Defeated and humiliated, in dejection and despair, dethroned and in hiding, the emperor had a dream.

The dense foliage of a vast evergreen tree sheltered a company of great lords and officials. In their midst was a raised platform of thick mats. It faced south — as the emperor himself did when enthroned. The platform was vacant. For whom had it been prepared? “Sit there awhile,” said a child, suddenly appearing. “It was made ready for your sake.”

It was year three of the Gentoku Era, 1331 by our calendar. Emperor Go-Daigo, not content to merely reign over Japan, intent on ruling as well, had plotted to overthrow the holders of real power — the bakufu (military government) based in Kamakura in the remote and (by courtly standards) barbaric east country. The plot betrayed and crushed, Go-Daigo fled to a mountain temple, where, in his shattered state, he dreamed his mysterious dream. What could it mean? “Now the supreme highness thought,” says the anonymous 14th-century chronicle Taiheiki (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), “‘This was a dream conveying a heavenly announcement to Us.'”

Pondering, at length he understood. Combining the characters for “south” and “tree” produces the kanji for “kusunoki” (camphor tree). He inquired of a monk, “Is there perhaps a warrior named Kusunoki in these parts?” There was — “a wielder of bow and arrow” called Kusunoki Tamon Hyoe Masashige, of whom the historian Ivan Morris writes, “No famous character in all Japanese history is quite as obscure as Kusunoki Masashige.” Into factual vacuum rushes legend. Masashige’s never seems to grow stale.

“Call the warrior Kusunoki at once,” the Taiheiki has the deposed sovereign commanding a courtier sharing his downfall. The warrior was summoned. He was awed. “Of late by their crimes,” he said, “the eastern barbarians” — the bakufu and its newly-enthroned puppet emperor — “have invited the censure of heaven.” He would make his majesty’s cause his own. “While (his majesty) hears that Masashige still lives,” he said, “let him believe that he will prevail at last!”

Staunch words! They were all Go-Daigo had to cling to. Bakufu troops closed in. The temple’s soldier-monks could not hold out. Go-Daigo fled again — “aimlessly with naked feet,” says the Taiheiki, “he felt as though treading a dream-path, for he was not in the least accustomed to walking.” Captured and hustled ignominiously back to the capital, his sleeves soaked in tears, he heard his sentence: banishment — “the moon of exile.” “Many days he journeyed over the wave paths” — to an island in the Oki archipelago in the Sea of Japan.

Masashige set to work. His troops numbering hundreds against the bakufu’s hundreds of thousands (the Taiheiki’s numbers are dubious but the disproportionate nature of the struggle seems beyond question), he inflicted defeat after defeat upon the over-confident, bumbling armies sent from Kamakura to stamp out the smoldering remains of Go-Daigo’s pitiful revolt, centered now in Masashige’s makeshift “castles” deep in the mountains near Kyoto. His chief weapons were ruse and guile. He dressed dolls in armors and struck from behind as soldiers rushed them. He played dead and sprang suddenly to life while the enemy celebrated victory. Exhausting his supply of arrows, he flung boulders, or doused the enemy in boiling water, inflicting horrible burns.

“Now truly,” says the Taiheiki, “were the military’s hearts as hearts of men treading on thin ice.” Go-Daigo’s spies kept him informed. Was the time not ripe for his triumphant return? A boat was made ready. The “son of heaven” lay concealed “beneath bales of dried fish … and the sailors stood on top of (him) pushing their oars.” They landed at a harbor on Japan’s west coast. The exile was over.

The Taiheiki records a touching scene as Go-Daigo and Masashige met on the road to Kyoto. Go-Daigo in his litter “raised his screens high” and there was Masashige “with seven thousand horsemen. Valiant indeed was Masashige’s appearance! The supreme highness … summoned Masashige close, and spoke to him gratefully, saying, ‘To none other than your loyal fighting is it due, that thus swiftly Our great work is done.'” Masashige demurred: “Had not His Majesty been sage, spiritual and rich in civil and military attainments, how might this poor servant’s insignificant devisings have broken through the encirclement of a mighty enemy?”

He spoke truly. The decisive factor seems to have been less Masashige’s “devisings” than the treason of a brilliant but unreliable bakufu general who, calculating that his best interests lay with Go-Daigo, abruptly switched sides. Weakened already by exhaustion, defeat and internal rot, the bakufu tottered. In 1336 it fell altogether. The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) was over. The turncoat general was Ashikaga Takauji (1305-58), whose name graces (or tarnishes, as many say) the Ashikaga (Muromachi) Period (1336-1573). The three interim years are known as the Kenmu Restoration (1333-36). They are the years of Go-Daigo’s contentious second reign.

From the beginning of his first reign in 1318, Go-Daigo’s motto had been, “Back to Engi!” The Engi Era (901-23) was a time, supposedly, when the emperor ruled as well as reigned. Go-Daigo was resolved to do the same. Now, in 1333, the bakufu undone, he had his chance. Modern historians agree: He blew it. His aristocratic disdain for Takauji was strategic stupidity. Resentful, Takauji changed sides again. The famous Battle of Minato River in 1336 near present-day Kobe pitted him against Masashige.

It was not a fight a guerrilla could win. Masashige knew it — but a loyalist warrior fights for his emperor, not for himself, or even for victory. The Takaujis of the world triumph in the world; the Masashiges, in legend. Masashige’s legend affords him a glorious immortality. Laughing as he ripped open his belly, he asked of the gods with his dying breath one last favor: seven rebirths, that he might die seven times fighting the emperor’s enemies.

Go-Daigo, meanwhile, lived on to 1339, emperor still in his own mind, holding court with his dwindling band of loyalists in the hills of Yoshino, south of Kyoto. The “two courts” were not reunited until 1392.

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

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