Heike Monogatari and the Traditional Noh Plays of Japan – Sample 3

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Historical Background: The Hōgen Disturbance and the Heiji Rebellion

After the death of his father Tadamori in 1153, Kiyomori assumed control of the Heike clan, one of the four important clans that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian period (794–1185). Three years later, in 1156, he helped suppress the Hōgen Rebellion in Kyoto. Though short, the Hōgen Rebellion had important repercussions for Kiyomori’s career and the history of Japan.

The story of the Hōgen Rebellion is told in the Hōgen Monogatari, a Kamakura-era epic that is one of a trio of gunki monogatari (war tales) that tell the tale of the rise and fall of the Heike clan. The background, however, is a web of complicated schisms in the Imperial family, among their regents and among the samurai clans. To make sense of these schisms, it’s necessary to trace political developments in Japan.

During the Heian Period (794-1185), the Japanese Imperial court was noted for its poetry and literature. True power in Japan, however, was held by the Fujiwara clan, a powerful aristocratic family. Over the years the Fujiwara intermarried with the Imperial family, and the mothers of many emperors were women of the Fujiwara.
During the early tenth century, the Fujiwara governed Japan, determined general affairs of state – including the succession to the throne- and, during the early tenth century, acquired great wealth. To protect their interests in the provinces, the Fujiwara and the court relied on guards, police and warriors. These professional warriors gradually became a military class. In time, court aristocrats became prominent figures in the provinces, and large regional military families formed around them. The most prominent families supported by this new military class were the Heike, the Genji and the Fujiwara.

Fujiwara power began to decline in the mid-tenth and eleventh centuries due primarily to population growth and declining food production. More and more the Heike, Genji and Fujiwara fought for control over large tracts of land, setting up rival regimes. Then Emperor Go-Sanjō (1068-1073), the first emperor since the ninth century not born of a Fujiwara mother, implemented reforms to curb Fujiwara influence and restore imperial control. One of these reforms was the establishment of the Office of the Cloistered Emperor, a sort of double-monarchy in which emperors would abdicate to a ceremonial (and often very young) emperor in order to devote themselves to behind-the-scenes governance.

At first the Fujiwara retained their titles but were bypassed in any important decision making. In time, many of the Fujiwara were replaced, mostly by members of the rising Genji clan, and the Fujiwara formed into factions and fell to squabbling among themselves.

A struggle for succession in the mid-twelfth century gave the Fujiwara an opportunity to regain their former power. Not surprisingly, and perhaps inevitably, there was conflict in the court. Two former emperors, Toba and Sutoku, abdicated in order to wield power behind the scenes. But the current emperor, Konoe, died unexpectedly, changing the power dynamics, and there ensued a power struggle between the two former emperors. Then Toba too died, triggering a power struggle between retired emperor Sutoku and his half-brother Go-Shirakawa. The schism also split the Fujiwara, with the majority backing Sutoku. They attempted to capture the throne by force.

Kiyomori, head of the Heike clan, sided with his uncle and many of the Genji in supporting Go-Shirakawa and led 600 cavalry in a night attack on the enemy palace. The attack, however, was repulsed by an impressive display of archery. Seeing their enemy had taken up a defensive position in a wooden building, Kiyomori’s forces set fire to the enemy palace, a common strategy at the time. As a result of the Hōgen Rebellion, the Fujiwara were destroyed, the old system of government supplanted and the court exposed as powerless. The defeated Sutoku was banished, and warriors took control of court affairs, marking a major turning point in Japanese history.

The two samurai clans, the Heike and the Genji, were established as major new political forces in Kyoto, but things didn’t remain calm for long. The new strength of the Heike and Genji clans caused the allies to become bitter rivals. This rivalry culminated three years later in the Heiji Rebellion of 1159.

The story of the Heiji Rebellion is told in the second of the three war tales, the Heiji Monogatari. After Kiyomori left Kyoto with his family on a personal pilgrimage, Fujiwara no Nobuyori (one of the names listed in the opening lines of the Heike Monogatari as an example of how hubris brings the mighty low) and other enemies of Kiyomori led a siege of Sanjo Palace, abducting both the emperor and retired emperor and setting fire to the palace. After killing a royal retainer and placing the retired emperor under house arrest, Nobuyori declared himself Imperial Chancellor. But because of shockingly poor planning, the Genji managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They were unprepared when Kiyomori returned, and even allowed both the emperor and former emperor to escape. The Heike retreated with the Genji in hot pursuit, but a detached Heike force swarmed in to occupy the Imperial Palace. After a fierce battle, the Genji forces were routed. Kiyomori, emerging victorious, was now the head of the single most powerful warrior clan in Kyoto.

Kiyomori immediately seized Genji wealth and land. Due to the patronage of the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, he was able to climb the ranks of government and garner titles for his allies and family. In 1167, Kiyomori even attained the exalted rank of Daijō Daijin, Great Minister of State, angering many of the courtiers of the noble families.

The Hōgen Monogatari and Heiji Monogatari, though not masterpieces like the Heike Monogatari, are very good reads, and give important background information that helps better understand the HM itself. The Heiji Monogatari in particular contains poignant scenes and acts of mercy that become particularly important later in the HM. We will return to the Heiji Mongatari again in future issues.

Next: The Noh Play ‘Gio’: Women and Power in the Heike Monogatari

-{Art by Kumiko Lawrence}-