The Heiji War

The Fujiwara and Civil War   The Heian period was one of the longest periods of uninterrupted peace in early Japan; in fact, we name the period after its capital city, Heian-kyo (now Kyoto), which means "city of peace." In the late Heian period, however, private families began to accrue vast amounts of property (shoen ) and began to support large standing armies, mainly because the Heian government began to rely more on these private armies than on their own weak forces. The result was an exponential growth in the power of the two greatest warrior clans, the Taira (or the Heike) and the Minamoto (or the Genji). The Genji controlled most of eastern Japan; the Heike had power in both eastern and western Japan.




Minamoto Yoritomi
   As the powers of these two increased, the clan of the Fujiwara began to control the Emperor closely—a shrewd move since the Taika reform theoretically gave all final power to the emperor. From 856 until 1086, the Fujiwara were, for all practical purposes, the government of Japan. In 1155, however, the succession to the throne fell vacant, and the naming of Go-Shirakawa as Emperor set off a small revolution, called the Hogen Disturbance, which was quelled by the clans of the Taira and the Minamoto. This was a turning point in Japanese history, for the power to determine the affairs of the state had clearly passed to the warrior clans and their massive private armies.

   After the accession of Go-Shirakawa and later his successor Nijo, a lesser lord of the Taira, a dissolute, ambitious and shrewd man named Kiyimori, began to slowly accrue massive power to himself in the Emperor's court. Seeing this, it became apparent that the power of the Taira had to be clipped in some way, so the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa attempted to lay a military trap for Kiyimori with the aid of a minor Genji lord, Yukitsuna. The plot failed and opened an irreparable breach between the Heike and the Retired Emperor and the Genji. In 1179, the head of the Taira, Shigemori, died; his forceful and ruthless leadership had propelled the Taira into the foremost place. He was replaced by his brother Munemori, a coward and poor strategist. Go-Shirakawa, seeing he now had an advantage, began to dismiss Taira in the capital, and Kiyimori fired several court officials and marched on the capital, and forced the new Emperor Takakura off the throne by installing his own one-year old grandson, Antoku, as the Emperor. Takakura enlisted the aid of the Genji and the civil war began.
The Taira sei . . .zure . . .of the capital came close to a military take-over of the Japanese government. Meanwhile, Minamoto Yoritomo began to build up strength and finally seized control of the whole of eastern Japan. In 1185, he overran the Taira and forced them out of the capital. This war, and its aftermath, deeply affected the course of Japanese history. For Minamoto Taira then set up an alternative government in Kamakura (about thirty miles south of Tokyo); he called his alternative government, bakufu, or "tent government," in contrast to the civil government of the Emperor located in Kyoto. This was a military government; it had two branches, one that administered the warriors or samurai , and the other that judged legal suits. The Kamakura military leader ruled as a shogun, or "supreme general." Ostensibly, the job of the bakufu was simply military administration; in reality, the shoguns and their tent government eventually came to run the country. The Heiji War, then, marks the beginning of feudal Japan, for the relationship of various provincial generals and lords to the shogun was the relationship of vassals to a lord. The individual provinces were more or less independent; their lords, or daimyo, took oaths of allegiance to the shogun.

   The Heiji War is also foundational in Japanese culture for it is the subject of the greatest work of Japanese literature, the Heike monogatari (Tales of the Heike). One of the two great classics of medieval Japan—the other being Genji monogatari (Tales of the Genji) by Lady Murasaki—the Heike monogatari captivated the Japanese imagination like no other story or history ever did. Told by professional storytellers, biwa hoshi , whose job it was to establish definitive versions of various tales and commit them to memory, the stories of the epic struggle between the clan of the Hei and the clan of the Gen became so popular that some biwa hoshi became specialists in the story and their profession came to be known as heikyoku ("Tales of the Heike Narration"). By the thirteenth century in Japan, heikyoku became popular among the upper classes and soon constituted the leading contemporary performing art form in fourteenth and fifteenth century Japan, only falling off during the chaos of the Warring States Period (16th century). During this period, the various tales were written down; so the composition of the Heike monogatari can be said to have taken place between 1200 and 1600. Nevertheless, after the outbreak of the Onin War (1467-1477), other types of performance art displaced the heikyoku : Noh theatre, kyogen plays, and the narration of the Taiheiki (Chronicle of the Great Peace); the latter, of course, makes perfect sense in a society being torn apart by civil war.

   The defining moment, and the most famous in Japanese history, is the final battle of this great civil war, the battle at Mikusa. The Heike installed themselves in an unbreachable fort near the ocean. The Genji laid siege to the Heike who are holed up in this fort; however, the Genji are unable to advance further, for the fort has three sides that are literally impossible to storm, and its fourth side is a long and steep cliff. The Genji decided to descend the cliff with superhuman bravery on horseback; this cliff was a long steep decline ending in a seventy foot vertical drop, and the army descended this cliff on horseback!. This legendary action spelled the end of the Heike and their power as the Genji warriors destroyed the Heike and forced the survivors to swim to their boats anchored in the harbor, effectively ending Heike dominance forever. This story is perhaps the most famous and best known event in Japanese history.

Richard Hooker



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The Kamakura Bakufu


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 6-28-97