Born the eldest son of Tokiyori, fifth shikken (regent) of the Kamakura shogunate and de facto ruler of Japan, Tokimune was from birth acknowledged to be the tokuso (head) of the clan Hojo and rigorously groomed to be his father’s successor. At the not-so-tender age of 18, in 1268 AD he became shikken himself. By the time of his death at the age of 34, Tokimune would have reshaped Japan to its core.
Immediately upon his ascension to shikken-hood, Tokimune was faced with a national crisis. The Mongol emperor of China, Kublai Khan, sent an envoy with the demand that Japan enter into a “tributary relationship” with the Mongols or face invasion and conquest. While many in the Japanese government, including members of the royal family, urged that a compromise be reached, the teen regent defiantly rejected the Mongol demand and sent the emissaries back (in what shape is not recorded).
Four more times the demand was made by Mongol emissaries over the next four years, each time with a similar response from Tokimune. Anticipating Mongol impatience, he dispatched a Japanese force to the southern island of Kyushu to be ready for an invasion. In 1274 it came, as some 25 thousand Mongol and Korean troops seized the small, outlying islands. A divine wind forced the Mongol fleet to return home, and the threat was over … for now.
Despite the invasion, Kublai was a reasonable man, and dispatched five more envoys to negotiate tribute yet again in 1275. They refused to depart without a reply, so Tokimune had them brought to the city of Kamakura and beheaded. In 1279, five more were sent, and they suffered a similar fate. The imperial court, seeing the kana on the wall, ordered all the temples and shrines to begin praying for a victory over the Mongols. Tokimune set about fortifying the shore at likely invasion sites.
In the summer of 1281, a far more serious force than before – reportedly some 140 thousand Mongols and allies in around 4000 ships – arrived offshore and squared off with the entire Japanese army and navy under Tokimune. Defeated in landings on Tsushima and Shikano islands, the Mongols finally gained a foothold on Iki, but later withdrew to the island of Hirato. Three days later, the Japanese attacked the invader’s fleet, causing considerable losses and consternation – enough so that most of the Mongol commanders sailed back to China, leaving about 100 thousand leaderless troops behind. In August came the famed kamikaze (typhoon) that pummeled the Mongol ships for two days, sinking most of them (including the flagship with the Korean admiral aboard). Shortly thereafter Tokimune’s samurai annihilated the 100 thousand.
Japan was saved, never to be threatened again by invasion until the end of the Second World War. Tokimune could turn his attention to other matters … like practicing Zen meditation and building Buddhist shrines and monasteries, such as the one at Engaku-ji as a memorial to those samurai who had died defeating the Mongols. As a teen and young man, he had been an advocate of the Ritsu sect of Buddhism, but converted to Zen at some point before the invasion. So committed to his faith was he that Tokimune on the day of his death “took the tonsure and became a Zen monk” (perhaps a little late to find true enlightenment).
Thanks in part to the victory over the Mongols under Tokimune’s guidance, Zen Buddhism began to spread among the samurai class with some rapidity. Some may have truly believed in the teachings; others likely took it up to curry favor with the shikken. This heretofore trivial faith spread first through Kamakura, the seat of Hojo power, and thence to the imperial capital of Kyoto. Tokimune also linked Zen with the “moral” code of bushido (a modern term for an old philosophy) that stressed frugality, martial arts, loyalty and “honor unto death.” Born from neo-Confucianism, bushido under Tokimune was mixed with elements of Shinto and Zen, adding a dose of wisdom and serenity to the otherwise violent code. Eventually, under the later Tokugawa shogunate, some of these teachings of bushido would be formalized in Japanese feudal law.
Besides dedicating shrines to the samurai who had fallen stemming the Mongol horde, Tokimune began several initiatives to help them in more pragmatic ways, although he died before most were implemented (his son, Sadatoki would finish these). Land grants (shōen) were given to the kyunin (officers) and myoshu (land holders) who had not yet been rewarded, and the land that they had sold or pawned to bring troops would be returned to them without penalty; a special commission tokusei no ontsukai (“agents of virtuous rule”) was to see to the details. Another edict insured that shrine lands that had been pawned would be returned to the Zen monasteries at no cost as an expression of gratitude for the prayers said at the time of the invasions.
But, in the midst of all this largess, Hojo Tokimune died suddenly of an unknown cause after falling ill in 1284 AD. Tokimune had rendered heroic service to Japan, and was idolized for it. But the massive expenditures in fighting off the invasion and spreading Zen weakened the Kanakura shogunate and the Hojo clan (he spent a lot of the family fortune on those shrines), to the point where they would decline and be replaced by the Kenmu Restoration fifty years later and the Ashikaga shogunate shortly after that.