Samurai Gaiden: Minamoto no Tametomo

Did you folks like the…extremely depressing story…of Arimaka no Yorozu? Well today we’ve got a surprise for you then: We’re going back to a pre-Sengoku situation; this time legitimately Heian. This month and the next, we’ll be talking about seppuku. Later in the months we’ll talk about what seppuku is, specifically, and how and why it was performed.

But for now, we’re going to talk about the first recorded occurrence of seppuku happening. Now seppuku had evolved throughout the years, as any ritual does. If you haven’t guessed yet, today we’re going to talk about Minamoto no Tametomo.


Let us start in the year 1156. Japan is ruled over by Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who wishes to oust the politically powerful Fujiwara clan who has dominated his family for centuries. Go-Shirakawa was put on the throne after his elder brother died, instead of another of his elder brothers being put back on the throne. This was orchestrated by his father and a Fujiawara lord.

However in 1156 there was a dispute, what with their father now dead, and Go-Shirakawa went to war with his elder brother, retired-Emperor Sutoku.

At this time the three biggest, most powerful clans were the Taira, the Minamoto, and the Fujiwara; of which the Fujiwara were the reigning champions.


In any imperial succession conflict you wind up with people taking sides. The heads of the Minamoto clan backed retired-Emperor Sutoku, but the heads of the Taira clan backed the current-Emperor Go-Shirakawa.

Now it wasn’t as cut and dry as that, because at this time the Minamoto and Taira are essentially friendly rivals. Many Taira served on the Minamoto side of the conflict and many Minamoto served on the Taira side of the conflict.

Even the Fujiwara were split in the conflict with the Fujiwara brothers taking opposing sides, the elder, Tadamichi, siding with Go-Shirakawa and the younger, Yorinaga, taking the side of Sutoku.

The younger brother, Fujiwara no Yorinaga, convinced Minamoto no Tametomo and Taira no Tadamasa to side with him. Meanwhile the elder brother, Fujiwara no Tadamichi, convinced Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Taira no Kiyomori to side with him.

Now this gets even more complicated when you realize that both Yoshitomo and Tametomo…are sons of Minamoto no Tameyoshi.

We're specifically talking about the dude precipitously circled in red.

We’re specifically talking about the dude precipitously circled in red.

Take a moment to try to get a grasp on that…this is not merely a battle of cousin vs. cousin, but of brother vs. brother, for numerous families. The Fujiwara brothers have taken sides, the Minamoto brothers have taken sides, and the Taira cousins are taking sides against each other.

Now, this is where Tametomo really shows his abilities. You see both forces are gathering on opposing sides of the capital city of Kyoto. Tametomo was one of the chiefs of Sutoku’s forces at, and this will be confusing for a moment, Shirakawa Palace. Yes, they occupied the building named with the same name as their enemy; probably just to confuse non-Japanese scholars centuries later.

Actually it was because it was named after their ancestor: Emperor Shirakawa. In case you were curious.

Actually it was because it was named after their ancestor: Emperor Shirakawa. In case you were curious.

So Tametomo is helping to lead the Sutoku forces at Shirakawa Palace.

Taira no Kiyomori and Tametomo’s elder brother, Yoshitomo, led the Go-Shirakawa forces at Takamatsu Palace.

Tametomo suggested launching a night attack against Takamatsu, advising that his brother was surely planning to attack Shirakawa palace and he wanted to get the drop on him. However, Fujiwara no Yorinaga didn’t like the plan.

Yorinaga wanted an epic war with his brother in true gentlemanly fashion. They would wait until both sides had collected all their warriors and allies, then they would move to a strategic position, and finally they would engaged in gentlemanly war.

This plan was dashed to the wayside when Tametomo’s brother had convinced Yorinaga’s elder brother to launch a night attack on Shirakawa palace; just as Tametomo anticipated.

Taira no Kiyomori, backed by the Ito clan, led a valiant cavalry charge against Shirakawa palace.

Tametomo rode out and engaged the Taira-Ito forces in battle. He fired an arrow killing one of the Ito commanders, Ito no Roku, in a single shot.

With one of their commanders dead, the other Ito commanders Ito no Go and Ito no Kagetsuna, fell back and prepared to assault the palace from another direction.

Though Tametomo’s bravery had saved the moment, the Taira-Ito forces just set the palace on fire and the forces loyal to Fujiwara no Yorinaga and Sutoku were forced to flee the area in defeat.

This put Go-Shirakawa’s forces on the winning side of things with Taira no Kiyomori taking most of the credit. Minamoto no Tametomo was banished to an island off the cost of Izu province. Now before we go too far into what happened after the conflict, let’s talk about what happened before it.

Tametomo was, as mentioned, a son of Minamoto no Tameyoshi, he was the 8th son as a matter of fact. Tametomo spent much of his youth in the western-most island of Kyushu where he is said to have married a woman named Taira no Shiranui, the daughter of Taira no Tadakuni.

Tametomo was known as an amazing archer, part the reason owing to the fact that he is rumored to have been born with one arm about four inches longer than the other. This allowed him to have an unusually long draw-length to his bow.

"My arm's not the only thing four inches longer, eh ladies? *wink, wink*

“My arm’s not the only thing four inches longer, eh ladies? *wink, wink*

So now, back to Tametomo’s defeat during the Hogen Disturbance. He was apparently exiled to the Izu-oshima islands; rumor goes that since he was such a renowned archer, the victorious forces may have cut the tendons on his longer arm. Most legends state that his arm was able to heal relatively quickly, though.

Now supposedly he managed to escape his exile by marrying the local governor’s daughter, Shimagaimi, and siring three children with her. He then took over the island and escaped to the islands of Ryukyu, modern-day Okinawa, where he married a chieftain’s daughter, Nei, who gave birth to another child of his, Shunten.

From Tametomo and Shunten, supposedly, comes the royal line of kings of Ryukyu. However this is most likely all legend in order to validate the Japanese occupation of Okinawa during the Edo period. One of the biggest arguments against this theory is that Izu Oshima is on the other side of the country from Ryukyu.

Perhaps if he had been exiled to one of the islands off of Kyushu, such as Tanegashima or Kikiagashima, it might make sense. But even the theory that he escaped Izu Oshima and made it to Hachijojima (a veritable half-way point), then to Ryukyu is farcical.

So, aside from the Tokugawa casus belli for occupying Ryukyu, the story of Tametomo’s days in exile go somewhat like this…

Tametomo was spared after the Hogen disturbance, however after the Taira took total control of the government from the Minamoto and Fujiwara after the Heiji disturbance, they remembered that Tametomo was a popular and brave warrior of the defeated clan. Some sources say it was because he took over the islands of Izu Oshima and legends talk of him conquering islands filled with demons.

The Taira sent troops to Izu Oshima and Tametomo was made aware that they were coming to murder him. He donned his armor, girded on a quiver of arrows, and strung his bow. He waded out into the water of the coastline and watched the Taira men sail toward him.

He began firing arrows at the encroaching enemy forces, however he was only one man against many. He was able to draw the bow and fire his arrows with such force that he managed to sink one of the boats. With an arrow!

With a frickin' arrow!

With a frickin’ arrow!

He struck the boat just below the water line and it started taking on water. While his enemies stopped to collect their sinking brethren he fired his last few arrows and retired back into his home. He stripped off his armor, took out a knife, and cut himself across the abdomen.

He leaned against a pillar and closed his eyes, bleeding to death in a serene, albeit painful fashion. When the Taira soldiers made it to the island they invaded his home and found him, back propped against the pillar, he was sitting so upright and stalwart that they didn’t believe he was dead.

Finally a brave soldier stepped forward, identified him as dead, and cut off Tametomo’s head.

Thus a brave end to a brave man, Minamoto no Tametomo, was the first recorded case of seppuku, as we know it, having occurred. Some stories suggest he simply died at Izu Oshima, others say he was murdered by the Taira soldiers while he was defenseless. But sinking a boat with an arrow and then cutting your own abdomen open is a pretty badass way to go out, if that is what really happened.

Now before we go I have to point out one final story about Tametomo. You see Tametomo and four of his younger brothers were of the side of retired-Emperor Sutoku, as was Tametomo’s father, the head of the Minamoto clan: Minamoto no Tameyoshi.

When Shirakawa palace fell, Tametomo had called for his father and the Fujiwara lord to flee north to make another stand while he protected them. But in the end they decided to surrender, instead. It was then that Tametomo’s arm tendons were severed and he was exiled.

As far as having his arm maimed, the only detailed account I found was that while he was in a bath, Taira soldiers rushed into the room, held him in the water, and sliced at his arm.

He was still revered for his skill even into the Meiji Period.

He was still revered for his skill even into the Meiji Period.

If only they had followed Tametomo’s advice, perhaps they might have survived long enough to wage a counter-revolution against the Taira? Of course if they had listened to Tametomo and attacked before Taira no Kiyomori attacked them, maybe they could have even won the initial conflict?

Unfortunately Tametomo was not heeded and because of this, ultimately, we have the ritual of seppuku arising from the events.

Join us again later in the month for more on the story of seppuku, and next month as well. And if there’s anything else you want to hear about, anything related to the old days in Japanese history, let me know in the comments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Free lessons in Dickjutsu by e-maill. Or if you don't get the joke, it's the subscription button.

%d bloggers like this: