Post-classical history

Chapter Nine


The Heiji Disturbance

Between 1142 and 1159, the emperors of Japan battle with the Fujiwara clan for power, and the Taira and Minamoto join the fight

IN 1142, a three-year-old boy was crowned emperor of Japan.

His name was Konoe, and no one expected him to actually rule; two retired emperors were already battling over that privilege. In fact, Japan was suffering from an embarrassment of emperors.

BY THE ELEVENTH CENTURY, members of the ambitious and powerful Fujiwara clan had dug themselves firmly into top positions in the Japanese government. Generation after generation, imperial princes had married Fujiwara brides. Fujiwara ministers of state, usually close male relations of the reigning empress, dominated weak or young rulers. Emperor after emperor was crowned and then retreated behind the scenes to pursue poetry and luxurious living, political ceremony and religious ritual.*

In 1068, the emperor Go-Sanjo—a younger half brother, unexpectedly crowned after the premature death of his older sibling—had broken the pattern.

Unlike the string of emperors who came before, Go-Sanjo did not have a Fujiwara mother. And resentment of the Fujiwara ministers—who had, more often than not, ruled Japan as though the entire country were a private estate intended for their pleasure—had been gathering for decades. “Emperor Go-Sanjo’s reign came at the time of a sharp turn into the Final Age,” explains the thirteenth-century Japanese history known as the Gukansho. “[He] had come to think and feel that people would no longer be at peace . . . if Regents and Chancellors continued to dominate the state, and if Emperors concerned themselves only with that which was elegant.”1

The Fujiwara clan was not the only threat to Japan’s peace. Over the previous century, noble families throughout the large central island of Honshu had been building private power. Both the Minamoto clan in the northeast and the Taira to the southwest had accumulated personal armies, granting land to local soldiers in exchange for military service: these warriors, bound by ties of loyalty to their landlords, were the samurai.*

By the time of Go-Sanjo’s coronation, local samurai militias had grown to rival any force that could be mustered by the emperor’s decree. And another host of warriors could join the game at any moment. Since the tenth century, the wealthy Buddhist monasteries in the cities of Kyoto and Nara had suffered from the attacks of local warlords looking to fill their pockets. In reaction, the monasteries had begun to recruit monks from the ranks of Japanese mercenaries and convicted criminals: the sohei, or warrior monks, chosen for the monastic life solely because they were good with their weapons.2

This was a potent mix of sword-happy men, and the emperor Go-Sanjo had to proceed carefully with his reforms. He started out by establishing a brand-new government department, called the Records Office, that required all landholders to register proof that they owned their land; this was supposed to quell the Fujiwara tendency to use public land for the recruitment of private soldiers. (The Gukansho remarks that the “entire country” had begun to seem like the estate of the Fujiwara chancellor.) He promoted a score of Minamoto officials into higher positions at court. And he did his best to organize a line of succession that would place sons of non-Fujiwara mothers on the throne. His own empress, mother of his oldest son, Imperial Prince Shirakawa, was Fujiwara, but from a much less notable branch of the family; his second son was the child of one of his lesser wives, a Minamoto daughter.3

Go-Sanjo remained on the throne only four years and then abdicated, aged thirty-nine. He had no intention of giving up his influence, though. He married Shirakawa to a Minamoto bride, supervised his coronation at age twenty-one, and then pushed through the appointment of his second son, the child with no Fujiwara connections, as Imperial Prince and heir. Then he remained behind the scenes, advising his sons and thwarting all attempts of the Fujiwara chancellor to control them.*

He was able to do this for only a few months, dying unexpectedly before his fortieth birthday. But the sharp turn he had given to Japan’s power structure survived. Shirakawa followed in his father’s footsteps, refusing to obey his chancellor and favoring Minamoto and Taira courtiers over the Fujiwara. And like his father, he abdicated at the height of his power, handing over the throne at age thirty-three and taking monastic vows. But he continued to rule actively from his monastery, exercising as much control over his young successors—first his son Horikawa and then his grandson Toba—as the Fujiwara regents had once done. It was said by his subjects that there were only three things the retired emperor could not control: the floods of the wild Kamo river, the troublesome warrior monks who lived on Mount Hiei, and the throw of the dice.4

This was the beginning of a two-hundred-year tradition of Cloistered Emperors, during which emperors abdicated at the height of their powers, leaving the throne to child heirs, and then went on ruling from behind the scenes. Everyone knew who was in charge: “After Shirakawa’s abdication,” says the Gukansho, “the state was governed for a long time by Retired Emperors.”5


9.1 Japan under the Cloistered Emperors

It was not an entirely impractical system. The Cloistered Emperor regime neatly divided time-consumingritual duties (ceremonially important but politically pointless) from the equally time-consuming duties of actual governance. The sovereign on the throne took care of the first; the ruler in the monastery, the second. It also preserved an appearance of cooperation between the emperor-in-name and his Fujiwara advisor, while the actual power struggle between king and Fujiwara clan went on, more or less, in private.

But the Cloistered Emperor system also, inevitably, multiplied the battles for power within the royal family itself.

WHEN THE THREE-YEAR-OLD Emperor Konoe was crowned in 1142, the imperial household was already filled with crackling hostilities.

Those hostilities had unfolded over three generations. Back in 1107, the emperor of Japan had been four-year-old Toba; the Cloistered Emperor, wielding the real power from the traditional monastery, was Toba’s imperious and long-lived grandfather Shirakawa. When Toba reached his teens, Shirakawa arranged for him to marry the beautiful teenaged Shoshi—his own adopted ward. Court gossip said that Shoshi was much more than Shirakawa’s ward. When Shoshi gave birth to a son and heir in 1119, the baby was generally assumed to be Shirakawa’s, even though Toba claimed the child as his own.6

The rumors got an imperial stamp of approval in 1123, when Shirakawa forced Toba to abdicate in favor of the four-year-old boy, who now became Emperor Sutoku. This relegated Toba, still just twenty-three, to a completely powerless position; he was now a Cloistered Emperor, but he was junior to his vigorous grandfather and inferior to his crowned son. Toba simmered in impotent resentment until Shirakawa finally died in 1129.

Once able to assume the real power of a Cloistered Emperor, Toba allowed his son-in-name to stay on the throne. But in 1139, Toba’s favorite wife, Tokuko, finally gave birth to a son—Konoe, his actual flesh and blood. Three years later, Toba forced Sutoku to abdicate in Konoe’s favor—just as he himself had been forced to abdicate in Sutoku’s favor, twenty years before.


9.1 Family line of Konoe and Sutoku.

This put Sutoku in exactly the same position Toba had occupied, all those years: junior Cloistered Emperor, powerless, resentful. Given the various hatreds and ambitions flying around the court, it is perhaps surprising that Konoe lasted thirteen years before someone slipped poison into his food.

At Konoe’s death, in 1155, Toba proposed that his next son (barring Sutoku, of course) become the new emperor; Sutoku objected, proposing either himself or his own oldest son as the logical candidate. Toba, who had more soldiers, won the argument; his son Go-Shirakawa (“Shirakawa the Second”) became the new emperor, and peace briefly descended on the royal house. “While Toba was alive,” the Gukansho tells us, “no rebellions or wars broke out.”7

But Toba died barely a year later. Before his funeral had even ended, the courtiers, clan leaders, and samurai were lining up behind the rival brothers, Go-Shirakawa and Sutoku had commandeered two different royal palaces to use as their respective headquarters, and the capital city was preparing for war.

The sides did not break neatly along clan lines. Taira and Minamoto clan members could be found in both armies, as could Fujiwara officials. Sutoku’s right-hand commander was the Minamoto clan leader Tameyoshi, accompanied by his son Tametomo. In The Tale of Hogen, an account of the struggle written in the early fourteenth century, Tametomo is a superhero, more than seven feet tall: “Born to archery, he had a bow arm that was some six inches longer than the arm with which he held his horse’s reins . . . [and he used] a bow that was more than eight and a half feet in length.” Tametomo’s skill was restricted, though, by the presence of his brother Yoshitomo on the other side; Yoshitomo had been one of the first courtiers to declare himself a supporter of Go-Shirakawa, and had put four hundred hand-chosen samurai warriors at the emperor’s disposal.8

The two sides finally met in battle on the night of July 29, 1156, in a brief and violent clash known afterwards as the Hogen Incident.* Tametomo picked off a number of warriors on the opposing side, but his brother Yoshitomo had the brilliant idea of sending an arsonist in to set Sutoko’s headquarters on fire. As the Cloistered Emperor’s men scrambled away from the flames, Go-Shirakawa’s archers took them down, one at a time. “Those who were afraid of the arrows and terrified by the flames even jumped into the wells in large numbers,” the Tale of Hogen says, “and of these, too, the bottom ones in a short time had drowned, those in the middle had been crushed to death by their fellows, and those on top had been burned up by the flames themselves.”

Sutoku’s forces were scattered, and the Cloistered Emperor himself was arrested and exiled. Yoshitomo had his own father put to death—a cold-blooded and vicious decision that, says the Gukansho, caused “some commotion around the country.” Tametomo was allowed to live, but the sinews of his arms were cut so that he could no longer use a bow.9

Minamoto Yoshitomo considered himself the architect of Emperor Go-Shirakawa’s victory, but when the normal business of government resumed, a Taira clan member named Kiyomori (who had joined the emperor’s cause after Yoshitomo) managed to gain a higher position at court, and the emperor’s apparent favor. Before long, Yoshitomo and Kiyomori were at odds; and the hostility between them was fanned by a Fujiwara clansman named Nobuyori, who himself felt unappreciated by the emperor. “Having noted rivalry between Minamoto Yoshitomo and Taira Kiyomori,” theGukansho explains, “and having assumed that the victor in a war between them would seize control of the state, he allied himself with Minamoto Yoshitomo . . . and began immediately to plot a rebellion.”10

The inevitable fight—the Heiji Disturbance—broke out in 1159.

Go-Shirakawa had just abdicated in favor of his teenaged son, who became the emperor Nijo; Yoshitomo and Nobuyori waited until their Taira rival Kiyomori left the capital city Kyoto on a pilgrimage of devotion to Kumano, a sacred site nearly 175 miles of mountainous road away. When he was well away, five hundred Minamoto samurai surrounded the palace of the Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, took him prisoner, and set his palace on fire. Others kidnapped the young emperor.


9.2 Detail from the Heiji Scroll: Burning of the Sanjo palace.
Credit: Werner Forman / Art Resource, NY

Their intention was to force both rulers into declaring the absent Taira Kiyomori an enemy of the state, thus throwing the entire Taira clan into disfavor. But Kiyomori, getting word of the coup, came thundering back into Kyoto at the head of a thousand hastily gathered samurai, all loyal to the Taira cause. The conspirators were quickly overwhelmed. Young Emperor Nijo was rescued; the Cloistered Emperor escaped; and the troops of Minamoto Yoshitomo and Fujiwara Nobuyori, falling like leaves, finally scattered in the face of the Taira attack.

Nobuyori was taken prisoner, and Kiyomori ordered him taken to a nearby riverbed and beheaded. Yoshitomo managed to escape, during the battle, and fled barefoot to the south with his faithful retainer Masakiyo. But when it became clear that capture and execution was inevitable, he asked Masakiyo to behead him. Masakiyo reluctantly obeyed and then killed himself. When the pursuers caught up to the two corpses, they took Yoshitomo’s head back to Kyoto and hung it in a tree beside the imperial prison.11

In the aftermath of the Heiji Disturbance, Taira Kiyomori executed or exiled almost every important member of both rival clans. In the span of twenty years, the power of the Fujiwara had collapsed. Now the Taira clan was rising; but the Cloistered Emperor still controlled the palace, and the other clans waited their chance for revenge.


* In 884, the Fujiwara official Mototsune invented for himself the post of kampaku, or “civil dictator.” The kampaku had as much authority over a grown emperor as a regent, or sessho, had over a child ruler. By the twelfth century, the titles sessho and kampaku seem to have often been used interchangeably, but the highest post in government—with authority over the throne itself—was almost always held by a Fujiwara official. See, for example, Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), pp. 48ff.

* Stephen Turnbull provides a useful definition: “The actual definition of a samurai changed considerably throughout his history, so the reader is recommended to see the samurai initially as a high-ranking warrior in service to a master. To think of a samurai as a Japanese knight is a helpful analogy.” See The Samurai: A Military History (1977), pp. ix and following.

* Shirakawa’s younger brother died before he could take the throne, and Shirakawa’s own son became heir; he inherited the throne in 1087 as Emperor Horikawa. Because Horikawa was the son of a Minamoto mother, though, Go-Sanjo’s intentions were carried out. Horikawa died in 1107 at the young age of twenty-eight, before he was able to abdicate in favor of his young son Toba; so when Toba was coronated, Shirakawa continued to serve as Cloistered Emperor.

* Both the Hogen Incident and the Heiji Disturbance, three years later, were named after the eras in which they occurred. In Japan, a new era was often declared when a new emperor was crowned (the Hogen Era began with the coronation of Go-Shirakawa; the Heiji Era began with Emperor Nijo), but a catastrophe, triumph, or new discovery might also be marked with a new era name.

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