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The Samurai: A Brief History
The following is an attempt to briefly explore the military aspects of Japan's history from the Early through Pre-Modern periods. The richness of Japanese history cannot be entirely denied, however, and the reader will certainly find references to matters and concepts not entirely related to the samurai. The first chapter, for instance, deals with events that occurred centuries before the samurai as we know them even existed. Yet to fully understand the samurai and their history, one must occasionally step back and admire the whole picture. This effort does not pretend towards anything more then it is, but we hope that the patient reader may find it useful in his or her own studies.
The Heian Period
The Gempei War
The Kamakura Period
The Kemmu Restoration
The Muromachi Period
The Sengoku Period
The Edo Period
The Rise of the Japanese State
The Ancient Period
The Formation of the State
The Taihô-Yôrô Code and the Nara Period
The origins of Japanese culture as we know it are to be found on the island of Kyûshu. The classic Japanese record of ancient events, the Kojiki, records that the Emperor Jimmu-Tenno oversaw the migration of the Japanese people from Kyûshu to the Yamato region. While the Kojiki says that this move occurred around 660 BC, modern scholars believe the transition occurred sometime in the 1st Century AD - perhaps around the same time iron working was introduced to Japan.
The Yamato peoples were essentially a clan (uji)-based society, loosely ruled by an Emperor or Empress, and in which religious ceremonies played an important part in governance. There would be no permanent seat of Imperial power for centuries, instead shifting with the ascension of each new ruler. This practice may have been based in the Shintô religion, which held that a home was defiled once a person had died within it's walls. It might be noted here that the Yamato rulers were elaborate tomb-builders, and one of these, the final resting place of the Emperor Nintoku, is truly remarkable.
In time, three families became particularly influential with the court-the Sogo, Motonobe and Nakatomi. The Motonobe appear to have been responsible or at least concerned with military affairs, for they were known as the 'Armorers'. The Nakatomi were the official practitioners of the Shintô faith and were the 'Court Ritualists'. There were many more clans, but judging by the following events, these seemed to have taken up camp behind one or the other of these three main families.
The Wei Chih, a chronicle of the events of the Wei Dynatsy in northern China (founded by the Emperor Cao Cao in 220 AD), provides us with an interesting and evidently faithful outside impression of the developing Yamato peoples as of around 297 AD…
"The people of Wa make their abode in the mountainous islands located in the middle of the ocean to the southeast of the Taifang prefecture. Formerly there were more then 100 communites. During the Han Dynasty their envoys appeared in court… They wear loincloth wrapped around their bodies and seldom uses stitches. Women gather their hair at the ends and tie in a knot and then pin it to the top of their heads. They make their clothes in one piece, and cut an opening in the center for their heads. They plant wet field rice, China grass (ramie), and mulberry trees. They raise cocoons and reel the silk off the cocoons. They produce clothing made of China grass, of coarse silk, and of cotton…They fight with halberds, shields, and wooden bows... There are class distinctions within the nobility and the base, and some of vassals of others. There are mansions and granaries erected for the purpose of collecting taxes. Each community has a marketplace where commodities are exchanged under the supervision of an official of Wa…'1
Little is known for certain about the centuries prior to and immediately following the Wei Chih, which is both intriguing and thought provoking. What, precisely, was meant by '100 communities'? Some recent scholars have taken the view that this could indicate multiple 'Japanese', of which the Yamato and Yamatai were two. In helping to at least fill the empty places in the story of Japan, our two primary Japanese sources on ancient affairs, the Kojiki and Nihon sho-ki, both call attention to the semi-mythical Yamato Takeru. A younger son of the Emperor keiko, Prince Yamato began his adventures by killing an elder brother who had not attended dinner with the family for a week. Perturbed at his son's violent disposition, keiko sent Yamato off to fight a rival tribe at Kumaso on Kyûshu. He arrived at Kumaso to find his quarry, two brothers, heavily guarded in their house, and hastily devised a scheme. He dressed himself in a robe his aunt had given him prior to departing and did his hair up in the way a woman might. Yamato was thus able to mingle with the women of the Kumaso borthers, and was allowed to sit with them during a feast that night. Mid-way through the proceedings, Yamato suddenly attacked and killed one of the brothers outright. The other brother attempted to flee but was tackled by Yamato…
"The prince said, 'I am a son of Emperor Otarashi-hiko-oshiro-wake (keiko), who, seated at the Hishiro Palace in Makimuku, rules the Great Eight Islands, and my name is Boy Prince Yamato. His majesty heard that you two Kumaso Braves haven't surrendered or paid your respects, so he sent me here to kill you.
'When he heard this, the Kumaso Brave said, "That's quite correct. In the west there's no other brave, no strong man other then the two of us. But in the Great Country of Yamato there is a man far braver then we are. May I give you a new name? From now on you should call yourself Prince Yamato Takeru."
As soon as this was said, the prince killed him by splitting him like ripe melon. From then on, people honored the prince by calling him Prince Yamato Takeru. On the way back he subdued and pacified all the mountain deities, river deities, and deities of the strights."2
On his way home, Yamato killed an independent leader of Izumo Province by first befriending him then tricking him into a swordfight (having sabatoged the man's sword). The prince was no sooner back in Yamato then his father had sent him to quell the eastern provinces (in this case the lands to the east of Yamato, to include Owari and Omi. After a series of further adventures (in which he sheds his earlier boorishness), Yamoto tragically dies.
The historical basis for Yamato Takeru is obscure at best, and he is likely an amalgamation of several different men, possibly including one emperor. Even the date of his father's reign is unclear. What can be said with some certainty is that the story of Prince Yamato (scarcely done justice here) loomed large in the development of what one could call the 'Japanese Philosophy'. Men of bravery, duty, and of tragic ends would crop up again and again throughout Japanese history, from Minamoto Yoshitsune to the old Takeda generals of Nagashino.
The Yamato court had become sufficiently developed by the 4th Century to send expeditions to Korea, although some if not most of these invasions rest on somewhat shaky historical ground (including the campaign led by the regent-empress Jingu Kogo in 200AD). There is some evidence that in the year 366 a mission was sent against the ancient Korean kingdom of Paekche and that in the aftermath a Japanese settlement/outpost called Mimana was established in southern Korea. Further military expeditions seem to have been carried out on behalf of Paekche against the other Korean kingdoms of Koguryo and Silla. These adventures came to an end with the fall of Mimana to Silla in 562, though not before Buddhism had been introduced to Japan, thanks in part to the King of Paekche, who in 538 (or 552, according to the Nihon sho-ki) dispatched gifts of Buddhist sutras and artifacts to the Japanese court (along with a thinly-veiled request for more military aid).
Ironically, Buddhism sparked fierce controversy within Yamato following its acceptance by the Imperial Court. Two of the notable families, the Nakatomi and Motonobe, strongly opposed the court's welcome of the foreign religion as well as the continuing involvement in Korea. The Sogo family, perhaps for political capital, embraced Buddhism, and their stance saw them gain favor with the imperial court. Sogo Iname's evident ploy to gain Imperial prestige backfired, however, when a plague broke out and was blamed on the Sogo's worship of the Buddhist image. The Sogo suffered the burning of their family temple and saw the Buddhist image tossed into a moat.
In around May 587 the Emperor Yomei died, and the feud between the Motonobe and Soga reached a boiling point. The leader of the Motonobe, Moriya, planned to arrange for a certain Prince Anahobe to ascend the throne. Sogo no Umako learned of the scheme, and, fearing the results should an enemy of the Sogo take the throne, had both Moriya and the Prince assassinated. Umako then decided to press the initiative and have it out with the Motonobe once and for all. It was a dangerous gamble, as the Motonobe were, after all, the 'official' military clan. Yet Moriya's death seems to have weakened his family and their pull with the other families. Following a string of clashes, the Motonobe were completely destroyed at the Battle (or Disturbance) of Mt. Shigi. In the aftermath of this great victory, Umako arranged for Prince Hatsusebe to succeed Yomei, and in September of 587 the Emperor Sujun took the throne. Umako ended up having the Emperor Sujun assassinated in 593 to protect his position and replaced with his own niece Suiko. At the same time Umako named the late Yomei's son as Regent (Sessho) to Suiko, a capacity in which he acted until 622. The regent became known as Shotoku Taishi, a remarkable figure in the shaping of Japanese culture and perhaps Japan's first statesman. Shotoku's de facto rule would see the Sinifcation of the Yamato people, including the adoption of the Chinese calendar, Chinese written characters, and, above all else, an embrace of Buddhism. Shotoku also reformed the government's ranking system in 603 and the following year (supposedly) composed his Jushichijo no Kempo (Seventeen Article Constitution), a document inspired by Chinese Confucian ethics that centered on a call for unity of spirit among the Yamato houses. Shotoku also sent three missions to China itself on behalf of the Empress of the 'Rising Sun', though he did not win great favor with the Sui court for the tone his dispatches took: that of an equal rather than an inferior.
Shotoku died in 622 and while much about his life is unknown, his contribution to the developing Japanese society was immense. At the same time, the fortunes of the family that had sponsored him began to decline. Emboldened by an extended time in the limelight, the Sogo became exceedingly high-handed in their dealings with the other houses, and prompted their old rivals, the Nakatomi, to action. Nakatomi Kamatari worked out an alliance with an Imperial prince named Naka no Ôe in 645 and later that year arranged for the Sogo chieftain, Iruka, to be cut down in the Court of the Empress Kokyoku. Kokyoku abdicated the throne and her brother Kotoku assumed her place, whilst the two conspirators ruled from behind the scenes. In appreciation for their efforts, the new regime awarded the Nakatomi with a special place at court and a new name, Fujiwara. Together, Naka no Ôe and Kamatari worked towards the realization of a sweeping set of new ideals that became known as the Taika (Great Change) reforms. The Taika reforms, borrowed freely from Chinese institutions, were designed to further strengthen the Imperial rule. The organization of provinces (kuni) was outlined, and the practice of reign names established (the first being, of course, Taika); the government was restructured along Chinese lines, and steps were taken towards economic reforms, which included a new system of taxation. Buddhism became even more entrenched, thanks in part to the ironic embrace of that religion by Fujiwara (Nakatomi) Kamatari. Conscription was introduced, although there is no way of knowing to what extent this practice was employed. Conscription was obviously unpopular, however, and was likened to the worst sort of forced labor.
This (virtual) political upheaval went quite peacefully, especially considering the manner in which Kotoku and the Fujiwara had come to power. When Kotoku died in 654, he was succeded by his sister, the former empress, Kokyoku. Kokyoku became known as Samei, and her six-year reign was to see a resurgence of interest in continental affairs. Exceedingly little is known about the events of her rule, but tradition has it that Samei was determined to liberate Paekche, recently conquered by Tang China. To this end, the empress led some 27,000 men from the Yamato in 662 (?) and had reached Kyûshu when she suddenly died of illness. Her followers decided to go forward with the expedition, a mistake that ended in complete defeat at the hands of the Tang navy. Whatever the specifics of this miscarried bid to return to Korea, no further expeditions of this sort would be attempted for nearly a thousand years. One side effect of the campaign was that it left the Court somewhat paranoid in regards to a possible counter-attack by the Tang, and efforts were taken to secure Kyûshu against invasion.
Prince Naka no Ôe, already a seasoned politician, assumed the throne in Samei's place, and became known as the Emperor Tenchi. He ruled until 670 and during that time devoted himself to realization of the Taika reforms. His successor, the Emperor Kobun, was usurped in a civil war that saw the rise of the Emperor Temmu (Hakuho) in 673. Changes continued to sweep the Yamato region, and in 702 would culminate in the Taihô Code and the movement of the Imperial Court to Nara. The Taihô Code was expanded in the Second Year of Yoro, and is therefore sometimes referred to as the Taihô-Yoro code. The revised version of the Taihô code survives intact to this day. The Code called for the division of government into two overall offices-that of Administration and that of Religion, and the description of the latter clearly demonstrates the continued importance of Shintôism, despite a powerful Buddhist presence at Nara: 'The Ministers (Haku) [of the Department of Religion (Jingi Kan)] shall be responsible for the performance of [Shintô] religious ceremonies and keeping registers of all [Shintô] priests corporations of attendants of shrines.'
The administrative body of government was sub-divided into eight Ministries (Central Affairs, Ceremonial, Civil Administration, Popular Affairs (all under the control of the Controller of the Left; War, Justice, Treasury, and Imperial Household, under the Controller of the Right), and here we see clear Chinese influences. The question which has long interested scholars is just HOW greatly the Code was inspired by Chinese models-was it in fact borrowed word by word from some Chinese source document? The Code also divided Japan into provinces (kuni) and placed a governor (kami) in charge of each. These governors, and their deputies, were in practice tax-collecting bodies for the Court, although in theory they carried Imperial authority in all domestic and military matters pertaining to their provinces. The Household Law section of the Taihô-Yoro code allows us some glimpse into certain aspects of the lives of the common people, though in so far as law was concerned.
6. The following classification of members of a household must be used.
Males and females up to the age of 3: infants
Males and females from 3 to 16: children
Males and females from 16 to 20: youth and girls
Males of 21 and upwards: able-bodied
Males of 61 and upwards: elders
Males of 66 and upwards: aged men.
23. In the sharing of an inheritance (upon the decease of the head of a house) all property must be added together, namely servants, slaves, land, houses, and other property, and shared out as follows:
The mother (being wife of the household) 2 shares
The stepmother 2 shares
Children of the wife 2 shares
Children of concubines 1 share
24. Males may marry at the age of fifteen, females at the age of thirteen.
25. A woman before marriage must obtain the consent of her family, viz. paternal grandfather and grandmother, father and mother, uncles and aunts, cousins, ect.
33.The governor shall once a year make a tour of his province, when he shall take note of local customs; enquire after the health of persons over 100 years of age; examine the cases of persons detained in prison, and put right any injustices…'3
The court was not to avoid strife in its new home, due in part to an exceedingly pervasive influence held by the Buddhist clergy. In the year 758 the empress Koken abdicated in favor of Junnin, one of Temmu's grandsons. Junnin was supported by Fujiwara Nakamoro, the influential and ambitious leader of the Fujiwara who worked towards phasing out conscription in favor of a more professional military establishment. It happened that Koken, who held considerable power behind the scenes, took a certain Buddhist priest named Dokyû as an advisor and, so the story goes, as a lover. Dokyû's resulting power prompted the jealousy of Nakamoro, made only worse when Koken arranged to have Junnin taken from the throne and shipped off to Awaji Island (where he was soon to be killed on Koken's orders). Perhaps feeling threatened now that he no longer had the favor of the court, Nakamoro revolted in 765, only to suffer defeat and death. The Empress Shotoku (as Koken called herself during her second reign) died in 770, and the Fujiwara was quick to avenge themselves on Dokyû, who by now had been elevated to the rank of Hô-ô, a religious title that essentially had made him the second in charge at court. The Fujiwara sent this colorful character off into exile, and determined that from that point on, a woman was never again to assume the throne-a rule that held without exception until the ascension of the Empress Meisho in 1629.
Political vicissitudes aside, the Nara Period was an important and decisive time of transition for the Japanese state. Culturally and religiously as well as politically, the Japanese were in a state of steady refinement. Nara was to prove a stepping-stone, and the next leap forward was to be engineered by Kammu-one of the greatest of Japan's emperors.
By this point, the Yamato peoples had begun to expand deeper into the interior of Honshu. In the way of their colonization stood the emishi (or barbarians). These mysterious tribes are traditionally taken to have been the Ainu, the aboriginal people who now live in northern Hokkaido and enjoy a exceptionally peaceful culture. There is the possibility that many of these 'emishi' were in fact simply less culturally developed relatives of the Yamato peoples. This theory (a relatively recent one) is supported to an extent by the almost complete lack of evidence that the Ainu have ever lived on Honshu, much less Kyûshu. Additionally, later records, especially those detailing the campaigns of Minamoto Yoshiie, describe the 'emishi' in such a manner as to imply particularly rustic Japanese clans. No sufficiently conclusive answer has ever been provided for this question.
Whether the emishi were the Ainu, rustic Japanese tribes, or a combination of both, when they resisted the newcomers (which they did not always do), they did so tenaciously. By 720, the Imperial Court at Nara could claim influence as far as the remote Kanto region, but was faced with frequent emishi disturbances. In that a former ambassador to China and Inspector of the provinces of Sagami, Shimotsuke, and Kozuke, Tajihi Agatamori, was assigned the rank of Jeisetsu Sei-I-shôgun and given authority to war on the emishi. This may have been the first conferment of the rank of 'shôgun' on an individual in Japanese history.
The title of Sei-I-shôgun meant 'barbarian-quelling general', while sei-to-shôgun (essentially comparable) meant 'General who quells the eastern barbarians'. These titles were given on a temporary basis and were probably inspired by similarly dramatic Chinese military ranks. The actual extent of authority a Sei-I-shôgun carried is unclear, but he was clearly considered a commander-in-chief on his given assignment.
In 784 the noted poet-governor Ôtomo Yakamochi was given the title of Sei-I-shogun and sent to quell rebellious emishi in Mutsu province, an assignment which he proved unable to complete. Three years later the Emperor Kammu gave Ki no Kosami the title of shogun and 52,000 men (needless to say, a rather unbelievable figure) and sent him against the recalcitrant emishi of Mutsu. Once there, Ki was soundly defeated and his army recalled in shame. Clearly, these emishi may have been considered 'barbarians' but they were dangerous opponents. Kammu was furious at Ki's defeat, and nearly had him put to death. The emperor ordered a retaliatory expedition organized but this did not actually depart until 794 owing to logistical difficulties and the movement of the capital to Kyoto. The new commanders, Ôtomo Otomaro and Sakanoue Tamuramaro, fared much better then Ki, and returned in triumph.
Can we see in these early expeditions, and the countless skirmishes and raids that must have taken place over the countries, the seeds of a martial tradition? The Taihô Code of 702 had attempted to limit the ownership of weapons and strengthen the power of the Imperial military (an ambition furthered to an extent by the workings of Fujiwara Nakamoro in the 760's) and yet there is no indication that these laws extended beyond the Yamato Region. The clans who battled the emishi did so in part (we can assume) in the hopes of securing sizable rewards of land in the newly colonized areas, and to maintain these in the face of emishi resistance, arms would need to be kept. As late the 16th Century the Kanto was considered remote from the Home Provinces, a rustic land that sprawled beyond the Hakone Mountains, themselves traditionally considered the gates to the barbarous east. In the 8th and 9th Centuries, the eastern provinces must have seemed like another world. It would have taken hardy, resourceful folk to brave the dangers and settle these wild lands, even as their countrymen back home would come to regard them as little more then emishi themselves. With easy communications impossible and a potential enemy close at hand, these Japanese frontiersmen could not rely on the Imperial military for their defense. The clans that began to populate the Kanto region and its environs were to prove tough, proud, and independent-minded. These may well have provided the basis for the samurai tradition.
The warriors of early Japan bore only a passing resemblance to the later samurai. Weaponry and armor were of a distinctly Chinese flavor, and the earliest warriors carried shields, a device evidently out of vogue even before the Heian period. Some of our knowledge of the weapons and protection the early Japanese warrior carried comes from artifacts excavated from the tombs constructed in the 4th and 5th Centuries to house departed royalty. Another, just as valuable resource are the haniwa, which were clay statues evidently used as grave markers (as opposed to guardians or servants, as in China). A good number of these haniwa depict warriors, and these provide us some insight into the nature of 'home-grown' Japanese armor of the time. The influence of China and Korea on early Japanese armor is evident, but may in part be explained by the large numbers of Koreans who settled in Japan prior to 562. The primary armor of the Yamato period seems to have been the tanko ('short armor'). Apparently designed for use by warriors on foot, the tanko was constructed from iron plates and vaguely resembled a corset, with an open top and an effort at body contouring. These do (cuirasses) were heavy and supported by both the hips and, thanks to cloth straps, the shoulders. Distinctive helmets were worn with tanko, and typified by a prominent front whose extended construction has earned it the nickname shokkau tsuki kabuto, or 'battering-ram helmet'. Additional protection was gleaned from kata yoroi, or shoulder armor and akabe yoroi - neck armor. The entire ensemble was coated with lacquer to provide the metal some protection from the elements.
The horse was imported to Japan sometime in the 4th or 5th Century, and quickly became a valuable commodity. Also brought over from the continent were keiko, or suits of lamellar scaled armor. This type, which is traditionally associated with horsemen, provided the foundation from which the classic patterns of samurai armor construction would build. Earlier examples resembled a sleeveless robe made of iron scales that extended to the upper or middle thighs and was fastened by bows at the front. Leg armor came into use, and the plate armor that had once protected the shoulders was replaced with flexible splint armor. Variations on the basic theme of the keiko would be produced into the Heian Period, and the tanko remained in use, though probably modified to enjoy some of the advantages of the keiko's lamed design. One such development were the kusazuri, or 'grass rubbing', which hung from the cuirass and protected the upper thighs. The kusazuri would become a staple of Japanese armor design.
The Yamato warriors carried sword, spear, and bow, the first resembling Chinese examples much more then the katana so familiar to us today. Again, clearly indigenous examples are rare, but a few basic sword types can be categorized. Among these was the kabutschi tachi, perhaps in use from 300 to 500 ad. Typified by a large pommel and almost claymore like appearance, the kabutschi was straight-edged and long, whereas the Warabite tachi (ca.650-680) was much shorter (somewhat less then half the length) and may have been a purpose built short sword.
The bow the Yamato warriors used may well have borne at least a conceptual resemblance to that employed by the later samurai. The Wei Chi reports, "The lower inflection of their bows is shorter, and the upper inflection longer." At least one source, the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) mentions the use of mounted archers in a succession dispute in 672, a possible early model for the future samurai. Beyond the manner of weaponry and armor that these early warriors wore, we are left only with conjecture. How they fought their battles - to what extent they were ceremonial, for instance - is entirely unclear. For the Japanese warrior to stride out of the mists of time, one must turn to the war tales of the Heian Period.
1. Lu Sources of Japanese History pg.8 - 9.
2. Lu Sources of Japanese History pg. 30 - 31
3. Sato Legends of the samurai pg. 5
In the year 794 ad the Japanese Imperial Court departed Nagaoka and transferred its seat to Heian-Kyo, or Tsuki no Miyako - the City of the Moon. The city had been laid out and built specifically to provide a new capital. Its builders, borrowing freely from Chinese conventions, had created an earthen-walled city three miles by three and a half miles, with straight streets intersecting to form no fewer then 1,200 blocks. The palace grounds, or daidairi, measured one mile by three quarters of a mile, and specific quarters were created to cater to merchants, nobility, and artisans. Japan had never seen a community like Heian-Kyo before and it is perhaps at this point that Japan as a state came into its own. At the same time, the Imperial shift to the new capital was in fact gradual, and could not be said to have been fully complete until a century or more had passed. Also shifting gradually was Japan's priorities, especially in the cultural field. Contact with China gradually petered off while native arts began to experience a state of great refinement, especially in literature. The great women writers of the later 10th century dominate the Heian Period's literary landscape, from the anonymous composer of the Kagero Nikki (the longest of the 'court diaries', ca. 975) to the famed 'Pillow Book' of Sei Shonagon and the monumental 'Tale of Genji' by Murasaki Shikubu. While reasonably well known outside Japan, the latter, composed around 1022, has yet to receive the recognition it deserves as possibly the world's 1st true novel. In most cultural pursuits -and in the realm of architecture- Chinese extravagance began to give way to a more thoughtful and conservative approach.
In the provinces, the movement towards imperial consolidation began to give way, out of a certain necessity, to the institution of shoen - estates which enjoyed a number of privileges, including varying degrees of tax exemption. Developed in the Nara Period and expanded in both scale and practice in the Heian Period, the granting of shoen allowed for the court to provide both individuals and institutions with a means of wealth in a country that lacked a real monetary system. In time, much of the imperial family's own income would be drawn from its own shoen (allowing for an increasingly comfortable lifestyle). This practice laid the framework for what would in time become the Japanese version of feudalism. 'Public' lands were known as kokugaryo and were administered by governors, often men of some ranking within either the court or religious community.
The Fujiwara clan continued to grow in strength until it had assumed a virtual monopoly on Heian politics. The manner in which this was accomplished was not through military force (or even the thinly-veiled threat of it) but rather a systematic implantation of marriage ties with the Imperial house. For a good two centuries, few emperors would have a mother of non-Fujiwara blood, even as this entailed the emperor commonly taking first cousins as consorts. The most successful of the Fujiwara, Michinaga (966-1027), had no fewer then four of his daughters married to emperors (with another marrying a prince who evidently suffered a breakdown before he could become emperor). The Fujiwara never made a bid for the throne itself, instead being content to act as regents and power brokers. Threats (real and potential) were identified and eliminated (often by means of exile) through the imperial apparatus and rarely through force of arms. By the time of Michinaga's death, a Fujiwara or close ally of the Fujiwara filled virtually every important civilian post within the government. At the same time, the Heian Period saw the growth of the practice of Insei, otherwise known as rule by 'cloistered' or retired emperors. Perhaps originally conceived as a way of keeping Fujiwara power in check, the strategy of retiring early and endeavoring to rule from 'behind the scenes' actually played into Fujiwara hands. At one point during the career of Fujiwara Kaneie (929-990) were no fewer then three retired emperors holding court, a situation that divided imperial authority and allowed Kaneie and his successor Michinaga to consolidate the Fujiwara hold on Kyoto.
This hold would finally be broken with the reigns of the emperors Go-Sanjo and Shirakawa. Go-Sanjo assumed the throne in 1068 at the age of 30, and it happened that his mother was not of Fujiwara blood. A heated dispute developed between the emperor and the steadily alienated Fujiwara over the issue of shôen (an area in which Go-Sanjo zealoulsy worked for reform). Faced with the danger that the Fujiwata would simply leave their court duties altoghether in protest, Go-Sanjo elected to continue his fight from behind the scenes. He retired in favor of his son Shirakawa in 1072 and was much freer to shape events now that he was unburdened of the many trappings of his former position. Unlike the former retired emperors who had spent their time living off the court's finances, Go-Sanjo stayed busy ruling through his son. While he was destined to die the following year, Go-Sanjo had established a precedent that Shirakawa would in time follow - this insei system essentially out-puppeteered the Fujiwara and assured that never again would that family hold the power it once had even as its vital role in running the goverment was left intact.
Buddhism continued to grow during the Heian period, helped by an almost harmonious co-existence with the native Shinto religion and the acceptance of its teachings by the Court. Great religious complexes sprang up in the central provinces, aided by grants of shoen and other land rights. Chief among these was the Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, to the northeast of the capital. Founded in 788 by the monk Saicho, the Enryakuji grew throughout the Heian period to include thousands of buildings and to hold considerable influence as the vanguard of Tendai Buddhism. As the monastic complex grew, so did the willingness of its inhabitants to actively involve themselves in temporal affairs, or rather, to deal with issues in a very temporal manner. The early rivals of the Enryakuji included the older Nara temples, and, after the 10th Century, the Mii-dera temple. The latter came about as a result of a schism with the Tendai sect of Buddhism that saw a fair number of monks driven from Mt. Hiei and forced to establish their own place of worship. Outright battles between the Enryakuji and Mii-dera were common during the later Heian Period, and saw the later burned to the ground numerous times.
The famous warrior monks, or Sohei, of Mt. Hiei came about, it would seem, in an unexpected way.1 From its earliest times, the Enryakuji was held to be off limits to both women and law enforcement bodies. The latter prohibition attracted such a large criminal element to Mt. Hiei that Kakûjin (1012-81), the 35th abbot of the Enryakuji, called for his followers to form an army and drive away the undesirables. In fact, many of the men who took up arms may well have been those very same unwelcome fugitives they were intended to fight. From this time forward, Mt. Hiei would maintain a martial arm, one that it rarely hesitated to use. One frequent victim of the Enryakuji's heavy-handed tactics was none other then the emperor himself. As emperor Shirakawa is alleged to have said, "There are three things that even I cannot control: the waters of the Kamo river, the roll of the dice, and the monks of the mountain." When the monks of Mt. Hiei found themselves at odds with court over some affair (perhaps a question of land rights or taxation), they would gather and marcyh down at to the gates of Kyoto, bearing on their shoulders the sacred palanquin (mikoshi) of the Shinto deity Sanno. So revered was this artifact that no one dared block its passage and much more often then not the emperor would give in to the monk's demands. The warrior monks of the Enryakuji would continue to play an important role in the Kyoto area for hundreds of years, until the advent of Oda Nobunaga. While evidently not the first monastic complex to take on a military aspect, the Enryakuji's reputation was great indeed.
The other great Buddhist movement of the Heian period had been founded by the priest Kukai (774-835) and was called Shingon. Shingon (or True Word) was centered on the worship of Maha-Vairocana (or Great Illuminator, otherwise known as the Dainichi Nyorai), believed to be the first and greatest of the Buddhas. Shingon held that the Dainichi Nyori was present in all things in the universe and by extension was all people. Essentially, Kukai taught that to understand the Great illuminator, one needed to unlock the mysteries of their own minds and spirits. This involved a large amount of ceremony and ritual - hence earning Shingon the label of 'esoteric Buddhism'.
A third school of thought in Buddhism was to emerge at the tale end of the Heian Period. The monk Hônen (1133-1212), a former priest of the Enryakuji, founded what would become known as the Jodo, or Pure Land. Jodo popularized Amidism, a form of Buddhism the monk Genshin (942-1017) had written about and that centered on the worship of the Amida Buddha. The Amida resided in the Western Paradise and welcomed in all the faithful. No undo ceremony or spiritual honing was necessary for admittance to Paradise, only a honest belief in the Buddha and the reciting of his name in praise (the nembutsu). By the start of the Kamakura Period, Jôdo would have a strong following among the common people, for whom its straightforward approach appealed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the established schools of Buddhism did not take kindly to Jôdo, and made very effort to limit its spread. Yet by the 15th and 16th centuries, Jôdo was to prove an exceptionally powerful force.
The capital was perhaps not an exceedingly dangerous place for those notables of non-Fujiwara blood, but it could be a decided dead end. It is tempting, and not implausible, to imagine frustrated nobles departing for the wilds of the east, determined to make a name for themselves in the provinces. Those who left Heian-Kyo did so in the knowledge that they would never again be able to move casually in the 'world of the shining price'. As the Heian Period wore on, the divide in culture between those in the capital and those in the provinces would grow into a gulf.
The most famous of these clans (and by extension many later families) owed their existence to a bit of foresight on the part of the Emperor Temmu. Concerned that in time the Imperial house would grow to an unmanageable size and cost, Temmu declared that descendants of the emperors in the sixth generation were to be deprived of the rank of prince and instead receive a family name. This began to be observed in the time of Kammu (r.782-805) and provided the genesis of the Taira and Minamoto. The Taira (or Heike, or Heishi) were descended from Prince Katsurabara (the emperor Kammu's son), whose eldest son Takamune first took the name Taira. Katsurabara's second son, Takami, received permission to give the Taira name to his own son, Takamochi. Takamochi received the name in 889 on the authority of the emperor Uda and his son Kunika (d.935) settled in Hitachi province. It is primarily the line established by Takami's descendants that we will be encountering from this point onward.
The Minamoto (or Genji) were founded in a similar way but in their case, a total of four branches were established, each of which was named after the emperor from it was descended: the Saga-Genji, Murakami-Genji, Uda-Genji, and Seiwa-Genji. Of these four, the last could be considered the most important historically. Founded by the son of Prince Sadazumi (and therefore grandson of the emperor Seiwa), Tsunemoto (894-961), this branch took the name Minamoto in 961.
At this point, a common misconception should be noted. Contrary to what one might think, there was little unity of purpose amongst the various branches of the Taira and Minamoto. This is relevant in that the rise of the warrior house is sometimes attributed to the formation and growth of these two clans, which while true to some extent, is misleading. The names Taira and Minamoto were practically generic by the 11th Century, and numerous members of the two families formed their own offshoot families, often taking the name of the district in which they lived (the Ashikaga of Shimotsuke are a nice example). Furthermore, the court enjoyed a greater influence in the provinces then might be expected. One of the ways in which it affected this was the appointment of trusted men who became career governors. Most commonly drawn from the Minamoto and Taira families, these men were given successive appointments in various provinces, sometimes where a questionable element was thought to exist. As well as providing strong governors where needed, this strategy also assured that no Minamoto or Taira chieftain would be in one place long enough to form dangerously strong ties with his vassals there. As Jeffery Mass has pointed out, the various heads of the Minamoto and Taira were military-nobles, leaders whose ties were strong in both capital and province. Later events (those leading up to and following the Gempei War) do not weaken this view - rather, they substantiate them. The Heiji Distrubance of 1156, for instance, saw Minamoto and Taira allied on either side of the contest, and very much a part of Kyoto politics in general. Taira Kiyomori and Minamoto Yoritomo were able to achieve what they did largely as a result of the familiarity of their houses and the court, a point we will touch on again somewhat later.
The court had at one time moved to limit the potential power of the clans by decreeing that weapons were to be restricted to the Imperial military or otherwise regulated by the Ministry of Military Affairs (the Hyôbûsho). As conscription was abandoned in the early Heian Period, so was this decidedly half-hearted law. Just when one could really begin to refer to 'warrior houses', however, is a matter of great debate. The truth is that much of the development of the samurai is a matter of conjecture. We do see the term applied to palace guards in the 10th Century, but little can be drawn from that example beyond an affirmation of the 'one who serves' translation of the word. That the clans maintained some form of private army can be safely assumed, but to the extent that these were professional is most unclear, and likely the archetypal samurai of the 10th-13th Century was much like the later jizamurai - men of the land who counted military service as but one of their duties. Nonetheless, that a plentiful basis for the warrior tradition in Japan would be provided in the Heian Period goes without saying.
In the year 935, a grandson of Taira Takamochi, Taira Masakado, petitioned the court for the respectable title of Kebiishi (Commissioner of Government Police). Masakado was something of a hothead, and according to the Konjaku Monogatari, was quick to resort to battle to resolve problems with his neighbors. Perhaps in view of this, the court refused Masakado the title he sought. Infuriated, he returned to his lands in the Kanto region and threw up the flag of rebellion, though perhaps not so much against the court as his local rivals. He killed his uncle Kunika and clashed with Taira Sadamori while attracting a number of neighboring landowners to his side. Emboldened by his successes and the lack of a reaction from Kyoto, Masakado went so far as to declare himself emperor, claiming a mandate to do so from the Sun Goddess herself. This proved a grave error, however, as it stiffened the opposition of his enemies and allowed the court to declare him a rebel. Loyalist forces under the command of Taira Sadamori and Fujiwara Hidesato first forced Masakado onto the defensive then defeated him at the Battle of Kojima in 940. In the course of the fighting Masakado was struck by an arrow in the head and was killed.
At around the same time the Minamoto clan gained some prestige by suppressing a formidable fleet of pirates commanded by Fujiwara Sumimoto that preyed on shipping in the Inland Sea between 936 and 941. Both Masakado and Sumimoto had presented the court with very real challenges, and both had failed due to the willingness of other chieftains to respect the wishes of the court and offer battle on the emperor's behalf. Those who rendered such services could hope for land grants and other rewards, and over the years certain families came to grow particularly powerful. Once such family was the Minamoto, whose capture of Fujiwara Sumimoto had earned them acclaim soon to be overshadowed by the endeavors of one of their most famous sons: Minamoto Yoshiie.
Minamoto Yoshiie, a man who came to embody the spirit of the samurai and a legend even in his own time, was the son of Minamoto Yoriyoshi. Yoriyoshi, the third generation of the Seiwa Genji, was a noted commander, and in 1051 was commissioned to defeat the rebellious Abe family of Dewa. The Abe had for years held prominent posts in this distant, forbidding region, and had come to enjoy a near autonomous existance. Like Taira Masakado, the Abe had been tasked with subduing the northern barbarians, and, from the Court's point of view and over time, become barbarians themselves.
Yoriyoshi's chief opponent was Abe Yoritoki, an unscrupulous character who died of an arrow wound in 1057. By this point in the so-called Former Nine-Years War, Yoriyoshi's son Yoshiie had joined the expedition. A promising young warrior, Yoshiie participated in the Battle of Kawasaki (later in 1057) against Yoritoki's heir Sadato. In a snowstorm, the Minamoto assaulted Sadato's stronghold at Kawasaki and were driven back; in the course of the hard-fought retreat Yoshiie distinguished himself and earned the nickname 'Hachimantaro', or 'First son (or First born) of the God of War (Hachiman)'. Abe Sadato comes across as an altogether more impressive man than his father, and proved a formidable foe even for Yoshiie and Yoriyoshi. Yet the Minamoto cause was much assisted by the enlistment of Kiyowara Noritake, a locally powerful figure whose rugged northern men swelled Yoriyoshi's ranks.
In 1057 the fighting culminated in a series of actions that further enhanced Yoshiie's reputation. Sadato had attacked the Minamoto troops but suffering a reverse retreated into a fort by the Koromo River. Yoriyoshi ordered a spirit assault on the fort, which Sadato was forced to flee. During the chaotic retreat, Yoshiie was supposed to have chased Sadato and had an impromptu renga (linked verse) session with his enemy from horseback, afterwards allowing him to escape, as related in the Mutsu Waki…
'Yoriyoshi's first son, Hachiman Taro, gave hot pursuit along the Koromo River and called out, "Sir, you show your back to your enemy! Aren't you ashamed? Turn around a minute, I have something to tell you." When Sadato turned around, Yoshiie said:
Koromo no tate wa hokorobinikeri
Koromo Castle has been destroyed. [The warps in your robe have come undone]
Sadato relaxed his reins somewhat and, turning his helmeted head, followed that with:
toshi o heishi ito no midare no kurushisa ni
over the years its threads became tangled, and this pains me
Hearing this, Yoshiie put away the arrow he had readied to shoot, and returned to his camp. In the midst of such a savage battle, that was a gentlemanly thing to do. 3
The likelihood that this incident actually occurred is probably nil but it made Yoshiie seem all the more colorful, and gave him an opponent worthy in both warfare and culture. Tales like these laid the groundwork for the samurai mystique, and provided young warriors with ready-made role models and measures against which to test their own prowess and bravery.
Yoshiie may have spared his noble opponent, but the war was nearly over. Sadato continued his flight until he reached one of his remaining forts, this one on the Kuriyagawa, and prepared for another stand. The government troops arrived and after a few days of fighting brought the fort down. Sadato and his son died, and his brother Muneto was captured. Yoshiie gave thanks to his (nick)namesake by establishing the Tsurugaoka Hachiman shrine near Kamakura on the way back to Kyoto. Yoriyoshi was awarded the governorship of Iyo for his services against the Abe while Yoshiie was named Governor of Mutsu. Interestingly, Abe Muneto was released into the custody of the Minamoto and lived in Iyo, becoming a companion of Yoshiie's.
In 1083 Yoshiie was commissioned by the Court to subdue another rebel, this time against the same Kiyowara family who had assisted the Minamoto in the previous war. After the Abe's defeat, the Kiyowara had been elevated and filled the power vacuum in the north. A power struggle had broken out among various family members, and in the end Yoshiie was sent to quell the disturbance. The conflict became known as the Later Three-Year War and culminated, after a setback at Numu (1086), in the Battle of Kanazawa. In an incident that became a famous military anecdote, Yoshiie's men were advancing to contact when a flock of birds began to settle in a certain spot then abruptly flew off. Yoshiie suspected an ambush and had the place surrounded, sure enough revealing the enemy army. Yoshiie went on to reduce Kanazawa through siege and the Later Three-Year War drew to a close. The Court was pleased that the Kiyowara had been suppressed, but viewed the conflict as outside the Court's responsibility, as technically Yoshiie had not been commissioned by the emperor to fight. This meant that no rewards would be distributed to Yoshiie's men, an unfortunate situation Yoshiie remedied by paying them himself with his own lands. This action greatly enhanced Yoshiie's reputation and also secured lasting bonds of loyalty for the Minamoto in the Kanto region, bonds that would pay dividends in the following century.
Stinginess aside, the aristocracy held Yoshiie in near-awe, and Fujiwara Munetada dubbed him 'The Samurai of the greatest bravery under heaven.' At the same time, the Court kept Yoshiie at arm's length. It did go so far as permitting Yoshiie to visit the Imperial Court in 1098; a rare honor that by it's very rareness indicates the widening gulf between the Court and provincial houses. This alienation would in the end contribute to the eclipse of Imperial authority by the samurai in the later 12th Century.
Perhaps as a result of Taira Masakado's belligerence or simply through the whims of fortune, the Taira family had not achieved the same fame as had the Minamoto. This began to change during the career of Taira Tadamori (1096-1153). His father, Taira Masamori, had been a particularly successful 'career-governor', acting as headman to no fewer then nine provinces over the course of his life. Tadamori would not match that record, but did become close to retired emperor Shirakawa, and as a result received the title of kebiishi and the governorship of Bizen, Harima, and Ise. He earned the gratitude of the court by suppressing Inland Sea pirates, and gradually the Taira's power base shifted to the western provinces. Tadamori received a favored concubine from his Imperial patron, and nine months later she gave birth to a child who would come to be known as Taira Kiyomori (1115-1181). He became a commander of palace guards in the capital and in 1146 the governor of Aki province, in the meantime earning a reputation for decisiveness. In one celebrated (and possibly apocryphal) event in 1146, one of his men insulted the head priest of Kyoto's Gion Shrine, prompting a large group of warrior monks to march on the city and demand Kiyomori's chastisement. Kiyomori rode out and to the shock of all present, shot an arrow into their mikoshi, a decided act of sacrilege that did have the effect of scattering the monks.
Tadanori died in 1153 and was succeded by Kiyomori, who was to advance his family's fortunes considerably by backing the right horse during the Hôgen Disturbance (Hôgen no ran) of 1156. Trouble had been brewing in the court since 1141. In that year, the retired emperor Toba forced his eldest son, the Emperor Sutoku (r.1123-1441), to abdicate in favor of a two-year old (borne by a favorite consort) to be known as Konoe. Konoe died in 1155, but Toba, rather then sponsoring Sotoku's son as successor, insisted that a half-brother be placed on the throne. Much to Sutoku's chagrin, Go-Shirakawa took the throne in November of 1155. Lines began to be drawn between Sutoku and Go-Shirakawa, a situation enflamed by a bitter feud that divided the Fujiwara family. Toba died in August of 1156 and events began to move quickly, though Sutoku was gripped by a hesitation that would prove fatal for his cause.
The Taira and Minamoto were both to be divided in the conflict. Kiyomori threw in with Go-Shirakawa, while his uncle Tadamasa took up Sutoku's cause. Minamoto Yoshitomo joined with Kiyomori even as his own uncle Tameyoshi and brother Tametomo joined Sutoku. The warrior monks of Mt. Hiei gave their nominal support to Sutoku, but could not be counted on. Yoshitomo suggested a sudden and decisive night raid on Sutoku's compound, the Shirakawa-den, a strategy that his brother Tametomo had actually urged Sutoku to authorize against Go-Shirakawa. Unlike his half-brother, Go-Shirakawa gave permission for the attack to proceed and in a violent action that left the Shirakawa-den in flames, Sutoku's side was crushed. Master archer Tametomo distinguished himself with great acts of bravery, and was afterwards spared, though at the cost, we are told, of the tendons in his firing arm. Sutoku was sent into exile to Sanuki Province, where he later died at the age of 64. Kiyomori and Yoshitomo were not so lenient towards their own uncles, whom they had executed.
The Hôgen Disturbace left Kiyomori in a strong position, and the following year he was made the head of the Daifuzu on Kyushu, a post once considered a dead-end but now a chance for Kiyomori to consolidate his hold on the western provinces. He actually remains a popular figure in western Japan, remembered for his economic initiatives and his patronage of the Itskushima Shrine on Miyajima. Thanks to his friendship with Go-Shirakawa's chief councilor Fujiwara Michinori (Shinzei), Kiyomori's influence at court and prestige continued to grow - much to Minamoto Yoshitomo's dismay. Yoshitomo had not been as fortunate in the wake of the Hogen Disturbance, and he became jealous of his erstwhile ally. He made an alliance with a certain Fujiwara Nobuyuki, a rival of Michinori, and together they plotted to depose their respective opponents. By this point, Go-Shirakawa had retired in favor of his son Nijô, and as the latter was also fond of Kiyomori, the conspirators were careful to wait for just the right opportunity to move.
Yoshitomo's chance came in January of 1160. Kiyomori had recently departed the capital to make a pilgrimage to Kumano and in his absence Yoshitomo seized both Go-Shirakawa and Nijô. Fujiwara Michinori suffered the burning of his mansion and was forced to commit suicide in an attempt to reach Kiyomori. In the afterglow of their success, Yoshitomo and Nobuyuki granted themselves titles and rewards-only to reap the consequences of their actions. Kiyomori rushed back to capital and with the able assistance of his son Shigemori made his way to his mansion at Rokuhara. Even as the two plotted some counter-attack, both Nijô and Shirakawa were rescued and brought under Taira protection, leaving Kiyomori a free hand in his planning. The Minamoto headquarters were assaulted, and after a stiff battle Yoshitomo was forced to flee the capital and headed eastward. He made it as far as Owari province before being murdered in his bath by Taira supporters even as three of his sons fell into Kiyomori's hands. These were Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune, all of whom Kiyomori spared and sent to the eastern provinces. This act of benevolence would later be bitterly regretted by the Taira. To the other members of the conspiracy, little compassion was shown. Yoshitomo's rashness had seen the Minamoto clan stripped of many of its most prestigious chieftains and the Taira left virtually unchallengeable.
With a now doubly grateful Go-Shirakawa and Nijô restored to their places in Kyoto, Kiyomori's influence continued to grow. That same year he received a court title (the Senior Third Rank) and in 1167 was granted the title of dajodaijin, or Grand Minister of State-the highest rank bestowed on a subject by the Emperor. Popular history has traditionally painted Kiyomori as a cruel military dictator, who relegated his imperial patrons to the role of mere puppets. In fact, at least initially, Kiyomori and Go-Shirakawa may have acted more as partners then puppet-puppeteer, and Kiyomori's military strength does not justify the picture of a warrior usurping the throne. Like so much of Japanese history, the relationship of the court and clan (be that warrior or otherwise) defies easy explanation or quantification.
Needless to say, Kiyomori was not without an enormous ambition, and as the years passed, his relationship with Go-Shirakawa proceeded to turn sour. The Taira clan began to resemble the Fujiwara in its rampant nepotism, and it is perhaps only now that we can begin to describe either 'Taira' or 'Minamoto' as inclusive units. Stung and shamed by the events of the Heiji Disturbance, the Minamoto went dormant for the next twenty years. In that time, the three sons that Kiyomori had spared came of age. The stage for the epic Gempei War had been set.
1. The term sohei was in fact not a contemporary term, and many of the accepted assumptions regarding the activities of the so-called warrior monks are now being challanged. For what promises to be an illuminating look at the secular powers held by religous institutions in medieval Japan, see the forthcoming work by Prof. Mikael S. Adolphson - "The Gates of Power' (Hawaii, to be published in December).
2. Sato Legends of the Samurai pg. 99
3. Much of the following chapter is drawn from the biography of Yoshiie found elswhere on this page.
In May 1180 Prince Mochihito, the son of Retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, issued a statement urging the Minamoto to rise against the Taira. While Mochihito would be killed in June and Minamoto Yorimasa crushed at the Battle of the Uji, a fire had been set. In September Minamoto Yoritomo, who had recieved Mochihito's call from Miyoshi Yasukiyo, set about raising an army in the Province of Izu, where he had been in exile. There was an irony in the preceeding events, as Taira Kiyomori had himself sown the seeds of the war, so the poetic tale goes. His great error, we are told, had been to spare the sons of Minamoto Yoshitomo in the wake of the Heiji disturbance, allowing these three boys - Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune - to mature and form the leadership of a new and dangerous threat.
In fact, Yoritomo's own call to arms in the east was recieved cautiously at best. He did manage to kill the local Taira governor, but was defeated at the Battle of Ishibashiyama by Oba Kagechika. In the wake of this hard setback, however, Yoritomo did recieve the valuable additon of Kajiwara Kagetoki to his staff. Elsewhere in the Kanto, local families began to respond to Yoritomo in varying degrees and in Shimosa and elsewhere set about eliminating Kyoto-appointed officals. This often provoked inter-province and occasionally inter-clan civil war, a common and oft-overlooked element of the Gempei War. By the Spring of the following year, Yoritomo could count on at least the tacit support of most of the notable families in the Kanto, although the Chubu, though by now nominally Minamoto dominated, existed beyond his immediate control. Yoritomo's Kanto domain is occasionally referred to as the Tôgaku, and rather then surge forward against the Taira, he contented himself for the time being with consolidating his hold locally.
The Taira response to the violence was mixed and uncertain. Kiyomori dispatched his grandson Koremori with an army eastward, but he turned back at the Fuji River in Suruga Province. Closer to home, Taira Tomomori - who would prove the most able of the Taira - had defeated the combined forces of old Minamoto Yorimasa and the warrior monks of the Miidera at the Uji River in late June. To punish the monks for their involvement thus far in the fledgling conflict, Kiyomori ordered the Miidera burned and, a few months later, a number of temples in Nara as well. While all of this was going on, Kiyomori had made the surprising decision to move the Imperial seat to Fukuhara (to the west of Kyoto) in June. His motivations for this abortive upheaval are unclear, but by the end of the year, the emperor was back in Kyoto. In truth, the Taira seem to have settled on a containment policy as regarded Yoritomo, and made little effort following the 'Battle' of Fujigawa to reassert their control in the Kanto. They did have their hands full with other local warriors rising up, men who used the Minamoto name as a pretext for land grabs and the settling of old disputes.
In the middle of 1181, Yoritomo made a surprising offer to the Taira that called for the partition of the country between the two families, with Yoritomo taking the eastern half of the country. Despite some favorable murmers from the Court, the Taira dismissed the notion out of hand. Yoritomo's offer is in any event an odd one. He had, after all, been operating quite without concern for Kyoto since the previous summer and was at this point more or less immune to a direct Taira attack. It may well be then, as some scholars have suggested, that Yoritomo was hoping to head off the threat represented by Minamoto (Kiso) Yoshinaka. Also known as Kiso Yoshinaka (from the area of Shinano he hailed from), this rough and tumble warrior was to prove an immediate threat to the Taira - and to Yoritomo's claims of Minamoto leadership.
Somewhat earlier, Yoritomo's uncle Yukiie had taken the field and was to suffer defeat at the hands of Taira Tomomori at the Battle of Sunomata in Mino Province (March 1181). Yukkie survived this setback and would henceforth work in conjunction with Yoshinaka, who was in a better position then Yoritomo to challange the Taira directly.
In February 1181 Taira Kiyomori fell ill and died, leaving his son Munemori to rule. Later that year nature would impose a forced truce over the combatants as a poor harvest brought starvation and disease. This would last into 1183, although Yoshinaka would make some local moves in 1182. As soon as the situation improved enough for military manuevers, Munemori ordered a campaign to defeat Yoshinaka, who due to his location was more worrisome even then Yoritomo. A host departed from Kyoto in May, and in Kaga Province split up. One force, under Tomomori, would advance to the north and swing through Noto Province. The other, larger force, led by Taira Koremori, would advance due east towards Etchû Province. Yoshinaka managed to ambush the latter force at Kurikawa and engineered a rout of the Taira warriors. He followed up this stroke with a further victory at Shinohara, then marched on the Capital. With his warriors demoralized and in disarray, a shaken Munemori ordered an evacuation of Kyoto in he face of Yoshinaka's advance. Taking the child-emperor Antoku, Munemori departed for the Taira's western domain. On 17 August 1183 Yoshinaka and Yukiie entered the Capital with retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa.
Soon after taking up in Kyoto, Yoshinaka began making noises that he ought to be considered the overall leader of the Minamoto, a status which would if nothing else garner him a considerable amount of prestige with the clans that had risen in the Minamoto's name. Yoshinaka, however, quickly wore out his welcome in Kyoto thanks to the behavior of his men in the capital and his officers in other provinces, a situation probably not improved by his now-sluggish execution of the war with the Taira. He did dispatch one of his generals westward with the task of reducing Yashima, the Taira headquarters on Shikoku, an endeavor that resulted in a brisk Minamoto defeat at Mizushima. Yukiie attempted to recoup the loss (and an evident falling-out with Yoshinaka) by leading an army against Taira forces at Muroyama in Harima Province. This contest ended as a further Minamoto failure, with Yukiie barely escaping with his life.
Yoritomo had recieved the news of Yoshinaka's presumption with no small amount of anger. Yet, rather then rush westward to press his own claim, he had bided his time and sought to reach an agreement with Go-Shirakawa himself. Once he was evidently confident of Court support, he made his move. To lead his army, he dispatched his younger brothers, Noriyori and Yoshitsune - with this campaign being the first real occasion in which they come into the light of history. At some point in 1180 Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune had been reunited, probably for the first time since their separation in 1160. The exact activities of the latter two drift into the unknown again until February 1184, when they marched west. Yoshitsune, who by now had been given the rank Sô-daisho (general of the army), led an army that included Noriyori and Kajiwara Kagetoki into the Kyoto area. Yoshinaka, learning of the new threat, hastily dispatched an army to cover the two main eastern doorways to Kyoto - the Uji and Seta bridges. The attacking army split into two parts, with Yoshitsune heading for the Uji Bridge while Noriyori made a crossing upriver at the Seta Bridge. Crossings were successful at both points and Yoshinaka’s men lost heart and fled. When Yoshinaka heard of the defeat he abandoned Kyoto and attempted to escape the area with a handful of retainers, including Japan’s only famous example of a true female samurai warrior - Tomoe Gozen. He was soon cornered at Awazu and committed suicide.
With Yoshinaka out of the way, Yoritomo secured the support of Go-Shirakawa and a mandate to press the war with the Taira. On 13 March Yoshitsune and Noriyori were given permission to set out for the Western provinces and moved into Settsu Province, the eastern doorway to the Setô Inland Sea. Yoshitsune’s first objective was the Taira outpost at Ichi no Tani, a well-positioned fortification that was covered from the rear by a steep incline. This was where the Taira had fled following their retreat from Kyoto and could be used as a staging area for any future attempts to return to the capital.
Ichi no tani was screened by a number of outposts that included Mikusuyama to the north and Ikuta no mori to the west. These would have to be reduced first before Ichi no tani itself could be attacked.
Yoshitsune was to lead a force of some 10,000 men around to the north of Ichi no tani and come out for an attack from the west while 50,000 or so (according to the war tales) under Noriyori would strike from the east. On 18 March Yoshitsune approached Mikusayama. Fearing that the Taira would hastily reinforce this important position, Yoshitsune launched an immediate night attack that brought the fort down. According to the Heike Monogatari the surviving defenders, including three of Taira Kiyomori’s grandsons, fled to the coast and passed over to Shikoku, leaving 500 dead. Yoshitsune then sent 7,000 men under Doi Sanehira down to the western side of Ichi no tani while he led the remaining 3,000 men under his command to the top of the cliffs overlooking the fort. Meanwhile, Noriyori had begun an attack on the forward Taira positions at Ikuta no mori, commanded by Taira Tomomori. While Doi began to trade blows with the Taira below, Yoshitsune called for a man who might know a way down to the rear of the castle and the monk Benkei furnished a guide. With the Taira’s attentions fully diverted by Doi and Noriyori, Yoshitsune led his men in a hair-raising ride down the incline and into the rear of the fort. Stunned by the accomplishment of what they had assumed was impossible, the Taira were thrown into a panic, their morale was shattered by Yoshitsune’s feat. Taking the boy-emperor Antoku the Taira commanders made for their ships, which were anchored just off shore. The boats quickly reached capacity and set sail, leaving more then a few Taira warriors behind to fight and die in the surf (including the tragic Taira Atsumori).
The Minamoto victory at Ichi no tani cleared the way for an assault on Yashima, the Taira headquarters on Shikoku. Yoritomo elected to adopt a cautious approach, however, and reined in his two hard-fighting younger brothers. The next six months were spent consolidating the gains already made and sorting out the many families who had thus far supported or opposed the Minamoto. Already, Yoritimo was assuming a rather hegemonic posture based on an agreement reached by the court and the Minamoto in November 1583. This understanding, formalized in an edic which has been lost to history, essentially acknowledged Yoritomo's control over those lands which he had already captured while calling for the restoration of Kyoto proprietorships in those regions with Yoritomo's assistance. The fact that Yoritomo was already the indisputed master of the Kanto is an important point when judging the arguement that this marked the actual 'birth' of the Kamakura bakufu. At any rate, Yoritomo clearly decided to use this Imperial sanction for all it was worth, to the point of making grants of land that were outside his actual control.
Immediately after Ichi no tani, Yoshitsune and Noriyori returned to Kyoto and paraded the notable Taira heads taken through the streets. In October, a month before the edict mentioned above was issued, Noriyori was dispatched to destroy Taira adherents on Kyushu and began a long and tiring march through the western provinces. Yoshitsune stayed in Kyoto and apparently acted as Yoritomo’s deputy there into early 1185. Officially, Yoshitsune was responsible for issuing decrees ordering the termination of any violence within Minamoto territory. In practice his directives covered various other issues, including the forbidding of drafts and war taxes without the express consent of the Minamoto leadership. This is a good point to mention that the brush fire and often local nature of the Gempei War was not easy to extinguish; Yoritomo would bring the houses of the Chubu into line only with some difficulty.
It was during Yoshitsune's tenure in Kyoto that the first rifts would develop between himself and his elder brother. Yoritomo is said to have denied Yoshitsune court titles granted Noriyori and to have become angry when the court went ahead and approved them anyway. It may be that this was simply a matter of Yoritomo wanting his deputy to stay outside any court influence but it seems likely that the stage was set for what would transpire after the end of the Gempei War.
Under clear skies on 8 October Noriyori had departed for the west with 30,000 men. Once in Harima, he received word of Taira activities at the port of Kojima in Bizen and hastily made for the area. Kojima was a small island separated from the mainland by a thin strip of seawater that was nonetheless daunting enough to check Noriyori’s advance. Stymied by a lack of boats to cross to the island, Noriyori was at a loss until a certain Sasaki Moritsuna found a fisherman who would reveal a spot shallow enough to allow for a crossing. By way of sharing this knowledge with the Minamoto army, Sasaki actually rode across to the island, thereby making sure it was he would was the first to set foot on Kojima!
Noriyori led a spirited charge through the seawater and forced the Taira to take to their ships. Taira Sukemori, Arimori, and Tadafusa lingered until dark trading arrows with the Minamoto before setting their oars in motion and departing for Shikoku. With no ships to use in pursuit, Noriyori could only resume his westward march. Little is known or can be said about Noriyori’s activities for the remainder of the year, although the Heike Monogatari states rather caustically that he settled down and engaged in amusements at the expense of the local people. More likely, logistical difficulties bogged down the campaign and in the end forced Noriyori to suspend the advance into the New Year.
By January 1185 Noriyori was reporting that as he had no boats and few provisions, he was unable to prosecute his mission to Kyushu. He reached as far as the Shimonoseki Straight (that separated Honshu and Kyushu) before being forced to sit idly, and his requests for shipping yielded no definitive reply from Yoritomo. Disquiet began to swell in the ranks and Noriyori feared desertion; luckily, word came that a number of sea-faring samurai from Kyushu desired to join the Minamoto cause. These two, Ogata Koresaka and his brother Jirô Koretaka of Bungo, came across with some 82 vessels and finally, in February, Noriyori’s weary and demoralized army landed on Kyushu.
In March 1185, with Noriyori preparing to invade Kyushu, Yoshitsune was authorized to return to the war. Intending to launch an assault on Yashima, he assembled a fleet of ships at Watanabe (Settsu province). During the preparations he argued with Kajiwara Kagetoki, one of his elder bother’s closest retainers, about strategy, an incident which may very well have come back to haunt Yoshitsune later. On the stormy night of 22 March Yoshitsune decided the time was right to sail, and ordered his men to board ship. Observing that the weather was extremely bad the sailors refused to put to sea, and did so only after Yoshitsune threatened to kill any man who disobeyed his orders. Even still, not all of the ships followed Yoshitsune into the night. Unperturbed, Yoshitsune landed on Shikoku at dawn and set out for Yashima, some thirty miles distant. He learned from a local warrior that despite the importance of the fort, the Taira’s garrison at Yashima was presently reduced owing to an expedition into Iyo, a welcome piece of news that prompted him onward.
At the time, Yashima was separated from the mainland by a narrow channel easily fordable by horse when the tide was low. The Taira base was situated on the beach facing the mainland, with their fleet moored within easy reach in the shallows directly in front. Alerted to Yoshitsune’s approach by fires set in nearby Takamatsu and fearing that a much larger than Yoshitsune actually had was on its way, Taira Munemori ordered an immediate evacuation of the fort and fled to the ships with the emperor Antoku. Yoshitsune led his men into a headlong charge into the channel and a fight ensued around the ships while a certain Minamoto worthy named Gotobyôe Sanemoto set the fort on fire. By the time Munemori realized how few men Yoshitsune had, the fort was in flames. The fighting thus continued in the shallows until the coming of dusk forced a lull, at which point the Taira moved out beyond the reach of the Minamoto’s arrows. In a celebrated incident, the Taira, hoping to make their enemy waste arrows, hoisted up a fan on one of their ships and challenged the Minamoto to test their archery skill on it. A certain Nasu Munetaka, a young and diminutive warrior known for his skill with a bow, was summoned and Yoshitsune ordered him to make a try at the fan. Determined to hit the fan or commit suicide if he failed, Nasu rode out into the water and loosed a humming arrow, shattering the fan - much to the delight, we are told, of Minamoto and Taira alike.
The morning after the attack on Yashima, the Taira set sail for nearby Shido harbor while Yoshitsune pursued on shore. According to the Heike Monogatari, the Taira grossly overestimated the number of troops the Minamoto had on Shikoku and ended up fleeing the island completely. They regrouped at Hikoshima in Nagato while Yoshitsune, after viewing the heads of those taken, crossed over to Suo province and prepared for what must certainly be the final battle of the war. Inspired by Yoshitsune’s victories, some last minute supporters arrived on the scene, strengthening Yoshitsune’s numbers in men and - more importantly - ships.
In the Taira camp, there was a sense of resignation. There would be no further avenues of retreat should the coming battle go against them, and their earlier defeats no doubt sat havily on their shoulders. According to the Heike Monogatari , Taira Tomomori rallied his comrades with a brief yet rousing call to fight to the last. Privatly, he urged Munemori to do away with a certain Taguchi Shigeyoshi, a general from Shikoku whose loyalty Tomomori questioned. Munemori ignored this advice.
At dawn on 24 April 1185 the Minamoto put to sea and sailed against the waiting Taira at a place that became famous in Japanese history as Dan no ura. Yoshitsune outnumbered his quarry in ships by almost two to one (850-500) but the Taira promised to fight fiercely, and with Tomomori leading them from the front, they did just that. By eight the battle had begun, with the tide flowing in the Taira’s favor. The Taira had divided into three groups, with a fine archer named Yamaga Hidetô commanding the van. His bowmen did bloody work against the Minamoto warriors crammed in their boats until the opposing flotillas joined and the fighting became one of sword and spear. The Taira fought well and the issue was very much in doubt until, just as Tomomori had feared, Taguchi Shigeyoshi switched sides. Taguchi made his way to Yoshitsune’s boat and pointed out the ship that sheltered the emperor. Armed with this knowledge and a favorable shift in the tides against the Taira, Yoshitsune rallied his samurai and shouted for his archers to take aim at the enemy sailors. The tide of the battle paused, shook, and then turned against the Taira. The emperor and his mother, Taira Kiyomori’s widow, stepped into the ocean and drowned, followed by Tomomori and hundreds of other Taira warriors. The hapless Munemori was fished out of the ocean by the Minamoto (having been put there by a Taira warrior disgusted at his hesitation to die) and captured and by early afternoon Yoshitsune’s triumph was complete. The Taira clan was all but eradicated as a threat to Minamoto power and in 1192 Yoritomo would be granted the title of Shôgun.
While a serious examination of the social aspects of the Gempei War is beyond the scope of this short piece, certain points must be made. The noted and astute western scholar Jeffrey P. Mass wrote, "…by inventing the compound Gempei (Genji vs. Heishi, or Minamoto vs. Taira), which might then be applied retrospectively to the fighting of 1180-85, some unknown writer or storyteller greatly simplified a more complex (and actually more significant) phenomenon." While traditionally viewed as a straight-forward fight to the death between two old rivals, the Gempei War was in fact a rather convoluted affair made all the more so for historians by a relative lack of historical documentation. The Taira and Minamoto dominate the Heike Monogatari, for example, and yet we know that much of the fighting was of a local and often opportunistic nature. The Taira themselves remain something of a mystery, especially as far as their organization is concerned. The composition of the Taira during the war years, and to what extent 'Taira' opposition to the Minamoto was composed of local and even unrelated houses, is unclear. The activities of the Minamoto between 1160 and 1180 are also by and large a mystery. That normally invaluable contemporary record, the Azuma kagami, is frustratingly silent on the Taira, as well as the Minamoto prior to 1180. The situation is not helped by a nearly complete lack of edicts issued by the Taira, leading some to question whether the Taira were ever confident enough of their position in Kyoto to issue any at all in their own name.
The course of the war itself is hazy at times, largely due to the old adage that 'victors write the history books', and holes in the historical record. We have no way of really knowing just how much of the Heike Monogatari, whose account of the Gempei War has long been taken almost word by word by western 'samurai' authors, is made from whole cloth insofar as its account of the actual battles is concerned. Clearly, the work simplified even the purely military events of the time and there can be no doubt that figures such as Minamoto Yoshitsune (and the earlier Taira Shigemori) were inflated to a degree for the benefit of the audience. In a sense, the specifics of the Gempei War - the battles, armies, and tactics - were secondary to the political arena. The only truly decisive battle, from a 'war-winning' standpoint, was Kurikawa. The famous fights at Ichi no Tani, Yashima, and Dan no Ura were 'nails in the coffin', conducted while Yoritomo himself was busy consolidating his hold over Minamoto occupied Japan. One might even argue daringly that Dan no Ura, which looms so large in Japanese history, was essentially a 'mopping up' operation given legendary and almost Homeric (for lack of a better word) dimensions by the Heike Monogatari's prose. Any one of the three battles mentioned probably paled in significance to the 1184 Court-Minamoto agreement that, if nothing else, paved the way for the Kamakura Bakufu.
In the final analysis, many of our questions about the Gempei War - and the years preceding it - will never be conclusively answered due to a simple lack of full historical documentation. At the same time, the 20th Century saw a long-overdue reevaluation of the events leading up to the foundation of the Kamakura Bakufu. Happily, this is an ongoing endeavor.