Saturday, July 27, 2013

Genpei War

*Note: Because there are quite a few Japanese names in this post, and we English-speakers tend to get all confuzzled with that sort of thing, I will be color-coding some important names to make it easier to follow. If you're colorblind and still can't follow along, sorry...grow some new eyeballs.*

Fig.1: There's really no contest here.
The Hatfields and McCoys. The Capulets and Montagues. The Simpsons and the Huxtables. But none of these family feuds has had as much impact or cost more lives than the Minamoto and the Taira clans in 12th century Japan. Their battle for power and influence over the Emperor during the Heian period led to a five-year civil war known as the Genpei War, which is even a whole year longer than The Simpsons battled The Cosby Show for the ratings in the crucial Thursday 8pm time slot. After the war's conclusion in 1185, the political structure of Japan changed for hundreds of years, and allowed for the emergence of the samurai culture, which is several times better than the cowboy culture (fig.1).

It was common practice in the Heian period of Japan (which began in the 794th Year of Our Doughnut) that the Emperor would become popular with the ladies, and thus have too many children on his hands. The solution was to create noble clans from the various descendants, and down the line these clans would become influential families in charge of taking government posts, advising the Emperor, and making sure the Emperor doesn't eat too much candy and get all wound up before bedtime. Around the 10th century, the Taira clan emerged as a dominant force in Japanese politics. The clan's founder, Taira no Takamochi, was the grandson of the Emperor Kammu; his son became a regional ruler, whose son became a governmental minister, whose son became a successful general, whose son was a little bit of a disappointment and became a doctor (what a slacker), but his son became a personal adviser to the Emperor. The Taira reached their height under Taira no Kiyomori, who became Chief Minister in 1167. He had helped defeat several rebellions against Taira rule in the 1150s, including one against their jealous rivals, the Minamoto clan, who were always looking out their window with binoculars at the Taira clan and shaking their fists.

Fig.2: The Emperor Go-Shirakawa 
abdicated in 1159, and was allowed 
to wear his favorite pajamas for the 
rest of his life.
But things started getting a little dicey for Taira no Kiyomori in the 1170s. The Emperor at the time was named Takakura, but Takakura's father, the former Emperor Go-Shirakawa (fig.2), controlled all of his decisions. Takakura couldn't choose advisers or establish diplomacy without going through his father first. Even when Takakura married Kiyomori's daughter, Go-Shirakawa decided the color scheme for the wedding, and was able to choose both chicken and fish as his meal. The relationship between Kiyomori and Go-Shirakawa was always strained (Kiyomori rooted for the Yomiuri Giants, while Go-Shirakawa was a diehard Hanshin Tigers fan), but things got a little worse in 1180 when Kiyomori forced Takakura to abdicate in favor of Takakura's two-year-old son Antoku (also Kiyomori's two-year-old grandson), and imprisoned Go-Shirakawa when he tried to be his old controlling self about it. Many people opposed to the Taira clan begged the Minamoto clan to do their thing and rebel again, and they finally obliged once a letter from Go-Shirakawa arrived promising them all the Tamagotchis in the world if they succeeded.

Things didn't get off to a good start. The Taira crushed the opposition at the Battle of Uji in 1180; not only was one of Go-Shirakawa's sons captured and killed, the leader of the Minamoto clan committed seppuku (ritual suicide, fig.3) for the first time in recorded history. This trend would continue all the way until World War II, even though everyone knew they were being a drama queen as they were doing it. The new leader of the Minamoto clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo (which sounds like a Dr. Suess character if you say the name out loud), scoured Japan for allies, hoping to find a Mr. Miyagi somewhere. Nonetheless, he still lost his first fight at the Battle of Ishibashiyama, mainly because his soldiers spent too much time reading the "Welcome to Ishibashiyama" sign. The story goes that the only reason Minamoto no Yoritomo survived was because he hid in a hollow tree during the retreat. While that may make Yoritomo look like a pansy, I say living to fight another day makes more sense then just killing yourself whenever you lose. Bunch of crybabies...

Fig.3: Don't give him any attention...that's exactly what he wants!
The rebellion against the Taira seemed pretty much finished, but Yoritomo knew it was just that part in the movie where things looked bleak and all the cards were stacked against him and the girl he loves wouldn't speak to him anymore. It would eventually turn around, just you wait and see! And that it did once Taira no Kiyomori died in 1181, the Minamoto clan won the Battle of Kurikara in 1183, and then captured the capital of Kyoto soon thereafter. Pretty soon, Yoritomo plied up victory after victory, which is always best demonstrated in a classic montage of winning with this song in the background. The only hiccup was that Yoritomo's cousin, Minamoto no Yoshinaka, was pretty jealous of his success, and went on a rebellion within the rebellion. Those crazy Minamotos! Yoshinaka even went as far as capturing Kyoto, burned down the imperial palace, had Go-Shirakawa imprisoned for like the fortieth time in the war, and forced the city's populous to do a giant rendition of the dance scene in the "Thiller" video. Yoritomo was having none of this (he believed that "Off the Wall" was the superior MJ album), and sent his brothers to take care of Yoshinaka, who was eventually killed (thankfully not by his own hand) at the Battle of Awazu in 1184.

Fig.4: Legend states that Heike 
crabs found near the site of 
Dan-no-ura have human-like 
faces on their shells because they 
are the embodiment of Taira 
warriors who died there. It goes 
without saying that everyone in 
the Taira clan was pretty ugly.
The Taira clan was scrambling, as they had a powerful, united Minamoto force supported by the majority of the Japanese population against them. They were hoping to take back the momentum in 1185 at the Battle of Dan-no-ura; it was to be a naval battle, with the Taira possessing a superior navy, and the Minamoto taking to water like limbless, overweight house cats. It seemed to go that way at first, but a defecting general from the Taira side told Yoritomo exactly which boat the six-year-old Emperor Antoku was on (remember, he was Taira no Kiyomori's grandson through his daughter's marriage to the former Emperor Takakura...or don't remember, see if I care). The Minamoto navy concentrated their efforts on that boat, and forced much of the Taira leaders to go overboard, taking Antoku to the bottom of the sea with them. What the Taira hoped would be tide-turning battle ended up having them drown in the tide, and ended the war in favor of the Minamoto clan. They were officially the best around, and nothing was ever gonna keep them down.

The Genpei War ended the Heian era of Japanese history, and allowed for the rise of the shogunate, a form of government led by the military establishment of samurai warriors. In other words: AWESOMENESS!!! Once Go-Shirakawa finally died and stopped meddling in everything in 1192, Minamoto no Yoritomo established what would be known as the Kamakura shogunate, with himself as the effective ruler of the country. The chubby little Emperor was then tucked away, meant to be seen and not heard, revered but not obeyed, all the way until 1868! Samurai clan leaders took charge, establishing successive shogunates and creating a dominant samurai culture revered by Medieval Japanese historians and smelly Anime fans today. And it was all thanks to the family feud between the Minamoto and Taira clans, where several people were surveyed, and the #1 answer was death!

If you're interested in reading more about Japanese history, check out this Canned Historian approved book that was used to conduct more research on this topic:

Japan: A Concise History (Fourth Edition), by Milton W. Meyer
Published: 2009; Hardcover: 361 pages
Canned Rating: 3 out of 5 Creepy Samurai Helmets

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