Since the kids were very young, the family and I subscribe to Terebi Japan, a cable channel that allows us to watch Japanese TV. The cable channel mostly shows TV from the public channel, NHK (roughly analogous to the BBC), and not other content, but it does allow us to watch Japanese TV legitimately and not through some shady third-party service. NHK has a famous series of historical dramas called Taiga Dorama (大河ドラマ) which change every year, but feature some aspect of Japanese history. I usually don’t watch these because they’re not that interesting, and the Japanese dialog is particularly archaic and difficult for me.
However, lately, I’ve gotten sucked into the latest Taiga Dorama series: Kamakura-dono no Ju-san-nin (鎌倉殿の13人) which translates to the Thirteen Lords of Kamakura. The opening theme alone is pretty epic and worth a watch. I always love seeing the rain of arrows at sea during the climactic final battle of Dan-no-ura in particular.
This series covers a period of Japanese history that I find particularly fascinating ever since I first studied it in college: the Genpei War in the 12th century. I’ve touched upon the Genpei War before, but to summarize again, this was a four-year country-wide conflict between two powerful samurai clans: the Heike (a.k.a. the Taira) and the Genji (a.k.a. the Minamoto). During this time in Japanese history, the last days of the Heian Period, the samurai class were socially inferior to the noble families of Kyoto (known as Heian-kyo back then) and were subject to manipulation by them. However, the Heike clan turned this around by manipulating the Imperial throne under one Taira no Kiyomori. Having effectively seized the throne, Taira no Kiyomori began to drive out his rivals, including the Minamoto.
The Minamoto were savagely defeated and driven to remote provinces where they were eventually able to rally allied clans (including a Heike off-shoot, the Hojo clan)1 and push the Heike back in defeat after defeat until the battle of Dan-no-ura where the Heike made their last stand, and Kiyomori’s grandson, the two year old Emperor Antoku drowned.
From this point on, the power of the nobility, who had stirred up so much conflict in the first place, was greatly curtailed for centuries, and the samurai class became the true power in Japan until the late 19th century. Minamoto no Yoritomo, who led the Minamoto clan to victory, was the first shogun (generalissimo) of the new military government based in Kamakura, not Kyoto.
This period of warfare was incredibly disruptive to Japan, as evinced in such works as the Hojoki, and is still remembered as the end of Japan’s cultural “golden age”, and the ascendancy of the Samurai. The epic Tales of the Heike (heike monogatari, 平家物語) is a later retelling of what happens, but there are numerous cultural references to the people and places of the War such as ghost stories of the Heike, “Heike crabs“, Kabuki dramas, artistic works in the 19th century, and so on.
One of my personal favorite is a famous duel between the Genji-clan soldier named Kumagai Naozane (熊谷直実) against the Heike prince named Taira no Atsumori (平敦盛) at the beach-side battle of Ichi-no-tani. Because Naozane was old enough to be Atsumori’s father, and because Atsumori was such a refined youth, Naozane hesitated to kill him at first, but with the other Minamoto soldiers arriving, Atsumori was obviously doomed no matter what. Naozane gave him a quick, merciful kill.
After the war, Naozane felt remorse for slaying Atsumori, and retired to the Buddhist clergy as a monk and a devotee of Honen of the Pure Land sect where he took the ordination name of Hōrikibō Rensei (法力房 蓮生) and was a fervent devotee until his death.2
As for the Taiga drama, it’s pretty awesome. The Japanese is still archaic and difficult for me to follow, but they do try to use modern Japanese more, and the cast are celebrities I am more or less familiar with. Matsudaira Ken (of Matsuken Samba fame) plays Taira no Kiyomori, too. 😋
It’s not the first Taiga drama that NHK has done about the Genpei War (another famous one about 10 years ago made the villain, Taira no Kiyomori, the main character), but this drama is particularly well done, and my language skills have finally reached the point where I can appreciate it in Japanese, rather than filtered through limited Western media. But also, as someone who avidly studied Japanese history in college, the War between the Genji and the Heike is something I’ve imagined for half my life and now I can see not just in my imagination, but vividly in a powerful drama.
P.S. The featured image is a 19th century woodblock painting of Heiki general Taira no Tsunemasa (平経正) in a scene from the Tales of the Heike by Yoshitoshi.
P.P.S. Burton Watson’s abridged translation of the Tales of the Heike is a good read if you are interested.
1 The title of the drama “Thirteen Lords of Kamakura” is, I believe, in reference to the various samurai clans who are allies or enemies of the Genji, and each one jockeying for power. I might be wrong though.
2 This also debunks a tired old myth about samurai and Zen Buddhism. The reality was quite a bit more nuanced.