The Samurai in Feudal Japan

From Kamakura (1185-1333)
to Tokugawa (1600-1868)

Who Wielded Power in Nara and Heian

Emperors or combinations of nobles
Fujiwara nobles
Retired emperors

Military house of Taira

The Taira

In 1156 open conflict broke out between the cloistered (retired) emperor and the reigning emperor, and military men were called in on both sides.  On one side, supporting the cloistered emperor, was a force led by Minamoto no Tameyoshi (1096-1156); on the other side, the emperor, Go-Shirakawa, had the backing of a coalition led by Taira no Kiyomori (1118-81), which also included among its leaders Tameyoshi’s own son, Yoshitomo (1123-60).  Military victory in what is known as the Hogen Conflict went to Kiyomori’s coalition, but the real losers were the court and the old civil nobility....

Minamoto no Yoshitomo Burning the Royal Palace

The Heiji Monogatari
The chieftain primarily responsible for victory in the Hogen conflict was Minamoto no Yoshitomo....But the court chose to reward Taira no Kiyomori far more generously than he for his participation in the conflict.  Disgruntled and resentful, Yoshitomi was drawn...into a scheme to overthrow Kiyomori and the leaders at court.  Choosing a time in 1159 when Kiyomori was absent from Kyoto on a religious pilgrimage, Yoshitomo and Nobuyori made their move, attacking and burning the Sanjo Palace, residence of the retired emperor Goshirakawa, and transporting Goshirakawa to the emperor’s palace, where they placed him in confinement.  But Kiyomori returned quickly to Kyoto and managed to smuggle Goshirakawa’s son, Emperor Nijo, out of the palace disguised as a lady-in-waiting and to escort him to the main Taira residence at Rokuhara in the southeastern part of the capital.  Kiyomori and the Taira now claimed that they were the “emperor’s army” and branded their Minamoto adversaries “rebels.”  The Heiji conflict, as this clash came to be called, reached its climax soon thereafter in a battle that began at one of the gates of the imperial palace and ended in a decisive triumph for the Taira.  Yoshitomo, the defeated Minamoto commander, tried to escape to the eastern provinces but was murdered on the way by a treacherous vassal. [Sources of Japanese Tradition (SJT), 274]

The Minamoto
Kiyomori’s most serious problem was that in ruling through the old institutions, his regime shared their weaknesses.  He could no more exercise real control over the provinces, where the sources of actual power now lay, than could the cloistered emperor.  Led by Yoshitomo’s son Yoritomo (1147-99), the Minamoto took advantage of this situation to rebuild their power.  With the support of many eastern Taira as well as Minamoto families, Yoritomo initiated the Gempei War (1180-85), which culminated in the permanent defeat of the Taira.  Contributing to this outcome was the brillian generaliship of Yoshitsune (1159-1189), Yoritomo’s younger brother, who defeated the Taira at sea as well as on land.  Later Yoshitsune himself incurred the suspicion of his  elder brother, who, in the end, turned his armed might against him and brought about his death. [A Brief History of Japanese Civilization (BHJC), 74-75]
The Heike Monogatari
Eastern Warriors
In the Genpei, as narrated in the Heike [Monogatari], the eastern warriors (the Minamoto) are portrayed as so superior to the western warriors (the Taira) in martial ability that there is never any doubt about the war’s outcome.  We are made aware of this discrepancy in fighting ability at the very beginning of the war when the commander of a Taira army sent to chastise the rebel Yoritomo in the east asks one of the warriors in his army, Saito no Sanemori, who is from the east and was previously a follower of the Minamoto, “How many men in the Eight Provinces [of the Kanto] can wield a strong bow as well as you do?”

Sanemori uttered a derisive laugh.  “Do you think I use long arrows?  They barely measure thirteen fists.  Any number of warriors in the east can equal that:  nobody is called a long-arrow man there unless he draws a fifteen-fist shaft.  A strong bow is held to be one that requires six stout men for the stringing.  One of those powerful archers can easily penetrate two or three suits of armor when he shoots.

“Every big landholder commands at least five hundred horsemen.  Once a rider mounts, he never loses his seat; however rugged the terrain he gallops over, his horse never falls.  If he sees his father or son cut down in battle, he rides over the dead body and keeps on fighting.  In west-country battles, a man who loses a father leaves the field and is seen no more until he has made offerings and completed a mourning period; someone who loses a son is too overwhelmed with grief to resume the fight at all.  When westerners run out of commissariat rice, they stop fighting until after the fields are planted and harvested.  They think summertime is too hot for battle, and wintertime too cold.  Easterners are entirely different.” [SJT, 277-278]

The Heike Monogatari
The Death of Atsumori
Kumagai noJiro Naozane walked his horse toward the beach after the defeat of the Heike.  “the Taira nobles will be fleeing to the water’s edge in the hope of boarding rescue vessels,” he thought.  “Ah, how I would like to grapple with a high-ranking Commander-in-Chief!”  Just then, he saw a lone rider splash into the sea, headed toward a vessel in the offing.  The other was attired in crane-embroidered nerinuki silk hitatare, a suit of armor with shaded green lacing, and a horned helmet.  At his waist, he wore a sword with gilt bronze fittings; on his back, there rode a quiver containing arrows fledged with black-banded white eagle feathers.  He grasped a rattan-wrapped bow and bestrode a white-dappled reddish horse with a gold-edged saddle.  When his mount had swum out about a hundred and fifty or two hundred feet, Naozane beckoned with his fan.
        “I see that you are a Commander-in-Chief.  It is dishonorable to show your back to an enemy.  Return!”
        The warrior came back.  As he was leaving the water, Naozane rode up alongside him, gripped him with all his strength, crashed with him to the ground, held him motionless and pushed aside his helmet to cut off his head.  He was sixteen or seventeen years old, with a lightly powdered face and blackened teeth
—a boy just the age of Naozane’s own son Kojiro Naoie, and so handsome that Naozane could not find a place to strike.
        “Who are you?  Announce your name.  I will spare you,” Naozane said.
        “Who are you?” the youth asked.
        “Nobody of any importance:  Kumagae no Jiro Naozane, a resident of Musashi Province.”
        “Then it is unnecessary to give you my name.  I am a desirable opponent for you.  Ask about me after you take my head.  Someone will recognize me, even if I don’t tell you.”
        “Indeed, he must be a Commander-in-Chief,” Naozane thought.  “Killing this one person will not change defeat into victory, nor will sparing him change victory into defeat.  When I think of how I greived when Kojiro suffered a minor wound, it is easy to imagine the sorrow of this young lord’s father if he were to hear that the boy had been slain.  Ah, I would like to spare him!”  Casting a swift glance to the rear, he discovered Sanehira and Kagetoki coming along behind him with fifty riders.
        “I would like to spare you,” he said, restraining his tears, “but there are Genji warriors everywhere.  You cannot possibly escape.  It will be better if I kill you than if someone else does, because I will offer prayers on your behalf.”
        “Just take my head and be quick about it.”
        Overwhelmed by compassion, Naozane could not find a place to strike.  His senses reeled, his wits forsook him and he was scarcely conscious of his surroundings.  But matters could not go on like that forever; in tears, he took the head.
        “Alas!  No lot is as hard as a warrior’s.  I would never have suffered such a dreadful experience if I had not been born into a military house.  How cruel I was to kill him.”  He pressed his sleeve to his face and shed floods of tears.
        Presently, since matters could not go on like that forever, he started to remove the youth’s armor hitatare so that he might wrap it around the head.  A brocade bag containing a flute was tucked in at the waist.  “Ah, how pitiful!  He must have been one of the people I heard making music inside the stronghold just before dawn.  There are tens of thousands of riders in our eastern armies, but I am sure none of them has brought a flute to the battlefield.  Those court nobles are refined men!”
        When Naozane’s trophies were presented for Yoshitsune’s inspection, they drew tears from the eyes of all the beholders.  It was learned later that the slain youth was Tayu Atsumori, aged seventeen, a son of Tsunemori, the Master of the Palace Repairs Office.
        After that, Naozane thought increasingly of becoming a monk.
        The flute in question is said to have been given by Retired Emperor Toba to Atsumori’s grandfather, Tadamori, who was a skilled musician.  I believe I have heard that Tsunemori, who inherited it, turned it over to Atsumori because of his son’s proficiency as a flutist.  Saeda [Little Branch] was its name.  It is deeply moving that music, a profane entertainment, should have led a warrior to the religious life. [SJT, 278-280]

The Kamakura Period
In order to consolidate his power, Yoritomo eliminated all potential rivals, including half-brothers Yoshitsune and Noriyori, as well as his son-in-law.  He ruled as regent, becoming supreme constable and supreme land steward of all 66 provinces; this allowed him to eliminate earlier problem of tax-free status of the shoen (estates owned by various landlords, especially the court aristocracy in Heian/Kyoto).   The situation was similar to European “feudalism” in terms of hegemony (or “dominant influence”) of the shogun (i.e. regent), and the general sense in which the vassal had financial and military obligations to his lord; there were, however, several significant differences:
(i) in Japan, vassals were usually appointed to some office such as “land steward” or “shoen (property/estate) manager,” rather than being given title to the land itself.
(ii)  the shogun directly controlled many estates throughout Japan, but other significant landowners (such as emperor, court aristocracy) retained control of their own lands.
(iii) Japanese peasants weren’t “serfs” because they were not tied to the land; they were free to go, but if they did they lost any claim to the land.
The Imperial court was left intact, but the military government (bakufu) was the dominant power, moving its own capital from Kyoto to Kamakura, from which the era takes its name.

The devastation caused by the Gempei War led not only to the development of a new political system (the bakufu or “military government”), but also to a deeper appreciation for the Buddhist notion of “suffering.” The combination of a strong warrior ethic and a profound appreciation for the suffering that it produced led to the development of a uniquely Japanese aesthetic principle that would eventually be called mono no aware, which may be loosely translated as sensitivity to (the sadness of) things.” One might conjecture that this aesthetic principle allowed the Japanese to find meaning in a world dominated by violence—a world in which a young warrior must be prepared to die in battle at a moments notice, like Atsumori in the preceding passage. The notion that there is great beauty to be found in the midst of suffering is aptly symbolized by the cherry blossom (sakura), which attains the height of its beauty precisely when it falls from the tree (i.e. when it dies).

Additional Resources
Samurai Japan
[AV. 952.02 Sa4f video

(Kurosawa Samurai Epic set in 16th Century Japan)
[AV. 791.43 R14k dvd