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Samurai War Tales: The Tale of the Heike

Battle at Awazuhara, from the Tale of the Heike

Battle at Awazuhara, from the Tale of the Heike, Six panel folding screen, one of a pair, late 1600s. Japan. Ink, color and gold leaf on paper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60D61+.

Battles at Ichi-no-tani and Yashima

Battles at Ichi-no-tani Mountain and Yashima, from Tale of the Heike, approx. 1650–1700. Japan. Edo period (1615–1868). Six-panel screen, ink and colors on gold. The Avery Brundage Collection, B63D8+.

Battle at Awazuhara, from the Tale of the Heike
Battles at Ichi-no-tani and Yashima

One of the most reliable sources of information about warriors in Japan is the body of war tales, stories chronicling the lives of warriors and their battles, written from the 900s to the 1600s. Based on real events, the war tales were embellished over time to create powerful narratives full of good storytelling, sympathetic characters, and poignant and stirring events. Itinerant singers transmitted the war tales orally, spreading stories of warriors’ loyalty, courage, and virtue throughout the country.

The Tale of the Heike is among Japan’s most celebrated war tales. It traces the rise, brief period of glory, and fall of the Taira clan (also known as the Heike clan). Set in the 1100s, The Tales of the Heike concerns the intrigue and battles of an era when military clans based outside the capital vied for control of the imperial government. At the heart of the story is the competition between the two most powerful military clans of the time, the Taira and the Minamoto (also known as the Genji clan).

As the story opens, the Taira maintain power over the imperial throne under the leadership of Taira no Kiyomori. Facing shifting alliances, Kiyomori begins to act with unusual ruthlessness, creating many enemies in the process. In the first chapters, the Heike narrator demonstrates how Kiyomori’s actions transgress the usual boundaries of honorable conduct. This section ends as Kiyomori, wracked by disease and fever, succumbs to a terrible illness. The second and third sections recount the struggle, intrigue, and finally the civil wars that ensued between the Minamoto and Taira clans after Kiyomori’s death. The tale ends with the total devastation of the Taira and the supremacy of the Minamoto, led by Minamoto Yoritomo.

The Heike text is permeated by an aura of melancholy, reflecting the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of worldly phenomena. This melancholy lent a special poignancy to life and engendered both heroism and a sense of tragedy in Japanese culture. The opening line of the story, citing the tolling of a temple bell as a warning of vanity and the transitory nature of all things, sets the tone for the story to follow. The ruthless rise to power and final crushing defeat of the Taira speak not only of impermanence but also of retribution. The sins of Kiyomari are visited not only upon himself but also upon his descendants.

The value of the Heike lies in its character as historical narrative describing battles and political intrigues, but also in its lessons about samurai daily life, etiquette, and ethical values. The soldiers’ bravery in battle and their determination to fight to the death are illustrated by this passage describing the battle at Ichi-no-tani, when the warrior Naozane faces down a powerful enemy:

Naozane pulled out the arrows that were lodged in his own armor, tossed them aside, faced the stronghold with a scowl, and shouted in a mighty voice, “I am Naozane, the man who left Kamakura last winter determined to give his life for Lord Yoritomo and bleach his bones at Ichi-no-tani. Where is Etchu no Jirobyoe [and others]? Fame depends on the adversary. It does not come from meeting just any fellow who happens along. Confront me! Confront me!

Etchu no Jirobyoe Moritsugi was attired in his favorite garb, a blue-and-white hitatare and a suit of armor laced with red leather. He advanced slowly astride a whitish roan, his eyes fixed on Naozane. Naozane and his son did not retreat a step. Instead, they raised their swords to their foreheads and advanced at a steady walk, staying side by side to avoid being separated. Perhaps Moritsugi considered himself overmatched, for he turned back. 1

Conspicuous in this passage is the description of Moritsugi’s battle attire. Clearly a magnificent appearance was no substitute for courage, but it was important nonetheless as a material mark of warrior status. Battle etiquette is reflected in the Naozane’s shouted proclamation of allegiance to Yoritomo, and in the formal presentation of his own famous name to lure his opponent into battle.

Also from the Heike comes an ode to a rare female warrior, Tomoe Gozen, who exemplifies the loyalty and discipline expected of both genders within the warrior class. In general, samurai women led hard lives, bound by submission to husband, husband’s parents, and sons. Few served in battle, but in the Heike, Tomoe demonstrates strength of character, physical bravery, and determination in defense of her lover, Kiso Yoshinaka. First, there comes this description:

…Tomoe was also remarkably beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.2

Later, Tomoe encounters thirty horsemen under the command of the renowned warrior Onda no Moroshige. She acts decisively, and with memorable brutality:

Tomoe galloped into their midst, rode up alongside Moroshige, seized him in a powerful grip, pulled him down against the pommel of her saddle, held him motionless, twisted off his head, and threw it away. Afterward, she discarded armor and helmet and fled toward the eastern provinces.3

By the time of the Heike, it was customary to decapitate one’s opponent, as evidence of their defeat in battle. The violence of medieval warfare is fully captured by the war tales, but there are also moments in which the dignity and nobility of the soldiers are described and their underlying spiritual beliefs revealed. For example, in this passage the Taira warrior Tadanori calls upon the Buddha Amitabha for salvation, knowing that he is about to die:

Just then, Tadazumi’s page galloped up from the rear, drew his sword, and lopped off Tadanori’s right arm at the elbow. Tadanori may have felt that his time had come, for he said, “Give me room for a while. I want to recite ten Buddha-invocations.” He gripped Tadazumi and hurled him a bowlength away. Then he began to recite ten invocations in a loud voice, facing westward: “His light illumines all the worlds in the Ten Directions; he saves sentient beings who recite his name, he does not cast them away.” Tadazumi came up behind and cut off his head before he had finished.4

The story of Tadanori’s end also touches upon the marriage of culture and military skill that lay at the heart of samurai ideals:

Although Tadazumi felt certain that he had slain an important Commander-in-Chief, he did not know who he was. Observing that the other had tied a strip of paper to his quiver, he opened it and saw a poem, “On Blossoms at a Travel Lodging,” with the signature “Tadanori”:

If, journeying on/I seek shelter at nightfall beneath a tree/ might cherry blossoms become/ my host for this evening? Thus it was that he discovered his adversary’s identity.5

In this passage from Heike, a more complex view of the samurai, as a man of heightened sensibilities and religious devotion, is wedded to the image of martial valor that dominates modern popular culture. As we have seen, the ideal samurai was as committed to spiritual and cultural practices as he was to military training. Prayer and poems, it would seem, were as natural to him as marksmanship, loyalty, and bravery. Returning to the world of manga and anime, we can wonder: would Jin, one of the heroes of Samurai Champloo, leave a poem for his opponent to find? Would he pray for salvation at the moment of his execution? Possibly not, but his real-life predecessors would have proudly done so.

1 Helen Craig McCullough, trans., The Tale of the Heike (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1994), 307–308.
2 McCullough, Heike, 291.
3 McCullough, Heike, 292.
4 McCullough, Heike,314.
5 McCullough, Heike, 314.

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