April 15, 2021

Part II: The Rise of the Samurai

The Japanese saga The Tale of the Heike has been told for over one thousand years. An epic story of political intrigue between warrior clans, it chronicles the conflict between the Heike and the Genji, vividly illustrating the Buddhist themes of impermanence and the inevitable decline of the prosperous. Culminating in the decisive Battle of Dannoura, the resounding defeat of the Heike would fundamentally realign Japan’s center of political power. The resulting fall of the prosperous would have a profound affect upon Japanese incense culture.

As the Heian court began to wane a century prior to the Battle of Dannoura, the power of Japan’s Emperor had become increasingly diluted. Although still considered the divine ruler, through the practice of insei - cloistered rule – emperors with increasing frequency began to abdicate their formal duties and retire from public life. In practice, this meant they no longer fulfilled their public ceremonial duties, yet still wielded much their political power and influence.

As these retired emperors were succeeded by progressively younger emperors or even child emperors, dual Imperial courts known as innocho formed around retired emperors with a separate Imperial court around the reigning emperor. The power of the sitting Emperors more often fell to politically powerful regents from primarily one elite family – the Fujiwara. Through marriage of their daughters to Imperial bloodlines and aligning themselves with the Buddhist clergy of the capitol, the Fujiwara had established control over the court of reigning emperors. Progressively insulated from the countryside, the Fujiwara controlled court increasingly viewed lands in the provinces as primarily a source of revenue generation. The resulting political corruption of the countryside’s agriculture lands led to declining grain production and recurring famine.

Powerful land owning clans employed their own hired warriors - bushi 武士 in Japanese - to guard their estates outside the capitol. Retired emperors employed their own private armies - the Hokumen no Bushi as guards of their substantial estates. As these powerful military clans became further and further independent of the centralized government of the Imperial court, they began to build progressively larger armies for the protection of their landed estates. As their military power increased, so too did their political and economic power. The rise of the Bushi, that would come to be known as the Samurai, had begun.

The Minamoto (Genji) and the Taira (Heike) clans were two of the most powerful of these samurai clans of this time period. Made up of the extended decedents of Imperial bloodlines excluded from the line of succession, both the Miamoto and the Taira claimed rightful lines of inheritance to the Imperial throne. Although the provincial samurai were looked down upon as rough and unrefined by the Fujiwara, these same courtiers found themselves increasingly reliant upon the muscle of these samurai clans for settling their disputes. Conflict over the line of succession, dual imperial courts, and the increasing power of militarized clans would light the fuse for an explosion of armed conflict in the closing decades of the 12th century.

Siding with sitting Emperor Go-Shirakawa, the Fujiwara would use a dispute of succession to take up arms against factions of the Taira and Minamoto who supported retired emperor Sutoku’s chosen heir to the to the throne. In the ensuing Hogen Disturbance of 1156 CE, Sutoku was defeated and banished, Fujiwara control was effectively ended, and the first samurai dominated government established under Taira General Taira Kiyomori.

Three years later, remaining rivalry between Tiara and the Mimamoto over the spoils of the Hogen Disturbance would spark into flame. In what would be known as the Heiji Disturbance, Minamoto Yoshitomo would capitalize on Kiyomori’s absence from the capital to attempt a coup d'etat, which upon returning Kiyomori would brutally put down. As the ensuing twenty-year period of Taira dominance began, the Taira cleaned house of their rivals, executing Minamoto Yoshitomo for his betrayal. However, his thirteen-year old son Minamoto Yoritomo was seen as a mere child, and exiled to the Izu province southwest of modern-day Tokyo.

The act of sparing Yoritomo would come back to haunt the Taira. Seduced by the decadence of the Imperial court, the Taira assumed the rich trappings of the Fujiwara control of government, including their ambivalence to the plight of the provinces and the warrior clans who made their bases there. Twenty years later, clan leader Taira Kiyomori lay dying from fever that could not be quenched as the child Emperor Antoku - supported by Taira regents - ascended to a Chrysanthemum Throne. Minamoto Yoritomo, no longer a child, would issue a call to arms that would usher in the bloody Genpei War from 1180 – 1185 CE.

The Tale of the Heike tells of the Battle of Dannoura that would seal the fate of the Taira. In the Straits of Shimonoseki off the western tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, it is said that three thousand Minamoto ships would meet the fleeing Taira’s one thousand. Used more as ocean-going platforms for warriors than naval vessels, the fighting would consist of volleys of arrows at long range followed by the boarding of ships with fierce hand to hand combat between warriors. The fighting was bloody, up close, and vicious.

At first, it looked like the familiarity with the straights, favorable tides, and heavenly omens would foretell of Heike victory. But as the arrows subsided and the bloody business of hand to hand combat ensued, the tide of battle shifted and Taira General Taguchi Shigeyoshi defected to the Minamoto side. In an epic act of betrayal, Shigeyoshi identified the disguised ship holding Taira leaders and six-year old Emperor Antoku for Minamoto commanders.

Concentrating all their forces on this ship, the Minamoto would soon board her, but not before Taira Kiyomori’s widow took the child emperor in her arms and jumped into the sea, choosing to drown them both rather than be captured. Seeing the battle lost, many Taira warriors chose to drown or commit suicide rather than be captured by their Minamoto enemies. The Taira were so utterly decimated at Dannoura that to this day Heike crabs caught in the area, whose backs look like scowling samurai warriors, are thrown back as they are believed to be reincarnated spirits of dead Heike warriors.

This was not just the end for the Heike. It was also the end of the ways of the Heian period. Learning from the Heike’s fall to the temptation of the Imperial court and Buddhist sects of the capitol, Yoritomo would establish his bakufu (tent) government in the Minamoto territory of Kamakura southwest of modern day Tokyo. Far from Kyoto, Yoritomo sought to limit the influence of courtiers, civil servants, and priests of questionable loyalty while symbolically demonstrating that the country was under the control of the samurai government.

This separation from the capitol of Kyoto had a direct influence upon Japan’s culture of incense. Deprived of direct influence, the ways of the Heian courtiers were unable to establish favor with the ruling samurai. Pleasurable diversions of the Hein court like takimono-awase – a form of incense mixing game to judge competing fragrances – were seen as reminders of the trappings of an imperial court out of touch with the provinces. Instead, the ruling samurai focused upon the pure essence of incense woods, specifically aloeswood, and the meditative use of incense to sharpen the mind. Moved from an article of diversion, incense began to assume a significant role supporting the perfection of the warrior spirit in a samurai dominated society. Like political power, Japan's culture of incense was now firmly in the grasp of the samurai.

With the title of Shogun provided in exchange for protection of nine year old Emperor Go-Toba, Minamoto Yoritomo would become the first Shogun of the Kamakura period during which time the samurai would take control of the economic and political leadership of the Japan for nearly 150 years. Yoritomo’s loyal samurai spread the influence of the bakufu government throughout the country, further replacing of Heian ways with those of the samurai, insuring loyalty to the ruling shogunate - and a new role for incense. Where once "incense" was synonymous with the kneaded blended incense of takimono, under the samurai it would now reflect the pure essence of Jinko 沈香.

But the inevitable fall of the prosperous would soon claim Yoritomo and once again demonstrate the impermanence of world. In Part III of the Origins of Japanese Incense Culture, new forms of Buddhism, a Mongol invasion, and The Way of the Warrior would combine to refine Japanese incense culture.


This page is part of Kikoh's Japanese Incense 101 series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...