Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Puppet Emperors

We have now reached a period when the affairs of Japan come into the light of history; the old myths and legends have gone, and from the time when Buddhism and Chinese learning came into the land the records are clear and full. Before long the Chinese plan of government was introduced, and the officers of the State were arranged in rank according to the Chinese system—a system which lasted until 1868. At the head of all stood the Emperor, the "Son of Heaven," and in theory he was held to be absolute owner and ruler of Japan; in practice he had little or no power at all. This position was brought about by another drift of Chinese influence. In China a custom had grown up of an emperor abdicating, that is, giving up the throne to his heir, and retiring to a monastery to spend his old age in prayer.

This custom was carried to an extreme in Japan. Instead of an old and weary emperor giving up his throne in favour of a peaceful retirement, the Japanese emperor was forced to abdicate after a short period of rule, perhaps while still a young man. Thus we read of an emperor who was placed on the throne at the age of nine and retired at the age of twenty-six, another reigned from eight years of age to twenty three, a third became emperor at five years old and abdicated at twenty, and there were many such cases; indeed it often happened that there were three or four retired emperors in the country besides the actual emperor on the throne. These abdications were brought about by powerful officers of the court who had managed to seize the reins of government and place upon the throne a boy whom they could easily control. Thus came about the line of the Puppet Emperors.

During the Middle Ages of Japan, let us say from 650 to 1050, the real ruler of the land was always found in the ranks of one great family, that of the Fujiwara, whose name means Wistaria Field. For a period of four hundred years the chief posts of government were held by members of this family, and, as a Japanese writer remarks, the emperor was simply a piece of their property. Not only did the Fujiwara rule the emperor, but from their family were drawn the wives of the emperors, and the ladies of the court. Thus their influence was all-powerful, and they used it to degrade the Japanese rulers. Instead of a young emperor being trained to take part in affairs and rule his country, he was tempted to waste his time and his strength in every kind of idle pleasure and every useless form of amusement.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


The effect of this was that the emperors became a feeble race, and the Fujiwara were supreme in civil affairs. They were not a great warrior family. If an expedition was set on foot to attack the Aino tribes or to put down a rebellion in a distant province, one of the Fujiwara was appointed to the command as a matter of course. It did not follow that he left his palace. As a rule he called upon some noted warrior to lead the force and undertake the campaign. But when the victory was announced he calmly took the credit of it, and saw to it that he received rich rewards for the success.

As time went on this practice brought about the downfall of the Fujiwara. It was a period of great strife, and the military families were called upon very often to bring their warriors to the aid of the empire. Little by little the power of the soldier clans grew, until those who had served the Fujiwara began to feel their strength, and to set themselves up as rivals of the great governing family. Such a soldier clan was that of the Taira, founded in the ninth century, and famous for centuries as military vassals of the crown. A little later rose another great military family, that of the Minamoto, and in time the strife between these clans brought about the fiercest of civil wars. A family whose fame is peaceful also rose in this period, the Sugawara, noted for their devotion to learning. Down to the present day this love of letters has continued, and among the tutors of recent emperors have been members of the great family of Sugawara.

About the middle of the eleventh century a great struggle arose among the clans; the Fujiwara lost their pride of place, and the Taira family rose to power. About this time the eastern coasts of Japan were infested by Korean pirates, who plundered the trading junks, sacked and burned seaport towns, and slew the unlucky people who fell into their hands or made slaves of them. One of the Taira, a leader named Tadamori, sailed against these pirates, and won great fame by destroying them and freeing the coasts of Japan. After the death of Tadamori, his son, Kiyomori, became the head of the Taira family, and now came a time of miserable strife, when the whole land became a battlefield on which the quarrels of the great clans were fought out.

About the year 1150 there arose a dispute as to who should come to the throne. Kiyomori and the Taira put forward one claimant, the Minamoto family put forward another, and a fierce civil war broke out. In 1156 there was a great battle between the clans, and Kiyomori won the day and gained for himself a position of supreme power in Japan. Kiyomori made a cruel use of his power, destroying all who had opposed him, and the Minamoto and Fujiwara began to form plans to overthrow him and the Taira. This conspiracy was headed by Yoshitomo, a leader of the Minamoto, but the Taira leader caught word of it and fell upon the plotters, and sent them flying in every direction to save their lives. The anger of Kiyomori was directed, above all, against Yoshitomo and his family, and he gave orders that every member of it should be put to death.

Yoshitomo was killed by men whom the tyrant sent after him to his place of refuge, and a number of his sons were slain. But two boys were left alive and these were destined to become great men and great heroes, who should completely overthrow the power of the Taira. The boys were Yoritomo and Yoshitsune, and when the storm of the tyrant's anger broke out, the latter was a babe in his mother's arms. His mother was Tokiwa, a very beautiful woman, who fled with her three youngest children upon hearing that the Taira soldiers were coming to slay them. Yoshitsune lived to become a famous hero of romance. Many wonderful tales of his skill and courage are told in Japanese story, and both poets and painters love to tell and picture this incident of his infancy. They show Tokiwa hurrying on through a wild storm of driving snow, with Yoshitsune swung on his mother's back, and the other little ones toddling at her side. In their sad and forlorn condition they met a Taira soldier, but he, instead of proving to be an enemy, took pity upon them and found them a shelter.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


While in hiding Tokiwa heard that the tyrant had seized her mother. She had been brought up to believe that her mother must be considered before her children, so she went back and threw herself and her children at the feet of Kiyomori and begged for mercy for her mother. The tyrant's heart was softened by these entreaties, and he not only released her mother but spared her children, and sent them to various monasteries to be held in safe keeping.

In the monastery to which he was sent Yoshitsune grew up a strong, bold, active lad, a splendid archer and a most skilful swordsman. When he was sixteen he fled from the monastery and took his way to a distant province inhabited by wild and barbarous tribes. Here he entered the service of the Governor, and spent years fighting under his banner. In this way he learned all about war and trained himself to become the brave and heroic leader he proved to be in later years.

It is said that upon this flight from the monastery he first met with his follower Benkei, a servant almost as famous as his master, and a man who has left a great name in Japanese legend. Yoshitsune came to a bridge which was haunted by a dreaded robber. Every passenger was bound to cross the bridge, for the river was deep and there was neither boat nor ford in the neighbourhood. The robber prowled near at hand, waylaying solitary passengers and plundering them. He sprang from his hiding-place upon Yoshitsune, but for the first time he met his match. The youth showed such nimbleness and such wonderful skill in sword-play that the terrible robber was utterly overcome. Benkei yielded to Yoshitsune and took him as his master, and ever after that day followed him as a most humble and faithful servant.