Minamoto Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147- 1199) is one of the major figures in Japanese history. The founder of the first of the three shogunates (bakufu, military governments) in Japanese history, he took firm control of Japan, established a military government in Kamakura and persuaded the Emperor to give him the hereditary title of shogun. He established the first hereditary shogunate near present-day Tokyo in city Kamakura while the emperor remained in isolation in Kyoto. Yorimoto purged members of his own family to firm his grip on power.

Minamoto Yoritomo was a member of the Minamoto clan (Genji clan) which had seized power of Japan in 1195 after the Gempei War. The Minamoto clan was a major military family, which frequently clashed with the Taira clan (Heike clan), the other major military family, in the 12th century.

Yorimoto was the third son of a clan leader — Minamoto no Yoshitomo — who was killed along with many family members and allies after the Minamotos were defeated by the rival Taira clan in the Heiji Rebellion of 1159. Minamoto Yoritomo spent his youth in a Buddhist temple. When he was old enough he began gathering allies an set up his base in Kamakura, which was far from the government seat in Kyoto and close to many of his allies.

According to Samurai Archives: “In the Heiji Rebellion of 1159, Yoritomo was captured. As he was just a child he was exiled to Izu province. He married Hôjô Masako, a woman from an important local family. (After the death of Yoritomo, her family controlled the shogunate.) In 1180 he obtained an order from Prince Mochihito, a son of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, ordering him to raise troops and chastise the Taira. He called the Minamoto to his banner and established himself in Kamakura in the Kanto. The men who came to him were called his "house men" (gokenin), and they were in effect retainers, or vassals, who owed loyalty directly to him. Even that year he set up a Board of Retainers (samurai dokoro ) to control his retainers. [Source: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

Websites and Sources on the Samurai Era in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; Artelino Article on Samurai artelino.com ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; Kusado Sengen, Excavated Medieval Town mars.dti.ne.jp ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts sacred-texts.com ; Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp/eindex; List of Emperors of Japan friesian.com

Minamoto Yoritomo Takes Over Japan

Minamoto Yoritomo

Minamoto claimed Japan after defeating the Taira clan in a series of battles. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “With the defeat of the Taira in 1185 and his appointment as shogun by the imperial court in 1192,Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199) became Japan’s “de facto “military and political leader. Although the Emperor in Kyoto retained prestige and legitimacy, Yoritomo and his shogunate (“bakufu”) in Kamakura established mechanisms for ruling Japan within the shell of the dysfunctional imperial state. The most important offices created by Yoritomo were the “jitō “(stewards) and s” “hugo “(military governors), vassals who were appointed to maintain order on estates and in regions across Japan.” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

According to Samurai Archives: “The Genpei War Yoritomo sent armies against the Taira headed by his cousin Minamoto no Yoshinaka (Kiso Yoshinaka) and his younger brother Minamoto no Yoshitsune. (The story of the relationship between the brothers is one of the most famous in Japanese history.) They were successful in defeating the Taira, but part way through Yoritomo ordered Yoshitsune to destroy Yoshinaka on the grounds that his troops were misbehaving in Kyoto. By this victory, Yoritomo effectively controlled most of the country. Probably remembering his own history, he made sure (almost) none of the Heike survived. [Source: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

“In 1185 ordered Yoshitsune’s arrest on the grounds he had received favors directly from the court, though he was a retainer of his brother. When Yoshitsune fled with a handful of men, Yoritomo ordered a massive manhunt for him throughout the whole country. At that time most of the country was divided into estates which were the source of revenue for the central government (kôryô ) or, especially, private individuals (shôen). |~|

“To make it possible for him to find these few people, Yoritomo obtained an imperial receipt that allowed him to place his own retainers as stewards (jitô ) in most of the estates, giving him effective control over most of the land in the country. He also levied a small tax (hyôrômai ) on estates of all categories, including "tax free" estates. He also placed "protectors" (shugo ) in each province to ferret out evildoers. (These shugo were the forerunners of the daimyo.) Yoshitsune, who had sought refuge with the Fujiwara of Mutsu province was killed by Fujiwara no Yasuhira in 1189, but despite this Yoritomo attacked and conquered the province later that year, extending his rule over this northern territory also.”|~|

Gempei War

The Gempei War (1180–1185) was a conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the late-Heian period of Japan. It resulted in the fall of the Taira clan and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192. The name "Genpei" is more properly written “Genpei” but is pronounced Gempei and comes from alternate readings of the kanji "Minamoto" and "Taira" . The conflict is also known in Japanese as the Jisho-Juei War after the two eras between which it took place. It followed a coup d'état by the Taira in 1179 and call to arms against them led by the Minamoto in 1180. The ensuing Battle of Uji took place just outside Kyoto, starting a five-year-long war, concluding with a decisive Minamoto victory in the naval Battle of Dan-no-ura. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Gempei War was the culmination of a decades-long conflict between the two aforementioned clans over dominance of the Imperial court, and by extension, control of Japan. In the Hogen Rebellion and in the Heiji Rebellion of earlier decades, the Minamoto attempted to regain control from the Taira and failed. In 1180, Taira no Kiyomori put his grandson Antoku (then only 2 years of age) on the throne after the abdication of Emperor Takakura. Go-Shirakawa’s son Prince Mochihito felt that he was being denied his rightful place on the throne and, with the help of Minamoto Yorimasa, sent out a call to arms to the Minamoto clan and Buddhist monasteries in May. However, this plot ended with the deaths of Yorimasa and Mochihito. In June 1180, Kiyomori moved the seat of imperial power to Fukuhara-kyo, "his immediate objective seems to have been to get the royal family under his close charge." +

The actions of Taira no Kiyomori deepened Minamoto hatred for the Taira clan. A call for arms was sent up by Minamoto no Yorimasa and Prince Mochihito. Not knowing who was behind this rally, Kiyomori called for the arrest of Mochihito, who sought protection at the temple of Mii-dera. The Mii-dera monks were unable to ensure him sufficient protection, so he was forced to move along. He was then chased by Taira forces to the Byodo-in, just outside Kyoto. The war began thus, with a dramatic encounter on and around the bridge over the River Uji. This battle ended in Yorimasa’s ritual suicide inside the Byodo-in and Mochihito’s capture and execution shortly afterwards. +

Gempei War battles

It was at this point that Minamoto no Yoritomo took over leadership of the Minamoto clan and began traveling the country seeking to rendezvous with allies. Leaving Izu Province and heading for the Hakone Pass, he was defeated by the Taira in the battle of Ishibashiyama. However he successfully made it to the provinces of Kai and Kozuke, where the Takeda and other friendly families helped repel the Taira army. Meanwhile, Taira no Kiyomori, seeking vengeance against the Mii-dera monks and others, besieged Nara and burnt much of the city to the ground. Fighting continued the following year, 1181. Minamoto no Yukiie was "chastised" by a force led by Taira no Shigehira at the Battle of Sunomatagawa. However, the "Taira could not follow up their victory."

Tide of the Gempei War Turns In Favor of the Minamotos

Taira no Kiyomori died from illness in the spring of 1181, and around the same time Japan began to suffer from a famine which was to last through the following year. The Taira moved to attack Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a cousin of Yoritomo, who had raised forces in the north but were unsuccessful. For nearly two years, the war ceased, only to resume in the spring of 1183. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 1183, the Taira loss at the Battle of Kurikara was so severe that they found themselves, several months later, under siege in Kyoto, with Yoshinaka approaching the city from the north and Yukiie from the east. Both Minamoto leaders had seen little or no opposition in marching to the capital and now forced the Taira to flee the city, who first set fire to their Rokuhara. Taira no Munemori, head of the clan since his father Kiyomori’s death, led his army, along with the young Emperor Antoku and the Imperial regalia, to the west. The cloistered emperor Go-Shirakawa defected to Yoshinaka. Go-Shirakawa then issued a mandate for Yoshinaka to "join with Yukiiye in destroying Munemori and his army." +

In 1183, Yoshinaka once again sought to gain control of the Minamoto clan by planning an attack on Yoritomo, while simultaneously pursuing the Taira westward. The Taira set up a temporary Court at Daaifu in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. They were forced out soon afterwards by local revolts instigated by Go-Shirakawa, and moved their Court to Yashima. The Taira were successful in beating off an attack by Yoshinaka’s pursuing forces at the Battle of Mizushima. +

Yoshinaka conspired with Yukiie to seize the capital and the Emperor, possibly even establishing a new Court in the north. However, Yukiie revealed these plans to the Emperor, who communicated them to Yoritomo. Betrayed by Yukiie, Yoshinaka took command of Kyoto and, at the beginning of 1184, set fire to the Hojujidono, taking the Emperor into custody. Minamoto no Yoshitsune arrived soon afterwards with his brother Noriyori and a considerable force, driving Yoshinaka from the city. After fighting his cousins at the bridge over the Uji, Yoshinaka made his final stand at Awazu, in Omi province. He was defeated by Yoshitsune, and killed while attempting to flee. +

Gempei War

End of the Gempei War

As the united Minamoto forces left Kyoto, the Taira began consolidating their position at a number of sites in and around the Inland Sea, which was their ancestral home territory. They received a number of missives from the Emperor offering that if they surrendered by the seventh day of the second month, the Minamoto could be persuaded to agree to a truce. This was a farce, as neither the Minamoto nor the Emperor had any intentions of waiting until the eighth day to attack. Nevertheless, this tactic offered the Emperor a chance to regain the Regalia and to distract the Taira leadership. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Minamoto army, led by Yoshitsune and Noriyori, made their first major assault at Ichi-no-Tani, one of the primary Taira camps on Honshu. The camp was attacked from two directions by Yoshitsune and Noriyori, and the Taira not killed or captured retreated to Yashima. However, the Minamoto were not prepared to assault Shikoku; a six-month pause thus ensued during which the Minamoto took the proper steps. Though on the retreat, the Taira enjoyed the distinct advantages of being in friendly, home territories, and of being far more adept at naval combat than their rivals. +

It was not until nearly a year after Ichi-no-Tani that the main Taira force at Yashima came under assault. Seeing Yoshitsune’s bonfires in their rear, the Taira had not expected a land-based attack and took to their ships. This was a deceptive play on the part of the Minamoto, however. The Taira improvised imperial palace fell, and many escaped along with the Imperial regalia and the Emperor Antoku. +


F.W. Seal wrote in Samurai Archives: “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. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

Battle of Awazu

“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. |~|

Battle of Dan-no-ura

The Gempei War came to an end one month later, following the battle of Dan-no-ura, one of the most famous and important battles in Japanese history. The Minamoto engaged the Taira fleet in the Straits of Shimonoseki, a tiny body of water separating the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. The tides played a powerful role in the development of the battle, granting the advantage first to the Taira, who were more experienced and abler sailors, and later to the Minamoto. The Minamoto advantage was considerably enhanced by the defection of Taguchi, a Shikoku warrior who went over to the Minamoto side in the middle of the action. Many of the Taira nobles perished, along with Emperor Antoku and the widow of Kiyomori. [Source: Wikipedia +]

F.W. Seal wrote in Samurai Archives: “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. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

Battle of Dan-no-ura

“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.” |~|

Aftermath and Consequences of the Gempei War

The defeat of the Taira armies mean the end of Taira "dominance at the capital." In December 1185, Go-Shirakawa granted to Yoritomo the power to collect taxes, and "appoint stewards and constables in all provinces." Finally, in 1192, after Go-Shirakawa’s death, Yoritomo was granted the imperial commission Sei-i Tai Shogun. This was the beginning of a feudal state in Japan, with real power now in Kamakura. However, Kyoto remained the "seat of national ceremony and ritual."

Emperor Go-Shirakawa and Nijo

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “With the Taira destroyed, Minamoto Yoritomo and his warriors emerged as the single most powerful military or political force in Japan. Incidentally, to secure his own personal power, Yoritomo accused his brother Yoshitsune of treason and forced him to commit suicide. It was Yoshitsune who had done nearly all of the work of defeating the Taira, but he paid a heavy price for political naiveté. The tragic circumstances of his death after a heroic career resulted in Yoshitsune becoming a literary hero, celebrated even today.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ]

On the broader influence of Gempei War, Barbara Ruch wrote: “No one was unaffected by the battles. The Gempei Wars shocked the nobility, cracked the social structure, disrupted normal agricultural and commercial life, tore apart families on all levels of society, and left whole segments of the country widowed, orphaned, or disabled by the loss of economic support or normal employment. [Source: "The Other Side of Culture in Medieval Japan," in Kozo Yamamura, ed., The Cambridge History of Japan: Volume 3 Medieval Japan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 532.]

The end of the Gempei War and beginning of the Kamakura shogunate marked the rise of military (samurai) power and the suppression of the power of the emperor, who was compelled to preside without effective political or military power, until the Meiji Restoration over 650 years later. In addition, this war and its aftermath established red and white, the colors of the Taira and Minamoto standards, respectively, as Japan’s national colors. Today, these colors can be seen on the flag of Japan, and also in banners and flags in sumo and other traditional activities.

Tale of the Heike

Taira no Kiyomori

The military struggle between the Taira and the Minamoto in the Gempei War period are chronicled in the literary song-tale “Tale of the Heike” (“Heike Monogatari”), composed in the 13th century, and the epic tale “Chronicle of Great Peace” (“Taiheiki”), composed in the 14th century.

Tale of the Heike is an epic account of the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century in the Gempei War (1180-1185). Heike refers to the Taira clan; "hei" being an alternate reading of the first kanji (character) of Taira. Note that in the title of the Gempei War, "hei" is in this combination read as "pei" and the "gen" is the first kanji used in the Minamoto (also known as Genji) clan’s name. The Tale of Heike is often likened to a Japanese Iliad. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Tale of the Heike recounts the struggle for power between the Taira (or Heike) and Minamoto (or Genji) houses in the late twelfth century. With the Taira's defeat in 1185 and the establishment of a new warrior government by the victorious Minamoto, the medieval age began. From this war tale, we can learn much about life in Japan during this transitional period and about warrior culture. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

The story of the Heike was compiled from a collection of oral stories recited by traveling monks who chanted to the accompaniment of the biwa, an instrument reminiscent of the lute. The most widely read version of the Heike monogatari was compiled by a blind monk named Kakuichi in 1371. The Heike is considered one of the great classics of medieval Japanese literature. The central theme of the story is the Buddhist law of impermanence, specifically in the form of the fleeting nature of fortune, an idea captured in the famous opening passage: “The sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”

The Tale of Heike has been translated into English at least five times, the first by A.L. Sadler in 1918–1921. A complete translation in nearly 800 pages by Hiroshi Kitagawa & Bruce T. Tsuchida was published in 1975. Also translated by Helen McCullough in 1988. An abridged translation by Burton Watson was published in 2006. In 2012, Royall Tyler completed his translation, which seeks to be mindful of the performance style for which the work was originally intended. +

Tale of the Heike Story

Minamoto no Yoritomo

The fall of the Taira symbolizes the theme of impermanence in the Heike. The Taira warrior family sowed the seeds of their own destruction with acts of arrogance and pride that led to their defeat in 1185 at the hands of the revitalized Minamoto. The story is episodic in nature and designed to be told in a series of nightly installments. It is primarily a samurai epic focusing on warrior culture – an ideology that ultimately laid the groundwork for bushido (the way of the warrior). The Heike also includes a number of love stories, which harkens back to earlier Heian literature. [Source: Wikipedia]

Overall structure of The Tale of Heike: Chapters 1-5: Describes the sudden rise of the Taira clan and the beginnings of the uprising against them, primarily organized by Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Central figures are Taira no Kiyomori and his son Shigemori. [Source: The Tale of Heike website sonic.net ~~]

Chapters 6-8: Covers the many uprisings across the country by the Minamoto against the Taira resulting finally in the Taira fleeing the Capital. A major central figure is Kiso no Yoshinaka, who leads the attack and installs himself at the protector of Go-Shirakawa and the government he will appoint. ~~

Chapters 9-12: Describes the reigning in of Yoshinaka by Minamoto no Yoritomo then the complete destruction of the Taira clan at major battle locations such as Ichi-no-tani, Yashima, and Dan-no-ura. A major central figure is Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who makes the decisive difference at many of these battles. However, he falls from favor with his older brother Yoritomo. Initiate’s Chapter: Describes Go-Shirakawa and the eventual death of Kenreimon'in, daughter of Kiyomori and the mother of the last Taira controlled emperor (Antoku). ~~

Excerpts from The Tale of the Heiki

Excerpts from The Tale of the Heiki: Opening Lines: “In the sound of the bell of the Gion temple echoes the impermanence of all things. ... The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring night's dream. And the mighty ones, too, will perish like dust before the wind. [Source: Translation by Paul Varley, University of Hawaii; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Battle of Kassen in the Gempei War

Kanetsuna Comes to His Father's Aid: “Seeing that his father was in danger ... Kanetsuna ... came to his aid. He galloped back and forth, fighting desperately so that his father would be able to retire in peace. ... Now as he fought an arrow from the bow of the Captain of the Imperial Guard ... grazed the edge of his helmet and struck him in the forehead. As Kanetsuna staggered from this, Jiro-maru ... whipped his horse toward him. As they passed each other, they grappled and fell heavily to the ground. The wound inside Kanetsuna's helmet was deep, but he was a man of great strength. He seized young Jiro-maru ... and struck off his head. Kanetsuna rose to his feet, but fourteen or fifteen mounted soldiers ... fell upon him, and finally he was slain.” [Source: Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida, trans., “The Tale of the Heike” (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1975), 270-271.

Death Before Capture: “Yorimasa summoned Watanabe Chûjitsu Tonau and ordered: "Strike off my head." Tonau could not bring himself to do this while his master was still alive. He wept bitterly. "How can I do that, my lord?" he replied. "I can do so only after you have committed suicide." "I understand," said Yorimasa. He turned to the west, joined his palms, and chanted "Hail Amidha Buddha" ten times in a loud voice. [Source: Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida, trans., The Tale of the Heike, 271 ***]

“Then he composed this poem:
Like a fossil tree
Which has borne not one blossom
Sad has been my life
Sadder still to end my days
Leaving no fruit behind me. ***

“Having spoken these lines, he thrust the point of his sword into his belly, bowed his face to the ground as the blade pierce him through, and died. ... Tonau took up his master's head and, weeping, fastened it to a stone. Then, evading the enemy, he made his way to the river and sank it in a deep place.” ***

"The Death of Atsumori" from The Tale of the Heiki

The passage "The Death of Atsumori" from The Tale of the Heiki reads: “When the Heike were routed at Ichi no tani, and their nobles and courtiers were fleeing to the shore to escape in their ships, Kumagai Naozane came riding along a narrow path on the beach, with the intention of intercepting one of their great captains. Just then his eye fell on a single horseman who was attempting to reach one of the ships in the offing ... Kumagai beckoned to him with his war fan, crying out: "Shameful! To show an enemy your back. Return! Return!" [Source: Donald Keene, “Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century” (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 179-181; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Taira no Atsumori

“The warrior turned his horse and rode back to the beach, where Kumagai at once engaged him in mortal combat. Quickly hurling him to the ground, he sprang upon him and tore off his helmet to cut off his head, when he beheld the face of a youth sixteen or seventeen, delicately powdered and with blackened teeth, just about the age of his own son and with features of great beauty. "Who are you?" he asked. "Tell me your name, for I would spare your life." "Nay, first say who you are," replied the young man. "I am Kumagai Naozane of Musashi, a person of no particular importance." "Then you have made a good capture," said the youth. "Take my head and show it to some of my side, and they will tell you who I am." "Though he is one of their leaders," mused Kumagai, "if I slay him it will not turn victory into defeat, and if I spare him, it will not turn defeat into victory. When my son Kojirû was but slightly wounded at Ichi no tani this morning, did it not pain me? How this young man's father would grieve to hear that he had been killed! I will spare him."

“Just then, looking behind him, he saw Doi and Kajiwara coming up with fifty horsemen. "Alas! Look there," he exclaimed, the tears running down his face, "though I would spare your life, the whole countryside swarms with our men, and you cannot escape them. If you must die, let it be by my hand, and I will see that prayers are said for your rebirth in Paradise." "Indeed it must be so," said the young warrior. "Cut off my head at once."

“Kumagai was so overcome by compassion that he could scarcely wield his blade. His eyes swam and he hardly knew what he did, but there was no help for it; weeping bitterly he cut off the boy's head. "Alas!" he cried, "what life is so hard as that of a soldier? Only because I was born of a warrior family must I suffer this affliction! How lamentable it is to do such cruel deeds!" He pressed his face to the sleeve of his armor and wept bitterly. Then, wrapping up the head, he was stripping off the young man's armor when he discovered a flute in a brocade bag. "Ah," he exclaimed, "it was this youth and his friends who were amusing themselves with music within the walls this morning. Among all our men of the Eastern Provinces I doubt if there is any who has brought a flute with him. How gentle the ways of these courtiers!"When he brought the flute to the Commander, all who saw it were moved to tears; he discovered then that the youth was Atsumori, the youngest son of Tsunemori, aged sixteen years. From this time the mind of Kumagai was turned to the religious life.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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