CHAPTER V. THE GEMPEI ERA

1159-1199 A.D.

The name of this era is a compound of Gen, meaning Minamoto, and Hei, meaning Taira. The former of these clans was known by its white flags and the latter by its red flags; so that one is naturally reminded of the Wars of the Roses in England. Unfortunately, in Japan there was no Henry of Lancaster or Elizabeth of York by whose marriage to unite the warring clans.

This period is a very short one, but its four decades include events of intense interest. And this brief era must be subdivided into two periods: one that of Taira Supremacy (1159-1185), and the other that of Minamoto Supremacy (1185-1199). This is, moreover, the beginning of military domination and the conclusion of civil imperialism, which thereafter generally existed only in name until the Restoration of 1868. But the usurpations of the Taira, the Minamoto, and later of the Tokugawa differed from that of the Fujiwara, described in the preceding chapter, in that these families based their power "on the possession of armed strength which the throne had no competence to control"; governed "in spite of the Emperor"; and "transferred the center of political gravity to a point altogether outside the Court, the headquarters of a military feudalism."

a) Taira supremacy (1159-1185). - When Taira Kiyomori quelled the Heiji disturbance, it was truly the end of the Fujiwara supremacy and seemed to be also the complete ruin of the Minamoto clan. Their chief representative, Yoritomo, was sent into exile in Izu, where, being a mere boy, he was supposed to be not at all dangerous. He had a younger half-brother, Yoshitsune, whose life was also spared by Kiyomori on condition that his mother, the well-known Tokiwa, "a peasant girl of surpassing beauty," become the victor's concubine. Thus, in spite of the remonstrances of Kiyomori's retainers, the Taira leader allowed love to triumph over prudence and spared those who were destined to annihilate the Taira clan. In such a way are the revenges of history often accomplished.

Meanwhile Kiyomori rose in power and authority until in 1167 he became Prime Minister (Dajō Daijin), and "was thus virtually the ruler of Japan." And "this was, in truth, the first instance of a military noble's participation in the administration of state affairs, and it may be regarded as the dawn of an era when they were to fall entirely under military control." Kiyomori followed the example of the Fujiwara clan in the practice of nepotism by filling the "prominent positions in the central and local governments" with his kinsmen and followers, and in marrying his daughter to the Emperor Takakura (1168-1180), who began to reign at the age of eight. And when we notice that several emperors ascended the throne as young as six, four, three, and even one, it is not difficult to understand how the Taira clan maintained its supremacy in the administration of affairs.

Moreover, according to Saitō, "half of the whole of the Japanese Empire was in the private ownership of the Taira family. It was said at that time that no one who did not belong to the race of the Taira was a man. The family soon became so arrogant and proud that it was universally hated."

But the day of reckoning was at hand, for Yoritomo and Yoshitsune had been growing up and preparing for revenge. The latter had been intended for a priest, but he "refused to have his head shaved off, and in the monastery was irrepressibly merry, lively, and self-willed." He was nicknamed Ushiwaka, or Young Ox, by the monks, to whom he gave great trouble and even "scandalized their reverences." Finally, "chafing at his dull life," he managed to escape, to the relief of the priests, to Mutsu, in Northern Japan, where he spent his time in military exercises. "At the age of twenty-one he had won a reputation as a soldier of peerless valor and consummate skill, and the exponent of the loftiest code of Japanese chivalry." He was truly the Bayard of Japan. Yoritomo, too, had been preparing for the part he was to play, not only by martial discipline, but also by marrying Masago, daughter of Hōjō Tokimasa`, "an able man, in whose veins ran imperial blood."

The contest began in 1180, the year when Kiyomori fixed his headquarters at Kamakura. In 1181 Kiyomori died, at the age of sixty-four, with the following farewell message:

My regret is only that I am dying and have not yet seen the head of Yoritomo of the Minamoto. After my decease, do not make offerings to Buddha on my behalf nor read sacred books. Only cut off the head of Yoritomo of the Minamoto and hang it on my tomb. Let all my sons and grandsons, retainers and servants, each and every one, follow out my commands, and on no account neglect them.
This dying wish was never to be fulfilled: and after Kiyomori's death the struggle became fiercer. In 1184, Yoritomo's cousin, Yoshinaka, led the Minamoto forces to Kyōto, which fell into their hands. The Taira, with the young Emperor Antoku (1180-1185) and the Sacred Sword and Seal, fled to Sanuki in the island of Shikoku and established the Court there. Consequently the Minamoto clan set up Antoku's younger brother as Emperor (Toba II, or Go-Toba). "This was the first coronation ceremony ever conducted without due transfer of the Three Sacred Insignia to the new monarch."

Yoshinaka, known as Asahi-Shogun ("Morning-Sun General") "on account of the suddenness and brilliancy of his rising," and intoxicated by his success, had himself appointed Sei-i-Shōgun ("Subduing-Barbarian-General"). But Yoritomo dispatched against him Yoshitsune, who so severely defeated him that he committed suicide.

Yoshitsune then pushed on over into Shikoku and drove the Taira forces with the Emperor out of Sanuki, whence they fled in junks. The decisive contest was the famous naval battle of Dan-no-ura (1185), in which the Minamoto won a complete victory after "a terrible hand-to-hand fight." When the Emperor's grandmother saw that escape was no longer possible, she took the young boy, with the Sword and the Seal, in her arms and jumped into the sea. The Sword was lost, but the Seal was afterward recovered. Only a small remnant of the Taira survived this battle and fled to the mountains of Higo. Many of the women who survived had to support themselves by becoming courtesans in Shimonoseki, where, to its shame be it written, occurs a periodical procession of courtesans to the shrine of their patron saint, the young Antoku. And the ghosts of the dead Taira have ever since haunted that dreadful spot. "Even today the Chōshiu peasant fancies he sees the ghostly armies baling out the sea with bottomless dippers, condemned thus to cleanse the ocean of the stain of centuries ago." And the influence of this awful slaughter may be seen also on the crabs, which are known as the Heike crabs, because the stern face of a Taira warrior is stamped upon their shells.

b) Minamoto supremacy (1185-1199). - With this practical annihilation of the Taira clan, the Minamoto clan obtained supremacy and effected "the complete establishment of military feudalism in Japan." This was accomplished by Yoritomo, whom Brinkley calls "the most remarkable figure during the first eighteen centuries of Japanese history." The changes which he made were "radical," and they "signified a complete shifting of the center of power" from the south to the north - to Kamakura, concerning which Yoritomo might well have quoted Nebuchadnezzar's boast: "Is not this great Babylon, which I have built. . . . by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?" Yoritomo's success is regarded by Brinkley as a "revolution in a double sense," because it was not only the substitution of a military democracy for an imperial aristocracy, but also the rehabilitation of a large section of the nation who had once been serfs "of Kyōto nobles."

Murdoch emphasizes Yoritomo's original and constructive statesmanship in the following terms:

While making himself Mayor of the Palace, he studiously kept at a distance of more than three hundred miles - a journey
of four days for a swift courier - from the Court and its frivolities, and while professing to restore those old institutions of Japan which had hopelessly outlived their usefulness, he supplemented them by institutions which were so vitally necessary to the changed and changing spirit of the times that they insensibly supplanted them.
Saitō notes that
the foundation of the Shōgunate was not a mere chance or passing event in the historical development of Japan, nor must it be regarded merely as the act of any one great man like Yoritomo. It was the result of a long evolution which marks the essential character of the Japanese Empire, the evolution of the feudal system which had its beginnings in the time of the Fujiwara.
One terrible blot on Yoritomo's character was his treatment of Yoshitsune, to whom he was chiefly indebted for his final victory over the Taira. "Jealousy, envy, suspicion, and cold-heartedness were the great moral weaknesses of Yoritomo." Impelled by jealousy and false accusations, he refused to permit Yoshitsune to enter Kamakura. Although the latter sent to his elder brother a letter - "one of the most pathetic documents in Japanese literature" - to plead his cause and to ask merely for justice, the appeal was in vain. Later, it was determined that Yoshitsune must be "removed." The story of the manner in which Yoshitsune and his fidus Achates, Benkei, eluded Yoritomo, is a classic. But the young hero finally committed suicide (harakiri). Some, however, claim that he escaped and lived among the Ainu, who even now have a shrine to his honor at Piratori in the Hokkaidō. Others, moreover, have identified him with Genghis Khan!

In 1192, Yoritomo became Sei-i-Tai-Shōgun. That title had heretofore been conferred only for limited special purposes; but now the authority of the office was general: "to provide for the defense and tranquillity of the Empire at large." And it also "put the whole military class and the whole military resources of the Empire at his [ Yoritomo's] disposal" in case of need. Yoritomo did not long enjoy this authority, but died in 1199, when the real power passed into the hands of his wife's family, the Hōjō. He, however, deserves honor for the great "administrative machine" which he created.

Since this period was so brief and largely occupied with warfare, it is not strange that it produced no art or literature worthy of mention. But it was a period of such stirring adventures as to furnish subjects for men of later days. The mighty Yoritomo, the beautiful Tokiwa, the chivalrous Yoshitsune and Benkei, and others are the heroes and the heroines of many works of art and of literary productions like Gempei Seisuiki, Heiji Monogatari, Hōgen Monogatari, and Heike Monogatari. And Longford points out an interesting coincidence: "While Yoshitsune and Benkei were wandering amidst the maples of Yoshino, Richard Cœur de Lion and Robin Hood were simultaneously holding revel amidst the oaks of Sherwood, and what the latter are in English history, Yoshitsune and Benkei are in that of Japan."