Genpei Wars: The Great Defense

Genpei Wars: The Great Defense

The Genpei wars was a national civil war that happened during the end of the Heian period in Feudal Japan. After the events of the Heiji rebellion in 1160 in which two of Japan’s most powerful clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, fought to gain influence over the Imperial Court, the political situation seemed under control. With the Taira behind the figure of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, increasingly asserting their position in the court, one knew who was in command.

Soon, however, it was discovered how imaginary this peace had been.

Seven years later, Emperor Go-Shirakawa decided to take over the reins of power and led a coup d’etat to get rid of the Taira. While the conspiracy was easily thwarted, far from the imperial zone something bigger was cooking.

Yoritomo, one of the few survivors of the Minamoto clan, toured the provinces forging alliances and recruiting warriors, preparing for what was to come.

Armed Monks

The Genpei Wars erupted with the battle of Uji. The first battle of this conflict between the Minamoto and the Taira.

In this case, Mochihito and Yorimasa headed an insurrection that would lead them to be chased by Taira men to a Buddhist temple outside Kyoto where they took refuge.

There the monks, along with their troops, took up arms and began to prepare for the coming conflict. The monks who had recently been meditating were now armed with bows, daggers, naginata, and a variety of Japanese swords, ready for war.

One of the most important decisions they made to defend the temple was to dismantle the wooden bridge leading to it and use its planks as a shield. In this way they would hinder the advance of the Taira.

Genpei Wars - Monk Battles

On the evening of the attack the monks and warriors defended the bridge under the rain of arrows from their adversaries as they fought to prevent them from crossing the river. Despite the use of the bridge planks to protect themselves, the unloading of arrows put the Minamoto men in a really complicated situation, as they were hampered in their efforts to repel those who tried to cross

Several heroes appeared in this battle. One of them was the famous monk Gochi-in no Tajima, also known as “The Arrow Deflector”. Legend has it that this brave monk stood only in the middle of the bridge and, spinning his Naginata, deflected most of the arrows directed at him. Then even his adversaries would have looked up to him with admiration.

Be that as it may, the monks proved to be skillful and brutal in combat, fiercely confronting the huge army of their opponents.

However, the defense could not last forever. Finally the invaders managed to cross the river with their horses and flanked the forces of the Minamoto.

The defense was finally frustrated and the Minamoto troops were forced to retreat. After this Yorimasa would be captured and forced to commit the first seppuku act in history; writing a poem and ending his own life.

His last words, immortalized in that ceremony, would be:

“Like a fossil tree

From which we gather no flowers

Sad has been my life

Fated no fruit to produce”

Mochihito would be caught in his attempt to escape soon after and executed.

This first battle would be in charge of opening a lustrum of hostilities for all the kingdom, because in September of the year 1180 Minamoto Yorimito would declare the war with the power Taira.

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A Divided Kingdom

The first months of the Genpei war unfolded in the Kanagawa region, where Yoritomo’s army had to frete a Taira army that outnumbered him in the battle of Ishibashiyama, from which Yoritomo could barely escape.

While this was going on, Yoritomo’s cousin, Yoshinaka, had led a new rebellion against the Taira in the Nagano area, which had growing support and hoped to join that of his relative.

The Taira, finding themselves at a disadvantage, decided to retreat, which gave Yoritomo a free hand to seize a good portion of the land, including some southern provinces.

Little by little the situation began to balance out, and one more hard blow against the Taira was still to come.

On March 20, 1181, Taira Kiyomori, head of the clan, died of a serious illness. Together with him he would take away the last vestiges of the absolute power of the Taira.

Now, with a weaker successor in charge of their rival clan, the Minamoto saw the moment of revenge approaching…

(To be Continued)

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