Kenchou-ji is a Rinzai Zen temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, which ranks first among Kamakura's so-called Five Great Zen Temples (the Kamakura Gozan) and is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan. These temples were at the top of the Five Mountain System, a network of Zen temples started by the Hojo Regents. Still very large, it originally had a full shichidou garan and 49 subtemples.
The temple was constructed on the orders of Emperor Go-Fukakusa and completed in 1253, fifth year of the Kenchou era, from which it takes its name. It was founded by Rankei Doryuu, a Chinese Zen master who moved to Japan in 1246, spending some years in Kyushu and Kyoto before coming to Kamakura.
Kamakura Regent Hojo Tokiyori was the temple's main patron during its early years. The sponsorship was spiritual as well as political: the Kamakura Gozan, organization of which this temple was head, had an important role in the shogunate's organization. The system, to which the Ashikaga added a series of five temples in Kyoto called the Kyoto Gozan, was adopted to promote Zen in Japan however, there as it had already happened in China, it was soon controlled and used by the country's ruling classes for its own administrative and political ends. The Gozan system allowed the temples at the top to function as de facto ministries, using their nationwide network of temples for the distribution of government laws and norms, and for the monitoring of local conditions for their military superiors. The Hojo first, and the Ashikaga later were therefore able to disguise their power under a religious mask, while monks and priests worked for the government as translators, diplomats and advisers.
Under their masters' patronage, Kenchou-ji and the Five Mountain temples gradually became centers of learning and developed a characteristic literature called the Japanese Literature of the Five Mountains. During the Japanese Middle Ages, its scholars exerted a far-reaching influence on the internal political affairs of the country.
The Gozan system finally declined with the dissolution of the Ashikaga shogunate which had sponsored it. Kenchou-ji's own renaissance came in the 19th century under the guidance of Zen master Aozora Kandou.