Now the power shifted once more. Emperor Nijō issued a new proclamation naming Kiyomori’s residence as the “new palace”—effectively declaring a state of emergency that implied anyone in the original palace was an imposter or rebel. A force of some 3,000 Taira cavalry, with at least as many foot soldiers in support, was already marching on the former imperial palace, leading to a running battle in the streets of Kyōto. Depending on whom one believed, either the Taira were chasing the Minamoto across town, or the Minamoto successfully pushed the Taira back to Kiyomori’s mansion. Either way, Yoshitomo’s only chance of survival was to snatch back his imperial bargaining chips before they could officially declare him to be an enemy of the state.

But it was too late. Yoshitomo had been outmaneuvered, and now it was his turn to flee, splitting up and leading a dwindling band of faithful samurai in a fighting retreat amid a driving midwinter snowstorm. Few of them lasted more than a few days, with even their allies turning against them. Yoshitomo himself was murdered while bathing at a house that he believed to have been run by friends.

Yoshitomo’s newest mistress, the twenty-year-old Tokiwa, took a different route with her three young sons, leading two by the hand with the third, a new-born baby, nestled against her chest beneath her robe. She was soon apprehended and brought before Kiyomori, who informed her that the menfolk of the Minamoto were being purged from the Earth. He did, however, have an offer for her that she could not refuse. Her three sons would be spared if she sent them away to a monastery…and agreed to become Kiyomori’s concubine.

The Taira were appalled that Kiyomori could even consider such an offer. His own stepmother warned him that Yoshitomo’s children were sure to grow up with a desire to avenge the fall of their clan. But Kiyomori was arrogant in victory, utterly convinced that he had stripped the Minamoto of all their power. Raping their leader’s woman would be the final insult.

Tokiwa would live another three decades, although Kiyomori soon tired of her; she ended her days married to a Fujiwara courtier. Kiyomori, meanwhile, achieved all his desires, and was the first samurai to be made chief minister in 1160. Not long afterward, his sister-in-law attracted the eye of Go-Shirakawa, fell pregnant, and persuaded the retired emperor that the child of their union should be the next infant sovereign requiring a regent. The boy was crowned as Emperor Takakura in 1168, and would eventually marry Kiyomori’s daughter. Kiyomori then “retired” from his official posts, enjoying the glory but rejecting the responsibilities that might actually be required to carry out those roles. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, things had already started to go wrong, on a dark, snowy night when Emperor Takakura’s regent, Fujiwara Motofusa, found his retinue’s path blocked by a bunch of teenage samurai. The regent’s men demanded that they move, but the samurai, celebrating after a day’s hawking and hunting, told them to shove it. The regent’s men dragged them from their horses, and the lead teenager—another of Kiyomori’s grandsons—went home and whined to his dad about it.

His father, wise to court etiquette, immediately apologized to the regent, but Kiyomori had other ideas. He rounded up sixty country samurai with allegiance directly to him, and ordered them to avenge the “insult” to his grandson. They lay in wait for the regent’s entourage, ambushed their target on the road, wrecked the carriage, and cut off the hair of the captured guardsmen. The humiliated regent arrived at the palace in a cart dragged by one of his retainers, the oxen having been cut loose.

In the aftermath, the grandson was packed off to the provinces, and the perpetrators of his vengeful drive-by were dismissed. But the incident had made Kiyomori ample enemies among the Fujiwara. The fateful nuptials of Emperor Takakura and Kiyomori’s fifteen-year-old daughter were only a few days later; although they would eventually produce the Emperor Antoku in 1178, they occurred amid an atmosphere of resentment.

The child-emperor Antoku was the culmination of all Kiyomori’s scheming, and also the seed of his downfall. From being stripped of imperial status, the Taira were just about to supply Japan’s next ruler. In bundling Antoku onto the throne, Kiyomori made a permanent enemy out of Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who was far too wily a politician to say anything in public. Instead, Go-Shirakawa got his own son, Prince Mochihito, to proclaim that Antoku was a usurper and that he, Mochihito, was the rightful heir, and to call on any samurai with a sense of justice to come to his aid.

In the beginning, he had few supporters. In fact, he spent the remainder of his short life on the run, protected by a small group of loyal guardsmen and “warrior monks” (some of whom were former Minamoto who had taken holy orders to avoid persecution in pro-Taira times), pursued out of Kyōto by samurai loyal to the Taira. He made it as far as the bridge at Uji, falling off his horse six times. His men pulled up the planks on the bridge to delay their pursuers, and commandeered the nearby Phoenix Hall temple to give the pretender a rest.

It was, however, a fatal delay. The pursuing enemy samurai plunged straight into the rushing waters of the river—200 men and horses were swept away by the current, but plenty made it to the opposite bank, their fellow samurai providing cover with a hail of arrows from the far side. One warrior, the fighting monk Jōmyō, did not bother with the river, but made an acrobatic barefoot assault across the scaffolding of the bridge. The Tale of the Heike reports him reaching the other side ready for action, firing off all twenty-four arrows from his personal supply (killing twelve men and wounding eleven—even a breathless story allowing for one miss). He then grabbed his spear, killing another five men before it broke. Drawing his sword, he dispatched another eight opponents before snapping his blade on the helmet of another, and dropping it into the river. Then he drew his dagger—at which point The Tale of the Heike appears to lose count. It does, however, return to Jōmyō when all the fighting is done, counting sixty-three arrow dents in his armor, five of which have pierced the leather, although none of them seriously.

The fighting spread to the Phoenix Hall, with many of the Minamoto loyalists choosing to make a last stand, dooming themselves in order to allow Prince Mochihito to escape. The Tale of the Heike offers a catalogue of last stands and acts of seppuku, although at least one samurai lived to fight another day. The warrior monk Tayū Genkaku somehow fought his way back to the bridge, jumped into the river, and hit bottom in his heavy armor before clambering out on the Kyōto side, hurling insults at his enemies, and commencing the long, damp trudge back to the capital.

But all the heroism amounted to nothing. The prince’s foster brother, trembling amid the duckweed in a roadside ditch, saw a troop of Taira samurai heading home, bearing the headless body of Prince Mochihito on a window shutter. The prince’s head, along with the heads of some 500 of his allies, was taken to Kiyomori’s mansion by the evening, where victory celebrations soon soured, as nobody could be found to make a positive identification.

Since he had been sequestered for years in a remote palace, living largely in the company of an entourage who were now dead, nobody knew what Prince Mochihito actually looked like. Tense hours passed while the Taira scoured the capital for someone who could identify him, eventually dragging in the mother of one of his children, whose distraught reaction was all that Kiyomori really needed to see.

And there things really ought to have ended, with the pretender dead—except the momentum of Mochihito’s rebellion kept on without him. Despite his protestations that Mochihito was dead, Kiyomori still had to contend with the news of Minamoto armies assembling to the east. Those three surviving Minamoto boys were now all grown up, married into Kantō plainsman aristocracy, and ready for revenge. Their cousin, too, a man called Yoshinaka, had been adopted into the Kiso clan, and hence had not shown up as a Minamoto clansmen when the purges were all the rage. Now he, too, rediscovered his Minamoto roots and came after Kiyomori.

Kiyomori did not live to see the endgame he had set in motion. Bedridden and in his sixties, he died in 1181 as Minamoto forces advanced on the capital; his grandson, the Emperor Antoku, was moved for safety’s sake to the Taira heartland on the coast of the Inland Sea.

The Minamoto flooded into the capital, where they were welcomed by the scheming retired emperor Go-Shirakawa. Although Antoku was still on the run with the sacred imperial regalia—the mirror, the sword and the jewel—the Minamoto wasted no time in proclaiming that he had abdicated, and that his half-brother, Go-Toba (1180–1239), the son of a Fujiwara mother, was the new emperor. In the battles that followed, the Minamoto would hound the Taira across the Inland Sea until their final showdown at sea at Dannoura in 1185.

Realizing that all was lost, the last of the Taira began jumping into the sea, their armor dragging them straight to the bottom. Kiyomori’s widow, Tokiko, turned to her grandson, the six-year-old Emperor Antoku, and told him to say prayers to the east, toward the Shintō shrine at Ise, and west toward the homeland of Buddha.

“Beneath the waves lies our capital,” she said. Then, hugging Antoku close to her along with the ancient sword Kusanagi, she hurled herself into the sea.

The conflict between the Taira and the Minamoto was finally resolved, with the Taira almost entirely wiped out and excluded from the capital. Scattered survivors, including Antoku’s mother, who was pulled by her hair from the water by sailors using a rake, would live on as impoverished local fishermen or religious devotees. The sacred mirror and jewel were, at least officially, retrieved by divers, although the sword Kusanagi was never found—Japanese authorities are deliberately vague about it; although a sword still forms part of the imperial regalia of Japan, the one carried most recently during the coronation of Emperor Heisei in 1989 is believed to be a replica.

The Minamoto were victorious…but—as with every other event in The Tale of the Heike, as foreshadowed by its opening lines—it was all for nothing. In the aftermath, the Minamoto turned on each other, as the eldest surviving son of Yoshitomo, Yoritomo, unleashed his simmering resentment against his half-brother Yoshitsune, who had been instrumental in many of the Minamoto victories of the war with the Taira. Yoritomo largely stroked his chin and looked at maps in his distant headquarters at Kamakura, a fort chosen for strategic reasons—it was approached by seven roads, every one of them traversing steep, defensible mountain passes. But it was Yoshitsune who was on the front line—often against the wishes of his fellow Minamoto generals, but winning forever the support of his men.

Yoshitsune is another of the iconic figures of Japanese history whose life story has lent itself well to legend. From his first appearance in Japanese stories (and indeed, in this book), tucked into his mother’s robe as she flees in a snowstorm, to his legendary tutelage at the feet of crow demons in the hills outside Kyōto, he has gained an enduring presence in Japanese plays, books, and movies. It is Yoshitsune, so the legend goes, who bested the warrior-monk Benkei on Kyōto’s Gojō Bridge; who seduced a nobleman’s daughter so he could read her father’s copy of an ancient Chinese military manual; who led a foolhardy cavalry charge down a steep cliff, surprising the enemy by hitting them from behind their camp at Ichinotani. It was Yoshitsune who lit fires on the landward side of the Taira base, frightening his enemies into taking to their ships and thereby setting up the ultimate showdown at Dannoura.

Yoritomo hated that his half-brother was getting all the credit. He seemed to find fault in every one of Yoshitsune’s victories, criticizing him for minor details like escaped prisoners, rather than praising him for his incredibly effective strategies. Yoshitsune even managed to charm Go-Shirakawa, the retired emperor, although Yoritomo regarded that as yet another example of scheming. On the apparent belief that his half-brother was planning to betray him, Yoritomo ordered his arrest, ending the war with a tragic coda in which the greatest Minamoto general became a fugitive in the north, fleeing his own family.

Yoshitsune the loyal lieutenant was eventually hunted down and killed, his henchmen and son murdered, all so Yoritomo could feel secure. “Sympathy for the lieutenant” (hōgan biiki) remains a popular term in Japanese for championing the underdog. Yoritomo was left with a large holding of his own lands along with the lands of Minamoto vassals and over 500 estates taken from the defeated Taira. It made him a substantial rival for the imperial court itself, which for its own part now lacked any military allies on which it could call for assistance.

With the Minamoto now dominating the court, and with the death of the manipulative retired emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1192, his grandson the child-emperor Go-Toba was persuaded to recognize the possibility of another war breaking out against unknown enemies of the state, and appointed Yoritomo as Shōgun. Despite the continued use of the archaic title for “suppressing barbarians,” Yoritomo was more of a government-appointed autocrat, running Japan in the emperor’s name under a state of martial law. The term he used, which would be used by his successors for the next seven centuries, was intended to imply that this situation was merely a temporary fix until the trouble had died down: the authorities came to be known as the bakufu, or “tent government,” taking their name from the baku windbreaker behind which samurai generals would hide from enemy archers while plotting their next move.

You would be forgiven for thinking that it was a happy ending for the Minamoto, but they had taken heavy losses in the war, not helped at all by Yoritomo’s paranoid postwar purges. Ruling Japan from Kamakura, Yoritomo became the first leader of the Kamakura shōgunate, which would technically run Japan in the emperor’s name for the next 200 years—except much of his military success had been funded by his father-in-law, Tokimasa, leader of Kamakura’s Hōjō clan. After Yoritomo’s death in 1199, his sons were swiftly elbowed aside in favor of “regents” (shikken) from the Hōjō clan. It was these regents who held the true power of the Kamakura shōgunate thereafter, while the Minamoto disappeared in a bout of stabbings and assassinations—Yoritomo’s son, the shōgun Sanetomo, was assassinated by his own nephew, who was then executed for murder, bringing the line to an end while the ghosts of the Taira laughed on the bottom of the sea.

Exactly what kind of unrest was the Kamakura shōgunate expecting? The biggest problems they might expect to encounter often seemed to come from the imperial family itself, whose members did not take kindly to being the puppets of their leading general. Crowned during the conflict as a three-year-old child by the Minamoto in 1183, Japan’s eighty-second emperor, Go-Toba, was forced to abdicate in 1198, but remained inconveniently alive for the next forty-one years, watching from the sidelines as his sons were pushed onto the throne and then off again in the service of the shōgunate’s power games.

In 1221, Go-Toba made his move. Without waiting for the shōgunate to recommend its own candidate, he put his two-year-old grandson on the throne. He then invited all the important samurai in the vicinity of Kyōto to a celebration.

It was a brilliant strategic move. Those who accepted his invitation were clearly willing to support him in any further resistance to the shōgun. One prominent lord did not show up, and soon died under suspicious circumstances—by implying even for a moment that he disapproved of Go-Toba’s actions, he had signed his own death warrant. The others were ready to hear Go-Toba’s new proclamation in the style of his ill-fated ancestors: that anyone who was truly loyal to the emperor and the court should rise up against the Kamakura usurpers. The Hōjō clansmen were officially declared outlaws, and disaffected samurai in the Kyōto region began to flock to Go-Toba’s banner.

Well, maybe not “flock.” Go-Toba attracted a few followers, but the bulk of Japan’s samurai were persuaded to support the so-called outlaws. Hōjō Masako, Yoritomo’s widow, rallied the troops by reminding them of the improvements they had enjoyed under the bakufu. She proclaimed that this was a crucial turning point in history, where the samurai could choose either to remain masters of their own destiny, or to return to the days when they were mere patsies for the court. She must have struck a strange figure addressing the samurai—her head was shaved, as was the custom for widows, leading to her nickname among the samurai: ama-shōgun, the Nun Shōgun.

A Kamakura army marched on Kyōto, scoring a string of successes against the lesser numbers of Go-Toba’s followers. Go-Toba went to the fighting monks on nearby Mount Hiei, pleading for them to come to his aid, but they refused, unwilling to take on the shōgunal forces. The imperial forces made their last stand at the bridge over the river at Uji before giving up and fleeing. Kamakura forces occupied Kyōto, and Go-Toba and his “retired” sons were exiled to remote islands. The grandson became known as the “Dethroned Emperor,” having ruled for barely two months, the shortest reign in Japanese history; he was not even recognized as an emperor at all until the nineteenth century.

The defeat of Go-Toba’s attempted restoration played into the shōgunate’s hands, allowing for the confiscation of some 3,000 estates that could be used to buy favor with the samurai faithful. It secured the shōgunate two generations of relatively stable rule until the 1270s, when the conquest of China by the Mongols led to the threat of an invasion by Khubilai Khan.

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