Asia-Pacific Blog

Virtuous Governance: Popular Notions of Noblesse Oblige in Medieval Japan

Thomas Booth

The late thirteenth century was a period of acute vulnerability for the Kamakura shogunate. The preceding century was commonly known as ‘the century of disaster’, and for good reason. Three devastating famines – the Yowa famine (1180-1183), the Kangi famine (1229-1232) and the Shoga famine (1257-1260) – had wreaked havoc on the Japanese countryside, causing the deaths of tens of thousands.1 The archipelago was also beset by two separate invasions by the Mongol forces under Kublai Khan. The first in 1274 was relatively small scale, but the second in 1281 posed a more serious threat and was only repelled by the fortunate appearance of a typhoon off the west coast of Tsushima, celebrated as ‘divine winds’ (kamikaze 神風) by Japanese commentators, which destroyed the Mongol navy.2