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The Gempei War

By F.W. Seal


Reference Map

Opening Moves

In May 1180 Prince Mochihito, the son of Retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, issued a statement urging the Minamoto to rise against the Taira. While Mochihito would be killed in June and Minamoto Yorimasa crushed at the Battle of the Uji, a fire had been set. In September Minamoto Yoritomo, who had recieved Mochihito's call from Miyoshi Yasukiyo, set about raising an army in the Province of Izu, where he had been in exile. There was an irony in the preceeding events, as Taira Kiyomori had himself sown the seeds of the war, so the poetic tale goes. His great error, we are told, had been to spare the sons of Minamoto Yoshitomo in the wake of the Heiji disturbance, allowing these three boys - Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune - to mature and form the leadership of a new and dangerous threat.

In fact, Yoritomo's own call to arms in the east was recieved cautiously at best. He did manage to kill the local Taira governor, but was defeated at the Battle of Ishibashiyama by Oba Kagechika. In the wake of this hard setback, however, Yoritomo did recieve the valuable additon of Kajiwara Kagetoki to his staff. Elsewhere in the Kanto, local families began to respond to Yoritomo in varying degrees and in Shimosa and elsewhere set about eliminating Kyoto-appointed officals. This often provoked inter-province and occasionally inter-clan civil war, a common and oft-overlooked element of the Gempei War. By the Spring of the following year, Yoritomo could count on at least the tacit support of most of the notable families in the Kanto, although the Chubu, though by now nominally Minamoto dominated, existed beyond his immediate control. Yoritomo's Kanto domain is occasionally referred to as the Tôgaku, and rather then surge forward against the Taira, he contented himself for the time being with consolidating his hold locally.

The Taira response to the violence was mixed and uncertain. Kiyomori dispatched his grandson Koremori with an army eastward, but he turned back at the Fuji River in Suruga Province. Closer to home, Taira Tomomori - who would prove the most able of the Taira - had defeated the combined forces of old Minamoto Yorimasa and the warrior monks of the Miidera at the Uji River in late June. To punish the monks for their involvement thus far in the fledgling conflict, Kiyomori ordered the Miidera burned and, a few months later, a number of temples in Nara as well. While all of this was going on, Kiyomori had made the surprising decision to move the Imperial seat to Fukuhara (to the west of Kyoto) in June. His motivations for this abortive upheaval are unclear, but by the end of the year, the emperor was back in Kyoto. In truth, the Taira seem to have settled on a containment policy as regarded Yoritomo, and made little effort following the 'Battle' of Fujigawa to reassert their control in the Kanto. They did have their hands full with other local warriors rising up, men who used the Minamoto name as a pretext for land grabs and the settling of old disputes.

In the middle of 1181, Yoritomo made a surprising offer to the Taira that called for the partition of the country between the two families, with Yoritomo taking the eastern half of the country. Despite some favorable murmers from the Court, the Taira dismissed the notion out of hand. Yoritomo's offer is in any event an odd one. He had, after all, been operating quite without concern for Kyoto since the previous summer and was at this point more or less immune to a direct Taira attack. It may well be then, as some scholars have suggested, that Yoritomo was hoping to head off the threat represented by Minamoto (Kiso) Yoshinaka. Also known as Kiso Yoshinaka (from the area of Shinano he hailed from), this rough and tumble warrior was to prove an immediate threat to the Taira - and to Yoritomo's claims of Minamoto leadership.

Somewhat earlier, Yoritomo's uncle Yukiie had taken the field and was to suffer defeat at the hands of Taira Tomomori at the Battle of Sunomata in Mino Province (March 1181). Yukkie survived this setback and would henceforth work in conjunction with Yoshinaka, who was in a better position then Yoritomo to challange the Taira directly.

In February 1181 Taira Kiyomori fell ill and died, leaving his son Munemori to rule. Later that year nature would impose a forced truce over the combatants as a poor harvest brought starvation and disease. This would last into 1183, although Yoshinaka would make some local moves in 1182. As soon as the situation improved enough for military manuevers, Munemori ordered a campaign to defeat Yoshinaka, who due to his location was more worrisome even then Yoritomo. A host departed from Kyoto in May, and in Kaga Province split up. One force, under Tomomori, would advance to the north and swing through Noto Province. The other, larger force, led by Taira Koremori, would advance due east towards Etchû Province. Yoshinaka managed to ambush the latter force at Kurikawa and engineered a rout of the Taira warriors. He followed up this stroke with a further victory at Shinohara, then marched on the Capital. With his warriors demoralized and in disarray, a shaken Munemori ordered an evacuation of Kyoto in he face of Yoshinaka's advance. Taking the child-emperor Antoku, Munemori departed for the Taira's western domain. On 17 August 1183 Yoshinaka and Yukiie entered the Capital with retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa.

Soon after taking up in Kyoto, Yoshinaka began making noises that he ought to be considered the overall leader of the Minamoto, a status which would if nothing else garner him a considerable amount of prestige with the clans that had risen in the Minamoto's name. Yoshinaka, however, quickly wore out his welcome in Kyoto thanks to the behavior of his men in the capital and his officers in other provinces, a situation probably not improved by his now-sluggish execution of the war with the Taira. He did dispatch one of his generals westward with the task of reducing Yashima, the Taira headquarters on Shikoku, an endeavor that resulted in a brisk Minamoto defeat at Mizushima. Yukiie attempted to recoup the loss (and an evident falling-out with Yoshinaka) by leading an army against Taira forces at Muroyama in Harima Province. This contest ended as a further Minamoto failure, with Yukiie barely escaping with his life.

Yoritomo had recieved the news of Yoshinaka's presumption with no small amount of anger. Yet, rather then rush westward to press his own claim, he had bided his time and sought to reach an agreement with Go-Shirakawa himself. Once he was evidently confident of Court support, he made his move. To lead his army, he dispatched his younger brothers, Noriyori and Yoshitsune - with this campaign being the first real occasion in which they come into the light of history. At some point in 1180 Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune had been reunited, probably for the first time since their separation in 1160. The exact activities of the latter two drift into the unknown again until February 1184, when they marched west. Yoshitsune, who by now had been given the rank Sô-daisho (general of the army), led an army that included Noriyori and Kajiwara Kagetoki into the Kyoto area. Yoshinaka, learning of the new threat, hastily dispatched an army to cover the two main eastern doorways to Kyoto - the Uji and Seta bridges. The attacking army split into two parts, with Yoshitsune heading for the Uji Bridge while Noriyori made a crossing upriver at the Seta Bridge. Crossings were successful at both points and Yoshinaka’s men lost heart and fled. When Yoshinaka heard of the defeat he abandoned Kyoto and attempted to escape the area with a handful of retainers, including Japan’s only famous example of a true female samurai warrior - Tomoe Gozen. He was soon cornered at Awazu and committed suicide.

Ichi no tani and the advance west

With Yoshinaka out of the way, Yoritomo secured the support of Go-Shirakawa and a mandate to press the war with the Taira. On 13 March Yoshitsune and Noriyori were given permission to set out for the Western provinces and moved into Settsu Province, the eastern doorway to the Setô Inland Sea. Yoshitsune’s first objective was the Taira outpost at Ichi no Tani, a well-positioned fortification that was covered from the rear by a steep incline. This was where the Taira had fled following their retreat from Kyoto and could be used as a staging area for any future attempts to return to the capital.

Ichi no tani was screened by a number of outposts that included Mikusuyama to the north and Ikuta no mori to the west. These would have to be reduced first before Ichi no tani itself could be attacked.

Yoshitsune was to lead a force of some 10,000 men around to the north of Ichi no tani and come out for an attack from the west while 50,000 or so (according to the war tales) under Noriyori would strike from the east. On 18 March Yoshitsune approached Mikusayama. Fearing that the Taira would hastily reinforce this important position, Yoshitsune launched an immediate night attack that brought the fort down. According to the Heike Monogatari the surviving defenders, including three of Taira Kiyomori’s grandsons, fled to the coast and passed over to Shikoku, leaving 500 dead. Yoshitsune then sent 7,000 men under Doi Sanehira down to the western side of Ichi no tani while he led the remaining 3,000 men under his command to the top of the cliffs overlooking the fort. Meanwhile, Noriyori had begun an attack on the forward Taira positions at Ikuta no mori, commanded by Taira Tomomori. While Doi began to trade blows with the Taira below, Yoshitsune called for a man who might know a way down to the rear of the castle and the monk Benkei furnished a guide. With the Taira’s attentions fully diverted by Doi and Noriyori, Yoshitsune led his men in a hair-raising ride down the incline and into the rear of the fort. Stunned by the accomplishment of what they had assumed was impossible, the Taira were thrown into a panic, their morale was shattered by Yoshitsune’s feat. Taking the boy-emperor Antoku the Taira commanders made for their ships, which were anchored just off shore. The boats quickly reached capacity and set sail, leaving more then a few Taira warriors behind to fight and die in the surf (including the tragic Taira Atsumori).

The Minamoto victory at Ichi no tani cleared the way for an assault on Yashima, the Taira headquarters on Shikoku. Yoritomo elected to adopt a cautious approach, however, and reined in his two hard-fighting younger brothers. The next six months were spent consolidating the gains already made and sorting out the many families who had thus far supported or opposed the Minamoto. Already, Yoritimo was assuming a rather hegemonic posture based on an agreement reached by the court and the Minamoto in November 1583. This understanding, formalized in an edic which has been lost to history, essentially acknowledged Yoritomo's control over those lands which he had already captured while calling for the restoration of Kyoto proprietorships in those regions with Yoritomo's assistance. The fact that Yoritomo was already the indisputed master of the Kanto is an important point when judging the arguement that this marked the actual 'birth' of the Kamakura bakufu. At any rate, Yoritomo clearly decided to use this Imperial sanction for all it was worth, to the point of making grants of land that were outside his actual control.

Immediately after Ichi no tani, Yoshitsune and Noriyori returned to Kyoto and paraded the notable Taira heads taken through the streets. In October, a month before the edict mentioned above was issued, Noriyori was dispatched to destroy Taira adherents on Kyushu and began a long and tiring march through the western provinces. Yoshitsune stayed in Kyoto and apparently acted as Yoritomo’s deputy there into early 1185. Officially, Yoshitsune was responsible for issuing decrees ordering the termination of any violence within Minamoto territory. In practice his directives covered various other issues, including the forbidding of drafts and war taxes without the express consent of the Minamoto leadership. This is a good point to mention that the brush fire and often local nature of the Gempei War was not easy to extinguish; Yoritomo would bring the houses of the Chubu into line only with some difficulty.

It was during Yoshitsune's tenure in Kyoto that the first rifts would develop between himself and his elder brother. Yoritomo is said to have denied Yoshitsune court titles granted Noriyori and to have become angry when the court went ahead and approved them anyway. It may be that this was simply a matter of Yoritomo wanting his deputy to stay outside any court influence but it seems likely that the stage was set for what would transpire after the end of the Gempei War.

Under clear skies on 8 October Noriyori had departed for the west with 30,000 men. Once in Harima, he received word of Taira activities at the port of Kojima in Bizen and hastily made for the area. Kojima was a small island separated from the mainland by a thin strip of seawater that was nonetheless daunting enough to check Noriyori’s advance. Stymied by a lack of boats to cross to the island, Noriyori was at a loss until a certain Sasaki Moritsuna found a fisherman who would reveal a spot shallow enough to allow for a crossing. By way of sharing this knowledge with the Minamoto army, Sasaki actually rode across to the island, thereby making sure it was he would was the first to set foot on Kojima!

Noriyori led a spirited charge through the seawater and forced the Taira to take to their ships. Taira Sukemori, Arimori, and Tadafusa lingered until dark trading arrows with the Minamoto before setting their oars in motion and departing for Shikoku. With no ships to use in pursuit, Noriyori could only resume his westward march. Little is known or can be said about Noriyori’s activities for the remainder of the year, although the Heike Monogatari states rather caustically that he settled down and engaged in amusements at the expense of the local people. More likely, logistical difficulties bogged down the campaign and in the end forced Noriyori to suspend the advance into the New Year.


By January 1185 Noriyori was reporting that as he had no boats and few provisions, he was unable to prosecute his mission to Kyushu. He reached as far as the Shimonoseki Straight (that separated Honshu and Kyushu) before being forced to sit idly, and his requests for shipping yielded no definitive reply from Yoritomo. Disquiet began to swell in the ranks and Noriyori feared desertion; luckily, word came that a number of sea-faring samurai from Kyushu desired to join the Minamoto cause. These two, Ogata Koresaka and his brother Jirô Koretaka of Bungo, came across with some 82 vessels and finally, in February, Noriyori’s weary and demoralized army landed on Kyushu.

In March 1185, with Noriyori preparing to invade Kyushu, Yoshitsune was authorized to return to the war. Intending to launch an assault on Yashima, he assembled a fleet of ships at Watanabe (Settsu province). During the preparations he argued with Kajiwara Kagetoki, one of his elder bother’s closest retainers, about strategy, an incident which may very well have come back to haunt Yoshitsune later. On the stormy night of 22 March Yoshitsune decided the time was right to sail, and ordered his men to board ship. Observing that the weather was extremely bad the sailors refused to put to sea, and did so only after Yoshitsune threatened to kill any man who disobeyed his orders. Even still, not all of the ships followed Yoshitsune into the night. Unperturbed, Yoshitsune landed on Shikoku at dawn and set out for Yashima, some thirty miles distant. He learned from a local warrior that despite the importance of the fort, the Taira’s garrison at Yashima was presently reduced owing to an expedition into Iyo, a welcome piece of news that prompted him onward.

At the time, Yashima was separated from the mainland by a narrow channel easily fordable by horse when the tide was low. The Taira base was situated on the beach facing the mainland, with their fleet moored within easy reach in the shallows directly in front. Alerted to Yoshitsune’s approach by fires set in nearby Takamatsu and fearing that a much larger than Yoshitsune actually had was on its way, Taira Munemori ordered an immediate evacuation of the fort and fled to the ships with the emperor Antoku. Yoshitsune led his men into a headlong charge into the channel and a fight ensued around the ships while a certain Minamoto worthy named Gotobyôe Sanemoto set the fort on fire. By the time Munemori realized how few men Yoshitsune had, the fort was in flames. The fighting thus continued in the shallows until the coming of dusk forced a lull, at which point the Taira moved out beyond the reach of the Minamoto’s arrows. In a celebrated incident, the Taira, hoping to make their enemy waste arrows, hoisted up a fan on one of their ships and challenged the Minamoto to test their archery skill on it. A certain Nasu Munetaka, a young and diminutive warrior known for his skill with a bow, was summoned and Yoshitsune ordered him to make a try at the fan. Determined to hit the fan or commit suicide if he failed, Nasu rode out into the water and loosed a humming arrow, shattering the fan - much to the delight, we are told, of Minamoto and Taira alike.

Dan no ura

The morning after the attack on Yashima, the Taira set sail for nearby Shido harbor while Yoshitsune pursued on shore. According to the Heike Monogatari, the Taira grossly overestimated the number of troops the Minamoto had on Shikoku and ended up fleeing the island completely. They regrouped at Hikoshima in Nagato while Yoshitsune, after viewing the heads of those taken, crossed over to Suo province and prepared for what must certainly be the final battle of the war. Inspired by Yoshitsune’s victories, some last minute supporters arrived on the scene, strengthening Yoshitsune’s numbers in men and - more importantly - ships.

In the Taira camp, there was a sense of resignation. There would be no further avenues of retreat should the coming battle go against them, and their earlier defeats no doubt sat havily on their shoulders. According to the Heike Monogatari , Taira Tomomori rallied his comrades with a brief yet rousing call to fight to the last. Privatly, he urged Munemori to do away with a certain Taguchi Shigeyoshi, a general from Shikoku whose loyalty Tomomori questioned. Munemori ignored this advice.

At dawn on 24 April 1185 the Minamoto put to sea and sailed against the waiting Taira at a place that became famous in Japanese history as Dan no ura. Yoshitsune outnumbered his quarry in ships by almost two to one (850-500) but the Taira promised to fight fiercely, and with Tomomori leading them from the front, they did just that. By eight the battle had begun, with the tide flowing in the Taira’s favor. The Taira had divided into three groups, with a fine archer named Yamaga Hidetô commanding the van. His bowmen did bloody work against the Minamoto warriors crammed in their boats until the opposing flotillas joined and the fighting became one of sword and spear. The Taira fought well and the issue was very much in doubt until, just as Tomomori had feared, Taguchi Shigeyoshi switched sides. Taguchi made his way to Yoshitsune’s boat and pointed out the ship that sheltered the emperor. Armed with this knowledge and a favorable shift in the tides against the Taira, Yoshitsune rallied his samurai and shouted for his archers to take aim at the enemy sailors. The tide of the battle paused, shook, and then turned against the Taira. The emperor and his mother, Taira Kiyomori’s widow, stepped into the ocean and drowned, followed by Tomomori and hundreds of other Taira warriors. The hapless Munemori was fished out of the ocean by the Minamoto (having been put there by a Taira warrior disgusted at his hesitation to die) and captured and by early afternoon Yoshitsune’s triumph was complete. The Taira clan was all but eradicated as a threat to Minamoto power and in 1192 Yoritomo would be granted the title of Shôgun.

The Gempei War Reassessed

While a serious examination of the social aspects of the Gempei War is beyond the scope of this short piece, certain points must be made. The noted and astute western scholar Jeffrey P. Mass wrote, "…by inventing the compound Gempei (Genji vs. Heishi, or Minamoto vs. Taira), which might then be applied retrospectively to the fighting of 1180-85, some unknown writer or storyteller greatly simplified a more complex (and actually more significant) phenomenon." While traditionally viewed as a straight-forward fight to the death between two old rivals, the Gempei War was in fact a rather convoluted affair made all the more so for historians by a relative lack of historical documentation. The Taira and Minamoto dominate the Heike Monogatari, for example, and yet we know that much of the fighting was of a local and often opportunistic nature. The Taira themselves remain something of a mystery, especially as far as their organization is concerned. The composition of the Taira during the war years, and to what extent 'Taira' opposition to the Minamoto was composed of local and even unrelated houses, is unclear. The activities of the Minamoto between 1160 and 1180 are also by and large a mystery. That normally invaluable contemporary record, the Azuma kagami, is frustratingly silent on the Taira, as well as the Minamoto prior to 1180. The situation is not helped by a nearly complete lack of edicts issued by the Taira, leading some to question whether the Taira were ever confident enough of their position in Kyoto to issue any at all in their own name.

The course of the war itself is hazy at times, largely due to the old adage that 'victors write the history books', and holes in the historical record. We have no way of really knowing just how much of the Heike Monogatari, whose account of the Gempei War has long been taken almost word by word by western 'samurai' authors, is made from whole cloth insofar as its account of the actual battles is concerned. Clearly, the work simplified even the purely military events of the time and there can be no doubt that figures such as Minamoto Yoshitsune (and the earlier Taira Shigemori) were inflated to a degree for the benefit of the audience. In a sense, the specifics of the Gempei War - the battles, armies, and tactics - were secondary to the political arena. The only truly decisive battle, from a 'war-winning' standpoint, was Kurikawa. The famous fights at Ichi no Tani, Yashima, and Dan no Ura were 'nails in the coffin', conducted while Yoritomo himself was busy consolidating his hold over Minamoto occupied Japan. One might even argue daringly that Dan no Ura, which looms so large in Japanese history, was essentially a 'mopping up' operation given legendary and almost Homeric (for lack of a better word) dimensions by the Heike Monogatari's prose. Any one of the three battles mentioned probably paled in significance to the 1184 Court-Minamoto agreement that, if nothing else, paved the way for the Kamakura Bakufu.

In the final analysis, many of our questions about the Gempei War - and the years preceding it - will never be conclusively answered due to a simple lack of full historical documentation. At the same time, the 20th Century saw a long-overdue reevaluation of the events leading up to the foundation of the Kamakura Bakufu. Happily, this is an ongoing endeavor.