Minamoto clan warriors and ships at the Battle of Yashima
The Heian Rebellions, 1051-1160
'Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace during the Heiji Disturbance' from a 13th century scroll
Of Yoshitomo’s sons, three would become famous in Japanese history and play important roles in the Gempei War, Yoritomo, Yoshitsune (b.1159-1189), and Noriyori (b.1156-1193). Though he only had reigned unopposed from 1155-1158, emperor Go-Shirakawa would cast a large shadow over Japanese political affairs and military affairs until his eventual death in the year 1192. Shirakawa influence is undeniable during this greater as he lived through the reigns of five different emperors; two of them, Takakura and Nijō, his sons.
Act I, 1180-1183, 1st Uji to KurikaraThe Gempei War began in March of 1180 in the aftermath of the abdication of yet another ineffective Japanese emperor, Takakura, who died in the year 1181 at the age of nineteen. The well respected and influential samurai lord Kiyomori enthroned his two year old grandson Antoku, son of Takakura, as emperor despite widespread discontent with the Tara clan’s rule. Classic sources note that Go-Shirakawa played a role as well; inciting open rebellion when he commanded his third son, Prince Mochihito to raise Minamoto banners in open rebellion. Mochihito was quick to declare for the Minamoto clan, soon after, tens of thousands of men and a few women as well; levies, ashigaru (foot soldiers), warrior monks, and samurai, were in arms, declaring for either the Minamoto or Tara clans. Led by Prince Mochihito and Yorimasa, a samurai general and noted poet, a Minamato host attacked Uji outside Kyoto in the conflicts’ first battle in June of 1180. Yorimasa’s host of a few thousand warriors was bolstered by the famed warrior “monks of the mountains”, the naginta wielding buddhist monks of the Midera temple. These warrior monks attacked and then partially burned the city of Nara during the battle.
Battle of Uji Bridge, 23 June 1180
A fierce counter attack by a relatively small Taira force led by Tommori (b.1152-1185), a son of Kiyomori, succeeded in pushing the Minamato clan back across the broken frame of the Uji bridge where hundreds were killed in bloody hand-to-hand combat. Some were forced or would choose to jump to their deaths into the water below during the fearsome struggle. Prince Mochihito was slain in the fighting most likely as the rebel Minamoto host was broken by the Tairan army. Yorimasa’s remaining samurai and retainers including several of his sons retreated to the temple of Byodo-In seeking refuge. As the Taira samurai descended the river valley nearer to temple the ever respected Yorimasa wrote his death poem on his war fan, “Like a rotten log-half buried in the ground-my life, which has not flowered, comes to this sad end” and committed hara kiri (seppuku), the ritual belly cutting suicide of the samurai warrior, the first known historical account of this act being committed by a samurai lord after a significant defeat in battle. His head was taken from his body and his sons fled to avoid it’s capture by the vengeful Tara enemy.
In September of 1180 at the Battle of Ishibashiyama Yoritomo and a small Minamato clan force were defeated by a large Taira clan host led by Ōba Kagechika. Yoritomo's only major independent command in battle during the Gempei War had been an utter failure. He was no match for the tactical and strategic acumen of both his allies and his many enemies in his own clan and amongst the Taira; Minamoto no Yoritmo was no warlord or strategic minded samurai, he was a daimyo and clan patriarch and above-all a politician foremost. Tommori of the Taira clan later attacked and burned the Miidera temple in retaliation for the mountain monks’ support of the Minamoto clan at the Battle of Uji.
Depiction of Yoritomo of the Minamoto clan with a retainer c.1180
Tommori won another decisive victory in the Battle of Sunomata in August 1181 against Minamoto Yukiee, an uncle of Yoritomo. After Minamato samurai attempted to cross a river at night in order to ambush Tommori’s force his Tara samurai formed battle lines and savagely defended them into the small hours of the night; cutting down hundreds of Minamoto who passed amongst their ranks, telling friend from foe by the dripping wet armor of the attacking Minamoto samurai. A second battle fought as a rearguard action was shortly after the Minamoto defeat at Sunomata in the spring of 1181 was at the bridge near Yahagi-gawa.
The Taira clan won again by preventing Yukiee from destroying the bridge and forcing him to withdraw back into Minamoto lands. Tommori took sick during the chase and his now depleted force was forced to halt their pursuit of the Minamoto. Had this not happened, Tommori might have pressed on to defeat the Minamoto, winning the war in a decisive and bloody fashion. In March of the same year Kiyomori of the Taira clan died of fever leaving his eldest surviving, Munemori, as his heir. As such Munemori took legal custody of the child-emperor Antoku.
Munemori of the Taira clan
The Minamoto might have held against the larger Taira force had not a traitor fired an arrow from the battlements with a note to the Taira commanders detailing a not-so-secret way to breach Yoshinaka’s fortress atop a craggy outcrop along a hastily built dam. Koremori took the dam with the traitors advice but Yoshinaka was able to escape along with most of his men to raid Taira territory again. Yoshinaka achieved revenge for his defeat by treachery several months later in June of 1183 when he won a truly remarkable victory over the Taira at the Battle of Kurikara Pass.
Battle of Kurikara Map
Battle of Kurikara 1184
Act II, 1183-1184-Shinowara to the Taking of Kyoto by Kiso Yoshinaka
Other great battles followed the decisive Minamoto clan victory at the Kurikara pass. These included Shinowara, a bloody battle which began as an archery duel and then rapidly descended into bloody melee between the Minamoto and Taira led by Yoshinaka and Munemori respectively. The Minamoto carried the day yet again in this battle led by the brave and bold strategic mastermind Kiso Yoshinaka. Weeks later at the Battle of Mizushima, a Minamoto host commanded by Yoshiyasu was sent to the Bitchū province to attack the Taira clan bases in the Inland Sea near Yashima and Shikoku island. Minamoto and Taira armies met in the sea off Kurashiki near the Takahashi river in a most unique naval engagement.
Theater of War during the Gempei Conflict, 1180-1185
According to a posthumous account, Tara clan ships were fastened together with planks and made into a single standing battle platform off the coast as a sort coastal blockade. The account details , “The Heike [Tara] ships were made fast alongside each other by [rope cables] from the stem [to] stern...so that the whole became like a level surface for the fighting men. At the onset of the battle, samurai general Noto no kami Noritsune cried out in a mighty voice ‘Ho! men of Shikoku! How can you bear the shame of being taken alive by these boors of the north! Upon them and grapple!” (The Samurai Sourcebook, Stephen Turnbull).
In the refined melee on the waves that followed hundreds were killed by arrows, swords, or spears. The issue was only decided after surviving Minamoto samurai attempted to swim to shore however Noritsune rode them down in the shallows with 500 Taira cavalry capturing or killing many before they made it to the safety of shore. Yoshinaka’s milk brother and contemporary samurai commander Imai Kanehira won another minor victory against the Taira at Fukuryūji several days later; charging through muddy ricefields under an arrow storm to defeat the Taira partisan Seno Kaneyasu, who was slain in the action.
Taira clan samurai aboard their ships during the Gempei War
In 1184 the dynamic of the Gempei conflict drastically mutated into a factionalist struggle. The Taira seemed all but defeated when Yoshinaka entered Kyoto and gained custody of both the young Emperor Antoku and the cloistered instigator of the conflict in 1180, emperor Go-Shirakawa. His army committed many outrages against the populace of Kyoto, pillaging, burning, or killing perhaps hundreds of people and properties. Though he was a highly respected samurai lord, gaining de facto status as shogun because of his great victories and his custody of the emperor, Yoshinaka was eventually held accountable and veritably ostracized by most of his former Minamoto clan allies.
The events that followed sowed the seeds for a rather brief but violent inter-clan conflict between pro-Yoritomo loyalists and Yoshinaka rebels. Yoritomo’s fragile hold on the Minamoto’s clan hierarchy had cracked and now Minamoto clan banners were raised against him for the first time. Kiso Yoshinaka declared war on his cousin Yoritmo by attacking the temple of Hōjūjidono in Kyoto. On Yoshinaka’s order his samurai torched the sacred venue with fire arrows and then proceeded to mercilessly slaughter its defenders and courtly inhabitants. Yoshinaka and his rebel Minamoto clique took personal custody of emperor Go-Shirakawa before the palace was raised. This coup d'états results' did not last long and would quickly have a disastrous outcome for Yoshinaka and his retinue. Yoritomo soon gained the trust of the fickle cloistered emperor and made peace with him and the royal household, formally cutting Yoshinaka out of the Minamoto ascendancy. It was agreed by both parties that the common enemy was still the Taira clan and now, Kiso Yoshinaka as well.
Act III, 1184-2nd Uji to Ichi-no-Tana
Some of the Gempei conflicts most poignant and well remembered battles were fought during the last period of the war between the two rival Minamoto factions. Following their great victory at Kurikara the Minamoto clan led by Yoritomo and his younger brothers, the great warrior and strategist Yoshitsune and the equally brave as well as industrious younger brother Noriyori, looked to press their advantage against the Taira clan and push closer towards Kyoto and the Inland Sea. But first they had to defeat the rebel Yoshinaka and his rebel host. Yoshinaka and his retainers' life were now forfeit. After the burning of Hōjūjidono, Yoshinaka and his army fled from Kyoto to the Uji River-the site of the wars’ first battle in 1180.
Yoshitsune, then known as Ushiwakamaru, defeats the bandit chief Kumasaka Chohan in c.1174
Yoshitsune won the day at the Second Battle of Uji, however Yoshinaka was able to retreat in good order with a fair portion of his army intact. Following his flight from the capital he regrouped with his old battle companion Imai Kanehira the victor of the Battle of Fukuryūji and his concubine, Tomoe Gozen (b.1158-1247), an onna-bugeisha (women warrior), his retainer who happened to be highly skilled in the samurai’ arts of war, it was known that she was as brave and as deadly as many of her male counterparts. The Minamoto rebels fled north to Awazu (Ōtsu) following their defeat at the Second Battle of Uji but were caught by Yoshitsune and Noriyori’s host. After the trading of arrow barrages the fighting got close enough for katana and tanto (dagger), there was much blood spilt between each sides samurai and ashigaru. The traditional sources and epic poems of the later ages focus exclusively on the often bloody and at times fatal personal combat between rival samurais in many of the wars' later battles especially at Second Uji and Awazu. Perhaps the most notable personal combat fought at the Battle of Awazu in 1184 featured the female warrior-concubine, Tomoe Gozen. With her lover’s army reeling; his retainers cut down with many ashigaru fleeing, dead or dieing, Tomoe Gozen met three Minamoto samurai in single combat while attempting to flee the field.
First she killed a well known samurai named Honda no Moroshige, taking his head upon his death defeat, a great battle honor in Samurai culture. She then slew Minamoto samurai Uchida Ieyoshi with her katana and then defeated Hatakeyama Shigetada in single combat to make good on her escape. Yoshinaka, the great daimyo and would-be Minamoto shogun was felled by an arrow attempting to escape across a rice field-likely riding towards a safe location to commit ritual suicide. Upon witnessing or being informed of his dear companions’ death, Imai Kanehira put his katana in his mouth and jumped off his horse, killing himself instantly in a last act of loyalty to his now deceased master.
Tomoe Gozen in combat with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama Shigetada
Three more battles were fought against the Taira Clan in the wars’ final stages. The first, largest, and most notable was certainly the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani which was fought on 18 March 1184. Yoshitsune led 2500-3000 Minamoto soldiers against a roughly even number of Taira ashigaru and samurai. In a dashing foray up a steep coastal cliff near Suma, Yoshitune and his men breached the Ichi-no-Tani fortress and then set it ablaze. There was a great deal of archery and melee action to take the fortress and again nearly countless personal combats, both heralded and unheralded.
The Minamoto samurai chased their Tara counterparts to the beach below Ichi-no-Tani where the fighting continued until the rest of the Taira force fled or were killed. Noriyori won another minor victory for his brother over a fleeing Taira clan army on the coast of Kojima in March of 1184. Next Yoshitsune raised a large fleet and with a 500-1000 men sailed across the Inland Sea and launched an attack against the Taira on the island of Shikoku. Upon landing on the island he personally led a night assault against the Taira clan samurai at Yashima who were led by Tommori. The Minamoto won a moderate victory though the remainder of the Taira clan ships and samurai escaped to sea yet again.
Yoshitsune and a retainer ride to the fighting at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani
Final Act, Battle of Dan-no-ura March 1185
The Battle of Dan-no-ura was fought on 24 March 1185 in the Straits of Shimonoseki-nearly at the crossroads of the Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan. Yoshitsune had a great fleet of 150-200 ships and many loyal and experienced samurai under his command when he sailed to meet the Tara clans’ fleet days before this most epic of battles. Tommori had a large fleet as well, perhaps 150 or more ships and he was also an experienced sailor who knew the waters of Shimonoseki well. In addition, Tommori's samurai were on the run, ragged and hungry for a decisive victory over their enemies. Among the ships in the Tairan fleet was a smaller inconspicuous royal junk carrying the seven year old dethroned emperor Antoku and his grandmother and guardian, Kiyomori's widowed wife Tokiko. In their possession were the royal jewels and artifacts including the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the mythical and sacred Japanese sword of state.
Action was begun with a particularly dramatic archery duel between the opposing armies their vessels. We can imagine that thousands of arrows were fired in this duel in less than one hour. The Taira had formed battle lines as three squadrons whilst the Minamoto fleet sailed in a large pack with Yoshitsune’s ships sailing abreast of one another. The battle began at Ebb tide giving a distinct advantage to Tommori who used the shallows near the coast to sail circles around Yoshitsune’s ships. By eleven in the morning the battle turned to vicious melee combat. Fighting was fierce and little or no quarter was asked for or given between the two hated factions.
The final defeat of the Taira at Dan-no-aura, Tommori is center
It was in the melee where the tide of the battle finally turned, literally as well as figuratively. Though the Minamoto had fought poorly the coming of high tide renewed their effort in the Battle of Dan-no-aura. Tommori’s men held fast until treachery reared its grotesque head on the tidal waters of the battle like a monstrous sea serpent. A Taira clan commander named Miura Yoshizumi betrayed his comrades and attacked the Taira’s rear in support of the Minamoto. He also informed Yoshitsune’s commanders that the largest ship which appeared to be carrying emperor Antoku was actually a decoy vessel. The Minamoto soon found the royal ship and successfully disabled it by killing the ships oarsmen with arrows. As more and more Taira ships were cast aimlessly into the waves by the same tactic the struggle ultimately became a rout.
Hundreds of Taira samurai committed suicide by throwing themselves along with their heavy armor and weapons into the ocean. Most of the major Taira lords did just this or were slain in the confusing and bloody actions beforehand. Tommori as legend holds, wrapped himself in his ships anchor and then plummeted to the bottom of the sea to avoid dishonor at the hands of his Minamoto enemies. Emperor Antoku and his grandmother jumped from their simple junk into the sea too with the Japanese royal regalia and state sword. None were seen again except for the ancient royal state mirror which was eventually recovered. Yoshitsune had won a total, war-ending victory. Munemori, son and heir of the Taira clan patriarch Kiyomori was captured alive in the battle and later executed for treason in Kyoto.
Battle of Dan-no-ura by Yoshikazu c.1850's-Depicts Yoshitunes 'eight boat leap' to escape Taira samurai during the early portion of the battle.
And so the Gempei War ended in a Minamoto victory. With most of the Taira clan’s hegemony dead, missing, or scattered it was now Yoritomo’s time to build the bakufu military government, known simply as the Shogunate thereafter to history. Just four years later Yoritomo’s rule over the Minamoto clan was again challenged; this time by his then exiled brother Yoshitsune who raised an army with the support of emperor Shirakawa. Yoshitsune was soon defeated and made a marked man until his death by suicide following his defeat at the Battle of Koromo River in June of 1189.
Armies and Warfare in the Gempei War, 1180-1185
Not surprisingly, very little information can be found to accurately ascertain troop strengths, dispositions of the two major forces, and the greater strategic/tactical maneuvering of the campaigns which comprise the majority of the Gempei War, 1180-1185. Though we know a great deal about the samurai warrior caste and its military history as a whole, the political machinations of the period perhaps overshadow this muddled and little dissected conflict amongst Western historians. It is also important to highlight the contribution of other non-samurai military forces during this conflict as well. The overwhelming majority of (common) foot soldiers (later known as the ashigaru) who served during the Gempei War would have fought with primarily two weapons: the long shafted naginta or kama yari, a fearsome utilitarian weapon with a razor sharp curved blade, and the bow and arrow.
Many samurai and foot soldiers of this period were master bowmen for sure and we can imagine that many non-samurai were trained in the use of bows and arrows use whilst hunting in the lush forests and valleys of Japan. Foot soldiers used the bow and naginta/pole weapons in abundance as did the samurai however. Japanese chroniclers of the later medieval and early renaissance period have tended to entirely negate the battle contributions of the ashigaru in almost every single one of the battles and skirmishes of the Gempei War and its preceding conflicts. Women fought as well in small numbers though none have the lasting legacy of the beautiful and heroic Tomoe Gozen.
Mounted Gempei era samurai
Samurai of the period fought armored and armed with the traditional weapons of their class. In the Gempei Wars' era the samurai was primarily used as a mounted archer unit. They fought adequately with naginta and spear but the skills applied to archery and bow warfare were seen as essential. Though many samurai and ashigaru clashed steel and wood during the conflict, it was the bow and arrow that caused the lions share of the wounds and fatalities in many of the Gempei conflict’s battles. Mounted samurai archers were the king of battle during Heian period warfare, well armed samurai would often fight the battle mounted in the ō-yoroi or “box armor”, a heavy, inflexible, and cumbersome full body armor designed for cavalry-archery combat exclusively. When samurai were serving as retainers or foot soldiers they wore the light and flexible dō-maru body wrap armor instead.
The standard samurai weapons were the katana and the the smaller tanto for close proximity, melee and personal combat. Nagintas and traditional spears were often used in this early period as well. It was not until the Mongol invasion of Kublai Khan (b.1215-1294) in 1274 and 1281 that samurai began to fight on foot more often than not relying less overall on mounted archery in pitched battles. Many melee combat duels during the Gempei era were concluded in hand-to-hand combat with a particular attention paid by samurais to the “grapple” style of combat. In one such instance at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani in 1184, a Minamoto samurai killed a Tara foe by “[snatching] his dagger from his side and pulling up the skirt of his [enemies] armour, stabbed him so deeply three times that the hilt went in after the blade. Having thus dispatched him he cut off his head.” (The Samurai Sourcebook, Turnbull).
Depiction of a Samurai during the Gempei War
There were three castes of the samurai military society during the greater period of the conflict from 1151-1189 encompassing the Gempei War. At the top were the daimyo, the ruling class of lords of the major and minor Japanese provinces. They owed fealty to the emperor and their clan patriarch. As fuedal lords they ruled their provinces or domains as military governors, justices of the peace, sheriffs, and landlords. The mid-level samurai were the ranking soldiers who fought for clan (family) honor and/or their lord or master’s personal honor. The third class consisted of retainers and household samurai who served their respected daimyo or samurai warlord in numerous capacities. These were often third or fourth sons of samurai lords or commoners who served as armed retainers and servants (sandal-bearers).
Even in this early age the samurai lords and ranking samurai were a most fascinating breed of warriors. They lived for honor and many often died by the sword; fighting for justice and honor, some for revenge or self serving material interest, and some for the simple love of combat and battle. For most samurai personal loyalty and honor were life's only true purpose. A good death in battle or by your own hand (seppuku) was considered most noble. Though the samurai were warriors of the highest order they also enjoyed writing poems, watching or acting in plays, hunting, athletics, and courting women. Most came from large families so providing land and status for one’s sons, daughters, and grandchildren was of high importance to ranking samurai.
This fascinating but still emerging samurai warrior caste was on full display during the long and relatively bloody Gempei War from 1180-1185. Seemingly endless accounts translated to English and still many others untranslated, describe and likely embellish a great deal relating to personal combat and armed and unarmed duels between samurai during the battles of this great Japanese conflict. Military and civil power were greatly altered following the end of the conflict and the eventual proclamation of the samurai ruled government, the Kamakura Shogunate in the year 1192, ruled by Shogun Yoritomo with the blessing of emperor Go-Toba (b.1180-1239).
Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo (b.1147-1199), who ruled as first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate of Japan, 1192-1199
Suggested Further Reading
The Samurai Sourcebook By: Stephen Turnbull (Cassell & CO. 1998-2002).
Samurai Commanders (1) 940-1576 By: Turnbull, illustrated by Richard Hook (Osprey Publishing, 2005).