Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-Three


The Gempei War

In Japan, between 1179 and 1185, the Taira clan is laid waste, and the rule of the shoguns begins

IN THE TWO DECADES since the Heiji Disturbance, Taira Kiyomori had been steadily rising through the ranks of Japanese courtiers.

He was helped out by the Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who needed the support of Kiyomori and his samurai to keep his power over the increasingly rebellious Emperor Nijo. With Go-Shirakawa’s support, Kiyomori became in turn a member of the State Council, Captain of the Palace Guards, Chief of the Central Police, and finally Prime Minister. His brother Yorimori became the Cloistered Emperor’s chancellor, his son Shigemori military commander of the capital city. When the Emperor Nijo died of a sudden illness at the age of twenty-two, Kiyomori arranged a marriage between his own daughter Tokuko and Nijo’s successor, the Emperor Takakura (Nijo’s younger half brother). The imperial offices were falling, one by one, under Taira control.1

Go-Shirakawa’s scheme to boost Taira power had succeeded too well, and by 1179 the Cloistered Emperor found power slipping from his hands. He needed to check Taira ambitions; and so he intervened sharply in Kiyomori’s affairs, confiscating land that Kiyomori had commandeered and returning it to its original Fujiwara and Minamoto rulers.

He believed that the time was ripe to bring the Taira crashing down, but he was wrong. Kiyomori could still raise a larger samurai force than any of his rivals; he marched thousands of Taira-loyal warriors into Kyoto, put Go-Shirakawa under house arrest, and then forced the young Emperor Takakura to abdicate in favor of Takakura’s baby son Antoku—Kiyomori’s own grandson.2

Taira Kiyomori now stood at the crest of his power. He was grandfather of the Emperor, master of the Cloistered Emperor, virtual ruler of Japan. His climb had taken over twenty years. “As Prime Minister,” the epic history Tales of the Heike tells us, “Kiyomori now held the entire realm within the four seas in the palm of his hand.” His ultimate victory lasted less than a year; and then he died, of a sudden severe fever, in March of 1181.3

Already, the backlash was building.

Its architect was one of the survivors of the Heiji Disturbance: Minamoto Yoritomo, son of the beheaded Yoshitomo. Thirteen at the time of the Disturbance, Yoritomo had been exiled by the victorious Kiyomori, rather than executed. The act of mercy had been a strategic error. In his banishment, says the Gukansho, Yoritomo “had been thinking deeply about world affairs.” He was now in his early thirties, and for two decades had been gathering allies and planning his revenge.4

He began in the southern cluster of volcanic islands known as the Izu Islands, where he had lived since his father’s death, and traveled up the eastern coast. This was traditionally Minamoto territory, and he was able to collect volunteers as he went. In a series of small battles—some defeats, but more victories—his army slowly gained strength, until he was able to establish himself strongly in the coastal city of Kamakura.


23.1 The Kamakura Shogunate

Meanwhile, Kiyomori’s son Munemori was gathering Taira adherents in Kyoto. But fourteen months of wretched weather—alternating drought and flooding, followed by a severe food shortage and then by plague—delayed the confrontation. So did the unexpected rise of a third party: Yoritomo’s cousin Yoshinaka, seven years his junior. An ambitious and skilled samurai who had lost his father in the Taira purges of 1159, Yoshinaka preferred to fight on his own account, rather than join his cousin’s campaign. He claimed the western city of Shinano for himself, and before long had accumulated an even larger following than Yoritomo.5

Munemori decided to tackle his biggest enemy first. Rather than marching directly against Yoritomo, he assembled a huge army—contemporary chronicles put it at a hundred thousand men—to drive forward against Yoshinaka.

Munemori was not a gifted strategist. He apparently believed that numbers would win the day, but his massive army was filled with press-ganged peasants, farmers, and woodcutters. When it approached Yoshinaka’s front, the Minamoto samurai stalled until nightfall by engaging the samurai of the imperial army in courteous traditional duels. As soon as dark fell, Yoshinaka ordered a herd of oxen, equipped with pine torches lashed onto their horns, driven straight at the enemy. Panicked, the inexperienced Kyoto army stampeded into a nearby narrow valley called Kurikara Pass, where the men were pinned down and slaughtered. “The mountain streams ran with their blood,” says the Tales of the Heike, “and the mount of their corpses was like a small hill.”6 Hearing of the defeat, the sitting emperor and his Taira adherents fled from Kyoto, and Yoshinaka marched straight there and occupied the city—where he was welcomed by the Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who had been canny enough to switch allegiances and join the Minamoto cause.

The Battle of Kurikara had punctured Taira power, and over the next two years it deflated with astounding rapidity. From Kyoto, Yoshinaka pursued and destroyed as many Taira clan leaders as he could find; from his eastern headquarters, Yoritomo did the same. The five years of destruction between 1180 and 1185, the Gempei War, saw the almost complete destruction of the Taira by the Minamoto.

The culminating battle of the war took place on April 25, 1185, when a Taira fleet that carried the eight-year-old Emperor, Kiyomori’s grandson, and his grandmother, Kiyomori’s widow, was trapped at the strait of Dan-no-Ura and battered to pieces by the Minamoto navy, under the command of one of Yoritomo’s brothers. As the enemy closed in, the Emperor’s grandmother took her grandson in her arms and leapt from the ship. They were followed by their courtiers and by the defeated Taira samurai, dragged to the bottom by their armor.

Munemori, who had been responsible for the defeat at Kurikara Pass and had not managed to distinguish himself since, refused to jump until one of the Taira courtiers, embarrassed by his leader’s cowardice, pushed him off the side. He was a good swimmer, though, and one of the Minamoto boats fished him out of the water and took him prisoner. He was beheaded at Kamakura a few days later.

Later, one of the surviving members of his family remarked that Munemori’s disgraceful behavior wasn’t surprising; everyone in the clan knew that he wasn’t a real Taira. His mother had confided to them all, after the debacle of Kurikara, that she’d bought him from an umbrella seller as a baby.7

With the mass drownings, the history of the Taira in Japan came to an abrupt and utter end. Minamoto Yoritomo claimed the lordship of Japan, driving his cousin from Kyoto and taking for himself the prestigious title of utaisho, Commander of the Inner Palace Guards: a warrior’s title for a victorious fighter. Another of Go-Shirakawa’s grandsons, the three-year-old Go-Toba, was crowned Emperor. But Yoritomo controlled Japan’s fighting forces, and the Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who had an unerring instinct for staying on the right side in a fight, recognized his rule. The struggle for power had ended as it began, with a toddler on the throne and power in the hands of others.8

Seven years later, in 1192, Yoritomo accepted from the young Emperor’s hands the title of shogun: Military Commander in Chief, supreme commander of Japan. The authority to rule had shifted again, from Cloistered Emperor to soldier; and for many centuries to come, the shogun would rule as second emperor of Japan.


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