Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Japanese and Chinese by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Japanese and Chinese by  Charles Morris

How the Taira and the Minamoto Fought for Power

In the struggle of the great families of Japan for precedence, the lords of the Fujiwara held the civil power of the realm, while the shoguns, or generals, were chosen from the Taira and Minamoto clans. Bred to arms, leading the armies of the empire in many a hard-fought war, making the camp their home, and loving best the trumpet-blast of battle, they became hardy and daring warriors, the military caste of Japan. While war continued, the shoguns were content to let the Fujiwara lord it at court, themselves preferring the active labors of the field. Only when peace prevailed, and there were no enemies to conquer nor rebels to subdue, did these warriors begin to long for the spoils of place and to envy the Fujiwara their power.

Chief among those thus moved by ambition was Kiyomori, the greatest of the Taira leaders. As a boy he possessed a strong frame and showed a proud spirit, wearing unusually high clogs, which in Japan indicates a disposition to put on lordly airs. His position as the son of a soldier soon gave him an opportunity to show his mettle. The seas then swarmed with pirates, who had become the scourge alike of Corea and of Japan and were making havoc among the mercantile fleets. The ambitious boy, full of warlike spirit, demanded, when but eighteen years of age, to be sent against these ocean pests, and cruised against them in the Suwo Nada, a part of the Inland Sea. Here he met and fought a ship-load of the most desperate of the buccaneers, capturing their vessel, and then attacking them in their place of refuge, which he destroyed.

For years afterwards Kiyomori showed the greatest valor by land and sea, and in 1153, being then thirty-six years of age, he succeeded his father as minister of justice for Japan. Up to this time the families of the Taira and the Minamoto had been friendly rivals in the field. Now their friendship came to an end and was succeeded by bitter enmity. In 1156 there were rival claimants for the throne, one supported by each of these great families. The Taira party succeeded, got possession of the palace, and controlled the emperor whom they had raised to the throne.

Kiyomori soon attained the highest power in the realm, and in him the military caste first rose to pre-eminence. The Fujiwara were deposed, all the high offices at court were filled by his relatives, and he made himself the military chief of the empire and the holder of the civil authority, the mikado being but a creature of his will.

History at this point gives us a glimpse of a curious state of affairs. Go-Shirawaka, the emperor whom Kiyomori had raised to the throne in 1156, abdicated in 1159, shaved off his hair, and became a Buddhist monk, professing to retire from the world within the holy cloisters of a monastery. But nothing was farther from his thoughts. He was a man of immoral desires, and found his post on the throne a check to the debaucheries in which he wished to indulge. As a monk he exercised more power than he had done as a mikado, retaining the control of affairs during the reigns of his son and his two grandsons. The ranks and titles of the empire were granted by him with a lavish hand, and their disposition was controlled by Kiyomori, his powerful confederate, who, in addition to raising his relatives to power, held himself several of the highest offices in the realm.

The power of the Taira family increased until sixty men of the clan held important posts at court, while their lands spread over thirty provinces. They had splendid palaces in Kioto, the capital, and in Fukuwara, overlooking the Inland Sea. The two sons of Kiyomori were made generals of high rank, and his daughter became wife of the emperor Takakura, a boy eleven years of age. The Taira chief was now at the summit of power, and his foes in the depths of distress. The Fujiwara, who had no military power, were unable to contend with him, and his most dangerous rivals, the Minamoto, were slain or driven into exile. Yoshitomo, the head of the house, was assassinated by a traitor bribed by Kiyomori, his oldest son was beheaded, and the others—whom he thought to be the last of the Minamoto—were either banished or immured in monasteries. All the reins of power seemed to be in the regent's grasp.

The story is here diversified by a legend well worth repeating. One of the Minamoto, Tametomo by name, was an archer of marvellous powers. His strength was equal to that of fifty ordinary men, and such was the power of his right arm, which was shorter than his left, that he could draw a bow which four common archers could not bend, and let fly a shaft five feet long, with an enormous bolt as its head. This Japanese Hercules was banished from the court at the instigation of the Taira, the muscles of his arm were cut, and he was sent in a cage to Idzu.

Escaping from his guards, he fled to one of the smaller islands, and remained in concealment until his arm had healed. Here the great archer became governor of the people, and forbade them to pay tribute to the throne. A fleet of boats was despatched against him, but, standing on the strand, he sent an arrow hurtling through the timbers of the nearest vessel and sunk it beneath the waves. Then, shouting defiance to his foes, he shut himself up in his house, set fire to it, and perished in the flames. But another legend relates that he fled to the Loochoo Islands, where he became ruler and founder of their dynasty of kings. On the Japanese greenback notes is a picture of this mighty archer, who is shown grasping his bow after sinking the ship.

It was the purpose of Kiyomori to exterminate the family of his foes. In two instances he was induced to let sons of that family live, a leniency for which the Taira were to pay bitterly in the end. The story of both these boys is full of romance. We give one of them here, reserving the other for a succeeding tale. Yoritomo, the third son of Yoshitomo, was twelve years of age at the date of his father's defeat and death. During the retreat the boy was separated from his companions, and fell into the hands of an officer of the opposite party, who took him as prisoner to Kioto, the capital. Here the regent sentenced him to death, and the day for his execution was fixed. Only the tender heart of a woman saved the life of one who was destined to become the avenger of his father and friends.

"Would you like to live?" the boy's captor asked him.

"Yes," he replied; "my father and mother are both dead, and who but I can pray for their happiness in the world to come?"

The feelings of the officer were touched by this reply, and, hoping to save the boy, he told the story to the step-mother of Kiyomori, who was a Buddhist nun. The filial piety of the child affected her, and she was deeply moved when the officer said, "Yoritomo is much like Prince Uma."

Uma had been her favorite son, one loved and lost, and, her mother's heart stirred to its depths, she sought Kiyomori and begged him to spare the boy's life. He was obdurate at first, worldly wisdom bidding him to remove the last scion of his foes, but in the end he yielded to his mother's prayer and consented to spare the child, condemning him, however, to distant exile. This softness of heart he was bitterly to regret.

Yoritomo was banished to the province of Idzu, where he was kept under close guard by two officers of the Taira. He was advised by a friend to shave off his hair and become a monk, but a faithful servant who attended him counselled him to keep his hair and await with a brave heart what the future might bring forth. The boy was shrewd and possessed of high self-control. None of the remaining followers of his father dared communicate with him, and enemies surrounded him, yet he restrained all display of feeling, was patient under provocation, capable of great endurance, and so winning in manner that he gained the esteem even of the enemies of his family.

The story of Yoritomo's courtship and marriage is one of much interest. Hojo Tokimasa, a noble with royal blood in his veins, had two daughters, the elder being of noted beauty, the younger lacking in personal charms. The exiled youth, who wished to ally himself to this powerful house and was anxious to win the mother's favor in his suit, was prudent enough to choose the homely girl. He sent her a letter, asking her hand in marriage, by his servant, but the latter, who had ideas of his own and preferred the beauty for his master's wife, destroyed the letter and wrote another to Masago, the elder daughter.

That night the homely sister had a dream. A pigeon seemed to fly to her with a box of gold in its beak. She told her vision to her sister, whom it deeply interested, as seeming to be a token of some good fortune coming.

"I will buy your dream," she said. "Sell it to me, and I will give you my toilet mirror in exchange. The price I pay is little," she repeated, using a common Japanese phrase.

The homely sister willingly made the exchange, doubtless preferring a mirror to a dream. But she had hardly done so when the messenger arrived with the letter he had prepared. Masago gladly accepted, already being well inclined towards the handsome youth, but her father had meanwhile promised her hand to another suitor, and refused to break his word. The marriage was solemnized. But an understanding had been reached between the lovers, and early on the wedding-night Masago eloped with the waiting youth. In vain the husband sought for the fleeing pair. The father, seemingly angry, aided him in his search, though really glad at the lovers' flight. He much preferred Yoritomo, though he had been bound by his word, and in later years he became one of his ablest partisans. Masago rose to fame in Japanese history, aided in the subsequent triumph of her spouse, and did much to add to the splendor and dignity of his court.

During this period Kiyomori was making enemies, and in time became so insolent and overbearing that a conspiracy was formed for his overthrow. At the head of this was one of the royal princes, who engaged Yoritomo in the plot. The young exile sent out agents right and left to rouse the discontented. Many were won over, but one of them laughed the scheme to scorn, saying, "For an exile to plot against the Taira is like a mouse plotting against a cat."

But a conspiracy cannot be killed by a laugh. Yoritomo was soon in the field at the head of a body of followers. A fierce fight took place in the mountains, in which the young rebel fought bravely, but was defeated and forced to flee for his life. Pursuit was sharp, and he escaped only by hiding in a hollow log. He afterwards reached a temple and concealed himself in the priests' wardrobe. At length he succeeded in crossing the Bay of Yedo to Awa, on its northern side. Here he found friends, sent out agents, and was not long in gathering a new army from the old friends of the Minamoto and those who hated the tyrant. In a few months he was at the head of a large and well-drilled force, with many noted generals in command. The country was fertile and food abundant, and day by day the army became larger.

But the Taira were not idle. Kiyomori quickly gathered a large army, which he sent to put down the rebellion, and the hostile forces came face to face on opposite sides of the Fuji River, the swiftest stream in Japan. Between them rolled the impetuous flood, which neither party dared to cross in the face of the foe, the most they could do being to glare at one another across the stream.

The story goes that one of the Taira men, knowing that the turn of the tide would favor their enemies, went to the river flats at night and stirred up the flocks of wild fowl that rested there. What he hoped to gain by this is not very clear, but it told against his own side, for the noise of the flocks was thought by the Taira force to be due to a night attack from their foes, and they fled in a sudden panic.

After this bloodless victory Yoritomo returned to his chosen place of residence, named Kamakura, where he began to build a city that should rival the capital in size and importance. A host of builders and laborers was set at work, the dense thickets were cleared away, and a new town rapidly sprang up, with streets lined with dwellings and shops, store-houses of food, imposing temples, and lordly mansions. The anvils rang merrily as the armorers forged weapons for the troops, merchants sought the new city with their goods, heavily laden boats flocked into its harbor, and almost as if by magic a great city, the destined capital of the shoguns, rose from the fields.

The site of Kamakura had been well chosen. It lay in a valley facing the open sea, while in the rear rose a semicircle of precipitous hills. Through these roadways were cut, which might easily be defended against enemies, while offering free access to friends. The power of the Minamoto had suddenly grown again, and the Taira saw fronting them an active and vigorous foe where a year before all had seemed tranquil and the land their own.

To the proud Kiyomori this was a bitter draught. He fell sick unto death, and the high officials of the empire gathered round his bed, in mortal fear lest he to whom they owed their power should be swept away. With his last breath the vindictive old chief uttered invectives against his foes.

"My only regret is that I am dying," he said, "and have not yet seen the head of Yoritomo of the Minamoto. After my decease do not make offerings to Buddha on my account; do not read the sacred books. Only cut off the head of Yoritomo of the Minamoto and hang it on my tomb. This is my sole command: see that it be faithfully performed."

This order was not destined to be carried out. Yoritomo was to die peacefully, eleven years afterwards, in 1199, with his head safe on his shoulders. Yet his bedchamber was nightly guarded, lest traitors should take his life, while war broke out from end to end of the empire. Kiyomori's last words seemed to have lighted up its flames. Step by step the forces of Yoritomo advanced. Victory followed their banners, and the foe went down in death. At length Kioto, the capital of the mikado, was reached, and fell into their hands. The Taira fled with the young mikado and his wife, but his brother was proclaimed mikado in his stead, and all the treasures of the Taira fell into the victors' hands.

Though the power of Yoritomo now seemed assured, he had a rebellion in his own ranks to meet. His cousin Yoshinaka, the leader of the conquering army, was so swollen with pride at his success that he forced the court to grant him the highest military title, imprisoned the old ex-mikado Go-Shirakawa, who had long been the power behind the throne, beheaded the Buddhist abbots who had opposed him, and acted with such rebellious insolence that Yoritomo had to send an army against him. A battle took place, in which he was defeated and killed.

Yoritomo was now supreme lord of Japan, the mikado, for whom he acted, being a mere tool in his hands. Yet one great conflict had still to be fought by the shogun's younger brother, whose romantic story we have next to tell.

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