History Versus Taira no Kiyomori

Tylar Davidson for History 340 with Dr. Harney

The Tale of the Heike is a piece of popular Japanese literature that examines the feud that occurred between the Taira and Minamoto clans, which reached its climax during the Genpei War (1180-1185). The Minamoto were victorious in this war, and they succeeded in ousting the Taira from power and the leader of the Minamoto, Minamoto no Yoritomo, established the first shogunate in Kamakura. The Tale of the Heike came about during the Kamakura Shogunate and was written to be a form of song recited by blind monks, that entertained the people. The entertainment factor of The Tale of the Heike led the stories that are contained within it to stray from the realm of accurate, historical information, into the realm of myth and legend. The Tale of the Heike presents Taira no Kiyomori as the villain of the song, and in doing so, it expresses a heavy bias against him. The bias that is expressed towards Kiyomori serves to muddle the view of his own life and style of governance, while elevating one’s view of Minamoto no Yoritomo. The heavy bias and distortion of historical fact are what prevents The Tale of the Heike from being used as an actual piece of historical fact, for it distorts the reality of the rule of Kiyomori, by presenting him as an evil villain who sought to destroy the basic principles of Japanese culture.

The Genpei War (1180-1185) saw Japan plunge into one of the greatest periods of violence that the archipelago had faced up to that point. The tensions that caused the war began escalating in the end of 1179, when “Kiyomori …marched from Fukuwara into the capital…The young Emperor Takakura…abdicated early in 1180 in favor of his son Antoku.”[1] The act of marching upon the capital was viewed by many to be a direct insult to the emperor, who was viewed as the divine head of the country. Kiyomori had already offended the emperor on this account and then, strong urging by Kiyomori led Takakura to abdicate, meaning that the divine will and nature of the emperor acted according to the will of an ordinary man, which was viewed as one of the greatest insults that one could render towards the emperor. The repeated insulting of the emperor led Minamoto no Yoritomo to rally his forces to march on the Taira forces, for Yoritomo stated that “he was commissioned by Prince Mochihito to chastise the Taira.”[2] This allowed the Minamoto to claim that they were fighting to uphold the honor of the emperor, and to return Japan to a period of peace and prosperity that was interrupted by the rule of the Taira. The Minamoto were victorious in the war, which allowed them to write the history of the conflict. This knowledge allows one to see why The Tale of the Heike is extremely biased against the rule of Taira no Kiyomori, which is shown through two specific events that occurred during the Genpei War: The burning of the temples at Nara, and the death of Taira no Kiyomori.

One of the most atrocious events that occurs during The Tale of the Heike was the burning of the temple at Nara, which was an extremely vital center of Buddhism in Japan. The monks that inhabited the temples of Nara were renowned warriors, and they put up stiff defense as the forces of Lord Kiyomori descended upon the city. The Tale of the Heike recants the events as such, stating that “In due course they [the forces of lord Kiyomori] proposed to attack both Miidera and Nara/ This threw the monks of the Nara temples into a violent uproar.”[3] This is the first offense that Kiyomori had committed, for he was committing troops to fight in open combat in two cities that were extremely sacred in the realm of Japanese Buddhism. The response of Kiyomori was to send an envoy of five-hundred armed men to Nara, in an effort to reason with the monks, to which they responded, when “They [the monks] seized over sixty of Kaneyasu’s men, one by one cut off their heads/ and exposed them all in a row beside Sarusawa Pond.”[4] The response by the monks was warranted in the eyes of the Japanese people and later, the writers of The Tale of the Heike because they were acting in defense of sacred sites that have been vital to Japan for the previous four centuries, since the reign of Emperor Shomu, who reigned from 724-749. The response of Kiyomori to this is recanted in The Tale of the Heike as “Kiyomori was furious. “Well then,” he said, “attack Nara.”[5] The forces of Kiyomori descended upon Nara in a wave of violence and terror which had never been seen in all Japanese History. The forces of Kiyomori went through the city and proceeded to set the holy city ablaze, which is recanted as “A strong wind was blowing, and its erratic gusts soon carried the fire/ originally sprung from a single source, to many temples.”[6] The burning of the temple is the greatest atrocity that Kiyomori committed. The importance of Nara had been prevalent since the eighth century, when the capital was moved there, and the religious importance of Nara was emphasized when Emperor Shomu embarked on a massive temple building project throughout the middle of the eighth century, a system which was dubbed the “statewide temple system.”[7] This system reached its climax in 743, when “He took a vow to make a huge gilt-bronze statue of Rushana Buddha.”[8] The construction of the state-sponsored temples served to highlight the role that Buddhism held in Japanese society and serves to highlight the severity of the offense that was committed by Taira no Kiyomori. The final death toll from the battle was stated as “three thousand-five hundred in all/ One-thousand monks had died on the battlefield.”[9] This furthers the description of the carnage that occurred during the battle, as the forces of Kiyomori desecrated a religious site, and slaughtered its worshipers and inhabitants. All of these events serve to show the violence and villainy of Kiyomori, and this is all summed up in the statement “Lord Kiyomori alone indulged in vengeful rejoicing,”[10] which shows him as the ultimate villain in the eyes of the Minamoto, for he rejoices in the destruction of a religious site. The depiction of Kiyomori as a villain serves to elevate the Minamoto clan to a place of perfection, for they are fighting to rid Japan from the influence of a man who has no respect for one of the most core values of their society: Buddhism.

            The burning of the temples at Nara serve not only to illustrate the complete disregard for the state custom of Buddhism that was held by Kiyomori, but it also serves to depict Kiyomori as an ineffective ruler whose only solution for any problem was brute force. Kiyomori came to power as an effective protector of the Emperor, a skill that was highlighted during the Hogen Rebellion of 1156, when he proved his use to the cloistered emperor, Go Shirakawa, and it was this event that had elevated the Taira clan to the prominent position that it would hold until the end of the Genpei War. Kiyomori was described by R.H.P Mason and J.G. Caiger as “Forceful when roused, and when he felt that he had nothing to lose by a policy force.”[11] This description aligns itself with the depiction of Kiyomori in The Tale of the Heike, but it is not the only description of Kiyomori, for it is also noted that “His most notable act of forbearance occurred in 1160 when…he spared the young sons of his defeated foe, Minamoto no Yoshitomo (1123-1160)”[12]. The event that is being referenced is the Heiji Revolt (1159-1160), which saw the Taira clan defeat the Minamoto. The most important son that was spared by Kiyomori was Minamoto no Yoritomo, who would become the enemy of the Taira clan during the Genpei war. Another fact of Kiyomori that is lost in the telling of the burning of Nara in The Tale of the Heike is the loss of the vast political skill that Kiyomori held during the periods that proceeded the Genpei war and the skills that he held during the war itself. G. Cameron Hurst states that “one cannot overlook Kiyomori’s skill at political maneuvering. After entering the ranks…[in] 1160…Kiyomori’s rapid rise was due to…his ability.”[13] Kiyomori was able to rise to such a rank that he was able to hold de facto power over all of Japan, and it was not through sheer brute force, but by extreme political talent that Kiyomori gained this power. It is through this view of the political skill of Kiyomori that one can see that the burning of Nara was not a rash political mistake, made in anger like The Tale of the Heike suggests, but it would have had to have been a well calculated attack based firmly in political reason. This statement is supported with a claim from Takeuchi Rizo, who states that “sending his fifth son…to burn Todaiji and Kofukuji in Nara in retaliation for their armed support of Minamoto forces.”[14] The attacks on the city of Nara were in response to the armed revolts of the monks, therefore, it stands to reason that the attacks on Nara were made in an effort to preserve the political unity of Japan in a time when the political unity of the state was at jeopardy, as opposed to the view which was expressed in The Tale of the Heike, as stated above. It is here that one sees the bias of The Tale of the Heike, for it chooses to depict Kiyomori as a ruthless and irrational leader, who attacked Nara out of sheer anger. That view is not in keeping with the historical record of Kiyomori, who was a skilled politician and acted only in response to an armed revolt that threatened the unity of the state that he was the head of.

 Another instance of the bias in The Tale of the Heike is made clear when Kiyomori actually passes away. Kiyomori had come down with an unbearable fever, that left him in agony for the days proceeding his death. The response to this was that water was poured upon him, but The Tale of the Heike states that “What water did touch him turned to fire.”[15] This fever is reported to be caused by “the evil karma that he had accumulated.”[16] The evil karma was accumulated from his destruction of the temples at Nara, which is stated upon the revelation of the dreams of his wife, Lady Ni. She dreams of a flaming ox-cart that comes hurdling through the gates of the palace, with an iron plate which reads “for the crime of burning the sixteen-foot…Roshana.”[17] The story of his death goes on and states that he was in constant agony for his final days and his final words that were uttered requested the head of Yoritomo to be presented to him, for it would be the last thing he needed to live a complete life, to which The Tale of the Heike states, “what profoundly sinful words.”[18] This statement directly exposes the bias that is held by The Tale of the Heike, for it implies that it is sinful for Kiyomori to ask for the head of his enemy, who has threatened the state that he [Kiyomori] had come to govern. When Kiyomori finally passes away, and his spirit is separated from his body, and it drifts to the afterlife. The Tale of the Heike states that:

                        “Warriors by the tens of thousands,

                        Each loyally ready to die for him…

                        But not for one moment could they repel

                        The murderous demons of transience.”[19]

And:

                        “Only his many crimes, new and old,

                        Came forth to meet him as hell fiends”[20]

This harkens back to the statements made about his accumulation of bad karma, for he is now being denied entrance to Nirvana. This appeal to the Buddhist religion gives the Minamoto a chance to villainize Kiyomori even more for he has accumulated such a reserve of bad karma, that he is now unable to reach the afterlife. This serves to elevate the Minamoto to a position as defenders of Buddhism, for they are waging war in an effort to remove a morally unjust ruler from power for the betterment of Japan. This defense of Buddhism also connects the Minamoto to the emperor, as his protectors, for they are ridding his land of a threat to Buddhism, and the emperor himself. These claims are certainly supported from the course of events that occurred, for “A month later [after the burning of Nara] Kiyomori died,”[21] which adds to the story of his death being brought about by the wrath of the spirits.

It is through the mythical account of the death of Taira no Kiyomorithat the truth of the death of Kiyomori is distorted. The Tale of the Heike states that the death of Kiyomori came from his abundance of bad karma, which serves as a good element of storytelling, but it directly contrasts with the historical accounts that are present. The emperor began to move his residence to Fukuwara in June of 1180, and Kiyomori accompanied him. This route is described by George Sansom as “altogether too rough, cold and damp for the delicate health of aristocrats.”[22] The initial trip to Fukuwara was not detrimental to the health of Kiyomori but the return trip, six months later, was what caused the illness. Sansom also states, on the return of Kiyomori to Kyoto, that “Not long after the return of the courtiers from Fukuwara to the capital city…Kiyomori fell sick of a mortal disease.”[23] This was the episode of illness that is referenced in The Tale of the Heike, and the historical fact directly disproves the statement that is given in The Tale of the Heike, for it states a clear environmental cause for the illness of Kiyomori. However, the fact that the illness occurred so close to the burning of the temples of Nara is what provides the reasoning that the illness was brought on by the wrath of the spirits. The Tale of the Heike also implies that the illness of Kiyomori was so terrible that he was immobile and unable to speak, except for uttering words of vengeance against Minamoto no Yoritomo, which adds to the portrayal of Kiyomori as a villain. Sansom states, on the death of Kiyomori, that “he [Kiyomori] seems to have rallied shortly before his death, for we find it recorded that on March 21 that he died…but had talked to Go-Shirakawa…and expressed his views very vigorously.”[24] The vigorous expression that was made was the declaration of his heir, whom Go-Shirakawa was not too fond of. This vigorous expression of his successor shows that Kiyomori was able to competently think prior to his death, which is in direct contrast to the description presented in The Tale of the Heike. The direct causes of the death of Kiyomori and the description of his actions on the day of his death offers an explanation for the events that occur in The Tale of the Heike. These statements highlight the bias that occurs in the tale, for the depiction of Kiyomori as a man who is ill, unable to rule and under the wrath of the spirits highlights the heroic qualities of the Minamoto, for they are fighting to remove Kiyomori, an ineffective ruler and a man who has lost the favor of the gods, which shows the Minamoto as the true saviors of Japan.

The Tale of the Heike served to elevate the position of the Minamoto, while diminishing that of the Taira. It has become a popular piece of literature and that has distorted the actual history that the tale portrays. The actual views of Kiyomori at the time are best described by George Sansom as “he [Kiyomori] seems to have been roundly hated.”[25] However, this view is due to the period of chaos that Kiyomori found himself living in, on which Sansom states “He was at the head of his clan at a moment…in Japanese history, when none but forcible measures could solve the problems that crowded him.”[26] When one couples this with the view expressed by Mason and Caiger,in which they state that Kiyomori was only “Forceful when roused, and when he felt that he had nothing to lose by a policy force,”[27]  one can see that  Kiyomori was a man who resorted to violence only because he needed to during a time of great political turmoil in Japan. The final quality that Kiyomori held that established him as an effective ruler and statesman was that “despite his armed power he felt it necessary to obtain a cloistered Emperor’s consent to his measures.”[28] This shows the immense respect that Kiyomori held for the system in which he was head of, in which he only acted with the permission of the emperor, which was standard for any chancellor of his time. It is through these descriptions of the character of Kiyomori that one sees the bias and embellishment of The Tale of the Heike, which serves to distort one’s view of the history in which the tale is based. It is for this reason that The Tale of the Heike has little benefit in being studied as an accurate historical manuscript for it exerts such a large bias towards the Taira. This exertion of such a large bias against the Taira means that the truth of the government of Taira no Kiyomori and the time in which he lived and governed holds a line that is blurred and not defined by a historical study of The Tale of the Heike.

Word Count: 2926


[1] George Sansom. A History of Japan to 1334. (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 275.

[2] Sansom. The History of Japan to 1334. 291.

[3] The Tale of the Heike, Translated by Royall Tyler. (New York: The Penguin Group), 297.

[4] The Tale of the Heike, Trans. Royall Tyler. 298.

[5] The Tale of the Heike, Trans. Royall Tyler. 298.

[6] The Tale of the Heike, Trans. Royall Tyler. 299.

[7] Sonoda Koyu. “Early Buddha Worship” in The Cambridge History of Japan: Ancient Japan. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 397.

[8] Koyu. The Cambridge History of Japan. 397.

[9] Tale of the Heike, Trans. Royall Tyler. 303.

[10] Tale of the Heike, Trans. Royall Tyler. 303.

[11] R.H.P. Mason and J.G. Caiger. A History of Japan. (Boston: Tuttle Publishing). 125.

[12] Mason and Caiger. A History of Japan. 125.

[13] G. Cameron Hurst. “Insei” in The Cambridge History of Japan: Heian Japan. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 625.

[14] Takeuchi Rizo. “The Rise of Warriors” in The Cambridge History of Japan: Heian Japan. (Cambridge: Cambridge University). 703.

[15] Tale of the Heike. Trans. Royall Tyler. 326.

[16] Mason and Caiger. A History of Japan. 125.

[17] Tale of the Heike. Trans. Royall Tyler. 326.

[18] Tale of the Heike. Trans. Royall Tyler. 327.

[19] Tale of the Heike. Trans. Royall Tyler. 328

[20]Tale of the Heike. Trans. Royall Tyler. 328

[21] Rizo. “The Rise of Warriors”. 704.

[22]Sansom. A History of Japan to 1334. 284.

[23] Sansom. A History of Japan to 1334. 287.

[24] Sansom. A History of Japan to 1334. 287.

[25] Sansom. The History of Japan to 1334. 288.

[26] Sansom. The History of Japan to 1334. 288.

[27] Mason and Caiger. A History of Japan. 125.

[28] Sansom. The History of Japan to 1334. 288.

Bibliography

Hurst, G. Cameron, III. “Insei” in The Cambridge History of Japan: Heian Japan, Edited by Donald H. Shively and William H. McCullough. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1999.

Koyu, Sonada. “Early Buddhist Worship” in The Cambridge History of Japan: Ancient Japan, Edited by Delmer M. Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1993.

Mason, R.H.P, and Caiger, J.G. A History of Japan. Boston: Tuttle Publishing., 1997.

Rizo, Takeuchi. “The Rise of the Warriors” in The Cambridge History of Japan: Heian Japan, Edited by Donald H. Shively and William H. McCullough. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1999.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford: Stanford University Press., 1958.

The Tale of the Heike, Translated by Royall Tyler. London: The Penguin Publishing Group., 2014.

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