This is the second instalment of the rundown on the main characters of the Genpei War. The genealogies of all of these families are bewilderingly complex. They seem to have bred like rabbits, often with different wives and concubines…..Kiyomori had at least nine named sons and his first son, Shigemori, another seven! You can imagine how this sort of fecundity grows exponentially into huge, memory-challenging family trees. It’s impossible to find neat, easy to navigate family trees for these families but those for the Taira and Minamoto that I’ve already posted in the maps article are pretty good. What I’ve done in this article is scan and post the family trees from my own copy of the Tale……these are too complex for what we need, there are many names you don’t need to know and my flatbed scans from a thick hardback are pretty poor, so apologies but I’ve been unable to find any better online (they may need to be expanded to see detail).THE IMPERIAL FAMILYGo-Shirakawa
Go-Shirakawa (b. 1127, d. 1192)
The retired emperor Go-Shirakawa led no armies, fought in no battles and was not even emperor at the time of the Genpei War, but he is such an important and influential presence throughout the entire Tale that we need to cover him. Before we do, it’s important to digress and discuss the nature of imperial authority in the court of the late Heian period, because it’s not what we would expect from a western perspective.
The position of emperor was at the apex of Japanese society, one of status, privilege and divine sanction…..but it was not necessarily one of power and freedom. The emperor was bound by tradition and ritual, locked in the rigid and stifling hierarchy of the extended imperial court. As a result he may have had theoretical authority but in reality limited practical ability to govern and dictate policy. This explains why incumbent emperors occassionaly chose voluntary retirement and why, in many cases, they were succeeded by children of imperial blood, innocent minors who were literally powerless ceremonial figureheads. This is not to say that the position of emperor was not desirable, as evidenced by Sutoku’s resentment of his forced abdication which sparked the Hogen and Heiji conflicts, and Prince Mochihito’s rebellion in the Genpei War. For some, however, retirement was a ticket to greater freedom and, because they were adults with imperial and divine legacy, increased power and influence. In fact, this phenomenon was so prevalent in the 12th century Japanese court that this end of the Heain period is sometimes referred to as the insei jidai, “the period of government by retired emperors”.
One good example is the retired emperor Toba, who had the power to force his own son Sutoku to abdicate and then deny him reinstatement in favour of his younger brother (our Go-Shirakawa himself), the fuse for the extended conflicts throughout this period. Rivalry between the supporters of Sutoku and Go-Shirakawa was the basis for the Hogen conflict (1155-1158) and it was at the end of the Hogen that Go-Shirakawa abdicated in favour of his own teenage son, Nijo. I believe that in the Hogen and subsequent Heiji conflicts Go-Shirakawa had a glimpse of the future, and began to understand that the emperor was becoming a pawn of the military elite. While no longer emperor, he used his new-found freedom to effectively rule through his son Nijo, and then after Nijo’s death in 1165, his infant grandson Rokujo. It is notable that in the Tale he is frequently referred to as “the sovereign”, even though at the time he had no formal political power. He continued to demonstrate this political acumen and survival instinct throughout the rest of his life, particularly during the Genpei War.
Another important point to note is that in addition to abdication, Go-Shirakawa took vows as a Buddhist novice, a nyudo. In this role he is often referred to as the “cloistered emperor” in the Tale and it appears he was genuinely pious, devoting himself to serious mastery of the most important sutras and warding away malignant spirits intent on interrupting the birth of his grandson, the future emperor Antoku. Again, contrary to our expectations from western tradition, the assumption of clerical orders in Japan was not a sentence to a life of restriction and abstinence but yet another form of release from the structured constraints of society, and gave Go-Shirakawa even greater freedom of action and movement, including the ability to leave the capital on pilgrimage whenever he desired.
Go-Shirakawa endured much during the Genpei War. He was imprisoned in exile in the Toba mansion by Kiyomori; he was assaulted in his Hojuji residence and nearly killed by Yoshinaka; he saw his second son Mochihito die in the rebellion which started the war, his fifth son Enkei, a cloistered cleric like himself, murdered by Yoshinaka, and his fourth son Takakura, the reigning emperor, deposed by Kiyomori and die of grief. Throughout it all he maintained his composure and used his popularity, influence and political cunning to manipulate events where he could, and to survive.
The greatest of his residual powers was the ability to declare enemies of the state and he did this twice at key turning points in the Genpei War…..the first when Mochihito raised rebellion in 1180 and Go-Shirakawa sent a secret proclamation to the scattered Minamoto, declaring the Taira enemies of the court; the second when he sent a petition to Yoritomo, naming Yoshinaka as enemy of the court.
He didn’t always get it right. Shortly before the start of the war he surreptitiously supported a failed rebellion against Taira power which resulted in the deaths of many of his supporters and his own imprisonment in the Toba mansion. After the war he contested Yoritomo’s consolidation of total power and was involved in the conflict between Yoritomo and his brother Yoshitsune, but subtly enough that he was able to extricate himself and make peace with the new shogun after Yoshitsune fell.
Having lived through the most violent decades of Japan’s history to date, Go-Shirakawa died peacefully in 1192. He had been emperor himself and father and grandfather to five more. He is revered to this day, the site of his Hojuji residence in Kyoto having been designated as his official mausoleum.
Go-Shirakawa's Hojuji mausoleum, Kyoto
Mochihito (b. 1151, d. 1180)
We’ve already met Prince Mochihito at the First Battle of Uji, where his rebellion started the Genpei War and led to the destruction of Miidera and Nara. More importantly, even though his rebellion failed, his summons to the Minamoto in the provinces ensured that they were set on a collision course with the Taira.
Mochihito was Go-Shirakawa’s second son and we read that he was a learned scholar, a poet and a musician. In fact, the Tale tells us that these qualities would have made him an ideal emperor but he was passed over due to the jealousy of one of his father’s consorts, Kenshenmon-in, the mother of the Emperor Takakura. Instead he lived in privileged obscurity in the capital near the Takakura Crossing (thus his other common appellation, the Takakura Prince).
Mochihito seems to have been resigned to living his quiet and cultured life but showed real commitment and courage in response to Minamoto no Yorimasa’s petition to rebel. His father Go-Shirakawa had been imprisoned, his brother Takakura forcibly deposed from the throne and subsequently died, and he had a ringside seat to the tyrannous behaviour of the Taira. His motivation seems to have been a genuine wish to right injustice as much as the pursuit of personal glory.
Mochihito comes across as a sensitive man, which does not mean a weak one. He possessed two great treasures, flutes made from superior bamboo given to his grandfather, the emperor Toba, by the emperor of China. The Tale recounts the making of the first, Semiore (“Broken Cicada”), which Toba had prayed over by an ascetic for seven days before handing the bamboo over to the flute maker. The second, Koeda (“Little Branch”) was the prince’s favourite. Both instruments had been passed down to Mochihito because of his renowned skill as a musician. Before leaving Miidera he presented Semiore to the temple, possibly in presentiment of his death (we don’t know if it survived the later burning). Koeda he would not be parted from and told his closest retainers that he wished to be buried with it. After his death and beheading on the road from Uji to Nara, his foster brother Munenobu hid beneath the duckweed of a pond and saw the headless body of the prince being brought past on horseback by the victorious Taira. In the body’s belt was the flute Koeda and Munenobu wept….presumably burial without the head did not count for satisfying the prince’s wish.
Mochihito had lived in such anonymity that none of the Taira could recognise which head was his when the gory trophies from Uji were brought back to their Kyoto residence of Rokuhara. A lover of his was summoned to identify the head. In the formal record of the victory, the Taira called him Minamoto no Mochihito, a studied insult linking him to the family of their enemies and denying his imperial lineage.
Mochihito had several sons that the Taira made a half-hearted attempt to hunt out but it appears none were killed. One escaped by becoming a novice. Another fell under the power of Minamoto no Yoshinaka and was brought with him when he himself invaded the capital, possibly with the idea of placing his own candidate on the throne, but nothing seems to have come of this.
Nobutsura watches his master Prince Mochihito leave the capital disguised as a woman
Antoku (b. 1178, d. 1185)
Antoku was the son of the emperor Takakura and Kiyomori’s daughter, Kenreimon-in, and therefore grandson of both retired emperor Go-Shirakawa and Kiyomori. He was made emperor in 1180 at the age of 2, when Kiyomori forced his father Takakura to abdicate, the triggering event of the Genpei War. He died at the battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185 at the age of 7, drowning when his grandmother Nii, the widow of Kiymori, took him overboard with her in the face of the imminent Taira defeat.
It is difficult not to feel terribly sorry for Antoku, a blameless pawn who was tragically linked to the fate of the Taira, taken with them as their symbol of legitimacy as they fled across the islands of Japan, and sacrificed in their despair at their own downfall. Almost nothing can be gleaned of his character from the Tale. The only time we see him in person is in the moments before his death, a brave and noble innocent who trustingly followed his grandmother into the waves.
One interesting point to make here is that Antoku remained emperor until his death, even though the Taira were labeled enemies of the court, and despite Go-Shirakawa and Yoritomo concurrently raising his younger brother, Go-Toba, to the throne in the capital in 1184. The key to this was that the Taira possessed the three objects of the imperial regalia, the sacred mirror, jewel and sword, and where the regalia were, so was the true emperor. While the Taira had the regalia and Antoku, they had the legitimate emperor, and Go-Toba (also a child pawn) bore an empty title. This was why Go-Shirakawa offered the Taira peace terms if they would return the regalia (a probable ploy to buy time for Minamoto forces to organise but the very fact of the offer demonstrated their importance), and why one of the key objectives of Yoshitsune’s fleet at Dan-no-Ura was to secure them….they saved only two out of three as the sword, Kusanagi, was lost to the depths.
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
- [+] Dice rolls