The Rise and Fall of the Heike

Woodblock print of Taira no Kiyomori, by Yoshitoshi, published in the One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. 月岡芳年, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Near the end of the twelfth century in Japan, after decades of political meddling by the Fujiwara clan in Imperial court politics, an upstart samurai warlord named Taira no Kiyomori took control of his clan, the Heike (平家),1 in 1159. In 1179 he had become so powerful that he seized control of the capitol in a coup. The head of his hated rivals, the Genji clan (源氏),2 was executed and his sons forced to live in separate provinces. Further, the capitol was effectively a military dictatorship under the guise of maintaining the Imperial Court, with Taira no Kiyomori pressuring the Emperor to award him the court rank of 1st rank junior (just under the Emperor).

The Genji / Minamoto clan was scattered, but not defeated. In time, starting with Minamoto no Yoritomo, they were able to gather allies, including a Heike-offshoot the Hojo Clan. Further, the brothers of the Genji clan were gradually able to reunite, including the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and push back the Heike. This culminated with the battle of Dan-no-ura, when the Heike were almost totally wiped out.

But by the time of Dan-no-ura, Taira no Kiyomori was already dead. Taira no Kiyomori has become something of a power-hungry villain in Japanese lore since the Tales of the Heike, and subsequent media. His death is dramatized as being a terrible illness with a fever so bad that no one could approach him, while in his fever dream he was said to have seen the denizens of hell waiting for him.

Another woodblock print by Yoshitoshi dramatizing the illness and death of Taira no Kiyomori. Yoshitoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As the opening lines of the Tales of the Heike eloquently state, the powerful do not last long, and ultimately self-destruct.

P.S. The larger Heike clan persisted long after the Genpei War, mostly through off-shoots such as the Hojo, Miura, and so on. But Taira no Kiyomori’s ambitions were crushed and his immediately family and forces destroyed at Dan-no-ura. Minamoto no Yoritomo, for his part, wasn’t exactly a saintly figure either, as he ordered the execution of his brother, Yoshitsune, after the war for assuming too much power. Yoritomo further, was hemmed in by the Hojo Clan who managed all the actual affairs of the new Kamakura Shogunate, relegating him more and more to a figurehead. Ah, politics. 🤦🏻‍♂️

1 Also called the Taira clan. The Chinese character 平 can be read as either hei or taira. Welcome to the world of Japanese kanji.

2 Same situation: 源 can be read as gen or as minamoto.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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