Toba fell ill, and his condition progressively worsened, until a bold fortune-teller said the words no other courtier would utter: that his mistress, with her odd mastery of scripture and her propensity to glow in the dark, was not a Buddhist saint at all, but a malicious demon who intended to kill Toba and supplant him. Tamamo-no-mae supposedly disappeared at this point, leading to a savage cull of foxes in the surrounding countryside until Toba regained his health.

I repeat the story here not for its historical accuracy, which is nonexistent, but for the glimpse it offers of the whispers and petty jealousies of Heian life, with bedroom companions influencing political decisions, and courtiers hiding behind coincidence and innuendo in their fox-shaming campaign against some poor concubine. Tamamo-no-Mae was never seen again, although her angry spirit was said to influence many of the scandals that followed. Even in the afterlife, it seems, there were intrigues and scandals, dead emperors and wronged courtiers who might be persuaded to avenge forgotten insults. It was, some said, the curse of Tamamo-no-mae that brought down Toba’s young proxy, Konoe; the young boy was always sickly, and reigned for barely more than a decade, dying at the age of seventeen, before he had the chance to sire an heir of his own.

The year was 1155. Retired Emperor Sutoku hoped to regain the throne, but Retired Emperor Toba still had seniority, and managed to recommend that his own fourteenth son, Sutoku’s brother, should be crowned as Japan’s seventy-seventh emperor, Go-Shirakawa (1127–92). Sutoku had hence been passed over in the succession three times—forced to abdicate against his will, and then replaced by two of his siblings when he regarded himself as a prime candidate for restoration. There was also a scurrilous rumor, never quite discounted, that Toba hated Sutoku because he wasn’t really his son at all, but the secret love-child of Toba’s father, sired on Toba’s wife in some tawdry incident.

If all that looks confusing, it’s only half the story, since these feuding emperors were themselves merely the outward manifestation of another conflict underway over who got to be the emperor’s chief minister. In fact, it hardly mattered who the emperor was; the real issue was who his mother was, with the various fallings in and out of imperial favor masking internal conflicts within the Fujiwara family, which had supplied most of the brides and concubines, and hence most of the regents.

Nobody dared challenge the decision directly, and the new emperor Go-Shirakawa, a man who had never expected to be emperor and rather seemed taken by surprise by the whole thing, endured a tense first year on the throne, ending in the summer of 1156 with the death of his father Toba. Toba had taken two months to die, on a sickbed attended by hushed whispers and intense conferences, in a mansion guarded by stern samurai.

It was Toba who had held everything together, and whose factions had crushed any resistance. With him gone, Sutoku was the new senior retired emperor, and he was ready to pounce.

Emperor Go-Shirakawa knew trouble was brewing. Three days after his father’s death, his officials were ordering samurai to steer clear of the capital. Two days after that, known associates of Retired Emperor Sutoku were directly ordered not to recruit troops. Forty-eight hours later, samurai loyal to the incumbent emperor and samurai loyal to the retired emperor clashed in open combat on the streets of Heian.

It was a landmark moment. The intrigues of the court had erupted into open violence, and had done so not at the border, but within the very capital itself. That, at least, was how things felt to the court at large—the attentive reader will recall that some of the courtiers’ own ancestors were not above stabbing their enemies to death in the emperor’s presence in ages past—but it seems that many of the contemporary courtiers had come to believe their own hype, and were ill-prepared for violence returning to their doorstep.

The samurai in play amounted to several hundred on each side, but the only prize was Go-Shirakawa himself, who might be persuaded to abdicate if he fell into the hands of his brother’s rebels.

There were Fujiwara courtiers and Minamoto samurai on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately for the pro-Sutoku faction, their nominal leader, Fujiwara Yorinaga, was very much an armchair general whose ideas about warfare were based solely on the idealized, rather ceremonial events described in old stories and songs. His Minamoto advisers, veterans of many an asymmetrical skirmish in the northern wars, suggested that the best thing to do was to start a fire at the emperor’s residence, which was sure to lead their target to flee in his palanquin with a small group of bodyguards. They could then overwhelm the guards, seize the palanquin, and thereby obtain control of the only figure who could order the enemy to stand down. The conflict would be over before it started, with minimal loss of life.

Yorinaga was not interested. The whole thing sounded sneaky and underhanded to him, and he very much preferred to imagine things the way they were in the old songs, with a few hundred samurai marching out to a nice area of flat ground, stating their names and lineages, and then taking each other on in single combat until the victor was revealed.

It does not seem to have occurred to Yorinaga that if his own samurai had come up with the idea for such a ruthless, surgical strike, then the enemy, whose samurai hailed from a different branch of the same family, was liable to have a very similar idea. In fact, his enemies had already apprehended one of his men, who had spilled all their plans, leading the incumbent emperor to authorize the seizure and search of Yorinaga’s house.

At dawn on the eleventh day of the seventh lunar month, 1156, the emperor led his court in prayers while his loyalists converged on Yorinaga from three directions with several hundred mounted men. Within an hour, there were flames and smoke in the east of the city. The battle was bloody but brief, although its aftermath would stretch on for two generations.

Several of the rebel leaders were killed in the skirmish. The pretender Sutoku was packed away into monastic exile on a remote island, where he lived for another eight years, muttering curses against his enemies, and, it was said, forming a malicious faction in the afterlife with the fiery fox spirit Tamamo-no-mae. In subsequent years, his angry ghost would get the blame for many famines, earthquakes, and misfortunes, becoming one of the great bogeymen of Japanese history.

For centuries, the Kyōto aristocracy had boasted of the civilized nature of their capital. It was a mark of the drastic changes in attitudes and expectations that the uprising ended with a round of beheadings. Courtiers had prided themselves on the peaceful capital for the last three and a half centuries—nobody had been executed in Kyōto since the failed coup of Retired Emperor Heizei in 810. Now, Sutoku’s surviving supporters were executed, sometimes in cruel situations in which their own relatives were ordered to carry out the task.

In the most infamous case, the Minamoto loyalist Yoshitomo was ordered to behead his own father. He was unable to carry out such a terrible command, but one of his lieutenants, seeing that a Minamoto would die at the hands of a Taira unless he took action, did the deed himself. Shortly after he had spared his lord from committing patricide, the loyal lieutenant killed himself in contrition.

It was by no means the first reference to suicide in the tales of the samurai, nor even in the events of the Hōgen Insurrection. But it is during this failed rebellion that the chronicles of the samurai first start referring not only to suicide, but to a particular kind of suicide. The cult of the samurai had already begun to take on certain new elements. One was the desire to wear flashy armor, decorated with striking icons or tied with distinctive color strings, in order to make it clear who was winning fame on the field of battle. Samurai helmets, in particular, became notorious for their ostentatious adornments; these have included, among many other things, a giant snail shell, insect’s wings, antlers, devil horns, sunbursts, and rabbit ears. The samurai had started to develop a sense of themselves that placed them on a hierarchy of bravery and battle prowess, and that meant it was necessary for their victories to be obvious to all. A side effect of this ease of identification was that it would also be clear who was running away. The distinctive nature of samurai battlefield adornments promoted a gung-ho sense of always charging, never retreating.

There were times when victory was impossible. Samurai might be surrounded with no possible retreat. They might be disarmed. They might find themselves just about to fall into enemy hands, where they might suffer the further shame of being used as hostages or bargaining chips, or tortured for information. Or, like Yoshitomo’s lieutenant, they might find themselves in an impossible situation, where they had done the right thing by their lord but could not possibly be expected to go on living after having done so.

Instead, they chose to kill themselves, but not with the throat-slitting or defenestration favored by women in search of a quick death. Instead, they killed themselves in the most painful way imaginable, by slicing open their own abdomen as a mark of their bravery and inner strength—the belly was thought to be the seat of the soul, and hence also a mark of sincerity. Cutting the belly, seppuku (more vulgarly, hara kiri) was a one-way trip to agony. There was no cure; only a slow, lingering death. The decision to slice open one’s abdomen was also a get-out clause for one’s underlings—they would not dare lift a finger against their master, but would be justified, once he had voluntarily wounded himself in such a fashion, in ending his suffering by beheading him.

Over the years, seppuku would take on new rituals. Samurai would wear a white kimono, symbolising death and purity. They would write a death poem, ensuring that parting words, criticisms, or curses were encapsulated in repeatable form. The nature of the wound would become deliberately cruel, with “tradition” demanding four cuts through the abdominal muscles—shi, meaning four, being a homonym for death, but also demanding incredible determination and strength of purpose in the self-harming samurai. Seppuku started as a battlefield compromise—a last resort by besieged men in burning castles, determined not to surrender to enemies who would torture and humiliate them. But once it became enshrined in tradition, it became the default means of repentance, and even criticism. It faded out after the era of the samurai, but still occasionally returns to haunt the country.

If this seems shocking to the modern reader, we should bear in mind that religious belief played an important part. Buddhism had taken hold, but with a certain nihilistic angle. The concept that “all life is suffering” had been embraced by the Japanese with a melancholy sense of poetry, as well as a certain sense that the end of the world was nigh. Certain Buddhist scriptures predicted the rise, peak, and subsequent fall of the Buddha’s teachings: five hundred years of struggle for success, a thousand years of worship and achievement, and then five centuries of worsening conditions as things fell apart. It was, hence, widely believed among the medieval Japanese that they were living in the “Latter Days of the Law” (mappō). Any natural disasters, reversals of fortune, or atrocities could be written off as further evidence that the teachings of Buddha were under attack, and that any ends available would justify the means of sustaining them.

One particular Buddhist sect, the Essence of the Pure Land (Jōdo Shinshū) gained ground in medieval Japan. Pure Land Buddhism regarded the country’s troubles as yet another example of the Latter Days of the Law, in which it was almost impossible for anybody to engage in correct Buddhist devotion. In a sense, Pure Land Buddhists all but gave up trying, instead paying a new form of devotion to Buddha that recognized that things were terrible—people were trapped in cycles of toxic karma, eating meat, drinking booze, fornicating, and otherwise coping with the onrushing end of the world—but that it was still possible to at least make it obvious to Buddha that you bore him in mind. You would do this by chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” (I take refuge in Amida Buddha) as often as possible, as a little spell to hold back the worst of the world. Most importantly, Pure Land Buddhism was a sect that offered the chance of rebirth in a Buddhist paradise to absolutely everybody. It was not restricted to monks or the rich who could afford costly demonstrations of devotion; literally anyone could find refuge in the Pure Land—even warriors.

Buddhism was actually abundantly clear about killing people being a sin. “A disciple of the Buddha,” said the fifth-century Sutra of Brahma’s Net, “should not possess swords, spears, bows, arrows, pikes, axes, or any other fighting devices. Even if one’s father or mother were slain, one should not retaliate.”

It was, however, the Zen flavor of Buddhism, originating in the Shaolin Temple in China, which achieved prominence among the samurai. Yes, killing people would bring about bad karma, but what about standing up for what was right, if that involved breaking a few heads? What about killing an assassin hell-bent on killing one’s lord? In such cases, presumably we would not be talking so much about bad karma, but about the least-worst.

Zen found plenty of adherents in Japan’s warrior class, in part because of some of its teachers’ habit of cutting through knotty issues of philosophy with seemingly dismissive put-downs. In fact, there was substantially more to it than that, but the nature of certain Zen parables and questions for meditation did lend itself well to a breed of anti-intellectualism. The Chinese Zen master Linji, for example, once famously said, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” He meant that the earnest Zen scholar should question all presumptions, and never lean on credentials or blind faith. But in the hands of the samurai, this became a recipe for a nihilistic battlefield philosophy.

It is often necessary to read between the lines in comments from the history books about “Buddhist monks” in medieval Japan. We already know, for example, that certain retired emperors were shaving their heads and ruling “from the cloisters,” even though their lives (and loves) continued in much the same way as they did in lay life. We also know that wily landowners were evading their tax responsibilities by “donating” their lands to Buddhist monasteries. With such deceptions at all levels of Japanese religious life, it should come as no surprise that there was an entire class of Buddhist “monks” who were little more than shaven-headed militia employed as military muscle to deal with their institution’s widening secular responsibilities. Even legitimate temples got in on the act, employing mercenaries to protect them from their newly proactive rivals.

Despite proscriptions against violence in other areas of Buddhism, and indeed within Zen itself, the interpreters of Zen among the samurai came to regard it as a warrior’s creed. Meanwhile, monasteries of doubtful provenance—some established as tax refuges—were prepared to offer prayers for the soul of a samurai who killed in the name of justice. Although not quite like the selling of indulgences in a European sense, it did give rise to a warrior class whose members felt that their religion entitled them to fight.

It was during the time of the wars of the Taira and Minamoto that Zen Buddhism first began to take hold in Japan, brought back to Japan, like so many other things, by monks who had studied in China. Zen was an offshoot of Buddhism that emphasized self-reliance. As brought to China by the monk Bodhidharma, Zen was a teaching “outside the scriptures”; sometimes this was interpreted as an extremely brawny, no-nonsense dismissal of much scripture and philosophy in favor of sparks of insight and moments of direct action.

Zen Buddhism hence threw away many of the accretions of Buddhist religions in favor of the cultivation of enlightenment (satori)—a perpetual moment of clarity. The version brought to Japan by the monk Eisai (1145–1215) was keen on short, punchy aphorisms designed to function as tools for thinking. Known in Japanese as kōan, these parables have come to characterize much Zen thought, as acolytes meditate on such questions as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”; “What is the face you had before you were born?”; and that old favorite from Tang-dynasty China, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Later sects postdating the Taira-Minamoto war would introduce other ideas, such as zazen, “sitting meditation,” in which the aspirant emptied his mind of all thought except for a single mantra or goal. This was particularly appealing to the samurai, who loved the idea that there was no difference between life and death—there was only the singleminded pursuit of one’s mission.

Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, soon turned in the hands of the samurai into an elaborate game of death in which killers accepted the risk of bad karma balanced against the accrual of merits for loyal service and just actions. As Buddhism splintered and evolved in Japan, there were plenty of sects that could offer warriors the chance to buy off bad deeds with donations and penances, and priests who spoke of the wheel of reincarnation. The samurai believed that the relationship between a lord and vassal was, if not immortal, then sure to last for at least three lifetimes. Die well in this life, and you were assured of respawning at a higher social station, under better conditions, perhaps even having been dealt a better hand. Die badly or with dishonor and you might not return as a samurai at all, but as a peasant, or a woman or an animal. In the multiple reversals of fortune and wars over nothing that would come to characterize medieval Japan, a “good death” became one of the primary aims of a samurai life.

And the result? As implied by the opening lines of The Tale of the Heike, you might say that it was all for nothing. Go-Shirakawa, the reigning emperor in whose name so many fought and died, sat on the throne for barely two years before deciding that he, too, would abdicate in favor of his own teenage son, the seventy-eighth emperor, Nijō (1143–65).

Go-Shirakawa would remain the main power broker for the next thirty years, through the troubled reigns of five successors. He gained such a reputation among historians for cunning plans and dastardly schemes that he is still referred to as the “Grand Crow-Demon” (Dai Tengu) or even the “Shadow Lord” (Anshu). Meanwhile, there were mixed feelings among his supporters in the skirmish. Taira no Kiyomori (1118–81), the scheming, moustachioed courtier who brokered the power behind the scenes, gained an impressive promotion and a nearby coastal fief to rule over. Minamoto no Yoshitomo, however, who had done the actual fighting in a conflict that had cost him the deaths of his own relatives—sometimes at his own hands—received much less. As far as the court was concerned, he was a loyal servant being granted some great concessions of noble rank and title. Yoshitomo felt that Kiyomori was getting the glory for his own hard work, and that once the fighting was done, the courtiers had suddenly remembered again how much they despised the samurai.

The Fujiwara, meanwhile, were up to their usual tricks, making sure that the new emperor had a Fujiwara bride. The one they found had previously been the child-bride of her new husband’s uncle, the sickly teenage emperor Konoe. Kiyomori made sure one of his own daughters was married to the new emperor’s chief minister, and, it seems, dismissed Yoshitomo’s complaints that he was not getting what he deserved.

Yoshitomo took action in January 1159, waiting until Kiyomori and his cronies were on a pilgrimage. His men snatched both Emperor Nijō and his father Go-Shirakawa, who were then obliged to sack many of their ministers and replace them with appointees favorable to the Minamoto clan.

This was by no means the first time such a power grab had occurred, but the outcome was different. It used to be that whoever had lost the upper hand would run for the provinces, to lean on their power base there. But Kiyomori had observed the fate of such former figures: absent from the capital, they had been branded by the captive administration as “rebels,” which led all loyal samurai to take arms against them. Kiyomori had seen several such examples in recent memory, and was determined not to be another one. Accordingly, instead of running for the coast of the Inland Sea, he rode straight back to Kyōto, daring his enemies to make their move.

Kiyomori and his Taira samurai were unable to act for as long as commands were issued in the name of the emperor—the confidence of the samurai had yet to achieve that arrogant tipping point whereby they acted out of regard for what the true emperor’s orders might be. Instead, the capital endured a tense ten-day standoff of messengers and conferences, with a substantial number of samurai at battle readiness. Four years earlier, the troops fielded had numbered in the hundreds; tellingly, there were now thousands ready to strike.

The impasse was broken through subterfuge. Two aristocrats switched sides and dolled up the teenage emperor Nijō in makeup and women’s clothes, sneaking him out of his palace in disguise and whisking him away to Kiyomori’s compound in the middle of the chaos caused by a convenient fire at the palace. Go-Shirakawa was even bolder, sneaking from the palace by simply dressing in commoner’s clothes and riding out the gate.

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