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Minamoto clan was one of the surnames bestowed by the Emperors of Japan upon members of the imperial family who were demoted into the ranks of the nobility. The practice was most prevalent during the Heian Period (794-1185 AD), although its last occurrence was during the Sengoku Era. The Taira were another such offshoot of the imperial dynasty. The Minamoto clan is also called the Genji, using the Sino–Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for Minamoto (gen) and family (ji).
The Minamoto were one of four great clans that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian period — the other three were the Fujiwara, the Taira, and the Tachibana.
The first emperor to grant the surname Minamoto was Emperor Saga, who reportedly had 49 children, resulting in a significant financial burden on the imperial household. In order to alleviate some of the pressure of supporting his unusually large family, he made many of his sons and daughters nobles instead of royals. He chose the word minamoto (meaning "origin") for their new surname in order to signify that the new clan shared the same origins as the royal family. Afterwards, Emperor Seiwa, Emperor Murakami, Emperor Uda, and Emperor Daigo, among others, also gave their sons or daughters the name Minamoto. These specific hereditary lines coming from different emperors developed into specific clans referred to by the emperor's name followed by Genji, e.g. Seiwa Genji. According to some sources, the first to be given the name Minamoto was Minamoto no Makoto, seventh son of Emperor Saga.
In 814, Emperor Saga (reigned 809-823) awarded the kabane Minamoto no Ason to his non-heir sons; thereafter, they and their descendants ceased to be members of the Imperial Family. Several subsequent emperors gave the Minamoto surname to their non-heir sons.
The most prominent of the several Minamoto families, the Seiwa Genji, descended from Minamoto no Tsunemoto (917-961), a grandson of the 56th Emperor Seiwa. Tsunemoto went to the provinces and became the founder of a major warrior dynasty. Minamoto no Mitsunaka (912-997) formed an alliance with the Fujiwara. Thereafter the Fujiwara frequently called upon the Minamoto to restore order in the capital, Heian-Kyo (or Kyoto).
Mitsunaka's eldest son, Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948-1021), became the protégé of Fujiwara no Michinaga; another son, Minamoto no Yorinobu (968-1048) suppressed the rebellion of Taira no Tadatsune in 1032. Yorinobu's son, Minamoto no Yoriyoshi (998-1075), and grandson, Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106), pacified most of northeastern Japan between 1051 and 1087.
The Seiwa Genji's fortunes declined in the Hōgen Rebellion (1156), when the Taira executed much of the line. During the Heiji Disturbance (1160), the head of the Seiwa Genji clan, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, died in battle. Taira no Kiyomori seized power in Kyoto by forging an alliance with the retired emperors Shirakawa and Toba and infiltrating the kuge. He sent Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), the third son of Minamoto no Yoshimoto of the Seiwa Genji, into exile. In 1180 Yoritomo mounted a full-scale rebellion against the Taira rule (the Genpei or the Taira-Minamoto War), culminating in the destruction of the Taira and the subjugation of eastern Japan within five years. In 1192 he received the title shogun and set up the first bakufu at Kamakura.
Thus the Seiwa Genji line proved to be the most strong and dominant Minamoto line during the late Heian period with Minamoto no Yoritomo eventually forming the Kamakura Shogunate and becoming shogun in 1192. Also, it's from the Seiwa Genji line that the later Ashikaga (founders of the Ashikaga shogunate), Nitta, and Takeda clans come.
The protagonist of the classical Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, Hikaru no Genji, was bestowed the name Minamoto for political reasons by his father the emperor and was delegated to civilian life and a career as an imperial officer.
The Genpei War is also the subject of the early Japanese epic The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari).
Even within royalty there was a distinction between princes with the title shinnō , who could ascend to the throne, and princes with the title ō ("great" or "major"), who were not members of the line of imperial succession but nevertheless remained members of the royal class (and therefore outranked members of Minamoto clans). The bestowing of the Minamoto name on a prince or his descendants excluded them from the royal class altogether, thereby operating as a reduction in legal and social rank even for ō-princes not previously in the line of succession.
Many later clans were formed by members of the Minamoto clan, and in many early cases, progenitors of these clans are known by either family name. There are also known monks of Minamoto descent; these are often noted in genealogies but did not carry the clan name (in favor of a dharma name).
There were 21 branches of the clan, each named after the emperor from whom it descended. Some of these lineages were populous, but a few produced no descendants.