Yorimoto was not the only son of the Minamoto chief whom the tyrant let live. There was another, a mere babe at the time, who became a hero of chivalry, and whose life has ever since been the beacon of honor and knightly virtue to the youth of Japan.
When Yoshitomo fled from his foes after his defeat in 1159, there went with him a beautiful young peasant girl, named Tokiwa, whom he had deeply loved, and who had borne him three children, all boys. The chief was murdered by three assassins hired by his foe, and Tokiwa fled with her children, fearing lest they also should be slain.
It was winter. Snow deeply covered the ground. Whither she should go or how she should live the poor mother knew not, but she kept on, clasping her babe to her breast, while her two little sons trudged by her side, the younger holding her hand, the older carrying his father's sword, which she had taken as the last relic of her love. In the end the fleeing woman, half frozen and in peril of starvation, was met by a soldier of the army of her foes. Her pitiable condition and the helplessness of her children moved him to compassion, and he gave her shelter and food.
Her flight troubled Kiyomori, who had hoped to destroy the whole family of his foes, and had given strict orders for her capture or death. Not being able to discover her place of retreat, he conceived a plan which he felt sure would bring her within his power. In Japan and China alike affection for parents is held to be the highest duty of a child, the basal element of the ancient religion of both these lands. He therefore seized Tokiwa's mother, feeling sure that filial duty would bring her to Kioto to save her mother's life.
Tokiwa heard that her mother was held as a hostage for her and threatened with death unless she, with her children, should come to her relief. The poor woman was in an agony of doubt. Did she owe the greatest duty to her mother, or to her children? Could she deliver up her babes to death? Yet could she abandon her mother, whom she had been taught as her first and highest duty to guard and revere? In this dilemma she conceived a plan. Her beauty was all she possessed; but by its aid she might soften the hard heart of Kiyomori and save both her mother and her children.
Farmers planting rice sprouts, Japan.
Success followed her devoted effort. Reaching the capital, Tokiwa obtained an audience with the tyrant, who was so struck with her great beauty that he wished to make her his mistress. At first she refused, but her mother begged her with tears to consent, and she finally yielded on Kiyomori's promise that her children should be spared. This mercy did not please the friends of the tyrant, who insisted that the boys should be put to death, fearing to let any one live who bore the hated name of Minamoto. But the beauty of the mother and her tearful pleadings won the tyrant's consent, and her sacrifice for her children was not in vain.
The youngest of the three, the babe whom Tokiwa had borne in her arms in her flight, grew up to be a healthy, ruddy-cheeked boy, small of stature, but fiery and impetuous in spirit. Kiyomori had no intention, however, that these boys should be left at liberty to cause him trouble in the future. When of proper age he sent them to a monastery, ordering that they should be brought up as priests.
The elder boys consented to this, suffering their black hair to be shaved off and the robes of Buddhist neophytes to be put on them. But Yoshitsuné, the youngest, had no fancy for the life of a monk, and refused to let the razor come near his hair. Though dwelling in the monastery, he was so merry and self-willed that his pranks caused much scandal, and the pious bonzes knew not what to do with this young ox, as they called the irrepressible boy.
As Yoshitsuné grew older, his distaste at the dullness of his life in the cloister increased. The wars in the north, word of which penetrated even those holy walls, inspired his ambition, and he determined in some way to escape. The opportunity to do so soon arose. Traders from the outer world made their way within the monastery gates for purposes of business, and among these was an iron-merchant, who was used to making frequent journeys to the north of the island of Rondo to obtain the fine iron of the celebrated mines of that region. The youth begged this iron-merchant to take him on one of his journeys, a request which he at first refused, through fear of offending the priests. But Yoshitsuné insisted, saying that they would be glad enough to be rid of him, and the trader at length consented. Yoshitsuné was right: the priests were very well satisfied to learn that he had taken himself off.
On the journey the youthful noble gave proofs of remarkable valor and strength. He seized and held prisoner a bold robber, and on another occasion helped to defend the house of a man of wealth from an attack by robbers, five of whom he killed. These and other exploits alarmed a friend who was with him, and who bade him to be careful lest the Taira should hear of his doings, learn who he was, and kill him.
The boy at length found a home with the prince of Mutsu, a nobleman of the Fujiwara clan. Here he spent his days in military exercises and the chase, and by the time he was twenty-one had gained a reputation as a soldier of great valor and consummate skill, and as a warrior in whom the true spirit of chivalry seemed inborn. A youth of such honor, virtue, courage, and martial fire Japan had rarely known.
In the war that soon arose between Yoritomo and the Taira the youthful Bayard served his brother well. Kiyomori, in sparing the sons of the Minamoto chief, had left alive the two ablest of all who bore that name. So great were the skill and valor of the young warrior that his brother, on the rebellion of Yoshinaka, made Yoshitsuné commander of the army of the west, and sent him against the rebellious general, who was quickly defeated and slain.
But the Taira, though they had been driven from the capital, had still many adherents in the land, and were earnestly endeavoring to raise an army in the south and west. Unfortunately for them, they had a leader to deal with who knew the value of celerity. Yoshitsuné laid siege to the fortified palace of Fukuwara, within which the Taira leaders lay intrenched, and pushed the siege with such energy that in a short time the palace was taken and in flames. Those who escaped fled to the castle of Yashima, which their active enemy also besieged and burned. As a last refuge the Taira leaders made their way to the Straits of Shimonoseki, where they had a large fleet of junks.
The final struggle in this war took place in the fourth month of the year 1185. Yoshitsuné had with all haste got together a fleet, and the two armies, now afloat, met on the waters of the strait for the greatest naval battle that Japan had ever known. The Taira fleet consisted of five hundred vessels, which held not only the fighting men, but their mothers, wives, and children, among them the dethroned mikado, a child six years of age. The Minamoto fleet was composed of seven hundred junks, containing none but men.
In the battle that followed, the young leader of the Minamoto showed the highest intrepidity. The fight began with a fierce onset from the Taira, which drove back their foe. With voice and example Yoshitsuné encouraged his men. For an interval the combat lulled. Then Wada, a noted archer, shot an arrow which struck the junk of a Taira chief.
"Shoot it back!" cried the chief.
An archer plucked it from the wood, fitted it to his bow, and let it fly at the Minamoto fleet. The shaft grazed the helmet of one warrior and pierced the breast of another.
"Shoot it back!" cried Yoshitsuné.
"It is short and weak," said Wada, plucking it from the dead man's breast. Taking a longer shaft from his quiver, he shot it with such force and sureness of aim that it passed through the armor and flesh of the Taira bowman and fell into the sea beyond. Yoshitsuné emptied his quiver with similar skill, each arrow finding a victim, and soon the tide of battle turned.
Treason aided the Minamoto in their victory. In the vessel containing the son, widow, and daughter of Kiyomori, and the young mikado, was a friend of Yoshitsuné, who had agreed upon a signal by which this junk could be known. In the height of the struggle the signal appeared. Yoshitsuné at once ordered a number of captains to follow with their boats, and bore down on this central vessel of the Taira fleet.
Soon the devoted vessel was surrounded by hostile junks, and armed men leaped in numbers on its deck. A Taira man sprang upon Yoshitsuné, sword in hand, but he saved his life by leaping to another junk, while his assailant plunged to death in the encrimsoned waves. Down went the Taira nobles before the swords of their assailants. The widow of Kiyomori, determined not to be taken alive, seized the youthful mikado and leaped into the sea. Munemori, Kiyomori's son and the head of the Taira house, was taken, with many nobles and ladies of the court.
Still the battle went on. Ship after ship of the Taira fleet, their sides crushed by the prows of their opponents, sunk beneath the reddened waters. Others were boarded and swept clear of defenders by the sword. Hundreds perished, women and children as well as men. Hundreds more were taken captive. The waters of the sea, that morning clear and sparkling, were now the color of blood, and the pride of the Taira clan lay buried beneath the waves or were cast up by the unquiet waters upon the strand. With that fatal day the Taira vanished from the sight of men.
Yoritomo gave the cruel order that no male of that hated family should be left alive, and armed murderers sought them out over hill and vale, slaying remorselessly all that could be traced. In Kioto many boy children of the clan were found, all of whom were slain. A few of the Taira name escaped from the fleet and fled to Kiushiu, where they hid in the lurking-places of the mountains. There, in poverty and pride, their descendants still survive, having remained unknown in the depths of their covert until about a century ago.
The story of Yoshitsuné, which began in such glory, ends in treachery and ingratitude. Yoritomo envied the brother to whose valor his power was largely due. Hatred replaced the love which should have filled his heart, and he was ready to believe any calumny against the noble young soldier.
One Kajiwara, a military adviser in the army, grew incensed at Yoshitsuné for acting against his advice, and hastened to Yoritomo with lies and slanders. The shogun, too ready to believe these stories, forbade Yoshitsuné to enter the city on his return with the spoils of victory. The youthful victor wrote him a touching letter, which is still extant, recounting his toils and dangers, and appealing for justice and the clearance from suspicion of his fair fame.
Weary of waiting, he went to Kioto, where he found himself pursued by assassins. He escaped into Yamato, but was again pursued. Once more he escaped and concealed himself; but spies traced him out and the son of his host tried to murder him.
What finally became of the hero is not known. The popular belief is that he killed himself with his own hand, after slaying his wife and children. Some believe that he escaped to Yezo, where for years he dwelt among the Ainos, who to-day worship his spirit and have erected a shrine over what they claim to be his grave. The preposterous story is even advanced that he fled to Asia and became the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan.
Whatever became of him, his name is immortal in Japan. Every Japanese youth looks upon the youthful martyr as the ideal hero of his race, his form and deeds are glorified in art and song, and while a martial thought survives in Japan the name of this Bayard of the island empire will be revered.