Samurai Gaiden: Minamoto no Yorimasa

Note: During the busy changeover time and all that in June and July I realized I managed to forget to include the announcement on the 2nd of our ‘Seppuku’ series videos.  So here is the link and full transcript on…Minamoto no Yorimasa.  This Friday will still be the usual August Samurai Gaiden post and video.

All last month we talked about the Hogen Disturbance, the fight between Emperors Sutoku and Go-Shirakawa where Taira no Kiyomori first began his ascent into power. In that discussion we centered on the two sons of Minamoto no Tameyoshi…the first person to perform what eventually became seppuku, Minamoto no Tametomo and his elder brother who was first to murder basically his entire family, Minamoto no Yoshitomo.

Today we’re going to talk about the brothers’ uncle, Minamoto no Yorimasa.

Yorimasa in his younger days.

Yorimasa in his younger days.

The Hogen Disturbance occurred in the year 1156, and Minamoto no Yoshitomo’s rebellion against Go-Shirakawa and the Taira occurred four years later, in 1160, known as the Heiji Disturbance. As we mentioned Yoshitomo died as a result of the Heiji Disturbance.

One prominent member of the Minamoto was a respected warrior, poet, and politician who had avoided the ebbing tides of the Minamoto clan. He was Minamoto no Yorimasa, who was personal friends with Taira no Kiyomori, and had managed to stay relatively neutral in the conflicts between his clan and the Taira.

When Yoshitomo rebelled against the Taira-favored court, Yorimasa sided with the Taira. Yoshitomo’s failure nearly ended the Minamoto clan’s prosperity, allowing the Taira to completely take over the court and replace the Fujiwara as the dominant clan in power.

In the year 1180, though, Kiyomori grew too powerful. He had married his daughter, Taira no Tokuko, to a former Emperor and they had born a young Prince next in line for succession two years earlier. But Kiyomori was growing old, he had to ensure the Taira clan lived on in prosperity after his death.

Kiyomori placed his grandson, the Imperial Prince, on the throne as two-year-old Emperor Antoku. He then went about banishing his political rivals from the court and assigning positions to his relatives and allies.

This was one step too far, as far as another member of the Imperial family was concerned, former Emperor Go-Shirakawa, himself. Go-Shirakawa, who Kiyomori had backed during the Hogen Disturbance, was now orchestrating a new rebellion against the Taira.

Go-Shirakawa sent his son, Prince Mochihito, to gather supporters from among the Minamoto. The downtrodden tend to befriend the other downtrodden. Prince Mochihito and Yorimasa gathered together and called upon the support of whatever Minamoto allies still remained.

One of those major allies was the monks of the Temple Complex as Mii-dera. When Kiyomori discovered Go-Shirakawa’s plans he sent men to capture, and presumably murder, Mochihito. Mochihito fled to the Mii-dera temple complex, but found their loyalties wavering. Mii-dera, located at the base of Mt. Hiei. Kiyomori had allied with the monks in nearby Enryakuji and Mii-dera found it difficult to get other monasteries to lend their support.

The Minamoto forces were unable to get into position to defend the temple in time and so Yorimasa, Mochihito, and the Mii-dera monks loyal to their cause fled the temple with Taira forces right behind them.

They passed over the bridge across the Uji River and took up a position at the Byodo-in Temple. Yorimasa led a combined force of Minamoto samurai and Mii-dera warrior monks in the defense of Byodo at the Uji River crossing.

Taira no Kiyomori, too old to lead his own troops now, had sent two of his sons, Tomomori and Shigehira to lead the Taira advance. They came upon the Uji River and found a poor scene:

The monks of Mii-dera had broken up the bridge, tearing the planks out so that the Taira forces could not cross it. Only a narrow beam remained in the center which the Minamoto and Mii-dera monks could protect easily.

After some time of fierce fighting the two Taira sons were beginning to consider going further down the river and crossing at the Seta Bridge, instead of the Byodo-in bridge. But this would delay their crossing, giving Yorimasa and Mochihito a chance to escape to more numerous allies.

Instead, one of the Taira captains took a force of three hundred men across the river by fording it on horseback. When they reached the Minamoto side there was little that could stop them. They attacked the bridge defenders from the flank and the Taira forces were able to cross shortly thereafter.

Now Yorimasa’s back was to the wall. He urged Prince Mochihito to flee while the monks of Mii-dera sacrificed themselves to protect the man whom they hoped would be the future emperor and their allies.

Yorimasa had two sons involved in the battle, a Nakatsuna and a Kanetsuna, and together with his sons he gathered up a small force and the prince. They departed the temple to flee to their friends in Nara, to the south.

But as Yorimasa prepared to leave, he was struck by an arrow. Wounded, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the fleeing de facto imperial guard. He urged the prince to keep going and he retired to a small grove of trees to rest.

Yorimasa in his later years.

Yorimasa in his later years.

The token force that remained with him were quickly overrun by Taira soldiers. Yorimasa drew his war fan and dipped his finger in the blood of his wound. Upon the fan he wrote the following words…

Umoregi no,

Hana saku koto mo,

Nakarishi ni,

Mi no naru hate zo,

Kana shikari keru.

Like a fossil tree, from which we gather no flowers,

Sad has been my life, fated no fruit to produce.

With that done he pulled off his breastplate, drew his dagger, and sliced open his abdomen. A nearby retainer slashed at Yorimasa and cut off his head. That retainer tied a heavy rock to Yorimasa’s head and rushed to the river’s edge, hurling the weighted skull into the water. It was one trophy the Taira would not be getting this day.

During this time his younger son, Minamoto no Kanetsuna, was struck by an arrow in the head and died. The elder son, Minamoto no Nakatsuna, was also wounded by an arrow, but only maimed. Nakatsuna limped over to his father’s headless corpse, dropped to his knees, and drew forth his own dagger.

Minamoto no Yorimasa was not the first to commit seppuku, nor was he certainly the last. But he created a template for which all other samurai would look up to, when and if forced to perform seppuku.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Belinda
    Oct 05, 2018 @ 06:57:05

    Hi there,

    I came across your post while searching for information on Minamoto no Yorimasa. I visited Byodo-in yesterday and was drawn to an outer area that turned out to be the memorial and grave of Minamoto. The energy was incredible and quite beautiful. Someone was definitely with me in spirit. This is what led me to look him up. And thanks to your fantastically written piece, this experience makes sense. Seems he was a brave and valiant yet sensitive soul.


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