One of my favorite stories from Japanese history is the surprise attack on Ichi-No-Tani, an episode of the Genpei Wars (1180–1185) between two preeminent Japanese clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, or the Heike and the Genji as they are also called. The war was fought over control of the military governorship of Japan, the Shogunate, which held preeminence during a period of weak Imperial rule. The civil war is chronicled poetically in The Tale (or History) of the Heike or Heike Monogatari, 平家物語.  The linked music above is a retelling of the Heike with a Japanese lute, or a biwa, and a singer (much like a Provencal troubadour), and the lyrics tell the tale of the death of Taira no Atsumori at Ichi-No-Tani in 1184.

Ichi-No-Tani was one of the final battles of the war. The Taira, after early successes in battle, had begun to reel under renewed attacks from the Minamoto, especially under the generalship of the brothers Minamoto no Yoritomo and Minamoto no Yoshitsune. They retreated to their coastal fortress at Ichi-No-Tani. A long beach approached from the seaward side and was secured by the fortress walls, while the rear of the fortress was protected by a steep mountain face. The Taira were confident of their position, and their boats anchored off the beachhead, confident they could defend against and interdict an seaward attack with ease. Minamoto no Yoshitsune, studying the problem, decided on a bold maneuver. While other forces attacked towards the seaward side, he took a small detachment of his cavalry to the top of the mountain above the fortress at nightfall. From above the garrison, the Minamoto samurai could hear the Taira conversing, smell their campfires, and listened to the soft and sweet tune of a solitary flute. The descent was extremely steep, but Yoshitsune sent a pack horse down the face and saw the animal safely reach the bottom. Deciding that this was a sign that his riders too could make the descent, Yoshitsune attacked at dawn.

The Minamoto Descend towards the Fortress

The Minamoto Descend towards the Fortress

The assault was a complete surprise, and the Taira put up little resistance, abandoned their fortress in haste, and made for their boats off the harbor. Yoshitsune’s warriors pursued, cutting down all who tarried or fell in their rush to the boats. One of the Minamoto’s retainers, Kumagai no Naozane followed in haste, eager to earn distinction in the eyes of Yoshitsune. Already he had been deprived of single combat by fleeing Taira, and he was angered for “Fame depends on the adversary.” Before him, in the waves, he beheld a finely-armored Taira warrior on horseback attempting to swim to the boats and Naozane signaled with a fan and called out to him “”I see that you are a Commander-in-Chief.  It is dishonorable to show your back to an enemy.  Return!”

Among Japanese samurai, name and lineage were wound up with honor. While in practice not all samurai stayed and fought to the death, in the Heike and in European chivalric poetry, the warrior ideal demanded that men called out would rise to the challenge of individual combat (in a religious sense it is the struggle against the frailty of one’s own body in confronting a trial of physical and moral strength). Hence, the Taira turned his horse away from his escape and rode back through the surf to face his opponent.

Kumagai no Naozane was hungry for glory and an older, experienced combatant, and he quickly brought the smaller rider down to the sand and knocked his helmet aside to cut off his head. Doing so revealed, as the story tells, that the enemy “was sixteen or seventeen years old…a boy just the age of Naozane’s own son.” Naozane, suddenly troubled, felt compelled to spare the youth, but he realized that more Minamoto warriors were mopping up behind him, and that the boy, who was a Taira clansman, would likely be executed by someone else, and his head taken as proof (a custom for identifying the dead and rewarding warriors in medieval Japan).

Kumagai no Naozane challenges Taira no Atsumori

Kumagai no Naozane challenges Taira no Atsumori

“I would like to spare you,” he said, restraining his tears, “but there are Genji warriors everywhere.  You cannot possibly escape.  It will be better if I kill you than if someone else does it, because I will offer prayers on your behalf.”

With tears rolling down his face, Naozane cut off the youth’s head. Upon searching the youth’s armor, he came across a flute. It was this flute that the Minamoto had heard the night before the attack, and from such they identified the youth as Taira no Atsumori, one of the youngest leaders of the Taira, and a close relative of the defeated Taira commander, Taira no Tadanori, who was also killed at Ichi-No-Tani.

The Taira would be decisively defeated the next year at the battle of Dan-no-ura, a naval battle of the straits of Shimonoseki. The remaining nobles and the infant heir to the Taira all perished under the waves. Yoshitsune, the brilliant leader of the Minamoto, too would perish. Having aroused the anger and jealousy of his elder brother Yoritomo, Yoshitsune committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, by self disembowelment shortly after Yoritomo became Shogun.

For his part, Kumagai no Naozane was so troubled by his act that he abandoned the world and became a mendicant Buddhist priest of the Pure-land Jodo sect under the name Rensei. He died in 1206. Subsequent stylized religious plays, called Noh plays, tell stories of his wanderings, including a fourteenth century play entitled Atsumori, in which Rensei encounters the ghost of Atsumori when his travels bring him back to the beaches of Ichi-No-Tani. The ghost (and the chorus) recalls the nights before the battle and the flight to the beach, whereupon the boats had pulled away. Atsumori sings:

“Stranded alone on the back of a horse on the beach I was hopeless and could not decide what I should do”

The play ends with Atsumori reflecting on the strange, but welcome, reversal of fate, and like Rensei he abandons ideas of violence (revenge is a regular feature of Japanese ghost stories):

“Today my fate brought me here to meet you. When I tried to slay you as my foe, I found that you have rewarded an old enemy with kindness and prayed for the peace of my soul with holy invocations. I believe we will both be reborn on the same lotus flower in Paradise…You were not my enemy. Please, pray for me. Please comfort my soul.”

This episode has always been a favorite of mine for many reasons. First because it tells of regret and repentance done for the hurt we do others. I have always been drawn to the message that we must be aware and seek forgiveness for our trespasses and endeavor, against all animal nature, to earnestly wish well for the souls of those who we struggle with and who hurt us. Transcendence of the violence of earthly rivalry has produced little peace in our time, but it is still, in my opinion, humanities’ hope.

But there is another important message for me, that being the question of duty in the face of oblivion. That is Atsumori’s role. Atsumori was very young (17 in the Heike), facing an unexpected and terrible turn of events that overtaxed his senses. I have often wondered at the terror he must have felt: falling men, whizzing arrows, sudden confusion all around him. Riding into the waves in full armor, hoping for escape with the rest of the Taira nobility, what then compelled him to turn to face death when he was called out? What made him ride back to face a larger and more experienced warrior in what must have been a nearly hopeless contest? It was a sense of resolve, and a sense of duty to what he was.

Rather than be dishonored, and rather than abandoning his identity as a samurai, Atsumori faced death resolutely. The image of him turning his horse to return to shore sticks with me. It was the action of a doomed man, but one who fulfilled his duty when circumstances turned against him. When confusion reigned, ultimately it was Atsumori, young as he was, who stayed true to his principles and fought on. Ironically, as even the Heike notes, it was his resoluteness in death and the innocence of his flute (an idle pastime) which inspired Kumagai to renounce the world and seek Paradise (and in the Noh play, Paradise for the both), providing a strange passage from violence to worldly renunciation.

Atsumori and Rensei became a religious and cultural icon for samurai and the Japanese in general throughout the ages. The Noh play became famous as it inspired the later Samurai Leader Oda Nobunaga, who was given to reciting a particular verse:

“In truth, this world is not truly inhabited It is more transient than dewdrops on the leave of grass, or the moon reflected in the water. After reciting the poetry of flower at Kanaya, all glory is now left with the wind of impermanence.

The verse ends: “Unless we consider this a very seed of Awakening, it is a grievous truth indeed.” There is a very specific Buddhist element to this, which I do not mean to trivialize. Yet, I, an American and not a Buddhist, have found that Atsumori’s tale is one I am very compelled by.

I am reminded of a quote often attributed to Julius Caesar that “No man is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.” Things rarely always turn out the way we have planned, in war and in life. Sometimes the entire foundation of a strategy, an assumption about the unbroachable tenants of security to pursue different options, is flawed. I have recently found myself in a confusing situation which arose as if out of nowhere, and which left me feeling like Atsumori, caught between the failing hope of the departing boats and the crushing weight of the pursuing warriors at my heels.  While it would be melodramatic to say anything in my life is the same life or death situation as he faced, my first question is the same: “What shall I do now?” All seems to float between two worlds, neither which seem to offer any immediate relief. At that moment, I felt a similar loneliness, that feeling that I was abandoned and facing something I could not handle.

Yet, as Nelson Mandela wrote “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Like Atsumori, I find the only thing to do is not to flee towards the boats that cannot save me, but to turn about and start plunging my way back towards the beach, ready to do battle. Being true to what you know of yourself and what you are responsible for, this is duty, and duty I have found is what carries you through the unexpected.

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