This 12th century sovereign was named after the 11th century Emperor Shirakawa and go- (後), translates literally as "later;" and thus, he is sometimes called the "Later Emperor Shirakawa". The Japanese word "go" has also been translated to mean the "second one;" and in some older sources, this emperor may be identified as "Shirakawa, the second," or as "Shirakawa II."
He accumulated power steadily after the Hōgen Rebellion; his reign commenced in 1155. In 1158, he abdicated, but continued to hold power as a cloistered emperor. He attempted to decrease the influence of the Fujiwara clan and increased the power of the samurai. His policy allowed Taira no Kiyomori to seize power, and at the end of his life he allowed Minamoto no Yoritomo to establish the Kamakura shogunate in Kamakura, in the province of Sagami, modern-day Kanagawa. The establishment of the Shogunate (or Bakufu) was the beginning of samurai control of Japan for 700 years until the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the 19th century.
Retired Emperor Toba expected him to be on the throne. When his brother, Emperor Konoe, died in 1155, Go-Shirakawa became emperor with support of Toba and a powerful lord Fujiwara no Tadamichi, since they were against Retired Emperor Sutoku and did not want his son to be the next emperor. They expected Go-Shirakawa to keep the throne until his son, the future Emperor Nijō would be old enough succeed him. The coronation of Go-Shirakawa made the political tension between Toba and Sutoku stronger. At the beginning of Go-Shirakawa's reign Toba continued to reign as a cloistered emperor until his death.
In 1156 Toba died and soon afterwards the Hōgen Rebellion arose. Go-Shirakawa gained the support of samurai including Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Taira no Kiyomori, and they defeated the armies of Sutoku. After the rebellion, Go-Shirakawa ruled Japan by himself. In 1158 he abdicated to his son Nijō and became cloistered emperor, through the reigns of five emperors (Emperor Nijō, Emperor Rokujō, Emperor Takakura, Emperor Antoku, and Emperor Go-Toba) until his death in 1192.
Taira no Kiyomori and Go-Shirakawa were on good terms initially. Kiyomori began trade with China and supported Go-Shirakawa, not just militarily but also financially. Two samurai clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, stood against each other, and the Heiji Rebellion occurred in 1159.
The Minamoto lost and the Taira seized power. With Kiyomori's power at its peak, the good relationship between Kiyomori and Go-Shirakawa ended. Go-Shirakawa attempted a coup d'état to expel Kiyomori in 1177 but failed. Kiyomori forced Go-Shirakawa to stay in Toba-in, the former palace of his father, Emperor Toba, in 1179. In 1178 Kiyomori made Imperial Prince Tokihito Crown Prince. Tokihito was his grandson, the child of Emperor Takakura and empress consort Taira no Tokuko, who was a daughter of Kiyomori.
Go-Shirakawa planned to regain power, and secretly sent his son Prince Mochihito to deliver a message to the Minamoto in which Go-Shirakawa proclaimed the Taira as the enemy of the court and requested that the Minamotos fight against them. In 1180 Mochihito and Minamoto no Yorimasa started the first rebellion. It failed, but several other samurai followed their attempt. In 1181 Kiyomori died and the decline of the Taira began. Go-Shirakawa began ruling again as cloistered emperor. In 1183 Minamoto no Yoshinaka from Musashi province defeated the Taira and entered Kyōto. After internal struggles within the Minamoto clan, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a brother of Yoritomo finally destroyed the Taira clan entirely in 1185 at the Battle of Dan-no-ura.
Go-Shirakawa came to bad terms with Yoritomo, and between them Yoshitsune was sacrificed. Yoritomo considered Yoshitsune disloyal to him and finally in 1189 Yoshitsune died in the battle of Mutsu province. At the same time the Ōshū Fujiwara clan, the Fujiwara clan in Mutsu province, was destroyed because they supported Yoshitsune against Yoritomo, who claimed then the title of chief of all samurai. After the death of Yoshitsune, Go-Shirakawa and Yoritomo reconciled and Go-Shirakawa allowed Yoritomo found a new shogunate.
In general, this elite group included only three to four men at a time. These were hereditary courtiers whose experience and background would have brought them to the pinnacle of a life's career. During Go-Shirakawa's reign, this apex of the Daijō-kan included: