National / History | THE LIVING PAST

The revolt against Japan's cultured courtiers

When poetry took up arms against the sword, it survived but no longer ruled

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing writer

Japan is not a changeful society. A bird’s eye view of its history shows hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of continuity. Change, when it comes, is abrupt, violent, jolting. Two revolutions in particular make the point. The more recent and familiar is the Meiji Restoration of 1868. So transformative was its impact that the industrial capitalist state already in evidence within a decade would have stunned a visiting ghost who’d died, let’s say, in the waning days of the Edo Period (1603-1868), when the nation was closer in spirit to its feudal, bucolic, ancient, tradition-bound past than to its dynamic, scarcely imaginable future.

The second revolution takes us very far back in time. Four centuries of peace and its gentle progeny — poetry, song, literature, wine, love, flowers, beauty, ease — expired. The warrior’s time had come. He boasted other virtues, sought other fulfillment. One soldier’s battlefield cry, recorded in the 13th-century epic “Tale of the Heike,” would have perplexed, indeed appalled, the soft, cultured, pampered courtiers of the 11th-century novel “Tale of Genji”: “What death could be better than to fall outnumbered by valiant enemies? Forward then!”

To Genji and his friends, highest exemplars of everything the Heian Period (794-1185) held dear, warriors were scarcely human. Existing on the fringe of society, figures of amused, bemused contempt, deployed occasionally as needed in defense of this or that court faction, they were otherwise scarcely acknowledged.

A power struggle that ended in 1185 swept the courtiers offstage. The emperor at the time was Go-Toba, age 5. He’d ascended the throne as a 3-year-old. His real story begins with his abdication in 1198, age 18 — a tragic story of a doomed imperial revolt: poetry in arms against the sword. It was hopeless. Poetry survived, even thrived — but it no longer ruled.

Beneath the bubbly froth of the Heian Period lay an abiding sadness. Life, for all its beauty, was after all transient. Every joy carries within it the reminder that it will soon pass. Life itself will soon pass. Today’s flourishing is tomorrow’s decay. Mappō, Buddhism’s “Latter Days of the Law,” warned of inevitable decline, degeneracy. Sages basing calculations on the sutras marked the mid-11th century as mappō’s onset. And here were the strutting “East-country warriors” — so called because they were based in Kamakura — to embody with their sword-brandishing, armor-plated violence the most dismal prophecies.

A woman’s world became a man’s world. That’s another way of describing what the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) did to Heian times. Historian Janet Goodwin, in “Selling Songs and Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan” (2007), chronicles the evolution from the sexual freedom of the Heian Period, a distant foreshadowing of the diversity we today rank as a human right, to a sterner morality that weighed especially heavily on women.

Two scenes can be sketched here that set the stage for Go-Toba’s downfall and the transformation it symbolizes. Next month’s column will consider the social ramifications at greater length.

The first scene, drawn from an 11th-century courtier’s “lusty account (in Goodwin’s words) of Heian-kyō street life,” paints it in very jolly colors indeed. It concerns “the 16th daughter of a palace official,” the leader of “a group of asobi (women of pleasure) who delights in making love at (the river ports) Eguchi and Kawashiri … In the daytime she carries a huge parasol and offers her body to customers of high and low estate, and at night she drums the side of her boat and tenders her heart to travelers. Her vigor in soliciting lovers, her knowledge of all the sexual positions … are her endowments. Not only that, she has the voice of a bird in Amida’s paradise, as well as the face of an angel.”

The second scene, roughly a century later, revolves around Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), the supreme victor of 1185, Japan’s first shogun, founder of what came to be known as the Kamakura Period and of the martial ethic later called Bushido, the way of the warrior.

He appears here as rather a courtly man. The old era still lived in him. His interlocutor, otherwise unknown, perhaps younger, seems of a ruder cast. Firmly in control of the new Japan, Yoritomo is met on an official procession by a group of asobi — “in indescribably gorgeous costumes,” says the 14th-century court chronicle known as “The Clear Mirror,” which records the encounter. Yoritomo, delighted, eager to heap presents upon the women, asks his companion what would be appropriate. The companion responds with a cranky poem: “It would be my desire/ to give them nothing at all.”

“It was an ungracious response,” comments the chronicler. “But Yoritomo brought out saddles, bolts of … cloth, and other presents, all of which the women received with transports of delight.”

Go-Toba’s abdication in 1198 did not sideline him. Quite the contrary: a “retired” emperor exercised far more power behind the scenes than any reigning emperor could from the throne. Retired, “he governed just as he pleased,” says “The Clear Mirror.” “With compassion more abundant than showering raindrops, he pitied the distant folk and cherished those near at hand.”

Alas, “the whole realm had fallen under the sway of (acting shogun Hojo) Yoshitoki, a man whose power all but surpassed that of Yoritomo in the old days. Naturally enough, his shocking excesses inspired secret thoughts of opposition in Retired Emperor Go-Toba’s mind.”

The shocking excesses are not described, but “news of Retired Emperor Go-Toba’s plans leaked out in spite of every effort at secrecy. … A veritable cloud of (Kamakura) warriors” descended upon Kyoto, the imperial capital. The year was 1221. “Countless esoteric rituals were performed” – to no avail. “The retired emperor burst into tears of dismay.” They did him no good. Captured, he was ignominiously exiled to a remote island, where he died 18 years later, bemoaning his fate in plaintive poetry:

“The new island guard/ is none other than myself./ Ye wild winds raising waves/ on the seas around Oki:/ be forewarned and blow with care!”

First of two parts. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu,” is a collection of the best “Living Past” stories.

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