not to be celebrated in the regions where they had died, but in Osaka’s Minase Shrine. For that reason, in 1873 a special ceremony took place to bring the spirit of the retired emperor back from the islands and invite it to Minase Shrine. As a result, the Gotoba-in Shrine on Ama, the site of the local festival, lost its function, and although the islanders were opposed, it was to be torn down in 1874.
However, during the work at the site, three offering jars were found stacked atop each other in the ground below the main sanctuary. This discovery was reported to the village head, along with many concerns against continuing the work. In the end the Imperial Household Agency decided to designate the grounds of former Genpuku-ji Temple as a part of the Imperial tomb for Retired Emperor Gotoba. To this day, this site is managed as the “Oki Imperial Tomb of Retired Emperor Gotoba.”
Oki Shrine founded
On the Imperial Titles
On the Imperial Titles
On this website, Emperor Gotoba is referred to in Japanese as in, and translated as “the retired emperor.” This is our conscious decision based on the following reasons.
Technically, “Emperor Gotoba” is a proper form of address when discussing the events of his lifetime. However, in the Heian period (794–1185) and the Kamakura period (1185–1333), unlike today, it was customary to abdicate early and see a successor ascend to the throne. Should we use the title “emperor” for those who relinquished their position, we would risk giving the false impression that there was more than one person holding this rank at the same time.
Emperors who abdicated are given the title of jōkō, which is a shortened version of daijō tennō (Emperor Emeritus). Before his death, Retired Emperor Gotoba would have held either that title or the title of saki-no mikado which literally translates to “former emperor.” “Gotoba'' is actually his posthumous name, chosen upon reflection of the days of his rule.
Arguably, addressing him by the title of jōkō seems to be fitting, given that publicized on this website are his activities after the abdication.
However, the celebration of Retired Emperor Gotoba and his life is not the sole purpose of the 800-year anniversary events – our focus is also on the culture that grew around his activities on Ama.
Furthermore, the emperors who abdicated in the Heian and Kamakura periods would “cloister” themselves in Buddhist monasteries and thus be later referred to by their posthumous name, with the suffix “in” (indicates a Buddhist temple or monastery in Japanese). That is also the form of address we have chosen, which in English translates to “Cloistered Emperor Gotoba” or “Retired Emperor Gotoba.”