The Genpei Project

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
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A brief history of the Genpei War

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The Genpei War lasted five years from 1180-1185 and is a fascinating, epoch defining event of Japanese history. It was fought between the two great warrior clans of the late Heian period, the Taira and the Minamoto. Although centred on the capital of Kyoto, it spread to involve three of Japan’s four islands and the coastal sea. It also embroiled the other two pillars of Japanese society, the imperial court and the temples, in a war that was fought not just in the military sphere, but also the political and religious. When the war was ultimately won by Minamoto no Yoritomo, who established the first shogunate, it represented a paradigm shift in Japan, which moved from a society dominated by the aristocracy and the temples to one where the samurai warrior class was supreme.

The roots of the war lay in the incredibly complicated politics of the 12th century court and the imperial succession. The Taira and Minamoto were the two preeminent warrior clans in the capital, both seen as defenders of the emperor. Of course, when there is a succession crisis in which legitimate imperial candidates occupy opposing camps, both sides see themselves as defending the rightful emperor, and the loser becomes the enemy of the court (invariably posthumously). This was to have important ramifications for the Minamoto and Taira.

I’ll just make a side note here that there was a third great clan central to the imperial court, the Fujiwara. For centuries the aristocratic Fujiwara had the privilege of proximity to the emperor, providing many of the court’s senior ministers and, most importantly, the highest position of all next to the throne, that of regent. It was also traditional for the emperor to marry a daughter of a senior Fujiwara and for their children to be imperial heirs. The Fujiwara were intimately bound to the imperial family by both tradition and blood.

So where to start? This gets confusing so I’ll try to keep it simple. When the emperor Sutoku was forced to abdicate (1141) by his father, the retired emperor Toba, in favour of the infant son of one of Toba’s favourite concubines, there was deep resentment, not only from Sutoku but many of the nobility of the court. When this new emperor Konoe died young, and Sutoku was again denied reinstatement to the throne by Toba, this resentment flared into open war in the Hogen (1156) and Heiji (1159) conflicts. These conflicts involved the Fujiwara, Taira and Minamoto, with clans themselves divided, sometimes father against son, on both sides of brutal fighting on a scale that the capital had not witnessed for centuries.

The victor in the Heiji conflict was Taira no Kiyomori, supporting the emperor Go-Shirakawa. Kiyomori’s erstwhile ally in the Hogen conflict, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, had chosen the losing side in the Heiji, and was killed. Kiyomori planned to execute Yoshitomo’s sons, particularly his eldest, Yoritomo. He was convinced, however, to show clemency by his own stepmother, Lady Ike no Zenni, and instead banished the Minamoto boys to the provinces. This was to have major consequences as it was the grown adult Yoritomo who years later would launch a counterattack from his exile in Izu province, destroy the Taira in the Genpei War, and become the first shogun of Japan.

For now, however, the Taira were the power in the capital, and the ambitious and ruthless Kiyomori exercised and abused that power in a series of incidents that ultimately resulted in the backlash which would destroy his clan. He placed himself, Taira family members and allies in key imperial posts, to the outrage of the established nobility. He had the Fujiwara regent replaced with his own Fujiwara puppet. He had the popular and influential retired emperor Go-Shirakawa exiled to the Toba Palace. He confronted and subdued the great monastic orders (later this would culminate in the massacre and burning of Nara, and the destruction of the great Buddha at Todai-ji during the Genpei War itself). Divine and worldly retribution was coming his way.

The final straw came when Kiyomori forced the emperor Takakura to abdicate in favour of his infant son, Antoku. Antoku just happened to be Takakura’s son by Kiyomori’s daughter, Kenreimon-in, making Kiyomori grandfather of the new child emperor and regent in all but name. Enough was enough.

Not all the Minamoto were dead or in exile in the provinces. Clans had been internally divided during the Hogen and Heiji conflicts and some Minamoto who had fought for Go-Shirakawa remained in the capital as loyal and highly placed imperial servants. The most senior of these was the respected Minamoto no Yorimasa (we first meet him in 1177 during the Taiken Gate incident). He had seen enough of Taira arrogance and impiety and secretly petitioned Mochihito, a forgotten son of retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, to raise rebellion and claim the throne for himself. This they duly did, raising a force of warrior monks and local Minamoto loyalists, but were defeated by the Taira and both killed at the first battle of Uji in 1180.

The first resistance to Taira power had been suppressed but the flame had been lit and the Genpei War was underway. Kiyomori fanned it further with the destruction of the Miidera and Nara temples and then his move of the imperial court and child emperor from Kyoto to his own provincial seat of Fukuhara in Settsu (this didn’t last long……the impression from the Tale is that Fukuhara was a drab backwater compared to the established beauty of Kyoto and they were back within six months, but the audacity of the attempt was shocking). Resistance was forming in the provinces, in the east around Yoritomo in the Kanto (the modern Tokyo plain) and his cousin Yoshinaka in Kiso in the north. Kiyomori himself died in 1181 but left his clan with the legacy of his overweaning ambition and the retribution which was to follow.

Yohinaka was the first to move and after a decisive defeat of a Taira army at Kurikara Ravine, he advanced on the capital. The Taira didn’t put up a fight but took the emperor Antoku and the imperial regalia, and fled back to Fukuhara. Yoshinaka occupied the capital unopposed. After further advances by his forces, the Taira then abandoned Fukuhara and mainland Honshu altogether, setting up a new imperial capital in exile at Yashima, off the coast of the island of Shikoku.

Yoshinaka was at first welcomed in the capital as a liberator but it soon became apparent that although he was a great warrior, he was a country boor. His rough manners and inappropriate conduct soon caused conflict with the court, an annoyance at first but quickly becoming dangerous when he attempted to arrest (and possibly kill) the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, an attempt which failed. Instead, he went on a spree of judicial murder, one of the most prominent victims being the popular abbott of Enryaku-ji, Meiun. The tyranny of Kiyomori was starting to look pretty good by comparison!

Despite a common cause and clan, there was no love lost between Yoshinaka and Yoritomo and when he was ready, Yoritomo answered an official plea by the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa. He moved against Yoshinaka, his forces led by his younger brothers Noriyori and Yoshitsune. They drove Yoshinaka from the capital and killed him at Uji, where the war had started.

While the Minamoto had been fighting among themselves, the Taira had been consolidating their power among their allies on the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu and had made some inroads back into mainland Honshu under the leadership of their most talented general, Noritsune, a nephew of Kiyomori. The Minamoto attacked and in a series of brilliant victories led by Yoshitsune, drove the Taira from Honshu, then from their capital in Yashima.

As their allies in Shikoku and Kyushu deserted en masse, the Taira were left afloat on Japan’s inner sea with their families and the child emperor Antoku. Yoshitsune forced them into a decisive naval battle at Dan-no-Ura in March, 1185, and the Taira were defeated. Kiyomori’s widow, Nii, famously threw herself into the sea to drown with the emperor Antoku and the imperial regalia (the Mirror and Jewel were recovered but the Sacred Sword, Kusanagi, was lost forever to the depths). The rest of the Taira were killed in fighting, leapt overboard and drowned or were captured and later executed.

Minamoto no Yoritomo was now undisputed master of Japan and established the Kamakura shogunate, the first military dictatorship of the country. This was the beginning of the dominance of the samurai in medieval Japan, culminating several centuries later in the Sengoku Jidai, Sekigahara and the Tokugawa shogunate.

Yoritomo was not going to make the same mistake as Kiyomori. He extirpated the Taira line, hunting down and killing every last child with Taira blood. The Taira were destroyed but lived on in Japanese history, legend and folklore, a legacy which lasts to this day. I can’t find official conformation, but there is an opinion that the colours of the Japanese flag are based on the banners of the Taira (red) and the Minamoto (white).

Anyway, that’s my potted summary of the Genpei War. On with the gaming!


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