The Tale of the Heike

The Tale of the Heike recounts the struggle for power between the Taira (or Heike) and Minamoto (or Genji) houses in the late twelfth century. With the Taira's defeat in 1185 and the establishment of a new warrior government by the victorious Minamoto, the medieval age began. From this war tale, we can learn much about life in Japan during this transitional period and about warrior culture. The following are excerpted passages from the famous tale.

Excerpts from The Tale of the Heiki

OPENING LINES

In the sound of the bell of the Gion temple echoes the impermanence of all things. ... The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring night's dream. And the mighty ones, too, will perish like dust before the wind. (1)

KANETSUNA COMES TO HIS FATHER'S AID

Seeing that his father was in danger ... Kanetsuna ... came to his aid. He galloped back and forth, fighting desperately so that his father would be able to retire in peace. ... Now as he fought an arrow from the bow of the Captain of the Imperial Guard ... grazed the edge of his helmet and struck him in the forehead. As Kanetsuna staggered from this, Jiro-maru ... whipped his horse toward him. As they passed each other, they grappled and fell heavily to the ground. The wound inside Kanetsuna's helmet was deep, but he was a man of great strength. He seized young Jiro-maru ... and struck off his head. Kanetsuna rose to his feet, but fourteen or fifteen mounted soldiers ... fell upon him, and finally he was slain. (2)

"THE DEATH OF ATSUMORI"

When the Heike were routed at Ichi no tani, and their nobles and courtiers were fleeing to the shore to escape in their ships, Kumagai Naozane came riding along a narrow path on the beach, with the intention of intercepting one of their great captains. Just then his eye fell on a single horseman who was attempting to reach one of the ships in the offing ... Kumagai beckoned to him with his war fan, crying out: "Shameful! To show an enemy your back. Return! Return!"

The warrior turned his horse and rode back to the beach, where Kumagai at once engaged him in mortal combat. Quickly hurling him to the ground, he sprang upon him and tore off his helmet to cut off his head, when he beheld the face of a youth sixteen or seventeen, delicately powdered and with blackened teeth, just about the age of his own son and with features of great beauty. "Who are you?" he asked. "Tell me your name, for I would spare your life."

"Nay, first say who you are," replied the young man.

"I am Kumagai Naozane of Musashi, a person of no particular importance."

"Then you have made a good capture," said the youth. "Take my head and show it to some of my side, and they will tell you who I am."

"Though he is one of their leaders," mused Kumagai, "if I slay him it will not turn victory into defeat, and if I spare him, it will not turn defeat into victory. When my son Kojirû was but slightly wounded at Ichi no tani this morning, did it not pain me? How this young man's father would grieve to hear that he had been killed! I will spare him."

Just then, looking behind him, he saw Doi and Kajiwara coming up with fifty horsemen. "Alas! Look there," he exclaimed, the tears running down his face, "though I would spare your life, the whole countryside swarms with our men, and you cannot escape them. If you must die, let it be by my hand, and I will see that prayers are said for your rebirth in Paradise."

"Indeed it must be so," said the young warrior. "Cut off my head at once."

Kumagai was so overcome by compassion that he could scarcely wield his blade. His eyes swam and he hardly knew what he did, but there was no help for it; weeping bitterly he cut off the boy's head. "Alas!" he cried, "what life is so hard as that of a soldier? Only because I was born of a warrior family must I suffer this affliction! How lamentable it is to do such cruel deeds!" He pressed his face to the sleeve of his armor and wept bitterly. Then, wrapping up the head, he was stripping off the young man's armor when he discovered a flute in a brocade bag. "Ah," he exclaimed, "it was this youth and his friends who were amusing themselves with music within the walls this morning. Among all our men of the Eastern Provinces I doubt if there is any who has brought a flute with him. How gentle the ways of these courtiers!"

When he brought the flute to the Commander, all who saw it were moved to tears; he discovered then that the youth was Atsumori, the youngest son of Tsunemori, aged sixteen years. From this time the mind of Kumagai was turned to the religious life. (3)

DEATH BEFORE CAPTURE

... Yorimasa summoned Watanabe Chûjitsu Tonau and ordered: "Strike off my head." Tonau could not bring himself to do this while his master was still alive. He wept bitterly.

"How can I do that, my lord?" he replied. "I can do so only after you have committed suicide."

"I understand," said Yorimasa. He turned to the west, joined his palms, and chanted "Hail Amidha Buddha" ten times in a loud voice. Then he composed this poem:

Like a fossil tree
Which has borne not one blossom
Sad has been my life
Sadder still to end my days
Leaving no fruit behind me.

Having spoken these lines, he thrust the point of his sword into his belly, bowed his face to the ground as the blade pierce him through, and died. ... Tonau took up his master's head and, weeping, fastened it to a stone. Then, evading the enemy, he made his way to the river and sank it in a deep place. (4)

Notes
(1) Translation by Paul Varley, University of Hawaii.
(2) From Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida, trans., The Tale of the Heike (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1975), 270-271.
(3) From Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 179-181.
(4) From Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida, trans., The Tale of the Heike, 271.

Discussion Questions

  1. The first excerpt is of the opening lines to The Tale of the Heike. How do you interpret the meaning of the passage?
  2. What values are esteemed by the warrior class?
  3. Do you find religion an important theme in the passages? Why do you think this is the case?
  4. What is the mood of these passages? Is it one of victory? Of tragedy?
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