In this depiction of the Hogen Disturbance, the warrior in black armor is Kiyomori Taira — see mid-ground, left

The military clash that erupted in the capital in the first year of Hogen (1156) resulted from a quarrel that deeply divided the imperial family and from rivalries within the Fujiwara regental family (sekkanke). The administrative organization of the retired emperor’s household, the inset or cloister government, shaped by Shirakawa, was perpetuated by Toba and Go-Shirakawa, who successively wielded power as senior retired emperor (hon’in) until the latter’s death in 1192. This unusual system of administration was effective in improving the economic resources of the imperial family and in reducing the influence of the Fujiwara regents, but it led to tensions within the imperial family. The dominant role of the cloistered emperor in governmental matters as well as family affairs was resented by the reigning emperor and his entourage, and by junior retired emperors who were excluded from the powers of the senior position.

Shirakawa controlled the court during the reigns of his son Horikawa, his grandson Toba, and Sutoku, supposedly his great-grandson. (According to the Kojidan, a thirteenth-century collection of tales and anecdotes, it was common knowledge that Sutoku, the son of Toba’s consort, Shirakawa’s “adopted daughter” Taikemmonin [Fujiwara no Shoshi], was actually fathered by Shirakawa.) Shirakawa required Toba to abdicate in favor of Sutoku. Upon Shirakawa’s death in 1129, Toba, succeeding as senior retired emperor, immediately began to undo much of what Shirakawa had accomplished. He replaced Shirakawa’s closest retainers, but Taira no Tadamori managed to retain his position as the main military retainer.

Toba recalled the former regent, Fujiwara no Tadazane, who had been banished from the court by Shirakawa. Tadazane made plans to reestablish the fortunes of the regental family by reunifying its divided estates, which had diminished under Go-Sanjo and Shirakawa, and by expanding existing shoen. In 1150 he also attempted to remove his son Tadamichi from the position of regent in order to entrust leadership of the clan to his favored younger son, Yorinaga. However, Yorinaga was outmaneuvered by his half-brother Tadamichi andToba’s consort Bifukumon-in (Fujiwara noTokushi). Accused of causing the illness of which Emperor Konoe died in 1155 by sticking needles into the eyes of a statue of the emperor, Yorinaga was excluded from the court and a bitter rivalry divided the regental family. Toba had forced Sutoku to abdicate in 1141 in favor of his younger “brother” Konoe. Sutoku then pinned his hopes on his own son becoming crown prince, but when Konoe died in 1155, Toba selected another of his own sons, Go-Shirakawa, as emperor and the latter’s son as crown prince (the future emperor Nijo). Sutoku was still determined that his son should gain the throne, and that, as a consequence, he himself would become the senior retired emperor as father of the reigning emperor. He was supported in this ambition by Yorinaga, who aimed to wrest the leadership of the regental house from Tadamichi. When Toba fell critically ill the next year, Sutoku sought military supporters.

The fraternal quarrels between Go-Shirakawa and Sutoku and between Tadamichi and Yorinaga would likely have been resolved in earlier centuries by maneuver, political manipulation, and a judicious use of exile, but the ready availability now of military forces was a temptation too great for either side to resist. It was rumored that Sutoku and Yorinaga, who were backed militarily by the Minamoto toryo Tameyoshi, and by Taira no Tadamasa (younger brother of Tadamori), were about to “mobilize troops and overthrow the state.” Taira no Tadamori’s son, Kiyomori, and Tameyoshi’s son, Yoshitomo, who was on bad terms with his father, followed by most of the Minamoto row, aligned themselves with the imperial faction of Go-Shirakawa. The dying Toba issued orders to his military chiefs, Kiyomori and Yoshitomo, to mobilize their retainers for the defense of his palace near the junction of the Kamo and Katsura rivers south of the city, and also Go-Shirakawa’s Takamatsu palace. With the death of Toba on the second day of the seventh month, Sutoku became concerned for his own personal safety and summoned such military support as he could command: Yoshitomo’s father, Tameyoshi, and two of Tameyoshi’s junior sons; Minamoto warriors from Yamato province; some Taira warriors, most notably Sutoku’s favorite Tadamasa; Yorinaga and the armed men he had mustered from his shoen; and the armed monks of the Kofukuji Temple at Nara. The warriors responding to Sutoku’s call included formidable fighters, but among them the Yamato Minamoto were taken prisoner by Go-Shirakawa’s men before they reached the capital, and the Kofukuji monks never arrived, so that the total number of fighters defending Sutoku’s Shirakawa palace remained small.

The Shirakawa palace was a large establishment east of the Kamo River at the northwest corner of what is now the site of the Heian Shrine. The palace was about a mile and a quarter from Go-Shirakawa’s residence and base at the Takamatsu palace north of Sanjo Avenue just southwest of the Greater Imperial Palace. On the night of the eleventh, fighting erupted in a furious attack, launched at nightfall on Shirakawa palace by the forces of Go-Shirakawa. The attacking force included Kiyomori with about three hundred mounted men, Yoshitomo with two hundred, and Yoshiyasu with one hundred. They set fire to the palace, and Sutoku’s men fled. Within a few hours both the battle and the war were over.

Sutoku succeeded in escaping to the Ninnaji Temple just beyond the northwest corner of the capital, where he was captured and sent into exile in Sanuki on Shikoku, dying there a bitter man. Hit by a stray arrow during the fighting at Shirakawa, Sutoku’s supporter and accomplice Yorinaga died a few days later. Men linked with Yorinaga at court were exiled, and some seventeen of Sutoku’s warriors were – against three and a half centuries of bloodless precedent — condemned to execution by imperial order. Despite Yoshitomo’s plea for his father Tameyoshi’s life, he was ordered to execute him, as was Kiyomori his uncle Tadamasa. This tsuwamonolike disposition of prisoners stunned the court, a decision that was urged by Go-Shirakawa’s eminence grise, Lesser Counselor Fujiwara no Michinori, known by his Buddhist name Shinzei (1106-60). Although he was of low rank, he enjoyed the trust of the emperor because his wife had been Go-Shirakawa’s wet-nurse, presumably creating the kind of emotional bond that the fiction of the period suggests.

Although the fighting had demonstrated for the first time the effectiveness of the warrior families in determining events in the capital, their rewards were meager. Go-Shirakawa was no more generous in his treatment of Kiyomori andYoshitomo after the coup than most previous emperors and regents had been in rewarding warriors. From the court’s point of view, the warriors who had defended the emperor and stormed the Shirakawa palace were simply useful servants of the throne who could be employed in time of need and otherwise mostly ignored. The rewards publicly granted the two great warriors were insignificant in comparison with their political and economic strength. Kiyomori, the senior warrior representative at court and the heir to a long family tradition of court service, received merely the governorship of Harima; Yoshitomo, the Minamoto chieftain and the architect of the victory at Shirakawa, had to be content with lowly appointment as Provisional Head of the Left Horse Guards, a post of minimal distinction and probably no power or remuneration whatever.

The Hogen Disturbance resolved sharp conflicts within the imperial and Fujiwara leadership, placing control of the court firmly in the hands of the reigning emperor, but it left unanswered the question of military supremacy as between Go-Shirakawa’s two chief warrior leaders, Kiyomori and Yoshitomo, and the further and more fundamental issue of the role of powerful warriors vis-a-vis the imperial court that remained, fatally to the regime, unaddressed.

War Tales -HOGEN MONOGATARI (TALE OF THE HOGEN DISTURBANCE, CA. EARLY 13TH CENTURY) The Hogen monogatari recounts the events and armed conflict that occurred in 1156 when the retired emperor Sutoku made an unsuccessful attempt to gain control of imperial power against the current emperor, Go-Shirakawa.


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