Before embarking on a discussion of the Minamoto, it is important to consider their position at the beginning of the Genpei War. While the clan had been an important one in previous centuries, it was diminished and divided after the end of the Heiji conflict, coincident with the rise of Taira star. This was the natural consequence of being on the losing side, but was also intentional policy on the part of Kiyomori. By scattering the Minamoto family across the provinces of Japan he kept it divided. This is important to remember because although these men shared a common heritage, name and family, they would have barely known their kinsmen, which goes a long way to explaining their behaviour toward each other during and after the war. On the surface, there is a romantic notion of the brotherly bond between the warlord Yoritomo and his dashing younger sibling and brilliant general Yoshitsune, and the tragedy of that bond’s betrayal, but in reality they had never met before the call to arms from Prince Mochihito. If the Taira had been any more proactive, Kiyomori’s policy may well have paid dividends in the rift between Yoritomo and Yoshinaka.
So unlike the Taira at this time, the Minamoto were not a united front. Prince Mochihito’s and Go-Shirakawa’s petitions to raise rebellion at the beginning of the war were addressed to the whole clan, and certainly at times the various members were aligned by circumstance and common purpose, but it is important to remember that they were spilt into different and competing factions and that there was not one coherent Minamoto clan, at least not until Yoritomo imposed unity by winning the war, eliminating his rivals and establishing the Kamakura shogunate.THE MINAMOTOYorimasa
Yorimasa (b. 1104, d. 1180)
We’ve already examined Yorimasa in some detail when discussing his role in the First Battle of Uji……his status in the capital as one of the small number of Minamoto loyal to the standing emperor in both the Hogen and Heiji conflicts; his nobility and piety, and the outrage he felt against the injustices perpetrated by the Taira; his urging of Mochihito to raise rebellion and his famous death by seppuku.
However, Yorimasa’s back story before this is also very interesting. The Tale of the Heike tells us a couple of fantastic stories about his service to two emperors, both mystical events in line with the sort of tales we read of Kiyomori’s visions and death. In the first the emperor Konoe was being troubled by a dark cloud which would settle on him at night, tormenting his dreams. Yorimasa was called to stand vigil over him and when the phantasm had once again covered the young emperor, he killed it with a single shot, revealing a horrifying chimera-like creature called a nue (head of a monkey, body of a badger, tail of a snake and limbs of a tiger).
Yorimasa and the nue
In the second story, a werethrush (I have no idea what that is but it doesn’t sound natural) was disturbing the emperor Nijo’s sleep with its call. The now obvious choice of man to deal with supernatural visitations was Yorimasa. Unable to see the werethrush in the night, he startled it into flight with a humming bulb (an arrow tipped with a reed-like noisemaker) and then killed it with an impressive blind shot in the dark.
For these services, and also apparently for his skill in impromptu poetry, Yorimasa was raised to the third rank and given governorship of Izu. Interestingly, Izu is the province to which Yoritomo had been banished. Whether Yorimasa had any interaction with the exile there we can only speculate, but when listing the roster of Minamoto that Mochihito should call upon for his rebellion, Yorimasa names Yoritomo.
In a more mundane episode, we see Yorimasa and a glimpse of his character at the Taiken Gate incident in 1177. When the Hiei monks stormed into the city, they headed for the northern gates of the imperial compound, guarded by a small force of Minamoto insufficient to stop them, commanded by Yorimasa. Yorimasa approached the monks unarmed and respectfully told them that they presented him with an insoluble ethical dilemma. As a pious man he could not do violence to the monks and the omikoshi but his sacred duty to the emperor meant that he could not let them pass. He gently shamed them by saying that forcing their way through a small force did the righteousness of their cause no service. His arguments and humility persuaded the monks, who turned to the eastern approaches guarded by the larger Taira contingent, and an unexpectedly bloody confrontation.
Although of different generations, Yorimasa was a contemporary of Taira no Shigemori in the capital. The two men shared something in the quality of their character, principles and moral courage, and although they were of nominally rival clans in troubled times, and although it is pure conjecture, one can imagine that they might have shared a mutual respect and admiration, perhaps even friendship.
Yukiie (b. unknown, d. 1186)
We’ve seen the uncle of Yoritomo and Yoshinaka in action at the battles of Sunomatagawa and Yahigagawa. I’ve suggested that he was a general of doubtful skill and a man of fluid loyalties. His miserable military record speaks for itself but I may have maligned his character. It was pure chance, but when going back over the prelude to the First Battle of Uji, I found a passing one line reference that hadn’t registered on my first reading of the Tale. The samurai who took the petition to rebel from Prince Mochihito to the Minamoto in the east was one Yoshimori from Kumano, who took the name Yukiie. So he was not originally a vassal of Yoritomo and was unlikely to have known his nephews in person. When the rebellion failed in the east he must have remained with Yoritomo because he could not return home, and this casts a different light on his changing allegiance. Perhaps he could have shown better judgement, but it could also be that he brought the petition to rebel in good faith and then was trapped by events, unable to steer a safe path between the rivalries of his nephews.
After joining Yoshinaka, he led one of his nephew’s divisions that converged on the capital after Shinohara and entered the city unopposed. We never learn of his motivation, but when Yoshinaka himself left the capital to plan an assault on the Taira in the wake of his forces’ defeat at Mizushima, Yukiie went to retired emperor Go-Shirakawa and warned him that Yoshinaka was planning to attack him.
What was Yukiie thinking here? It’s impossible to know because the sources give us no clue to his thoughts. By this time the shine had gone off Yoshinaka’s liberation of the capital from the Taira. It was rapidly becoming clear that he was very dangerous and Yukiie may have become alarmed to find out what sort of man he had thrown his lot in with. It must be remembered that Yukiie was an agent of Mochihito and Go-Shirakawa when he took their petition for rebellion to the provincial Minamoto. So this may not have been simple opportunistic betrayal but rather an act of loyalty to the imperial house.
When an informer warned Yoshinaka of Yukiie’s subversion, he raced back to the capital and never did march out against the Taira. Yukiie fled the capital before Yoshinaka arrived and then led a small contingent on an attack against the main Taira army at Muroyama. The result was as disastrous as his almost identical bungling of Sunomatagawa. Why Yukiie would have chosen to make such a desperate attack when he was actually trying to escape from his own clan’s forces is extremely unclear. The Tale suggests that he was trying to redeem himself in Yoshinaka’s eyes but if so, his judgement was seriously flawed. Yoshinaka was not the sort to forgive and forget. Yukiie escaped Muroyama with only a handful of men and took refuge in Kawachi Province, where he seems to have laid low for the rest of the war. When he did reemerge after the war he somehow managed, as unlucky as ever, to get caught up in the conflict between Yoritomo and Yoshitsune, and this time Yoritomo had him executed.
I’ve spilled more ink on Yukiie than I’d planned but he’s an example of how interesting the gaps in the historical record can be. Yukiie is active in many of the key parts of the Tale of the Heike, but in a source otherwise full of rich detail there is no explanation of his actions. The bald fact of these events give tantalising hints to his motivations but we can only make inferences about them, and personally I find this fascinating.
Yoshinaka (b. 1154, d. 1184)
Yoshinaka is a very important figure in the history of the Genpei War and we have now come to his time in the chronological progression of scenarios. For all his many faults, there is no denying that Yoshinaka was a supremely talented warrior and tactician, possibly the greatest of the war….although this position could certainly be contested by Yoshitsune. The Minamoto were fortunate to have the two outstanding military leaders of their generation, and unfortunate that they were in rival factions.
Yoshinaka was the son of Yoshikata, a younger brother of the clan leader Yoshitomo and governor of Musashi province. In the turmoil at the beginning of the Hogen conflict (1155) Yoshikata was actually killed by a Minamoto rival who annexed Musashi and planned to eliminate his children. The infant Yoshinaka was saved by his mother, who fled to the town of Kiso in Shinano province and gave him into the care of one Kiso no Chuzo Kaneto, who raised him as a foster son. Yoshinaka later took the name Kiso for himself, in honour of his adopted father and town. Thus he is commonly referred to as Kiso Yoshinaka or simply Kiso. The name Kiso was frequently used by the elite as a derogatory reference to his provincial upbringing but there is every indication that Yoshinaka wore it as a badge of honour.
The Tale tells us that even as a boy Yoshinaka began to earn a local reputation for his strength and military prowess. When the call to rebel came from the capital in 1180, Yoshinaka was ready and on the advice of his foster father sent a call to the samurai clans of Shinano who were only too keen to renew their old ties of allegiance with the Minamoto. It is at this point in the Tale of the Heike that we first get a glimpse into the shady side of Yoshinaka’s character and motivation, as he states his intentions to Kaneto:
“Word has it that Yoritomo has raised rebellion….…..and that he is now moving on the capital by the Tokaido route, aiming to overthrow the Heike.
Well, I have a mind …..to destroy the Heike just before he does,
and get myself known as one of Japan’s two great commanders.”
Book 6.5, The Circular Letter
From late 1182 into 1183, Yoshinaka won a series of brilliant victories against the Taira, culminating in the decisive battles of Kurikara Gorge and Shinohara. In these battles we will see Yoshinaka’s military acumen. His favourite tactics were the use of ruses to surprise the enemy (notably at Yokotagawa and Kurikara) and splitting his forces into multiple independent divisions, even when outnumbered by the enemy, to give him versatility and maneuverability.
In summer of 1183, with the Taira soundly defeated and in flight, Yoshinaka was ready to move on the capital. Yoritomo was having none of it and sent an army against him. Yoritomo was the son of the elder brother and legitimate clan leader and his cousin Yoshinaka was overreaching. Despite Yoshinaka’s vehement denials that he was a rival, Yoritomo was unconvinced and prepared to fight, even with the Taira still a threat to both of them. He was only mollified when Yoshinaka sent him his eldest son as hostage. At that time Yoritomo had no son of his own and adopted him. Whatever Yoshinaka’s protestations of family loyalty, his subsequent actions made his true intentions clear. He invaded the capital after the Taira had fled without a fight and established himself as a saviour but it was soon evident that he wanted total power, over both the government and the Minamoto.
In the capital, Yoshinaka at first played up his rough provincial ways and the initial episodes of his occupation are almost comical……trying to squeeze into ill-fitting aristocratic clothes and carriages, having peasant-style food served at formal dinners, making a cringeful pun on the name of a high-ranking visiting dignitary. In all this he comes across as an uncultured but good-natured, harmless buffoon. There was, however, a darker and more sinister side to him and there is evidence that those around him knew it. His uncle Yukiie’s betrayal and Go-Shirakawa’s official appointment of Yoritomo as supreme commander of imperial forces speak to a growing concern about Yoshinaka’s intentions.
In response to these acts of resistance, Yoshinaka cancelled his planned campaign against the Taira and returned to the capital. When Go-Shirakawa sent a messenger demanding that Yoshinaka stop his men pillaging the city at will and destroying the crops for their horses’ grazing, Yoshinaka flew into a rage and used this supposed challenge as a pretext for attacking Go-Shirakawa in his Hojuji residence. Whether he intended to kill the retired emperor is never clear (I believe he did) but loyal imperial forces were able to protect Go-Shirakawa and get him to safety. Unable to reach his real target, Yoshinaka rounded up and murdered a number of high-ranking officials and clergy, including Meiun, the abbot of Hiei, and Go-Shirakawa’s fifth son Enkei, a cloistered monk like his father. Apparently in jest, Yoshinaka stated his intent to become emperor himself and then assumed that he could take the position of regent, until his horrified secretary told him that only a Fujiwara was eligible for that position.
Enough was enough and Go-Shirakawa secretly declared Yoshinaka, erstwhile saviour from the Taira, an enemy of the court, and sent a plea for help to Yoritomo, who was only too happy to respond. Facing overwhelming forces and meeting his match in Yoshitsune, Yoshinaka was driven from the capital and after a series of famous individual combats, was killed at Awazu. Japan is an amazing place in its respect for maintenance of heritage and Yoshinaka’s grave can still be visited in Otsu province. One surprising fact of which I was unaware is that next to it is the grave of Japan’s greatest haiku master, Matsuo Basho, buried alongside Yoshinaka at his own request.
Yoshinaka's grave, Utsu province
Yoshinaka was a complicated character. He was a great warrior and general but he was also tactless, vain, proud and glory-hungry…..and when his ambitions were thwarted he was vicious and murderous. In many ways, he resembled Taira no Kiyomori. Yet despite his unattractive qualities, Yoshinaka was larger than life, and the Tale would not be the same without him.
One more thing to note before finishing up with Yoshinaka is that he had some remarkable retainers, among them his foster brother and most loyal friend, Imai Kanehira, and my favourite, the famous onna-bugeisha (female warrior) Tomoe Gozen, but I will save their stories for the scenarios.
Yoritomo (b. 1147, d. 1199)
We’ve already explored much of Yoritomo’s background. He was the third son of the Minamoto clan leader Yoshitomo. When his father and older brothers were killed by Kiyomori at the end of the Heiji conflict (1159), he was spared at the request of the Lady Ike-no-Zenni, Kiyomori’s stepmother, and exiled to Izu province. Two younger brothers, Noriyori and Yoshitsune, were also exiled to different provinces. They were to be Yoritomo’s leading generals in the Genpei War.
Yoritomo was not idle in his exile and married into the powerful local Hojo clan. The Hojo formed the nucleus of military support around which he was to build his powerbase in the Kanto. Interestingly, the Hojo would later use this marriage tie to assume control of the Kamakura shogunate after Yoritomo’s death.
When the summons by Prince Mochihito to rebel was issued to the provincial Minamoto in 1180, Yoritomo was forced to make his move before he was ready and he was nearly undone at Ishibashiyama. Thereafter he slowly and carefully built, consolidated and exercised his power from Kamakura and never again put himself on the front lines. He was fortunate in his brothers, Noriyori and particularly Yoshitsune, to have good commanders in the field.
Yoritomo was a strong and successful warlord but he was not a general. He knew his innate talents and utilised them. The greatest of these was certainly patience. Yoritomo was cautious in the extreme and only committed his hand when forced, such as at Ishibashiyama, or when all the odds were stacked in his favour, such as being given mandate by Go-Shirakawa to march on the capital. This whole episode probably best demonstrates Yoritomo’s political cunning. After his initial threat to Yoshinaka he was content to step back, watch and wait while his cousin exhausted his resources against the Taira and then embroiled himself in conflict in the capital. It’s almost as if Yoritomo knew that Yoshinaka’s aggression would bring him unstuck if left to his own devices. We also see his keen political savvy in his treatment of Taira no Shigehira and the Nara monks.
His second important quality was ruthlessness. This is apparent in his treatment of his uncle Yukiie and his brother Yoshitsune. Family bonds were historically weak in the Minamoto clan but even so, his elimination of the brother who had won him his supreme position of power was strikingly cold.
In the end, his caution, patience and ruthlessness allowed him to outlast the more belligerent warlords around him. I have previously mentioned my association of Taira no Kiyomori with Julius Caesar, and similarly in Yoritomo I see striking parallels with Octavian/Augustus. I also see similarities with Tokugawa Ieyasu, the type of leader he was and the manner in which he achieved ultimate victory.
The victor of the Genpei War died in a riding accident in 1199. A site commonly believed to be his tomb or cenotaph can still be visited today at the Shirahata Shrine in Kamakura. Although the Kamakura shogunate was replaced by others in succeeding centuries, the political system of the bakufu military government that Yoritomo established would endure for nearly 800 years until the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century.
Yoitomo's tomb in Kamakura
Yoshitsune (b. 1159, d. 1189)
Yoshitsune is an iconic figure, one the most, if not the most, famous samurai in Japanese history. There is a great deal of material concerning him but it is difficult separating historical fact from legend. In the centuries following his death, a myth cycle built up around Yoshitsune that is very similar in nature to the western vulgate traditions of King Arthur and Alexander the Great. In these stories Yoshitsune is the perfect samurai; young, handsome, noble, charismatic, chivalrous, brave, a superb warrior, a brilliant general; trained as a child in martial arts by the tengu spirits of the forest; accompanied on his adventures by a trusty sidekick in the person of the warrior monk Benkei, who he bested in a duel on the Gojo bridge while still only a boy and won his faithful devotion ever after (Little John?); a star-crossed love affair with the shiryaboshi dancer Shizuka Gozen; and of course a tragic and undeserved death after betrayal by his ungrateful brother, the shogun Yoritomo. There is even a tradition that he escaped death and lived on….one tale having him sail to China to assume a new identity and life as Genghis Khan! Most of these tales, however, concern his boyhood and final years of life after the Genpei War, many contained in the collection called Gikeki, written in the 14th century (Englsih translations of which are, unfortunately, prohibitively expensive).
Yoshitsune and Benkei at the Gojo Bridge
We do, however, have facts of his life, many preserved in the Tale of the Heike, which is not without its fantastic episodes, but is nearly contemporaneous with the events described. We are therefore on much firmer ground and much closer to the real Yoshitsune in the Genpei War.
Yoshitsune was the ninth and youngest son of the clan leader Yoshitomo, born in the Heiji period shortly before the conflict of 1159 and his father’s death. As a baby he escaped retribution from Kiyomori and was placed in the Kurama Temple near Hiei, with the intention that he would become a monk and thus removed from the world. At some point, however, he was made the ward of the Fujiwara governor of Mutsu province and so received martial training. When Prince Mochihito sent the call to rebel to the provincial Minamoto, Yoshitsune sought out his brother Yoritomo in Kamakura, despite never having met him before, and pledged him his allegiance. He was rewarded with joint command of Yoritomo’s armies, shared with their brother Noriyori.
We will look at Yoshitsune’s battles in more detail in the scenarios but I will summarise them here. In 1183 Yoritomo answered the plea for help from retired emperor Go-Shirakawa and Yoshitsune led one of the two divisions that marched on the capital. He crossed the swollen Uji River at the site of the first battle of the war, outflanking Yoshinaka and making a lightning ride to Kyoto to secure retired emperor Go-Shirakawa before Yoshinaka could take him hostage as he retreated. Once Yoshinaka was killed, Yoritomo had his forces consolidate in the capital for six months before taking on the Taira.
In 1184, Yoshitsune and Noriyori again led separate divisions to assault the principle Taira stronghold on the mainland of Honshu, Ichi-no-Tani. Yoshitsune stormed the Taira forward position at Mikusa. Then at Ichi-no-tani Yoshitsune led his famous courageous charge down Hiyodori Ravine into the rear of the fort, surprising and routing the Taira, and killing or capturing more than half of their senior commanders.
Noriyori was then sent to Kyushu to suppress Taira allies there while Yoshitsune took command of the main Minamoto force for the assault on the Taira capital in exile at Yashima, on Shikoku. In stormy conditions, the majority of his forces refused his order to cross the strait to Shikoku. Yoshitsune braved the gale himself with only a handful of followers, successfully making the crossing and boldly attacked Yashima despite his meager force. The Taira, believing they were facing a much larger army, abandoned their fortifications, which Yoshitsune burned. The Taira realised too late that Yoshitsune was commanding only a few hundred horsemen and were cast adrift on the inner sea without a friendly port to land. Encouraged by his success, allies flocked to Yoshitsune’s banner and he quickly had a sizeable fleet. He pursued the Taira and forced them to make a stand at Dan-no-Ura, where he comprehensively defeated them and retrieved the mirror and jewel, two parts of the sacred regalia.
Yoshitsune was at the height of his career, the victorious general of the war and brother of the most powerful warlord Japan had ever known, but it was about to turn sour very quickly. When Yoshitsune delivered Munemori, the captured leader of the Taira, to his brother in Kamakura, Yoritomo denied him entry to the city and refused to see him. Confused and despondent, Yoshitsune sent his brother impassioned letters professing his loyalty but Yoritomo would not listen. Yoshitsune was forced to return to the capital, where he joined with his uncle Yukiie and was given the high offices his brother denied him by Go-Shirakawa. This was all the excuse Yoritomo needed, and declaring Yoshitsune a traitor, ordered their brother Noriyori to attack him, an order Noriyori refused.
Why did Yoritomo react this way? One reason was the advice of his most senior retainer, Kajiwara Kagetoki, who had a bitter hatred of Yoshitsune and was jealous of the young general. He had opposed Yoshitsune’s crossing to Shikoku in the storm, a heated argument which had almost come to blows in front of the army, and Yoshitsune’s subsequent glorious success had deeply embarrassed Kagetoki. As soon as he returned to Kamakura, Kagetoki was in Yoritomo’s ear slandering Yoshitsune. The truth, however, is that Yoritomo probably needed little encouragement to turn on his brother. The dashing Yoshitsune was the popular hero of the hour, his name on everyone’s lips. He was also a legitimate heir to the Minamoto leadership, superseded by Yoritomo only in order of birth. He was a threat to Yoritomo’s authority and the ever-cautious and controlling Yoritomo was not about to leave him alive a free.
This is where the Tale leaves Yoshitsune. For the next four years he was hunted from province to province. The full historical details of this period are unknown but folklore filled it with tales of adventures for Yoshitsune and his loyal companion Benkei. Yoshitsune finally made his way to Mutsu in 1189 and there was betrayed by the northern Fujiwara, his former friends, under pressure from Yoritomo. The Fujiwara trapped Yoshitsune in the Koromogawa residence and while Benkei died holding them off, Yoshitsune committed seppuku, possibly taking his wife and infant son with him.
So what are we left with once the legend is stripped away? Yoshitsune was a brilliant and courageous young general who won decisive battles in one of the most important wars in Japanese history…….and was the victim of his own success.
Statue of Yoshitsune at Shinomoseki Park, modern day site of the battle of Dan-no-Ura
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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