|Concurrent: Heiji Rebellion|
|Next: Kenkyu War|
|Conflict: Sengoku Jidai|
|Outcome: Kamakura Minamoto victory|
Though his official status was divine, the tenno or emperor, of Japan was in medieval times a marginal figure. Real power rested with the nobility - and was hotly contested.
By the 9th century dominant dynasties were emerging, their ascendancy embodied in the strength and prowess of the samurai warriors they had assembled. These factions are known as "clans", since they grew up around important families, though most of those fighting for them were not blood relations.
The Fading Fujiwara
The Fujiwara clan quickly established its presence, holding sway as sesshos, or "regents", and wielding the emperor's authority on its behalf. By the 12th century, however, its influence was ebbing fast and other families were poised to take its place.
Civil War in Japan
Conflict, raging for generations between the powerful Minamoto and Taira clans, finally flared up into a full-blown civil war. The Hogen Rebellion of 1156 saw the Fujiwara themselves reduced to figureheads as the Minamoto and Taira fought over who should have power behind the scenes. Three years later, after the Heiji Rebellion, the Taira came out on top, and established Japan's first samurai government; the Minamoto, however, felt they still had absolutely everything to fight for.
Simmering since the humiliation of the Heiji Rebellion three years before, the wrath of the Minamoto boiled over in 1180. Taira Kiyomori, having forced Emperor Takakura to abdicate, had installed his one-year-old grandson on the throne. The Minamoto figurehead, Prince Mochihito, was the half-brother of Takakura and was angry about being cheated out of the succession. Taira no Kiyomori issued orders for Mochihito's arrest. Minamoto Yorimasa and his samurai set off to spirit him to safety. The Taira caught up with them: Prince Mochihito was put to death, but Minamoto Yorimasa avoided capture by disemboweling himself in the first known act of seppuku. From that time, this ritual suicide had its special place in the samurai code, enabling defeated warriors to die with honor.
Death and drama
Minamoto Yoritomo now took up the leadership. He struggled to begin with but, at Fujigawa, luck came to his rescue. Hearing the rustling of birds' wings in the night, the Taira sentries took fright, assuming it was a surprise attack: though superior in strength, the men were unnerved and fled. In 1181, at Sunomatagawa, the Minamoto did attempt a nocturnal ambush, but were detected in the darkness and defeated.
What strikes the reader of the Heike Monogatari, the great 13th-century epic account of the Genpei War, is how up-close and intimate the fighting was. Like the heroes of Homer's Trojan War, warriors made stirring speeches before battle and trade insults as they engage in single combat. This is all part of the literary convention, affording an opportunity for building suspense. But it also reflects the realities of the time. There was no more noble calling than that of the soldier; samurai were schooled in their vocation as small boys. Horsemanship was held in high regard - memorable descriptions abound in the Heike Monogatari - even though the samurai fought mainly on foot. Accomplishment in archery was essential; not just with the full-length daikyu but also with the shorter hankyu - both bows could be used on horseback. The cult of the katana, or "samurai sword", was yet to be established, but the warrior still took great pride in his skill with the long, curved, tachi sword and with the dagger.
Pride was all-important: the samurai followed the "Way of the Warrior", or bushido, which made an ethic ov falor and heroic self-sacrifice in the war. But the samurai who willingly gave up his life did so in the certain knowledge that he would be rewarded with both honor and everlasting fame. The desire of the individual fighter for such a dramatic and noble eath helps explain why - serious and bloody as the Genpei War was - so much of the action now seems "staged". An exchange of arrows by both sides was typically followed by a battle that unfolded as a series of highly formal single combats between warriors.
Changing times, changing fortunes
The ritualized way of making war could not be sustained. In the Heike Monogatari, the Minamoto drew the Taira into an engagement of this kind at Kurikara in 1183 - but only as a deoy - and the bulk of Minamoto Yoshinaka's army crept around to attack from the rear. Yoshinaka tied torches to the horns of frightened cattle, which were sent stampeding into the Taira. The Minamoto gained the advantage. Despite this, in the following months, the Minamoto were split by a number of bitter power struggles. Yoritomo, loyally backed by his cousin, Yoshitsune, emerged the victor. Luckily for him, he Taira had been unable to regroup in time. At Ichi-no-Tani in 1184, the Minamoto went on the offensive, forcing the Taira to fall back on their home territory around the inland sea.
All at sea
In 1185 Yoritomo set out to take the Taira's main fortress at Yashima, off Shikoku. He had a party of men build fires in the hills inland to persuade the Taira that his army was approaching from that direction. The Taira took to their ships to make their escape, only to find the Minamoto sailing at them from the seaward side.
The battle of Yashima was more of a humiliation than a real defeat for the Taira, as most of them managed to make their way to safety. The climactic engagement of the Genpei war came a few weeks later at Dan-no-Ura. This was technically a naval battle, though it was really more of a land battle at sea. Warriors fired off showers of arrows as they came into range of one another, before boarding each other's vessels to continue fighting in hand-to-hand combat. It was a rigorous test of samurai strength, and one that Yoritomo's Minamoto won, decisively destroying the power of the Taira once and for all.
The Gempei Wars cast a long shadow over the subsequent history of Japan. Their impact was as much in the political and cultural spheres as in the military.
In 1192 Emperor Go-Toba gave Yoritomo the title of shogun, or "Supreme Commander". This was no more than an acknowledgement of what everybody knew: that real power in Japan resided with the Minamoto. Shogunates would, with only the briefest interruptions, remain in power until the second half of the 19th century. The Kamakura shoguns, named for their capital of Kamakura, saw off the Mongol invasion of the 13th century.
A Warrior Tradition
Still more lasting, if less tangible, was the impact of the Gempei wars on the military culture of Japan. Traditions and values established in medieval times were to resurface in the modern age. To an extraordinary extent, they still informed the military mind-set of 20th-century Japan, as became evident in the war with Russia, the Sino-Japanese War, and in the Pacific theatre of World War II.