National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Emperor Go-Daigo: The pride before a fall

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

“Around that time (1326),” we read in the anonymous 14th-century chronicle “Masukagami” (“The Clear Mirror,” translated by George Perkins), “it was reported that Empress Kishi was with child. The news delighted Emperor Go-Daigo. … How splendid if she were to produce a son! He commissioned countless esoteric rights.

“But what was going wrong? The proper time for the birth came and went. … And when the Empress’ condition had remained unchanged for 17, 18, 30 months, it began to seem that she had never been pregnant in the first place. … The whole affair was indescribably strange and unpleasant.” An omen, perhaps?

Time passed. “In the spring of the following year (1331), the Emperor went to view cherry blossoms in the northern hills.” Who played the lute under the blossoms? Minister of the right, Kanesue. Who played flute? Fuyunobu, master of the Crown Prince’s household.

Such were the affairs of the Imperial court. The bakufu (military government) ruled, the court reigned. The court wielded ceremony, the bakufu power. The court was in Kyoto, the bakufu in Kamakura in the remote “east country.” The Emperor fathered heirs, viewed blossoms, wrote poetry, commissioned anthologies. The bakufu was Japan’s body, the court its spirit.

Emperors enthroned as children abdicated young, pawns in the hands of the military rulers who paid them formal reverence but took no nonsense from them. Most emperors were too young to offer any. One day — it seems inevitable in retrospect — a more mature, more hard-bitten emperor would set his teeth against the bakufu and seize power as his royal birthright. Go-Daigo was the man to do it.

“The Clear Mirror” sketches his character: “Thanks to Emperor Go-Daigo’s intelligence and probity, his personal rule was a great success, in no way inferior to the reigns of antiquity” — the ultimate compliment. “He was also immensely learned; it seemed there was nothing he didn’t know. He never stopped debating ambiguous passages in the three (Chinese) histories and five (Chinese) classics.”

Modern historians are less sympathetic. “He was a proud, arrogant ruler,” writes Ivan Morris in “The Nobility of Failure,” “who would let nothing stand in his way, yet who, for all his intelligence and learning, pursued his ambitions with a remarkable lack of realism.”

He ascended the throne in 1318. He was 30 — no child. He lost no time. The bakufu was at a low ebb. Its successful repulsion of two Mongol invasions half a century earlier had drained its treasury and exasperated its loyal retainers. Victorious warriors were traditionally rewarded with enemy spoils — land and treasure. The Mongols, Japan’s first foreign invaders, yielded neither. The retainers turned surly. What had their sacrifices been for? Go-Daigo saw his chance — or thought he did. Would not the disaffected rally behind him?

“Around that time (1325), in or about the ninth month,” says “The Clear Mirror,” “there was a great commotion one night, just before dawn.”

“Unspeakably dreadful rumors” circulated. “It was a little suspicious that (the courtier) Suketomo had recently traveled incognito toward the east, wearing an itinerant monk’s persimmon-colored robe and rush hat.” Was he not secretly raising a pro-Imperial, anti-bakufu army? “Subjected to harsh interrogation,” he apparently confessed.

Go-Daigo made a quick decision. He would cut his losses, bide his time. He dispatched an envoy to Kamakura, who “stated in unequivocal language,” says “The Clear Mirror,” “that the Emperor had known absolutely nothing about the matter” — at which “the eastern warriors backed down, rough barbarians though they were. Abashed, they responded that His Majesty had nothing to fear.”

Perhaps they hadn’t yet fully grasped His Majesty’s character; or His Majesty theirs. Each in fact had a great deal to fear from the other. The Emperor’s plans ripened; the military kept watch. “Despite efforts to preserve secrecy,” “The Clear Mirror” informs us, “rumors about the Emperor’s plans spread as soon as the scope of his activities widened.”

Rumor begot rumor. It was the eighth month, 1331. A confidential message was brought to Go-Daigo: “The warriors intend to advance on the palace tonight; they’re fighting each other for the privilege.” The Emperor fled.

The warriors stormed the palace. Terror and confusion reigned. “Words cannot describe,” says “The Clear Mirror,” “the horror of the ladies-in-waiting. … In the Emperor’s private residence, the cabinets and personal belongings (were) scattered about. … The Empress had also slipped hastily away with an utter lack of ceremony — that lady who had been cosseted behind curtains of brocade. … Blinds and curtain stands lay where they had been knocked over and trampled underfoot. … Indescribably savage warriors rampaged through the grounds and buildings, holding pine torches aloft and prying with shaded eyes into every corridor and gallery, a sight sinister and fearsome enough to make any pious person understand the dismal nature of this world and embark forthwith on a life of religion.”

The mountain temple that afforded the Emperor temporary refuge was soon overrun. Go-Daigo was seized. “His hair,” writes Morris, “was in disorder (an appalling humiliation for any member of the aristocracy, let alone an Emperor).”

Worse was to follow — Imperial exile to the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan. “It would be pointless,” says “The Clear Mirror,” “to dwell on the shock with which His Majesty heard that the blow had fallen at last. He strove for calm, unwilling to expose the extent of his distress, but his stubborn tears insisted on falling. … Nor could his situation be blamed on others; he could merely lament, and lament again, his own disastrous karma from a previous existence.”

He composed (it almost goes without saying) a poem: “If fate had decreed/ that I must sink in the end to this abysmal depth/ whyever was I born/ to the highest rank of all?”

The story by no means ends here, as next month’s column will show. As Morris observes, “Go-Daigo suffered from many weaknesses, but supine acceptance of misfortune was not one of them.”

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is the essay collection “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”