The Ichi-no-Tani battle was one of the highlights of the Genpei war in the 12th century of Japan’s medieval period. And was a very momentous event for the Minamoto clan.
This was a big victory of the Minamoto clan over the long-reigning Taira clan that brought about many other victories, causing the eventual demise of Taira power and the rise of the Minamoto.
It may also be viewed as sweet and impressive revenge by the Minamoto brothers for their father who was killed years ago by their rival, the Taira clan. This event also brings about the belief that Taira Kiyomori must be put to blame for why all this happened in the first place.
Genpei War Background
This war lasted from 1180 to 1185 between the rival clans for the imperial throne, the Taira and Minamoto. This struggle resulted in Minamoto constituting the Kamakura shogunate, a feudal military regime that ruled Japan between the years 1185 to 1333 A.D.
Taira Kiyomori’s Biggest Mistake
The Taira were a powerful warriors clan from western Japan who were the core military support of the Imperial court then. Tadamori, the head of the Taira clan who died in the year 1153, was succeeded by his son, Kiyomori.
Kiyomori was a well-celebrated soldier who led victories in the Hōgen and Heiji disturbances that resulted in the ascension of the warrior class into sovereignty.
Come 1156, a conflict for power flared between Sutoku, a retired emperor and Go-Shirakawa, his younger brother who was the reigning emperor then. Sutoku started a coup d’état and allied with the Minamoto warrior clan that was led by Minamoto Tameyoshi then. While on the other hand, Go-Shirakawa was supported by Kiyomori. This was known as Hōgen Disturbance.
Kiyomori emerged triumphantly and ruthlessly killed his enemies. He even ordered Tameyoshi’s son, Yoshitomo to cut off his father’s head. Yoshitomo refused, but still, someone from the Minamoto clan has carried out the order.
During the winter of 1159–1160 A.D, Yoshitomo seized power, He took advantage of Kiyomori’s absence from the capital which started the Heiji Disturbance. Kiyomori wasn’t prepared for it, through his clever maneuvers, he was able to go back to the capital and destroy his enemies. He spared no one but Yoshitomo’s two infant sons. This act of kindest soon will be the biggest regret of his life.
The Start of the Revolt
In 1180, Kiyomori enthroned his two-year-old grandson named Emperor Antoku, and moved the capital in Fukuhara (modern Kobe), as this provides good access to the Inland seas and fair trade with China. This was also the time when Minamoto Yoritomo, Yoshitomo’s son who had been spared in his early years, heed the call for revolt from one of Kiyomori’s chieftains.
Yoritomo gradually gained control over the provinces specifically the east coast of Japan. By 1182, he was prepared to advance on the capital of Kyōto.
This was the time when the Taira clan fled and moved to the north, hoping to get support from the regional lords called Daimyo. Taira then was able to discover the Ichi-no-Tani, a safe haven for them located by the sea.
Ichi-no-Tani at a Glimpse
Ichi no Tani was a haven fortress with an access from the beach that is easy to defend. It is in the small coastal area, where the sea is on its south and series of mountains on its north. This became the defensive spot of Taira clan in Suma.
Given its narrow strip that is easier to defend, it has become a disadvantage as well. As it is also hard to maneuver big numbers of troops inside it.
Minamoto Yoshitsune and Noriyori
In February 1184, Yoritomo’s brothers Yoshitsune and Noriyori attacked Minamoto Yoshinaka with over 50,000 troops and defeated his military unit at the Uji River.
The brothers pushed further in their aim to put down the Taira clan. They have separated their forces to attack different areas simultaneously.
Noriyori, with at least 50,000 men rallied towards Ikuta no Mori which was the front door to the capital, Fukuhara.
While Yoshitsune assembling around 2500-3000 Minamoto soldiers, attacked Taira’s haven fortress, the Ichi-no-Tani.
What Transpired in Ichi-no-Tani
One of the most notable battles in the Genpei War was the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani which transpired on the 18th of March 1184.
While the Taira’s attention focused on Noriyori’s attack. Yoshitsune was able to maneuver into a surprise attack position on Ichi no Tani.
Yoshitsune led his troops in a daring onslaught down a steep cliff that the enemy’s army guards had not even thought of guarding.
He strategically attacked the Ichi-no-Tani from the mountain ridge to the north and set the fortress ablaze.
Taira troops were surprised with these unexpected and rough attacks making them confused to either deploy or retreat. Archery along with personal combats has secured the victory.
Popular People Involved in the Battle
Benkei, one of the most famous warrior monks during the Genpei War fought alongside Minamoto Yoshitsune here. Around 3000 of the Taira clan escaped to Yashima, but Tadanori, brother of Kiyomori and also a general, was killed. While, Shigehira, the son of Kiyomori was captured.
Amongst the defeated and killed Taira clan were Moromori, Tsunetoshi, Lord Michimori (official of empress’s household that married Kozaisho), Tomoakira, Tsunemasa (a renowned lute player), Noritsune (was the son of Taira no Norimori), Atsumori (a famous young warrior), and Moritoshi.
Its Contribution to Arts and Theatre
Heike Monogatari is an epic during Medieval Japanese period. It is a collection of tales and various texts composed between the years 1190 and 1221, believed to have been gathered by a scholar named Yukinaga.
Its figurative literary genre was known to be sung to the accompaniment of a four-stringed lute named Biwa. A popular version was the one recited by a blind priest named Kakuichi and was recorded in 1371 and is now considered its definitive form.
A very well-known passage on this epic was when Kumagai no Naozane killed Taira no Atsumori with his own hands. It has also been played in dramas in Noh and Kabuki, as well as in the well-renowned fiction, Oda Nobunaga.
The death of Atsumori during the battle of Ichi-no-Tani was among the most celebrated acts of single combat in all of Japanese history.