Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Puppet Emperors (continued)

Now while Yoshitsune was growing up into a gallant soldier, the eldest brother, Yoritomo, had been forming plots against Kiyomori and the rule of the Taira. At last Yoritomo thought the time had come to attack the Taira, and he called upon his fellow-clansmen of the Minamoto and upon all who hated the Taira to join him. But he had been too rash: the time was not yet ripe, and only three hundred men joined his banner. Upon this small band fell a great force of the Taira and utterly routed it. Yoritomo and six friends fled from the slaughter and hid themselves in the trunk of a huge hollow tree.

The Taira were in eager pursuit of them, and a man was sent to search the tree. Luckily for Yoritomo and his friends, he was at heart a friend of the Minamoto and he called out that the tree was empty, while he softly bade the fugitives to lie still. To show that the tree was empty, he thrust in his spear and turned it about. As he did so two doves flew out, and those watching from a distance felt satisfied that nothing was there or the doves would have been disturbed before. To this day the people of the Minamoto family do not eat doves because of this wonderful way in which a pair of them saved their great ancestor, Yoritomo. The soldier also reported that the mouth of the opening was covered with spiders' webs, and no further search was made.

Yoritomo was not yet beaten. He fled to a part of the land where he was beyond the reach of the Taira, and again sent messengers to call upon the enemies of Kiyomori to join him. The Minamoto gathered around him, and his brother Yoshitsune came from the north with a strong body of troops to add to Yoritomo's power. In the midst of this preparation the Taira suffered a great loss in the death of Kiyomori. The stern and powerful old ruler died in A.D. 1181. He knew well what troubles were looming in the future, and he warned his family to beware of Yoritomo. The old chronicler gives us this bitter speech which he uttered on his death-bed: "My regret is only that I am dying, and have not yet seen the head of Yoritomo of the Minamoto. After my decease do not make offerings to Buddha on my behalf, nor read sacred books. Only cut off the head of Yoritomo of the Minamoto and hang it on my tomb."

But the triumph of Yoritomo was now near at hand. He directed the march of three armies upon the capital then fixed at Kyoto. The first was under his own command, the second under his brother Yoshitsune, the third he had placed under the command of a cousin. As the armies closed in upon Kyoto, the third was the earliest to engage with the enemy. The Taira were beaten, and Yoritomo's cousin marched into the capital in triumph. Puffed up with this success, the general lost his head and took upon himself the airs of a conqueror. He aimed at putting Yoritomo aside and seizing the chief power for himself. From this dream he had a rude awakening. Yoshitsune came swiftly upon him, dashed his army in pieces, and the general fled. He saw that he could expect no mercy from his angry relatives, and, full of shame and despair, he took his own life.

Warrior of Taira Family


Yoshitsune now set off in pursuit of the Taira. The defeated clan had left the capital and marched westwards, taking with them the young emperor, whose mother was a member of the Taira family, the daughter of Kiyomori himself.

Finding that Yoshitsune was hot upon their track, the Taira sought to escape by sea. Fighting men, women, children, servants and followers, the whole clan embarked upon five hundred junks and sailed away down the Inland Sea, making for Kyushu, the great southern island of Japan, where they hoped to find a refuge. But they were not so easily to escape. The Minamoto gathered a fleet of junks. The army went on board, and the pursuit was continued. At the far western extremity of the Inland Sea the Minamoto caught sight of the mass of flying junks, and the Taira knew that their enemies were upon them and turned at bay at Dan-no-ura.

Then followed the greatest sea-fight in the story of Old Japan. The junks were laid alongside each other, and their decks became battle-grounds where the fierce warriors plied spear and sword or shot swift arrows into the joints of their enemies' harness. The Taira fought with the fury of despair, fought, not only for their own lives and the lives of their wives and children, but for the precious freight which their fleet bore. The boy-emperor, his mother and grandmother, were with them, the ladies being the daughter and widow of their great leader Kiyomori. They fought in vain. Their vessels were encumbered by many non-combatants, and the fierce warriors of the Minamoto swarmed over junk after junk, putting all to the sword.

The grandmother of the boy-emperor had watched the fight closely, and saw that escape was impossible for the junk in which they were. But she was resolved not to fall into the hands of the hated Minamoto. She seized the emperor in her arms and sprang into the sea; they sank at once and were never seen again. With them perished nearly the whole of the Taira clan. The Minamoto slew and spared not. A few junks of the Taira fled from the fight and gained the southern island, where the people hid themselves in the wild valleys which lie in its farthest recesses. It is said that their descendants are to be found there to this day, and are marked by a fierce surliness of manner, and will have nothing to do with strangers. This springs from the times when they were compelled to keep out of the way of every one lest they should fall under the vengeance of their enemies.

This vengeance was a thing to be dreaded. No mercy was shown in these terrible civil wars. Yoritomo gave orders that every Taira man, woman, or child was to be put to death wherever found, and the orders were carried out to the letter. But Yoritomo was now about to stain his famous career with the darkest blot which lies upon it. The land was ringing with stories of the great deeds of the gallant young general Yoshitsune; Yoritomo became jealous of his brother. He forgot all the great services which the splendid young soldier had rendered him: he thought no longer of the great sea-fight of Dan-no-ura, where Yoshitsune had destroyed his enemies once and for ever: he felt deep anger when he saw how the hearts of all turned to the heroic figure of the victor, and he resented the fame and success which his brother had won.

Court lady of eighth century


After crushing the Taira, Yoshitsune marched northwards to meet Yoritomo, bringing prisoners and captured banners to lay at his brother's feet. But on his way he was checked by a message commanding him not to enter his brother's presence, and to give up his trophies of victory. There is still to be seen in a Buddhist monastery the noble and touching letter which Yoshitsune sent to his brother on receiving this harsh and ungrateful message. He declared his good faith and loyalty, he denied every report of ambition and self-seeking, but all went for nothing. Yoritomo's heart was turned against his brother, and soon Yoshitsune was compelled to fly in order to save his life. His brother closed every road and bridge against him and posted guards to seize him, but Yoshitsune, in disguise and attended only by the faithful Benkei, managed to win his way to the distant province where he had learned the first lessons of war, and where he hoped to lie in safety.

On his flight he had some very near escapes from danger. One day he was flying from the soldiers of Yoritomo when he came to a barrier which was strongly guarded. The attendants did not recognise the young hero and Benkei, for they were dressed like the wandering priests who go up and down the country begging for food and money. The fugitives thought that as priests they would easily gain a passage. But no. The strictest orders had been given that no one might pass, and the watchmen drove them back. Then the cunning Benkei plucked from his bosom a roll of blank paper and pretended to read from it. He recited that they held a commission from the abbot of the chief monastery of the capital to go through the land and gather money for casting a great bell to hang in their temple, and the anger of Heaven was called down upon all who should stay them. The keepers of the barrier were deeply impressed on hearing this holy message, and at once made way for them to pass.

For a time Yoshitsune lived in safety among his old friends, and then a new Governor was appointed. This man was eager to gain the favour of Yoritomo, and in 1189 he caused Yoshitsune to be murdered; the noble victim was only thirty years of age. The death of this beloved hero caused so much anger among the people that Yoritomo was forced to march against the Governor and punish him, though the man had only done that which Yoritomo wished.

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


Yoritomo now stood at the full height of power. He had destroyed the Taira, the emperor had perished with them, and the leader of the Minamoto placed on the throne another child-emperor, a boy seven years old, and received for himself the title of Shogun or Chief General.

Under this title he ruled Japan well and firmly, and with him began that system of dual rule which has given rise to a mistaken belief that Japan for many centuries had two emperors, the Mikado, the descendant of the Sun Goddess, a kind of spiritual emperor, and the Shogun or Tycoon, as he was called in later times, an emperor who took charge of the practical details of government. This was never so. There was but one emperor, the Mikado, though often enough he was a mere child shut up in his palace and never seen of the people. Yet for all that he was the real emperor, and the Shogun ruled on his behalf and was always careful to say that his authority came from the Mikado, though, in point of fact, the Mikado was simply a puppet in his hands. This system of Mikado and Shogun, or Tycoon, lasted from 1190 to 1868.

Yoritomo made splendid use of his power as the first Shogun. The land was in a terrible state after the fierce civil wars of the last hundred years. He set up courts where robbers and law-breakers could be tried, he introduced government and order into provinces where law and order had been unknown, and for the first time for centuries he gave a little peace to the land. In order to establish his authority in the provinces, he chose able soldiers and placed them there to force men to keep the law and cease from strife. In order to maintain these military families he laid a tax upon the product of the soil, and thus, in forcing the husbandman to support the soldier, he made a beginning of the feudal system which was to last in Japan until within living memory.

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


So wise and strong was Yoritomo's rule that the Japanese regard his name as one of the greatest in their history, and give him high praise save for his cruel treatment of Yoshitsune. In 1198 he met with a severe accident: he fell from his horse, and was so badly hurt that he died early in the next year, in the fifty-third year of his age. His life marks an important epoch in Japanese history. He was the first Shogun: he set on foot the beginning of the feudal system: he restored law and order after the devastation of the fierce wars of the clans.