National / History | THE LIVING PAST

'The Tale of the Heike' delivers a path for salvation

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Some wars spawn myths. Some spawn epics. Some spawn both; others, neither. The 13th-century Mongol invasions of Japan spawned a myth — the “divine wind” that repulsed the invading fleet — but no epic. The 12th-century Genpei War spawned an epic — the “Heike Monogatari” (“The Tale of the Heike”) — but no myth.

The Genpei War was a sordid little affair — a power struggle between two rival martial clans, glorious only if death is (as it was certainly thought to be). Fighting waxed and waned. One side won, the other lost. The consequences, as it happens, were momentous. The victorious Minamoto clan launched the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and the samurai ethos that came to define the Japanese soul. There is no telling how Japan would have evolved had the defeated Heike prevailed.

But the conflict itself, like the Trojan War with which it is often compared, is likely to strike a modern eye as kids fighting with adult weapons, killing and dying for the sheer sport and joy of it. Would it be remembered at all, if not for the magnificant “Tale of the Heike”?

Would the Trojan War be, if not for the “Iliad”? “The Tale of the Heike” is often described as “Japan’s Iliad” — aptly, for it too soars far beyond the barbaric savagery it depicts. It shares the bardic origin of the “Iliad” — the tales were originally chanted to the accompaniment of a lute-like instrument called a biwa. Unlike the “Iliad,” there is no Homer on whom to pin authorship. Who wrote the tales? No one knows.

The Emperor, revered as a god but politically powerless, was “sleeping” — in fact, sleepless — “in a strange part of the palace, according to the advice of the diviners,” sunk in dark thoughts. Why are people wicked? Why do people suffer? Because he himself is wicked. If he were virtuous, his subjects would be. He is not, therefore they are not.

“In the days of the Emperor Yao in China,” he broods, “the people reflected the goodness of their ruler and were also good, but now in this age the people have only me to imitate and so they are wicked. When wrong is done in the empire, ought I not to be ashamed?” Emperor Yao (circa 2356 B.C. to circa 2255 B.C.) belongs more to legend than to history, but then so does “The Tale of the Heike.”

Pity the poor Emperor. His lot was a hard one. He loved a woman. Her low rank made the affair unseemly. There was talk, jealousy, backbiting, innuendo. Fearing “the censure of the world,” the Emperor ceased to summon her. The woman, pining away, soon died. “As the Emperor was so much grieved by this unhappy love episode,” the tales relate, “the Empress sent one of her own ladies to him to console him.”

Her name was Kogo. She was a great beauty, an exquisite musician, doomed by her very gifts — such is the way of this uncertain and fleeting world. She pleased the Emperor but displeased the all-powerful chancellor, Taira Kiyomori, father of the Empress, resentful of his daughter’s fall from Imperial favor, never mind that the Empress herself had arranged it.

Kiyomori had Kogo exiled. His bitterness unassuaged, he went farther: he forbade the palace servants to answer the Emperor’s call. His Majesty languished alone and unattended.

One night “a most beautiful moon without a trace of clouds” awoke in the Emperor’s memories of Kogo. Did no one know where she was? He summoned servants in vain — until at last one took pity on him. No, he didn’t know Kogo’s whereabouts precisely; he’d heard she was in a remote corner of a certain remote region. Very well, he would go and seek her. He had an idea. He knew the sound of her biwa, having often accompanied her on the flute. Surely on a moonlit night such as this she would be venting her sad thoughts on her instrument?

He rode forth. It seemed hopeless, but finally, sure enough, he heard music coming from a lonely cottage. The style was unmistakable. To make a long story all too short, he persuaded her to accompany him back to the palace. Concealed in “a remote chamber,” she “used to visit His Majesty every night.” She had a child. Kiyomori heard. His rage was boundless. He forced her to shave her head and become a nun. “It was these painful events,” the tales tell us, “that aggravated the illness of the Emperor so that he soon died.”

Kiyomori then was at the peak of his power. “People obeyed him,” it was said, “as grass before the wind.” The clan he led — the Heike — seemed unassailable.

The recurring theme of the tale, however, is stated at the outset: “The sound of the bell of Jetavana (monastery) echoes the impermanence of all things. … The mighty are destoyed at the last, they are but as dust before the wind.”

A dreadful disease carried Kiyomori off. He didn’t live to see the war that swept the Heike off history’s stage. The fighting itself will be the subject of next month’s column. This month’s we close with a tale of high sentiment, that of a Heike warrior — Koremori by name — as brave as any, but “never for a moment was his mind free from anxiety about his wife and little ones whom he had left in the capital.”

He must go back and assure himself that they are safe. Then he can die at peace. His long journey on horseback takes him first to a temple whose priest, a former courtier, had been, long ago, a close friend. Koremori explains his mission. The priest is sympathetic — after his priestly fashion. “The affairs of this world of dreams,” he says, “are of little matter, but to spend long ages in the hells is indeed painful.”

Koremori’s worldly attachment, he is saying, will doom him to just such a fate.

Prayer is the solution. It strengthens Koremori to renounce the world and finally to drown himself, the priest promising him an enlightened rebirth so that “you may lead your wife and child into the path of true salvation.”

Michael Hoffman’s book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is currently on sale.

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