There was a time—only a year earlier, at the time of his triumphant entry into the capital—when Yoshinaka had commanded 50,000 warriors. Those were the days. He had scoffed at the effete courtiers and taught them a few lessons in so-called etiquette.

Yoshinaka had clambered into the palanquin any way he saw fit. If he needed a bowl to drink, he would just take one from an altar. If he needed something done, he would just shout at the closest courtier. He had no time for the careful rituals and picky ceremonies of the imperials. There was work to do.

But now he was on the run, commander of just a few hundred horsemen, pursued by his own cousins in the Minamoto family. A roadside scuffle reduced his numbers to fifty, then a mere dozen.

One of them was a woman.

Critics are divided as to why Lady Tomoe should show up in The Tale of the Heike as Yoshinaka is fleeing for his life. Perhaps, as modern feminists hope, she is more typical than the historical record lets on. Traditions imply that samurai women are only expected to fight in the last-ditch defense of the homestead, but perhaps things were different in the twelfth century. Perhaps Tomoe, with a bow taller than she was and a sword that she swung with two hands, was just one of many samurai women who fought on the front line. Modern archaeology has uncovered mass graves on samurai-era battlefields in which up to 30 percent of the bodies were female. Were female fighters more prevalent than Tomoe’s lone appearance suggests?

The Tale of the Heike begins in sexist terms, speaking of Tomoe’s great beauty, her white skin, her long hair…and then, as if shaking himself awake, the author suddenly returns to matters of greater importance: her skill at archery; her abilities at breaking in horses and riding on rough terrain; the fact that, even though she was a woman, she was a front-line captain in Yoshinaka’s forces. “She was a warrior worth a thousand,” says The Tale of the Heike, “ready to confront a demon or a god.”

The awe with which the teller of tales appears to have regarded Tomoe does not come across in Yoshinaka’s own dialogue. As his forces decline and he finds himself leading little more than a fugitive platoon, Yoshinaka knows that his days are numbered. He knows that he is not going to make it out of the forest alive. And so he turns to Tomoe and tells her:

You are a woman, so be off with you; go wherever you please. I intend to die in battle, or to kill myself if I am wounded. It would be unseemly to let people say that [Yoshinaka] kept a woman with him during his last battle.

Yoshinaka has already been presented as a buffoon, committing a series of ridiculous gaffes in his brief sojourn in Kyōto. Perhaps Tomoe is included as an example of just how clueless he is—letting a woman fight on the frontline? What savages these Minamoto clansmen must be, if even their womenfolk wrestle in the mud for trinkets of power!

Why does he want Tomoe to run away? It is usually assumed that he still has some unreconstructed macho sense of honor, the first stirrings of bushidō, what would be later known as the Way of the Warrior. It would be dishonorable to die with a woman present. Perhaps Tomoe was just a plaything; perhaps she was one of the shirabyōshi “sword-dancers”—military-themed strippers who enjoyed something of a fad in the age of the samurai.

Or perhaps Yoshinaka cared for her deeply. The wording of his command for her to leave is open to interpretation. “You are a woman, so be off with you; go wherever you please.” In other words, anyone and his henchmen will be sure to recognize a male warrior on the run, even if he cast off his armor, even if he threw away his sword. They will see who he is from his haircut and his scars. But you, Tomoe, you can melt away into the forest. With a dab of mud and a switch in clothing, you’ll look just like any other peasant girl, and the enemies will be none the wiser. You’ll have a shot at living. There is no need for me to cause your death, too.

An alternate version of the same story has him actively threatening her with punishment beyond the grave. If she does not do as he says, he tells her, he will revoke the bonds that join lord and vassal for three iterations. In other words, if she obeys him on this occasion, he promises they will be reunited in the next life, perhaps with their roles reversed. But if she refuses to leave, their souls will never meet again.

Tomoe allows her horse to slow, dropping back in the party of fleeing samurai. Before long, she and her mount are alone on the forest path, the sound of Yoshinaka’s squadron already faded away in the green distance.

Sadly, Tomoe wishes for one last battle.

Then she hears the thunder of hooves.

A troop of thirty horsemen is in pursuit, chasing after Yoshinaka, led by the samurai Morishige. As he passes, Tomoe rides her horse straight into his, grabbing the surprised leader and dragging him across her saddle. She draws her dagger and knifes Morishige in the neck, savagely twisting his head from his shoulders.

Spattered in warm blood, she holds his head aloft, a trophy that in better days would have been retained to show to one’s lord for rewards and prestige. But Tomoe has no lord any more, not in this life, so she hurls the head into the trees and whirls her horse around to gallop away.

The Tale of the Heike does not say whether Morishige’s men give chase or not. Do they break off the pursuit of Yoshinaka, or do they even notice that one of their men is down? Regardless, Tomoe and her horse fly between the trees as she tears off the bulky, blood-drenched panels of her armor. She throws her helmet into a ditch, she loses her sword. By the time she rides out of the forest, she is a merely a woman on a horse…then she loses the horse, washes in a stream…and fades into the countryside.

Yoshinaka was right; he would never make it out of the woods. His horse gets stuck in the mud, and he leaps off with his own sword in his mouth to guarantee he won’t hit the ground alive.

As for Tomoe, some say she was unable to stay away from the battlefield, and would become the wife of another samurai and the mother of a famous strongman in the following generation. Others said that she went into seclusion and died in her nineties as a Buddhist nun. Another story claims that she hunted down Yoshinaka’s pursuers, stole back her lover’s severed head, and was last seen cradling it in her arms, walking out to sea.

In 1068, the Fujiwara were successfully played at their own game. The seventy-first emperor of Japan, Go-Sanjō (1032–73), was the first emperor in 170 years not to have immediate connections to the Fujiwara family. Consequently, his career was initially blocked by the Fujiwara faction at court, but the death of his predecessor without a direct heir suddenly propelled him to the throne. He immediately set about annoying the Fujiwara clan, overriding his kanpaku (spokesman) and calling for an audit of shōen estates and provincial governors. Inconveniently for the Fujiwara, the constitution set in place all those years ago by Prince Shōtoku and his successors made this all reasonable, and the threat loomed that Go-Sanjō might sweep all the Fujiwara from the court with a single edict. He was only headed off when the Fujiwara effectively threatened to go on strike—there were so many of them that their complete removal would have rendered the state powerless and unable to function.

Quitting while he was ahead, Go-Sanjō abdicated while still in his thirties, leaving the throne to his adult son, who had a Fujiwara mother and might thereby be expected to run things more in accordance with the wishes of the shadowy power brokers. But Go-Sanjō was young enough to be able to interfere himself, and his chosen successor, the seventy-third emperor, Shirakawa (1053–1129), was demonstrably old enough and able enough not to require a regent.

Go-Sanjō’s run of luck ended with his death, at the suspiciously young age of forty, shortly after taking holy Buddhist orders. Shirakawa, however, would continue to play his father’s game, himself abdicating only fourteen years later and then entering a monastery to embark upon his own scheme to steer events from behind the throne. Owing to the location of his hideout, this process became known as “cloistered rule” (insei); it would be used by many of his descendants.

For Shirakawa and his immediate heirs, cloistered rule was a success. More by luck than judgement, Japan enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, and the stranglehold of the Fujiwara on government appointments was broken. But in divorcing his descendants from collusion with the Fujiwara, Shirakawa cut the imperial family off from its main supplier of muscle—and cloistered emperors had no army of their own. In order to secure their position with force, many of his descendants would lean upon the loyalties of their hungrier, less-established cousins from the frontier—the likes of the Minamoto and Taira clans, long excluded from court life, but always keen to find a way back in.

Many years after the events recounted in this chapter, scribes set down a collection of epic tales about the early part of the great struggle for mastery of Japan. It is a wholly different Japan from the image presented by Murasaki Shikibu, as if the weepy romance of The Tale of Genji suddenly gained a distaff war-movie sequel. Genji was a fictional creation likely to have been distantly inspired by real people, created over many years by a female author in the court. Two centuries on, his complement is the rise and fall of an entire rival clan, born from the same kinds of family politics and pruning that shunted Genji from the spotlight, memorialized in a huge and occasionally untrustworthy saga of battles and betrayals, seemingly written by a committee of excitable men. But even The Tale of the Heike cannot resist beginning on a melancholy tone. Although later chapters are full of glorious deaths and stirring heroism, its opening pages lament the pointlessness of it all, foreshadowing the desolation of its own finale:

The Gion bell tolls, sounding the knell that all things must pass. Like the colors of the summer camellia, prosperity is ever followed by decline. The proud do not endure; they are like a dream on a spring night. Even the mighty meet with destruction, until they are as dust before the wind.

Sometime around the year 850, Japan had ceased to be a nation with an insecure frontier. There was a trading post on the southern tip of Hokkaidō during this period, but Japanese rule did not extend far beyond it. The Korea Strait separating Japan from Korea, along with the Tsugaru Strait between Honshū and Hokkaidō, functioned as an effective barrier for potential large-scale trouble. Unlike China, from which much of its model government was derived, medieval Japan did not really have a border problem—there was no serious chance of foreign invasion or of disaffected noblemen forming alliances with foreign tribes. Japan was neatly cut off, which allowed its system to prosper and flourish without further adaptation. China’s Tang dynasty was deteriorating, and when it fell, the Japanese did not rush to communicate with its successor states—although China was not entirely forgotten, the great influx of Chinese culture was shut down. The only drawback here, for a system that relied on pushing its dregs and spares onto the borderlands, was that without any new lands to be won, the Japanese would soon start fighting each other over the lands they already had.

Inevitably, the shōen estates and the farthest marchlands assumed the status of autonomous counties or baronies. In particular, the Taira and Minamoto families, united by their mutual ancestry and shared experience of exile, came to dominate many of these outer estates, turning the edges of the nation into a patchwork of holdings with allegiance to either Red (Taira) or White (Minamoto). To this day, these two colors remain a symbol of polar opposites for the Japanese; teams in game shows are divided into Red and White, and the colors of the Japanese flag even represent the standoff. From the tenth to the twelfth century, these two clans experienced a series of huge reversals and resurgences in an era that some commentators call “feudal Japan.”

Others vigorously deny the classification. It is easy to see elements of feudalism in medieval Japan, but the term is unpopular with many historians. There is an easy temptation, particularly in popular accounts such as this one, to over-translate all terminology into European equivalents, talking of Japanese dukes and viscounts, barons and knights. British parallels are particularly alluring—an island kingdom at the edge of a continent, with a monarch ruling by divine right over contending noble houses…But even though the samurai pledged allegiance to a semi-divine emperor, each emperor’s real-world power was highly limited. European schoolchildren might learn about the deeds of their great kings and queens, but Japanese schoolbooks often gloss over the emperors in favor of the real rulers—the regents who held power through several reigns, the shōguns who effectively ran the country in the name of their bosses, or the relatively lowly princelings who achieved something concrete while their imperial siblings were kept busy with rituals and ceremonies. It was, in theory, possible that any lord might lose his manor overnight and be ordered to hand over the keys to a successor newly appointed by the government. The real question in Japan, as ever, was who the government actually was: all orders were given in the emperor’s name, but true power resided in the ability to gain that particular stamp of approval.

In many ways, this is what the samurai houses were fighting over. It no longer mattered quite so much if they had access to the luxuries of the court—many of them were living very well on their own estates. But now they required greater influence at that same court in order to make sure that everything they had built over generations was not taken away from them because a minister had fallen out of favor, or because the arrival of a pretty concubine had propelled her father into a new ministerial role at court and ousted his predecessor. Whereas the samurai families had once been “servants” of the court, they now increasingly tried to make the court serve them.

There was, at least on paper, no need for the Taira and Minamoto to be at odds with one another. They were, after all, both supposedly loyal to the same emperor. In the early days of their ascension, they were not even clearly divided into Us and Them—multiple branches of both Taira and Minamoto were often pitted against others of their own surname. Inevitably they would clash over allegiances and the nature of their service. The Taira lost their Kantō power base after one of their major lords, Masakado, proclaimed himself to be independent. That in itself might have been enough to plunge Japan into civil war in 940, but the problem was dealt with by his own clan—the Taira pretender was defeated by his own Taira cousins. The scandal cost the Taira their hold on the Kantō plain, but left them eager to prove to the emperor that Masakado was the exception rather than the rule. They were swift to volunteer for piracy suppression operations in the Inland Sea and on the western coast, in which capacity they were even obliged to sail against a Fujiwara sea-lord who had also decided to defy the central authority. Back in Kyōto, the emperor was pleased with their loyal service; his Fujiwara in-laws, not so much. Luckily for them, they could find some military champions of their own among the Minamoto.

The greatest expansion of the Minamoto came under the leader Minamoto Yoshiie (1041–1108), who made a name for himself carrying out dirty work for the capital’s prominent Fujiwara family. After he led a campaign to neutralize rebels in the Kantō region, the court found a way to wriggle out of paying him off. Instead of complaining, he reached into his own treasury for the money. This made him popular not only with his own troops, who now trusted him more than their government, but also with many newfound allies, who flocked to associate with him and extended the reach of his already-large holdings.

As the generations passed, the tensions caused by the samurai families became increasingly obvious. Two year’s after Yoshiie’s death, his son started a revolt in the provinces that was put down by a Taira general. His grandson Tameyoshi almost caused the downfall of the entire clan in 1156, when he backed the wrong side in an imperial power struggle.

Bear with me. We’ll slow down for a moment and look at the origins of this one crisis just to get a sense of the complexities and hidden conflicts that would characterize dozens of similar intrigues throughout the period. We won’t do this for the next thirty emperors, many of whose situations were no less confusing, but the roots of what became known as the Hōgen Insurrection are a textbook case of the intricacies of court politics—a multisided standoff with half a dozen factions. The conflict dated back to the seventy-fourth emperor, Toba (1103–56), who spent his whole childhood and teens as the ruler in name only, while his “retired” grandfather ran the state from a monastery. At age twenty Toba himself retired, leaving the throne to his own infant son, the seventy-fifth emperor, Sutoku (1119–64).

With up to three imperial predecessors still at large, Sutoku stood no chance at all of making his own decisions; he passed a frustrating, boring twenty years as emperor in name only. He, too, looked forward to the day when he could skip the court with his own entourage, but his father was still very much hands-on. Retired Emperor Toba was still only in his thirties, and had recently become a father again. Favoring the new child’s mother (a Fujiwara) over Sutoku’s (another Fujiwara), Toba shunted his son off the throne and had the new successor, Konoe (1139–55) crowned as Japan’s seventy-sixth emperor.

Stories would be told about the incident for centuries afterwards. Later authors would create an entire supernatural scandal around the events, claiming that Toba had been bewitched and cursed by an evil twin-tailed fox spirit. The spiteful creature had originally come from China, where, in the glamorous form of a famous beauty of ancient times, it had caused the downfall of an ancient king. It had moved on to India, where it had similarly caused havoc among impressionable men. Now it was in Japan, where it adopted the sensual form of Tamamo-no-mae, an impossibly beautiful servant girl at Toba’s monastery. Toba, who was at least officially a monk now, engaged her in conversations about philosophy, in which her replies came with citations from ancient scriptures no human girl should have known.

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