Ever wondered why is the Japanese flag red and white? They were the respective colors of the Taira and Minamoto clans who fought in the Genpei war (1185 – 1189 CE) at the end of the Heian period (794 – 1185 CE). It was an important civil war that greatly changed the social order, resulting in the rise of the Samurai warrior class and the establishment of the shogunate government which ruled Japan for the next 700 years. It is often compared to the War of the Roses in England and was retold in an epic poem, The Tale of The Heike, which is likened to the Japanese Iliad. Let’s follow the life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159 – 1189 CE), a military general who played a major role in the war. He is one of the most famous Samurai in Japanese history, his tragic story is popularized in many Noh and Kabuki plays, as well as TV. However due to the scarcity of historical sources in this time period, much information about him has been embellished with folktales and legends.
During the Heian period, the emperor did not truly have much power, politics were often dominated by the various noble families that fought for power in the imperial court through intermarriage and war. By the 1100s, the most powerful families were the Minamoto and Taira clans. In 1159, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, head of the Minamoto clan, attempted a coup but was defeated by Taira no Kiyomori, head of the Taira clan. The Minamoto clan was decimated but Kiyomori decided to spare the lives of three of Yoshitomo’s sons, Yoritomo, Noriyori and Yoshitsune, an act which later proved to be his downfall.
Yoshitsune was only just born when the rebellion occurred. His mother became a mistress of Kiyomori and he was exiled to Kurama temple on Mount Kurama at a young age. Legends say that the king of the Tengus (a mythical bird-like creature in Japanese folklore known for its long nose) who lived in the mountain taught him swordsmanship and military tactics.
The warrior-monk Musashibou Benkei is most famous for being Yoshitsune’s right-hand man. He was intimidating person over 2 meters tall, immensely strong and skilled in using the Naginata, a type of Japanese spear. Before he met Yoshitsune, he was expelled by his monastery for getting into trouble and became an ascetic at Gojou Bridge, Kyoto. He dueled with every swordsman who dared to cross the bridge and took away the loser’s weapon upon victory. He eventually collected 999 swords but on his 1000th duel, he lost against the young Yoshitsune. Impressed by his swordsmanship skills, he swore loyalty to Yoshitsune and became his retainer, following him to every battle in the upcoming war.
In 1180, Kiyomori placed his two-year old grandson on the throne, causing the rightful heir, Prince Mochibito to issue a rally for the Minamoto clan to rise against the Taira. This began the Genpei war. Now an adult, Yoshitsune’s older brother, Yoritomo rose to become the leader of the Minamoto clan and organized the revolt, gathering allies to his cause. Yoshitsune and Noriyori shortly joined him afterwards, the three brothers who had never met before in their lives have reunited. Although Yoritomo’s forces were outnumbered, they managed to hold off the Taira’s armies until 1181, when the war ceased for two years. Kiyomori died of illness that year, leaving his son to rule and there was a famine in Japan which many blamed on the Taira.
Meanwhile, Yoritomo had recruited his cousin, Yoshinaka who was a successful general. Yoshinaka won many skirmishes against the Taira but Yoritomo grew increasingly distrustful of him. When Yoshinaka's troops marched into Kyoto and captured the capital, he ambitiously sought to crown himself as the ruler. However, Yoritomo found out about his plans and sent Yoshitsune and Noriyori to defeat him. He was killed at the Battle of Awazu in 1184. The Taira retreated to the west after losing the capital.
Fall of the Taira
The Minamoto then turned their attention to defeating the Taira. Yoshitsune and Noriyori led their troops towards Ichi-no-tani, a Taira fortification located near Kobe, at a narrow strip between two mountains overlooking the sea. It was a difficult position to attack but the Taira were soundly defeated by Yoshitsune’s surprise attack at night. It was during this time that Yoshitsune started to gain fame as an brilliant commander. Yoshitsune won another key battle at Yashima in 1185 and pursued the fleeing Taira to Dan-no-ura bay near the Shimonoseki Strait, where they made their last stand. The Taira initially had the advantage, although they were outnumbered, they had better knowledge of naval combat and the tides in the area. However, the tides shifted direction later in the day and one of their generals defected, allowing Yoshitsune’s troops to storm their ships. For the Taira facing defeat, many of them chose to commit suicide by jumping into the sea rather than surrender.
Without Yoshitsune's efforts, the Minamoto would not have won the war decisively but the paranoid Yoritomo grew jealous of his success and saw him as threat. Instead of rewarding him, he declared Yoshitsune a traitor and sent troops to pursue him at his refuge in Koromogawa, Iwate. With no way out, Yoshitsune was forced to commit seppuku along with his wife and child while Benkei fearlessly protected his lord outside the mansion. It was said that Benkei died standing up, covered in arrows all over his body. With no opposition left, Yoritomo consolidated his power and founded the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192, becoming the first shogun, the military ruler of Japan. The emperor lost his powers and was reduced to a figurehead. This system of governance would last until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. After his death, Yoshitsune became revered as a national hero and an example of a virtuous samurai. There were even rumors that he managed to escaped to Mongolia and became Genghis Khan...