Samurai Gaiden: Battle of Uji (1180)

We spoke a few months ago about Minamoto no Yorimasa, the man who joined with the Mii-dera warrior monks and Go-Shirakawa’s son and were eventually defeated at the battle of Uji River. But while we delved into Yorimasa’s performance of seppuku at the battle’s end we only briefly touched on the other events of the day.

We had centered the discussion on Yorimasa, because we were talking about Seppuku. But now that we have that thinly veiled topic off our minds, why don’t we take a look at the, arguably more impressive and interesting, feats of the other warriors present on that warm June day in 1180.

If you don’t remember anything about Minamoto no Yorimasa he, along with the Emperor’s son, raised a rebellion against the lord of the Taira clan, Taira no Kiyomori. The rebellion didn’t go well though and Kiyomori sent two of his sons, Tomomori and Shigehira, to quash the short-lived rebellion.

We already talked about how the monks of Mii-dera temple broke up the bridge so that only a narrow beam could be crossed.

Now we already discussed the suicidal end of Minamoto no Yorimasa and his sons, so we won’t bother going into too much detail on that. Instead there are five other people we’ll discuss today. The first is…

The monk, Tajima. No, wait, there’s a kind of a funny story we have to touch on first. Then I’ll get to the Tajima.

So I just said that the monks and the Minamoto soldiers tore up the bridge, right? Well the Taira forces arrived at the river just before dawn. As the sun rose a thick fog was wafting across the river, to the point that neither side could really see the other side of the river.


The Taira forces shouted a mighty warcry and the badly outnumbered Minamoto/Mii-dera alliance countered with their own war cry.

The Taira vanguard of cavalry rode valiantly on to the bridge, charging with reckless abandon…where they fell to their deaths through the hole in the bridge.

Deciding that had been a bad idea, the Taira formed up on the north side of the river and they began trading arrows with the Minamoto side of the river.

And now we get to priest Tajima, after the sun rises and the battle is raging.


So Tajima is a sohei, a warrior monk, of the Mii-dera Temple. As the Taira forces were trying to cross the bridge he threw the sheath off his naginata and leapt onto the narrow beam to impede them. The Taira soldiers aimed at him and fired their arrows at the brash monk.

Luckily for Tajima he was adept in the Patches O’Houlihan’s school of Dodge-arrow. Because he was able to dodge, dip, duck, dive…and slice the arrows out of the air. The ones aimed right at him? He spun his naginata around to knock them out of the air.

The ones aimed too low to slice? He jumped over them. The ones aimed to high to slice? He simply ducked to avoid them.

After fighting to exhaustion he returned to his own lines, but his efforts earned him the moniker Gochi-in no Tajima…Tajima the Arrow Cutter.


The next up was the fierce warrior Tsutsui Jomyo Meishu. Jomyo took a position on the beam of the bridge and nocked an arrow to his bow. He fired twenty-four arrows at the Taira forces trying to cross the bridge.

With one arrow left in his quiver, there were twelve dead and eleven more wounded of the Taira side. Though he had one arrow remaining, for reasons unbeknownst to us, he threw his bow into the water, then his quiver. He picked up his naginata, kicked his sandals into the water, and calmly walk toward the Taira side of the river, barefoot.

He cut down the first man who came within reach of his naginata, then another, and another…after killing five men with ease he swung his naginata so hard against the body of a sixth Taira warrior, that he broke the polearm.

He drew his sword and engaged in even more fighting and cuts down not one, not three, not six…but eight men with his sword. He then swung the sword around to kill a ninth and caught the man on his helmet, shattering the blade at the hilt. He paused comically to regard the blade as it fell through the hole in the bridge and splashed into the water.

Jomyo began withdrawing back across the bridge, wielding only his dagger as the Taira gave chase. He furiously back against the Taira, cutting men and throwing them into the river when they neared him.

But it was at this moment, when a man came up behind him and grabbed him by the collar of his armor. That man pulled down hard, knocking Jomyo to the beam. That man was…

Leap Frog: Heian-style!

Leap Frog: Heian-style!

Ichirai-hoshi, another monk of Mii-dera who was upset that Jomyo was too big to and the bridge’s beam was too narrow to fight side-by-side. Ichirai wanted his chance for glory, too. So he leapt over Jomyo’s body and began a vicious swath of death against the Taira who dared to try crossing the bridge.

Jomyo stood up and collected himself, retiring to the Minamoto side of the bridge. When all was said and done he had no less than sixty-three arrows sticking out of his armor. It is said that Jomyo looked like a hedgehog.

Nonetheless, Ichirai fought valiantly against the innumerable Taira. He fought for some time before he became wounded. And eventually he fought until he could no longer fight and fell upon the bridge’s beam, having killed several Taira warriors and kept them at bay for a long time.

Now as I had said in Yorimasa’s video, the Taira commanders were considering taking a different route, fifty-miles out of their way, just to avoid the fighting at Uji bridge. But one amongst them scorned the idea.

His name was Ashikaga Tadatsuna and he was just an eighteen year old man of the Fujiwara branch clan.

And so now would be a good time to mentioned that he was of absolutely no relation to the Ashikaga family who would eventually be Shogun. The Ashikaga clan that people like Ashikaga Yoshiteru and Ashikaga Yoshiaki came from was a branch family of the Minamoto. They were named after the city they ruled from, originally, Ashikaga. That group became Shogun during the Muromachi period.

This particular family of Ashikaga also took their name from the same city of Ashikaga, but they were descended from the Fujiwara. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to the brash warrior, Tadatsuna.

You see Tadatsuna had a force of three-hundred warriors from the Ashikaga clan at his beck and call and he was tired of being unable to see any action. He advised trying to ford the river, and just to prove how good his idea was…he’d lead the way.


He called up his Ashikaga warriors and gave them a quick bit of advice…

Join hands and go across in a line. If your horses head gets pulled under the water, lift it up out! If the enemy fires at you, do not draw your bow to return fire. Keep your head down and use your helmet and neck-guard at a slope to protect you. But don’t slope your neck guard too far, or you’ll open the vulnerable top of your helmet to the enemy.”

Tadatsuna then led his forces in a fierce war cry and they dredged across the river, Tadatsuna at the lead. His horses feet were still in the water when he stood high in the saddle and announced himself, as was the custom…

I am Ashikaga no Tara Tadatsuna of Shimotsuke! Tenth generation descendant of Tawara Toda Hidesato, the renowned warrior!”

With that formality out of the way, he lead his Ashikaga cavalrymen up the river bank and into the Minamoto forces. The Taira commanders, ashamed at this brash upstart’s success, sent their own men fording across the river and the Minamoto position was overwhelmed.

Of Tadatsuna it is said “There will be no warrior like Ashikaga no Tadatsuna in ages to come.” Said to have been as strong as one hundred men, with a voice that could be heard twenty-five miles away, and almost inch-long teeth!

And we’ve already talked about how Yorimasa and his sons fought to the death, at least two-thirds of which was by their own hand. So I guess there really aren’t any more important people to talk about, is there?

Big Uji

Oh right…did I forget to mention what happened to Prince Mochihito? Because he totally escaped the battle and made it partway to Nara. But he paused briefly to rest at a Shinto shrine and the Taira did not pause in their pursuit of him.

When the Prince tried to flee the shrine, the Taira simply loosed their arrows at him. And there’s a reason why Prince Mochihito is not known as Mochihito the Arrow Cutter. He was Mochihito the pincushion by the time the Taira were done with him.

I suppose we can also mentioned what came of those allies from Nara. You see the reason Yorimasa and Mochihito were headed south was because they had also secured the support of thousands of warrior monks from the temple complexes of Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji.

Unfortunately for them, by the time they had mobilized to aid the Mii-dera monks and the Minamoto…Yorimasa’s head was at the bottom of the Uji river, Mochihito was a pincushion on the roadside, and the Taira held the most important roads and bridges into Kyoto.

Kiyomori was not one to forgive such ideas and he sent one of his veteran sons of Uji, Taira no Tomomori, to Mii-dera a few months later. The monks realized that regardless of how many of them had joined the Minamoto, they were all on the receiving end of this punishment. They barricaded the temple complex and prepared to hold out against Tomomori’s siege and his ten-thousand man army.

Spoiler alert, Tomomori’s army ripped through the barricaded and burnt the complex to the ground.

Now it just a matter of what to do about the monks of Nara? Kiyomori was interested in sparing them, because they hadn’t actually fought him, and he didn’t want to create a Buddhist revolution which could be very dangerous. But he still had to punish them; unless their high priests would agree to support the Taira clan.

Unfortunately the sohei were in charge by now and the more pacifist monks, referred to as gakusho, weren’t able to corral them into switching sides. As a matter of fact, Kiyomori’s messenger was attacked and his head was shaved, a grave insult to a samurai, and he was sent back to Kyoto after a good thrashing.

They then commissioned a wooden bust of Kiyomori’s head which they would entertain themselves with by kicking it about the courtyard of the temple. Even so Kiyomori sent a mere force of five-hundred men to admonish them. Five hundred was not enough and the monks captured almost one fifth of them, executing them by beheading, and then paraded the severed heads around the temples and the nearby countryside.

Kiyomori decided enough was enough and he sent one of his other sons, the other veteran of the battle of Uji, Taira no Shigehira. Now Shigehira was by no means Kiyomori’s favorite. He was said to have been Kiyomori’s ugliest son and was prone to fits of rage and rancor, which annoyed Kiyomori.

That may have been why Kiyomori sent Shigehira, because at the announcement that Taira no Shigehira was approaching the Nara temple complexes with a sizeable Taira army the monks decided that this time it was serious business.

Sohei and gakusho, alike numbering seven-thousand, fortified the Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji Temples. Shigehira’s samurai cavalry were unable to penetrate the moats and walls built around the temple or the hail of arrows the warrior monks pelted them with.

They were led by a might sohei named Yogaku, a man so massive he was said to wear two suits of armor at a time, one under the other.

By nightfall Shigehira decided to try a new tactic: Burn them out. He set some of the buildings outside the complex ablaze and after some time of worrying the breeze might bring the fire back to his camp, the wind changed direction.

The fire crept into the temple complex setting the storehouse on fire. Then a pagoda, then the bell tower…and before long the entire temple complex was ablaze.

Imagine this...but with more death and screaming.

Imagine this…but with more death and screaming.

The civilians within the temple complex, the aged, infirm, women, and children had rushed into the higher floors of the Daibutsuden, the Great Hall of Buddha within Todai-ji’s complex. They hauled up the ladder so that the Taira forces wouldn’t be able to climb up to them if the monks defending the complex failed.

Unfortunately, the Daibutsuden was one of the first buildings to catch fire. Contemporary sources state the screams were so bad, they claimed it was worse than the screaming one would expect from the hottest fires of the Eight Hot Layers of Hell.

In total 3,500 people died in the fires and another thousand warrior monks died in the fighting. The thousand heads taken were either displayed at the gate of the fallen temples or taken back to Kyoto to be paraded around by the victorious Taira forces.

For months people in the Nara area were unable to find priests to perform religious services, because so many of them had died at Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji.

So that’s a little more on the Battle of Uji. Now I promise next month we’ll go back to something Sengoku. We’re getting to point where the Heian stuff is start to outnumber the Sengoku. Can’t have that now, can we?


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.