While I was researching the Genpei War, I became aware of this book, but didn’t acquire it. I had pretensions to make a study of the period using “serious” source material and first hand observation. Samurai Rising rang all sorts of warning bells…a childrens’/young adults’ book, a fiction written by an American author and illustrated by a graphic novel artist, about an important Japanese historical and cultural icon around whom an enormous amount of legend had already accumulated. I expected it to be lightweight with the very real potential for cultural misunderstanding and misrepresentation, anachronism and literary sensationalism. With time having mellowed my snobbery, I recently decided to tag it onto a larger book buy from Book Depository. It arrived early this week and I was able to finish it comfortably in several hours.
Were my preconceptions founded? Yes (in minor ways) and no (mostly and emphatically no).
Let’s get my entirely personal and minor gripes out of the way first before I get onto well deserved praise for Samurai Rising. The first is the book’s title. It seems that anybody who wants to make their novel / movie /song sound windswept and interesting feels they simply need to add “Rising” to the title to create an aura of mystique that the work invariably doesn’t support (the dire “Jupiter Rising” being a prime example, Death in Vegas’ “Scorpio Rising” being another…..although I do like the song, and 10,000 Maniacs’ song of the same name….I just have no idea what they have to do with the title). The author explains her choice of the title of Samurai Rising, being the social and political ascendance of the samurai and the Kamakura shogunate over the Heian aristocracy. Absolutely true but only in relation to the broad political changes in Japan that followed the Genpei War and not really relevant to a biographical treatment of Yoshitsune (whose final chapters were, if anything, of a samurai descending!). I’m not convinced by Pamela Turner’s justification of her choice of title here.
My second objection is to the use of culturally jarring language. I accepted going into this that the tone was going to be set for younger readers and that there might be use of colloquial language. It also makes sense for readers of limited experience to be given examples that are culturally relevant to them, to help give them context. The author, however, uses several metaphors that are very American in character and possibly obscure to non-American readers. These tend mostly to be sporting references. More than once Yoshitsune is referred to as Yoritomo’s quarterback. Another example is this:
“And now Yoshitsune, an unskilled teenager, had arrived in Hiraizumi wanting to be a warrior! It was like a boy who had never played Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees.” (p 22).
What the hell does that mean? I want to give this to my 13 year old Australian daughter, an inquisitive and intelligent Japanophile, and this will be completely opaque to her. Admittedly this is a pet peeve of mine. I probably wouldn’t feel the same way if an American author were writing about something of direct cultural relevance to her audience, such as the American Civil War, but when writing on a topic about a completely different time and culture and when what is being written is one of the only available works in English on the subject, I feel there is an authorial obligation to take off the cultural blinkers and speak to the wider audience. Thankfully these moments of cultural cringe are few.
Enough of my nit picking. What is there to recommend Samurai Rising? A great deal. I expected this book to be simplistic and frustrating and I came away being very satisfied and, against expectations, learning new things and gaining some fresh perspectives on a subject that I thought I knew very well.
The first surprise is that Samurai Rising is not historical fiction, but essentially a biography. Immediately this imposes an onus of validity on the work, which is admirably matched by the author’s extensive research and factual tone. There is plenty of speculative opinion about characters’ motivation and narrative licence with mood setting tangents, but in every instance she justifies it with sound reasoning. There is no invented dialogue and every speech quotation is directly from primary source material. There is so much potential for venturing into the wild and fantastic with the improbable legends that surround Yoshitsune, surely a real temptation when trying to generate interest for younger readers, but Ms Turner never goes for the sensational. She occasionally mentions the colourful anecdotes in asides but the main thread of her narrative is the historically plausible. There’s no moonlit duel between Yoshitsune and Benkei on Gojo Bridge, no angry ghosts, no twenty foot leaps by Yoshitsune between boats at Dan-no-Ura.
Her language and explanations are necessarily uncomplicated, to cater for her young audience. Far from making the text simplistic, I actually found that it clarified some points for me in a way that more scholarly works or primary source material never have. One particular instance of this was her exploration of the possible reasons for Yoritomo’s betrayal of Yoshitsune after the war.
The text is liberally embellished with geographic, cultural and political detail that is educational and creates context for readers who likely have no knowledge of a period and people that must seem very alien. What is particularly gratifying is that it is all impeccably researched……and this is something that really surprised me. I’ve never seen this in a childrens’ book. The author doesn’t give in-text citation or footnotes (and I wouldn’t expect this distracting and confusing formatting in a childrens’ book) but everything is thoroughly referenced in extensive chapter notes at the end of the book. I’ve seen adult history texts that display less rigor!
What really impressed me was her bibliography, which is extensive. This included not only the expected standards, the Tale of the Heike and the 14th century Yoshitsune, but a wealth of scholarly secondary sources. Her level of research for a childrens’ book is truly remarkable and speaks to a respect for her readers and material. Best of all, her bibliography has opened up new avenues of research for me that I thought had dried up. I have a copy of Minoru Shinoda’s long out of print The Founding of the Kamakura Shogunate 1180-1185 ordered and heading my way…..important because it contains the only substantial English translations of the Azuma kagami, the official records of the Kamakura bakufu, containing a wealth of non-literary, contemporary accounts of the period of the Genpei War. I’m also a great Akira Kurosawa fan (his movies kindled my first interest in Japanese culture as a teenager) and I was somehow completely unaware that he had made a movie about the famous legend of Benkei and Yoshitsune at the Ataka Barrier (immortalised in noh and kabuki)….it’s called The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail and a subtitled copy of this is also on its way to me…..really looking forward to that.
I also have to comment on the illustrations by Gareth Hinds, a graphic novel artist, about which I was so cynical. Again, against my expectations, they are wonderful. Not overdone….one per chapter. Black and white line drawings with watercolour style shading. They are simple and evocative and perfectly suited to the material. My favourite is of Yoshitsune’s men fording the river at the Second Battle of Uji, but they’re all excellent and a perfect complement to the text. A number of these illustrations can be seen in a brief promotional video for the book here.
So overall this is a surprisingly good book, despite the couple of minor issues I have with it. Given its clarity and the quality of the writing and research, I believe it goes beyond being a simple childrens’ book and I would recommend it highly to adult readers as an introduction to the life and times of Yoshitsune and the parts of the Genpei War in which he participated.
A blog to document my development of a variant rule set and set of scenarios covering the Genpei War of 1180-1185, for the C&C version of Samurai Battles
Archive for Historical discussion
06 Jul 2018
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I've just finished watching the the NHK Taiga series on the life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Not much of a TV watcher, committing to 49 one hour episodes was a big deal (all of the Taiga dramas are 49 episodes long, serialised weekly over a whole year). It's taken me a few months to get through it. I bought a bottle of good sake and watched the final emotionally charged episode tonight with my wife.
I'd planned to write a review but it's hard to know where to start. With something so huge there's a lot to consider and I need time and probably several articles. It wasn't perfect but, in short, it was an amazing journey for a Heian and Genpei War enthusiast. It was beautifully produced and acted, faithful to the source material (with a few exceptions) and utterly engaging. It consolidated my understanding of events and characters in ways that reading alone never could. Most important, it rekindled my interest in the project again and I'm hoping to get back to completing and editing my sourcebook.
I also have the series on Taira no Kiyomori but I'm going to put that off while I process this one. I'll hopefully have the first part of a proper review written soon, work and other commitments allowing.
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I discovered this recently when browsing a friend’s bookstore in the Blue Mountains. Despite being a Genpei War enthusiast who thought he had accessed every piece of literature available on the subject in English, I was not aware of the existence of this at all……..which is an odd miss because I’ve previously read both of Eiji Yoshikawa’s other Japanese historical epics, Musashi and Taiko.
It looks like the Heike Story was the author’s last work and it may be incomplete. Like the other two monumental epics, this was not originally published as a single novel but was serialised in the Asahi Weekly between the end of World War II and at least 1952, when the first edition of this English translation was published. There is a frustratingly brief note at the end of the book by the translator, who reveals that at the time of publication of this English edition, Yoshikawa was only two thirds of the way through the story, meaning that it was not first written in its entirety and then serially released in the Asahi Weekly, but was penned as he went. This seems about right as this book comes in at just over 600 pages, a mere novella compared to Musashi and Taiko, which were both originally serialised in the same newspaper format and are real housebricks, each weighing in at close to 1,000 pages. Yoshikawa died in 1962, so there was plenty of time for the book to have been completed, but it’s unclear whether it was…..this is the only version available in English translation and I can find no information anywhere else on the Japanese version or whether it was ever finished.
The translator also notes that he modified the text significantly for Western readers, and that it should be viewed more as a version or a partial translation of the original. He condensed some chapters and left out entire sub-plots and subsidiary characters, believing that they would be of little interest to an English-reading audience unfamiliar with the historical background. Again, this is incredibly disappointing because I am very familiar with, and interested in, the historical context and wanted to know more detail, not less! Once again, as has so often happened in my research on the Genpei War, I have been frustrated by my lack of Japanese literacy.
So, despite the English text being corrupted and the entire work probably unfinished, what historical value does The Heike Story have for a reader interested in the later Heian period and the Genpei War? First, it should be noted that Eiji Yoshikawa wrote historical fiction. While the principle characters are real historical figures, they are given backgrounds, dialogue, thoughts and motivations which can never actually be retrieved. Yoshikawa also created plot elements and other characters entirely out of whole cloth for narrative purposes. Having said all that, this is all perfectly legitimate for the format. Yoshikawa was also a lifelong scholar of primary sources and it is widely acknowledged that he was meticulous in his research for his novels. In addition to the three classical literary standards available to Western readers (Hogen, Heiji and Heike), which Yoshikawa obviously drew on for his primary narrative, he had access to a broad library of twelfth century diaries, letters, chronicles and documentary artwork. As much as any piece of fiction, we can feel pretty comfortable with its fidelity to its historical subject.
The Heike Story doesn’t actually cover the Genpei War. It starts in about 1138, with an impoverished and marginalised Taira no Kiyomori at the age of 20, and ends in 1175, with the 15 ear old Minamoto no Yoshitsune (still under his childhood name of Ushikawa), escaping Kuramadera Temple to head north for Hiraizumi and refuge with Fujiwara no Hidehira. The story centres on Kiyomori but has strands of plot that follows many characters. In this time period it covers the rise of the Taira to power under Kiyomori; the splintering of imperial power with the insei system of retired emperors; the increasing militarism of the monastic sects from Mt Hiei and Nara; and, most importantly, the Hogen and Heiji conflicts which confirmed the ascendancy of Kiyomori and the Taira and the humbling of the Minamoto, setting the stage for the Genpei War.
It’s actually not an inappropriate end to the story leaving it with the escape of Yoshitsune, the man who, under the authority of his brother Yoritomo, would ultimately end Taira power in the great civil war. Assuming, however, that Yoshikawa had another 300 odd pages of material planned to complete the story, where had he intended to finish it? The last dozen chapters of the story start to merge into the events at the start of the Tale of the Heike but it was clearly not within the scope of the story to include the Genpei War itself. My guess is he planned to end it with either the outbreak of the Genpei War itself in 1180, or with Kiyomori’s death in 1182. Even an 1180 end date would have included such major events as the Shishigatane plot and the Taiken Gate incident and with the other character threads and sub-plots Yoshikawa was running, I think that would have just about carried him through to the beginning of the war.
As an interested amateur and pretty well informed about this period, I found it a very enjoyable read. It was great to see familiar characters come to life outside their strict historical and literary context but I also learned some surprising things about some of the more peripheral players. This happens frequently when researching this period. The primary texts of the Tales of Hogen, Heiji and particularly Heike, often feature people without context or explanation, assuming that contemporary readers would know their backgrounds, while to modern readers they are just names. The biggest revelation of this kind in the Heike Story was the identity of Taira no Tokitada, who was captured at Dan-no-Ura and sent into exile rather than being executed because he was a peripheral member of Kiyomiri’s family, not a blood relative. Well, it turns out that he was Kiyomori’s brother-in-law, a Fujiwara by birth and younger brother of Tokiko, Kiyomori’s wife…….the very woman who as a widow and nun , Lady Nii, famously drowned herself with her grandson, the boy Emperor Antoku, at the battle of Dan-no-Ura. In the Tale of the Heike, Tokitada is notable only for the incident after his capture, where he warns Yoshitsune against opening the chest containing the sacred mirror. In the Heike Story he is one of the principle characters…….an impetuous young hothead who matures into one of Kiyomori’s most senior and trusted vassals (although still prone to recklessness). Many, many more of the peripheral characters from the history are given deeper, richer narratives and backgrounds, most notably the itinerant priest Mongaku and Minamoto no Yoshitomo’s page Konno-maru………who departs markedly from his role in the Tale of Heiji but is my favourite character in this story, the resourceful and loyal retainer who repeatedly eludes capture by the Taira and ultimately orchestrates Yoshitsune’s escape.
Yoshikawa also gives a fascinating spin to some of the incompletely explained episodes in the literary chronicles. One example is the Gion incident off 1147, where Kiyomori infamously perpetrated the sacrilege of firing arrows at the omikoshi shrines. Historically, this occurred as a result of an altercation during a festival, when members of his household clashed with shrine attendants at the Yasaka Shrine but there are no other clear details. In the Heike Story, Yoshikawa elevates this to a major confrontation, with the armed Hiei monks marching on the palace with the omikoshi in protest against the irreverent conduct of some of the Taira retainers (Tokitada being the chief culprit) and Kiyomiri facing them down alone, bow in hand, to prevent them marching on the court. This courageous stance earns him the enmity of the monks but also their respect, which Yoshikawa sets as the precedent for their later dealings with him…….and possibly for the almost identical but far bloodier Taiken Gate skirimish in 1177 (which I’m certain would have featured in the story if he had finished it).
Another interesting rationalisation is that of the legend of the tengu demons of Kuramadera, who were supposed to have taught the boy Yoshitsune the arts of the warrior among the twisted tree roots of the dark ravines above the temple (I’ve visited this atmospheric site myself and it’s not difficult to imagine how these legends were inspired). In Yoshikawa’s story the tengu are actually Minamoto retainers who have escaped the Taira pogrom against their clan and hidden in the forests around Kuramadera in the years after the Heiji conflict, disguised as woodcutters and charcoal burners. From there they watch and protect the son of their dead lord and, when he is old enough, visit him by night to teach him swordmanship and his true heritage in the dark mountain forests. Clever.
Yoshitsune's legendary training ground in the mountaintop forest above Kuramadera....taken on my most recent trip to Japan
Yoshitsune training with the tengu
All in all, I’m very happy to have found and read The Heike Story, even if I’m frustrated that it has been cut and is incomplete. There’s still plenty there for the reader interested in the period.
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My long awaited copy of Osprey’s Gempei War arrived yesterday and I’ve now had a chance to read it. On a quick side note here, the author states that “Genpei” is a romanised version of “Gempei”, when my understanding from other sources is that it is in fact the other way around.....either version is valid.
As with most Osprey titles it comes in at under a hundred pages and is easily read in a few hours. The author is Stephen Turnbull, undoubtedly the most prolific author on samurai warfare in the English language. I have several of his excellent books which I’ve used as general source material. He states in his introduction that this is the most “authoritative account” of the Gempei War available and the first complete picture of the Gempei War in the English language. Having spent months trying to hunt down material on the war myself, I can confirm this. It is, however, only an extended summary of the war. This is not a criticism of the book. Given the limitations of its page count, it could only ever be a survey level overview of the war and readers who want more detail will need to look further afield. The author does provide a brief reading list for this purpose at the end of the book.
The author cites two primary sources. The first, of course, is the Heike Monogotari, the Tale of the Heike. The author quite rightly states that the Tale is primarily a work of literature and invaluable for its cultural and political references, but unlike the Tale his work is aimed at providing a “clear, concise and authoritative historical account” of the conflict. While I would agree that there is a significant literary overlay on the Tale, and that not all of it can be taken at face historical value, it was written within a generation of the war, and therefore within living memory of the events it describes, and as such must contain material that was true and authentic for its contemporary audience. Ironically he later includes, without qualification, a number of anecdotes from the Tale that are of probable greater literary than historical validity, such as the famous duel between Kumagai Naozane and Taira no Atsumori at Ichi-no-Tani.
The second source is the Azuma Kagami, a 13th century compilation of official papers and a chronology of the Gempei War, which is not fully translated in English and to which I have not had access. The author includes some fascinating anecdotes and passages from this work that I had not encountered elsewhere and were probably the most valuable part of the book for me.
Within the limited parameters of the book in mind, it is very well organised and covers all key aspects of the war. It has an overview, brief biographies of the principle protagonists, a chronology, a discussion of the arms and armour, warriors and military organisation of the period, and the political and social landscape which precipitated and shaped the conflict. The following body of the work is a diachronic narrative of the war, divided into three distinct phases: the first covering Prince Mochihito’s failed rebellion, the Taira conflicts with the sohei of the great temples and Minamoto Yoritomo’s consolidation of power in the Kanto; the second the campaigns of Minamoto (“Kiso”) Yoshinaka, first against the Taira and then his defeat by his own kinsmen; the third the great campaigns of Minamoto Yoshitsune, culminating in the final famous battle of Dan-no-Ura. Finally, there is a very brief one page epilogue detailing Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s death at Koromogawa and Yoritomo’s establishment of the Kamakura shogunate.
I think Osprey’s greatest strength is their illustrations and this book doesn’t disappoint. There are some beautiful two page colour modern artworks depicting some of the battles, my favourite being the Miidera monks taking on the Taira on the partially dismantled bridge at the First Battle of Uji )as pictured on the cover above) and Yoshinaka’s death in the frozen rice paddies at Awazu. These are supplemented by a good selection of period art, woodblocks, screen paintings and lacquerware, many of which I had already collected in my own research but a number of which I had not encountered before.
Three of the major battles (Kurikara Gorge, Ichi-no-Tani and Dan-no-Ura) are described in more detail and accompanied by good battlefield maps (although I disagree with the Ichi-no-Tani one…..more on that in a moment) and there are also a number of larger scale strategic maps which are very helpful in orientating the reader to the overall campaign. Finally, there are photos of sites (principally battlefield landscapes, graves and statues) and artifacts, such as a helmet reportedly belonging to Yohitsune at Kuramadera (which I disappointingly was not aware of and missed when I visited the temple…..it may not have been on general display at the time).
Despite its many good qualities, there are aspects of the book which disappointed me. These are primarily inaccuracies which a general reader might not appreciate but stand out to a more informed Gempei war enthusiast. The author states that part of his research has included tours of the battlefields and while I have not been to all of them, I have made a personal exhaustive (and exhausting) exploration of several of these sites myself and have pretty intimate knowledge of them, particularly Uji, Ichi-no-Tani, the Hojuji-dono and the southwestern shore of Lake Biwa, which encompasses the battle sites of Seta, Awazu and Miidera. On page 30 a photo of the Uji River purports to show the Uji Bridge, when in fact this picture is taken upriver away from Uji Bridge, and shows the Tachibana Bridge linking the eastern bank to Ujikima Island (my pictures of the site and a description of my own tour of Uji can be found here.
The real Uji Bridge
Similarly, a photo on page 67 purports to be taken from the top of Hiyodori Ravine, looking down onto Ichi-no-Tani. I’ve personally spent a number of sweaty and exhausting hours combing the hills above the site and that photo is not from Hiyodori but further west, certainly in the hills traversed by Yoshitsune in his approach, but way too far from Suma Beach and the western end of the fortress. In fact, I would contend that the actual specific identity of Hiyodori, among the many ravines descending onto the coastal flat, is not identifiable with certainty, but this photo is certainly not it.
I also disagree with the author’s geographic description of Ichi-no-Tani, and the battlefield map that accompanies it. The author describes the fortress as something like a traditional free-standing wooden stockade building and to illustrate this there is a representative photo of a replica wooden gatehouse at another site in Iwata Prefecture. I believe from the description in the Tale, and personal observation on the ground, that the “fortress” of Ichi-no-Tani was not a discreet building but a large enclosed camp, naturally fortified by the steep hills to the north, the seashore to the south and constructed stone fortifications sealing off the narrows to east and west. This is clearly what is described in the Tale and easy to visualise at the site itself. Although not terribly clear, the battlefield map seems to portray the fortress as being in the narrowest strip of land between hills and shore at the western end of Suma Beach, when in fact this was almost certainly just the western wall of the greater fortified camp (the wall assaulted by Doi Sanehira’s division). Again, I’ve walked it and this strip is maybe 50 to 100 metres wide, a perfect site to fortify but not nearly enough to contain the entire Taira army. The impression given by the author is of something on a far smaller scope and scale than I believe is dictated by the Tale’s narrative, the size of the forces involved and the actual geography of the site.
Similarly, one of the beautiful double page colour illustrations depicts Kajiwara (“Genda”) Kagesue, eldest son of the infamous Minamoto general Kagetoki (and second across the river at the Second Battle of Uji), dismounted and trapped against a rock wall fighting for his life against a press of Taira warriors at Ichi-no-Tani. This is a memorable scene from the Tale but it occurs in the northeast part of the fortress during the assault by Noriyori’s main force against the eastern wall, whereas the caption here erroneously labels it as occurring much later, in the final melee on Suma Beach.
Another thing that I found interesting is the author’s dissertation on the nature of archery in this period. Dr Turnbull is on firm ground here, I know, as samurai arms are obviously his area of expertise, but I did find it a little confusing and at odds with the description of the battles. Based to some extent on the modern martial art of yabusame, horseback archery, and the observation that samurai bows of the period were not as powerful as those of the central Asian steppe nomads, he postulates that Japanese archery of the period was a close range, almost point blank affair. He quotes 10 metres as a maximum range. While I have no doubt that there is some learned basis for this, I cannot believe it is the whole story. The Tale is full of stories of archers demonstrating their skill and accuracy at extreme range, on horseback, foot and from the moving decks of boats. Again, while a literary account, the Tale must have had validity for its contemporary readers and long range archery must therefore have been part of the norm, even if it was mixed with close range fire as described by the author. In fact, he even details the famous incident of Nasu Yoichi’s breathtaking bowmanship at Yashima, hitting the shipboard fan hoisted in challenge by the Taira.
These are minor quibbles but as always, inaccuracies in some details do tend to cast doubt over the general reliability of a work. In this case, however, I don’t think they should detract from the quality of the work as a whole. My own reading, research and exploration have provided me with much deeper insight into the Gempei War than this book could provide, but even then I learned some things I didn’t know and gained a fresh perspective on others. For the general reader I think it would be an excellent introduction and overview of this fascinating but little understood war. I wish it had been available to me as a reference when I was working on the Genpei Project and I can highly recommend it.
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I've been waiting for this for some time. Osprey have just published their campaign book on the Gempei war, written by Stephen Turnbull ("Gempei" is the latinised form of "Genpei"... they're functionally interchangeable). The cover features the Miidera monks doing their thing on the dismantled bridge at the First battle of Uji.
When I was working on this project I had very little to work with in the way of secondary sources, so this would have been invaluable. I'm very keen to get my hands on it and will probably download the eBook version while I'm waiting for the paper copy to enter local circulation.
The publisher's page and store is here.
I'll write a review when I've had a chance to read it.
Edit: I just bought a paper copy on eBay, which was cheaper than the e-version, even with shipping......but it will be a while before it gets to me from the UK.
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It's late afternoon and I'm high in the Kumano mountains at the end of my first day of the pilgrimage. I'm on the verandah of my lodge in Takahara, village of mists, looking west over mountains that seem to go on forever. This was a short day, climbing from Takijiri-Oji, the traditional gate of the Kumano, but it was seriously steep. I'm astounded that so many of the Heian nobility made this pilgrimage so many times (and they didn't train to the Kii Peninsula like me but walked from Kyoto!)....I guess most off them were on palanquins, so it was their servants who suffered.
Still two days' walk before I reach Hongu Taisha, the first of the three great Kumano Sanzan shrines, but the path is lined with multiple subsidiary oji shrines, small parts of the Kumano deities' essence transported to these sites to sanctify the route.
In the Kumano information centre at the start of the trail they had some very interesting artifacts, excavated from the ancient sutra mounds that line the trail, where people buried sutras and other offerings (I passed one of them on the way here....photos will have to wait until I'm home). Two of the artifacts were a votive bell set and a rusted sword blade, both apparently offerings from Fujiwara no Hidehira.....if you'll remember, he was lord of the Northern Fujiwara in far away Mutsu province, Yoshitsune's childhood guardian and the man to whom he fled again after the Genpei War (see the historical notes for GP30. Koromogawa for more details). Hidehira apparently also named Hoshimmonoji, an important oji that I'll be seeing on day 3. The fact that a lord from so far away made the pilgrimage shows how important a spiritual site this was in the late Heian period.
I'm going to sit here and watch the sun set over the mountains while reading Essays in Idleness, then have an onsen to rest my aching muscles before a traditional Japanese rural dinner (hopefully with sake or shochu ) before an early night for an early start on the trail again tomorrow.....hoping to see some of the morning mists in the valley below, for which this village is famous. Life is very good .
I hadn't planned to blog as I went but I have an unexpected internet connection here and some idle moments to write. I may or may not have another opportunity later on the pilgrimage.
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Another important item on my itinerary ticked off this morning......a visit to Hojuji Temple and the adjacent stretch of the Kamo River across which Yoshinaka attacked the retired emperor in the freezing winter of 1183/1184. An easy visit as the site is less than an hour's walk from our ryokan. To get there I crossed the famous Gojo Bridge (but I'll be returning to the bridge at night to get a feel for the legendary moonlit duel between Benkei and Yoshitsune, if that's possible in modern city traffic.....but not tonight, it's bucketing down in Kyoto ).
Hojuji was a far different experience to my visit to Ichi-no-Tani or even Uji last year, because the scale is so small. For a site of such interest to me I was surprised at how tiny the Hojujidono is and how unprepossessing in amongst some of the most enormous and ostentatious of temples and shrines in Kyoto. I walked right past it at first and as there is nothing to mark it in English, I would never have found it if I didn't have a picture of the front gate. I was disappointed that I couldn't find the memorial to Go-Shirakawa and I'd almost given up and was about to leave when I spotted a small, unmarked side path which I followed to find the commemorative plaque I recognised from photos.....but there was a special discovery in store for me. Following the path further I came to a fenced off enclosure which housed another temple-like building, hidden behind Hojuji and a graveyard. Nothing to mark it English but with excitement I realised it could be only one thing.....the residence and subsequent mausoleum of
Go-Shirakawa......confirmed for me by two women in response to my questions in dodgy Japanese (the only other visitors I saw at this important site in the whole time I was there!).
I found the humble solitude of the site quite affecting. Although he never raised a sword, fired an arrow or led troops in battle, Go-Shirakawa is one of my heroes of the Genpei War, a man of peace and spiritual devotion who survived one of the most turbulent and violent periods of Japan's history with courage, resilience and political savvy. He also made the Kumano pilgrimage thirty-one times, more than anybody else, and I'll be following him in a week's time.
Again, these are just quick impressions jotted down on the fly. I'll post a more comprehensive battlefield AAR when I get home.
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It's 1 pm on a glorious Saturday afternoon and I'm sitting in Sumaura Park next to the Ich-no-Tani war memorial. I've had an exhausting, extremely satisfying but also somewhat frustrating morning following the footsteps of Yoshitsune walking through the hills above the site of the fortress. Frustrating because I couldn't confidently identify Hiyodori Ravine....the path labeled as the Ichi-no-Tani cliff descent isn't it....it's not a ravine! I think it actually skirts the hillside on the west side of the ravine and I've spent a couple of hours getting lost following a minor side trail that skirts the hill crest and descended on the far side of the cleft that I'm certain must be Hiyodori. I've crossed at least a dozen deep and ridiculously steep defiles in that cleft, the last of which was a trail down that has deposited me at the memorial marker at the west end of Suma Beach, right where Yoshitsune would have come down.
Have I been in Hiyodori Ravine? I'm confident I have but I have no idea which of those defiles was it.....and I'm betting nobody else does.
I'm buggered.... I always lose 10 kg on my Japan trips (10 kg I don't have to lose ) and am just using this as an excuse to catch my breath before walking down onto Suma Beach, the Dunkirk of the Taira. I have a much more extensive post about the battlefield visit planned which will have to wait until I can get home and organise my photos, and when I'm not chewing up my precious sim card.
Tried to post a photo of the memorial but my iPad or connection is making it problematic.
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After Ichi no Tani there was a six month lull in fighting. The Taira were crippled and although they would eventually need to be dealt with, Yoritomo was in no hurry. He could turn his attention to consolidating his relationships and power in both the capital and Kamakura. It’s also important to realise that while the Taira no longer threatened the Minamoto and the capital, they were in a strong defensive position that was difficult to assail. This was because they had a fleet and the Minamoto had none, nor did the Minamoto have the naval experience of the Taira, giving the Taira control of the inner sea. This land versus sea-based power differential is reminiscent of other more familiar historical ones, such as Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and England against Napoleonic France, and makes for an interesting strategic situation. As we will see in the concluding scenarios to come, it wasn’t until the Minamoto were able to acquire a navy that they could actually bring the Taira to a decisive battle and finally end the war.
There are three episodes in this break in the fighting that I wanted to highlight. Once we start on the scenarios again, we will be running straight through to the finale.
The Parade of Heads
Yoshitsune and Noriyori returned to the capital in triumph after Ichi-no-Tani. They had the heads of over half the Taira nobility and one prisoner, Shigehira. They asked permission of retired emperor Go-Shirakawa to parade the heads through the capital and hang them outside the prison. Go-Shirakawa put this to his advisors, who were unanimous in condemning this as a bad idea. These Taira were not common criminals but nobles who until recently had been some of the senior officers of the government. Nevertheless, Yoshitsune and Noriyori insisted, to appease their clan for the wrongs they felt had been done to them in the Hogen and Heiji conflicts and for the injustices committed against the court. Go-Shirakawa relented and the heads were paraded through the streets in carts. Among the onlookers were many anxious Taira friends and family members who had been left in the capital when the clan members had fled only a year before. They looked on in trepidation to see who had been killed. Among these were the wife and children of Koremori. His wife was relieved to find that he had escaped the massacre at Ichi-no-Tani (he had remained in Yashima due to illness) but distraught because she remained separated from him.
The Death of Koremori
The Tale paints a grim picture of the situation of the Taira after Ichi-no-Tani. Consumed by grief for their defeat, the deaths of so many of their family, their rapid fall from power and their provincial exile from a privileged life in the capital, it seems that many had already resigned themselves to despair. With the onset of a bleak autumn in late 1184, the Tale eloquently describes the somber mood of the Taira as it is reflected in the changing season.
Now chill winds came to bend the reeds
and dews gathering under the hagi fronds.
To the plaintive song of crickets,
rice plants rustled, leaves fluttered down –
a sight to cloud the most carefree heart
under strange skies, as autumn waned.
Imagine, then, what melancholy
weighed on the hearts of the Heike!”
- Book 10.14
Among the Taira, the one who seems to have felt this despair most keenly was Koremori, the eldest son of Shigemori. He had commanded the Taira army destroyed at Kurikara Gorge but had missed Ichi-no-Tani due to illness. I do wonder if his illness was depression.
The loss he felt most deeply was the separation from his wife and children, who he had left behind in the capital when the Taira fled the advance of Yoshinaka. Some families went with their husbands into exile but Koremori left his behind because he could not bear the thought of exposing them to the hardships of being on the run. He now regretted that decision and the feeling of his wife and children was mutual. I found this very touching. I have previously observed that Koremori was a deeply sensitive man, out of time and place in this war. There seems to have been a genuine personal warmth and love shared between Koremori and his family which is unique amid the violence and cruelty of the Genpei War. It was all too much for him to bear, and in the aftermath of Ichi-no-Tani he knew that he would never be able to return to the capital to be with them.
His solution was to forsake the world and become a novice. He sought release from his worldly attachments by visiting the great holy sanctuaries of Mount Koya and Kumano, the latter an important shrine at the western tip of Honshu (not far from the Shinomoseki Strait) that features repeatedly in the Tale. Deeply distressed that he could not purify himself by shedding his longing for his family, he sailed into the sea north of Kyushu and there drowned himself.
When his family heard the news of his death they were devastated. Another who professed sadness at his loss was Yoritomo! It had been Koremori’s father, Shigemori, who had prompted Lady Ike-no-Zenni to plead with Kiyomori to show mercy to the boy Yoritomo in the wake of the Heiji Conflict, and Yoritomo felt indebted to Shigemori’s family, particularly his firstborn.
“If only he had come to see me in person, I could have saved his life.
I had the greatest respect for his father, Shigemori,
since it was he who, speaking for Yorimori’s mother,
got my sentence commuted from death into exile.
For that I owe him a great debt of gratitude –
one so unforgettable that I hold his sons, too, in high regard.
Besides, Koremori had renounced the world.
It would have been perfectly easy to save him.”
A fine sentiment after the fact but we now know Yoritomo too well to accept his words at face value. There is a sad coda to this tale. After the Genpei War, Yoritomo had all of the surviving Taira male descendants hunted down and killed, children and even babies among them. The only one he spared, at the insistence of his own spiritual mentor, the monk Mongaku, was Rokudai, Koremori’s son. Rokudai was removed from the world, taking up a monastic life. Whatever his professed debt to Shigemori’s family, however, the continued existence of a Taira must have irritated Yoritomo like a thorn. In 1199, shortly before his own death, the ever-paranoid shogun ordered Rokudai, last of the Taira, apprehended and executed.
Go-Shirakawa’s Decree to the Taira
The retired emperor sent a decree to the Taira, demanding that they return the imperial regalia to the capital. In return, he offered to release Shigehira, captured at Ichi-no-Tani. It is doubtful that this was a genuine offer or that he expected them to agree. I think he was buying time for the Minamoto to organise for a fresh assault. It is also unlikely that Shigehira was his to free, as Yoritomo had plans for him.
Sure enough, Munemori’s response was that after having lost so many of their family defending their right to imperial sovereignty (through Antoku and the regalia), they weren’t about to give it up for the safety of just one son of Kiyomori. Munemori said that the only condition under which they would return the regalia was if their clan was welcomed back to the capital and reinstated in their rightful position of power and honour, as family of the true emperor. That was never going to happen. He even implied that they were prepared to set sail for India, Korea or China, taking the regalia with them. This response was written respectfully but the whole tone of the affair was blighted by Taira no Tokikara, who had a brand burned into the face of Go-Shirakawa’s ambassador before sending him back. Not the best of diplomacy.
Go-Shirakawa ignored this. Shigehira was sent to Yoritomo in Kamakura. In November, Go-Shirakawa had his grandson Go-Toba, the younger brother of Antoku, officially enthroned…….although without the regalia, the baby held only the title of emperor, not true sovereignty. That would have to be won in battle.
I did have some more historical articles planned but we’re so near the conclusion of the war, I’d like to keep the impetus up and complete the scenarios. My original intention had been to conclude the project with the final scenario but there’s no reason I can’t post a few historical articles after the gaming part is done. So, onwards to Dan-no-Ura and the end of the war.
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The next four scenarios deal with the decisive battle of Ichi-no-Tani. This is one of the three key battles of the Genpei War, along with Kurikara Gorge and Dan-no-Ura. Its scale and importance, together with the extensive information provided to us in the Tale of the Heike, allow us to explore it in far greater detail than any of the other battles of the war, with enough material for several scenarios. In view of its significance and the amount of time we’ll be spending on it, I thought it would be a good idea to set the stage here with an introduction and commentary.
As we’ve already seen, the Taira had taken the opportunity of their victories at Mizushima and Muroyama, and the infighting among the Minamoto, to reestablish themselves back on mainland Honshu, at their old provincial seat at the port of Fukuhara in Settsu Province, the modern city of Kobe. They sent out a summons to their allies and vassals from the western provinces, including the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. While we know that there was resistance and open rebellion among some of these allies, there were still many who were loyal. The Taira were able to coerce and bully most of the other recalcitrant ones into line, thanks to the energetic campaigning of Noritsune in particular (see Nuta's Stronghold and Nishinomiya). The size of the army they raised in early spring of 1184 is quoted in the Tale as over 100,000. As usual, this is almost certainly an exaggerated figure but there can be no doubt that it was a sizeable force, and not one raised for simple show or defense. The mustering point, Ichi-no-Tani, was just over a day’s march from the capital. While I don’t believe that the Taira were anywhere near the power they once were, this was still a serious threat. The Taira and their remaining allies in the capital looked forward to their imminent return to what they considered their rightful place and home….a disastrously premature assumption.
This large Taira army mustered at Ichi-no-Tani, a site on the coast immediately west of Fukuhara. It was a place well chosen for its superb natural defenses. Ichi-no-Tani occupied a strip of level coastal plain between supposedly impassable steep hills and cliffs to the north and the shore of the inner sea to the south. The Taira enhanced these natural defenses by building stone fortification walls from the mountains to the sea on both east and west, and supplemented these with shield walls and abatis. Furthermore, they posted strong forward garrisons to protect both approaches, beneath Mount Mikusa to the west, and dispersed throughout the dense woods surrounding the Ikuta Shrine to the east. To the south a blockade of Taira ships guarded the shore, probably an unnecessary precaution because at this time the Minamoto had no substantial navy, however formidable their land forces might be.
The Tale of the Heike sets the scene at Ichi-no-Tani in one of its most brilliantly evocative passages, which I’ve taken the liberty of quoting in full here:
Mountains northward, sea to the south,
narrow of access, spacious beyond,
and cliffs sheer as folding screens.
From the foot of the cliffs to the north
and far out into the southern shallows,
they had heaped a wall of boulders,
felled mighty trees to lay abatis,
and in the deep water ranged ships
side by side like a wall of shields.
On the towers by the fortress entrance,
Kyushu and Shikoku warriors,
each battle-ready and far-famed
for fierce courage to take on a thousand,
clustered like dense clouds and mists.
Below the towers saddled horses
stood, keen for war, in ready ranks.
Huge drums pounded a martial beat.
Poised before every archer’s breast,
the drawn bow swelled like a half-moon.
Like autumn frost a three-foot sword
gleamed at each waist, and on the crests
red banners streamed, leaping flames
in the spring wind through the high heaven.
A pretty impressive and daunting spectacle but a serious strategic blunder by the Taira……and ultimately a fatal one. Despite raising an army to reconquer what they had lost, they assumed a defensive rather than an aggressive posture. If Ichi-no-Tani appeared impregnable, it was also a trap in which they could not effectively move. They ceded the initiative for tactical maneuverability to the Minamato and a brilliant general who was more than ready to seize it.
As soon as Yoshinaka was disposed of, Yoritomo ordered his brothers to assault Ichi-no-Tani. In fact, the Taira had clearly always been the primary objective of the campaign. Yoshinaka had just been a speed bump, one that was negotiated as quickly and efficiently as possible. Within days of Awazu, Noriyori and Yoshitsune received imperial sanction from Go-Shirakawa to march against the Taira. The retired emperor stressed to them the importance of securing the imperial regalia:
“Three treasures have come down in our realm since the age of the gods.
They are the mirror, the jewel and the sword.
See that you return them safe and sound to the capital.”
The brothers solemnly pledged to do so.
Interestingly, the Minamoto had planned to march on the fourth of the month but reconsidered because it was the anniversary of Kiymori’s death and the Taira were conducting memorial rites. It is unclear whether their hesitation was a mark of respect for their old enemy or because of a taboo this would incur. Such taboos on travel occurred frequently in the calendar, were often specific to a compass direction or ritual, and were taken very seriously. Nevertheless, an almanac reading indicated that the fourth was actually an auspicious day for the Minamoto to start their campaign, and so it turned out to be.
The brothers adopted the same strategy that they had for their drive on the capital the previous month, dividing their army. Noriyori again commanded the main division which he marched against the eastern flank of Ichi-no-Tani, while Yoshitsune led a smaller, faster flanking force to the west. The Tale contains an extended listing of the officers and retainers of both divisions in a chapter titled "The Roster of Forces at Mikusa" (ironically because it doesn’t actually mention any of the forces garrisoned at Mikusa, who were the Taira). This passage, and several others like it in the Tale, remind me very much of the Catalogue of Ships from The Iliad, lending the Tale of the Heike a feel of true epic. We will meet many of these Minamoto samurai from the roster in the scenarios.
Map of the Ichi-no-Tani campaign….not a great one but the approaches of Noriyori's and Yoshitsune's divisions can be clearly seen
The site of Ichi-no-Tani is the Suma ward of the modern city of Kobe, just west of Osaka. There is a memorial to the battle at Sumaura Park and a cableway to the top of the mountains and across Hiyodori Ravine. On my trip to Osaka a fortnight ago, I had one free day to indulge in battlefield exploration and had to choose between Uji and Ichi-no-Tani. I chose Uji. I hope to visit Suma on a future trip, but for now will just have to content myself exploring it through gaming.
Suma / Ichi-no-Tani…..view from the cableway
Memorial to the battle of Ichi-no-Tani in Sumaura Park
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