Rise of the Royal Warriors: The Taira Heishi

The Taira clan

The Taira clan, who were also called the Heike, was a warrior family of influence and power during the 12th century. Their family history goes all the way back to 825 when they acquired the name Taira from Prince Takamune. He was the grandson of the 50th emperor of Japan, Kanmu.

In the years 1156 to 1185, the Taira controlled the highest positions in the Imperial court. Yet despite their power, the clan fell during the battle of Dan No Ura.

The Kanmu Heishi

The founded Kanmu Heishi line of the year 889 proved to be the most dominant and powerful line in the Heian period. Soon, the very first Samurai-dominated government appeared, led by Taira No Kiyomori.

Taira No Kiyomori, the great grandson of Heishi Takamochi, moved to the Ise Province. Here, he established a bigger and more dominant Daimyo dynasty.

Origins of the Taira Heishi

The clan’s origins started in 825, when government finances were low. It was also the time when the Imperial family line were countless.

Attempting to lessen the drain on finances, the secondary Imperial branches received surnames. After, they went off to the provinces carrying the given names. Prince Takamune received the name Taira, and his descendants were the Taira of Kanmu.

Takamochi, the nephew of Takamune, appeared in the Hitachi district. He arrived as a local official and chose to settle in the area so his descendants could succeed his post. Since then, the family grew and became a powerful Samurai clan in the area.

Rise of the Military Class

Interests of the Bushi (warrior) were diverse. They cut through old powers to create a new association in the 10th century. Developed in military groups were family connections, and mutual interest, and kinship.

In time, big military families from different regions appeared around the court aristocracy. Here, the privileged family soon became distinguished provincial figures. Because of this, military families were able to gain prestige. This was all due to their link to court-granted titles and the Imperial court.

Then, the Taira clan became the most prominent family supported by the military class. Plus, they also became the most powerful family during the period.

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Taira No Masakado

The earliest rebels of the period was Taira No Masakado. He was a 5th generation descendant of Kanmu who ruled over a couple of provinces. He also established a rival court in the year 939.

Because of this, the Imperial court selected someone from the Fujiwara family. Appointed as general, he was then ordered to attack the rebels during the period. Yet before he could even do anything significant, other warrior groups joined forces. Even branches of the Taira joined since it was to defeat Masakado.

Taira No Kiyomori

Taira No Kiyomori was the grandson of Masamori and son of Tadamori. He continued to expand the family holdings while increasing their court influence. This act made conflict between his clan and the Minamoto.

Finally, in the year 1156, an issue over control in the court ensued between brothers. This conflict was between the reigning emperor Go Shirakawa and former emperor Sutoku. This issue soon led to the Hogen War which occurred between the head of the Minamoto and Kiyomori.

In the battle, Kiyomori emerged victorious. This was due to the help of a group of Minamoto warriors who defected. In the Heiji war, Kiyomori killed all the Minamoto warriors in a brutal manner. These were the warriors who joined him in the Hogen war.

The Taira clan started monopolizing high positions in the court, acting as court officials and ruling almost the entire provinces in the country. They also owned over 500 manors.

In 1179, the court nobles and former emperor Go Shirakawa, resisted the Taira clan’s authority. Despite the efforts, they ended up getting subdued, and Go Shirakawa got imprisoned. This resulted in Kiyomori’s rule becoming more dictatorial. Thus, the emergence of the Rokuhara regime since he resided in Rokuhara, Kyoto.

Even if Kiyomori had great power, he failed to create basic changes to the Imperial system. This, in turn, weakened the Taira’s rule over the countryside. The reason for this was due to the family being too accustomed to the rich court lifestyle. They ended up losing touch with the warrior groups from the provinces.

Genpei War

The Genpei War or Genpei Kassen was a Japanese civil war fought between the Taira and Minamoto clans. This took place during the late Heian period.

They were two of the four dominant clans of the period. The Taira or Heike were descendants of Prince Katsurabara, the son of Emperor Kanmu. Like the Taira, the Minamoto or Genji were aristocrats.

They were descendants of Prince Sadazumi, the grandson of Emperor Seiwa. The two opposing clans battled for power to gain dominance over the Imperial court. The Taira responded by initiating executions to defeat their rivals. This led the retired Emperor Go Shirakawa to overthrow Taira No Kiyomori.

Kiyomori resisted the coup d’etat attempt. And after Emperor Takakura’s retirement, he placed Antoku, his grandson, on the throne. This was to guarantee that power would always be theirs.

This enraged the opposing side, especially Prince Mochihito, the son of Go Shirakawa. This is because he felt denied of his rightful position. With that, the prince sent out a call to arms, and with the aid of Minamoto No Yoritomo, the Genpei War began.

Fall of the Taira Heishi

During the Genpei War, month-long and continuous battles ensued. Here, the Taira and Minamoto suffered from heavy losses such as the death of Taira No Kiyomori.

In the year 1182, Minamoto No Yoritomo led their clan which allowed them to gain the upper hand.

This caused the demoralized Taira clan leader, Taira No Munemori, to flee to the west of Japan. There, he took with him the young Emperor Antoku. Yet, the defeat of the Taira in Ichi No Tani, Yashima, and Dan No Ura battles, finally led to the clan’s complete fall.

The Battle of Dan No Ura was where the ships of the opposing clans engaged in battle in the Shimonseki Straits. The war ended with the victory of the Minamoto. With that, the warriors of the Taira and Emperor Anteiku threw themselves into the sea. They committed Seppuku instead of witnessing the defeat of their clan.

In 1185, the Genpei War had ended. With the fall of the Taira, the Minamoto began to establish the Kamakura Shogunate. White and red – the colors of the clans – were the hues established during the war. This became the national shades of Japan, hence, the color of the country’s flag.

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