A History of Japanese Literature/Book 4/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

HISTORICAL WORKS


The authorship of the Gempei Seisuiki is doubtfully ascribed to one Hamuro Tokinaga, of whom we know little or nothing. He is also conjectured to have written the Heiji Monogatari and Hōgen Monogatari, but of this too there is no certainty. The precise date of its composition is likewise unknown. It must belong to the early part of the Kamakura period.

The Gempei Seisuiki, as its name indicates, is a history of the rise and fall of the Gen, and Hei, two great noble families whose struggles for supremacy convulsed Japan during the latter half of the twelfth century. It is in forty-eight books, and embraces the period from A.D. 1161 to 1185. No doubt itself suggested by the Chinese Yengi or "Paraphrases of History," of which the San-kwo-chih is the best known, the Gempei Seisuiki is the first example in Japan of a large class of quasi-historical works to which there is nothing precisely similar in our literature, though a comparison with Shakespeare's historical plays will convey some idea of the relative proportions of fact and fiction which they contain. They have no original plot, and little or no introduction of imaginary personages. The writers content themselves with following the general course of real history, while adorning it with what flourish their nature prompts. But the "flourish" means a great deal. It is not only rhetorical ornament and sententious reflections which these authors provide. They evolve from their inner consciousness speeches for statesmen and soldiers, warlike stratagems for generals, prayers for the devout, appropriate omens, dreams, incantations, and miraculous incidents in great variety, with a host of minute details of dress, of pompous processions, of hairbreadth escapes, of single combats, and the like. Tanka, original or otherwise, are supplied whenever the occasion seems to demand them.

The Gempei Seisuiki is a work of considerable literary pretensions, and in its own special style is only surpassed by the Taiheiki. The language marks a considerable advance towards the modern form of Japanese. While the works of the Heian period are very imperfectly intelligible to an ordinary educated Japanese, with the Gempei Seisuiki he finds little difficulty. Much of the older grammatical equipment of particles and terminations is now dispensed with, and the vocabulary shows a large increment of Chinese words, a notable proportion of which owe their introduction to Buddhist influences.

The following is part of the account of the naval engagement of Dannöura, one of the decisive battles of Japanese history. By it the strife between the great Hei (or Taira) and Gen (or Minamoto) factions was brought to an end for the time, and Yoritomo enabled to establish his authority over all Japan.

"The capture of Yashima shut out the House of Hei from Kiushiu. Unable to find a port of refuge, they drifted on to Dannöura in Nagato, Akama (Shimonoseki), Moji, and Hikushima. Here they remained afloat upon the waves, passing the time on board their ships. The Gen fleet arrived at the bay of Katsura, in the province of Awa. They had been victorious in the conflicts engaged in in various places, and had taken the palace of Yashima. They now followed the movements of the Hei ships, pursuing them by land, as the hawk urges the pheasants when the moors are burnt and no cover is left. The Gen fleet reached a place called Oitsuheitsu, twenty chō or more [about two miles] from where the adherents of the Hei House were stationed.

"On the 24th day of the third month of the same year [1185], Yoshitsune [the Gen general, brother of Yoritomo] and his army, in seven hundred ships or more, attacked the enemy at dawn. The House of Hei were not unprepared. With five hundred war-ships or more, they advanced to meet him, and the exchange of arrows [by way of formal defiance] took place. The Gen and Hei troops numbered together over 100,000 men, and the sound of the battle-cry raised on both sides, with the song of the turnip-headed arrows [a special kind of arrow which made a noise like a humming-top] as they crossed each other's course, was startling to hear—audible, one would think, as far as the azure sky above, and re-echoing downwards to the depths of the sea.

"Noriyori [with other Gen generals] had arrived at Kiushiu with 30,000 cavalry, and had cut off the retreat in that direction. The Hei were like a caged bird that cannot escape, or a fish in a trap from which there is no exit. On the sea there were ships floating, by land were bridle-bits in ranged lines. East and west, south and north were closed, and on no side was evasion possible.

"Tomomori [a Hei general] stood forward on the bow of his ship and spoke as follows:—

" 'Let us think this day our last, and let us all banish the thought of retreat. In ancient and modern times there have been examples of even famous generals and brave soldiers, when their armies were beaten and their good fortune exhausted, being captured by a traveller or taken prisoner by a wayfarer. All these arose from the endeavour to avoid a death which was inevitable. Let us each one at this time abandon our lives to destruction, and think of nothing else but to leave a name to after ages. Let us show no weakness before these fellows from the east country. What have we done that we should be grudging even of our lives? Let us unite in the resolve to seize Yoshitsune and fling him into the sea. This should be the chief object of to-day's battle.' "

The first onset was favourable to the Hei faction, upon which:—

"Yoshitsune, observing that his troops showed signs of yielding, rinsed his mouth in the salt tide, and with closed eyes and folded palms preyed to Hachiman Daibosatsu[1] to grant him his protection. Hereupon a pair of white doves [the pigeon is sacred to Hachiman] flew thither and alit on Yoshitsune's flag. While Gen and Hei were saying, "Look there, look there," a mass of black clouds came floating from the east and hung over the scene of battle. From amidst this cloud a white flag descended, while Yoshitsune's flag, its top waving to and fro, passed away along with the clouds. The Gen joined their hands together in prayer, while the Hei's hair stood on end, and their hearts felt small within them.

"The Gen soldiers, encouraged by such favourable omens, shouted aloud in their ardour. Some embarked in boats and rowed on and on, fighting as they went. Others, marching along the dry land, and fitting arrows to their bows one after another in quick succession, engaged in a battle of archery."

This is described in a style which recalls the combats of the Iliad, the doings and sayings of individual heroes being related in great detail.

"The Gen were many, and encouraged by success, pressed forward to the attack; the Hei were fewer, but acquitted themselves as if that day were their last. Can the battle of Indra with the Asuras have been more terrible than this?

"The Hei ships were drawn up two or three deep. The ship of Chinese build was furnished with troops in a manner which showed that the general was on board. On the [ordinary] fighting-ships the Daijin and other fit officers of lower rank were embarked. It was the plan of the Hei, whilst the Gen were attacking the Chinese ship, that their fighting-ships should fetch a circuit round the enemy's vessels, and enclosing them, smite the Gen to a man.

"Thereupon Shigeyoshi, hitherto so faithful to the Hei cause, suddenly changed his heart, and with three hundred ships or more, manned with troops from Shikoku, rowed away, and remained a passive spectator of the battle, prepared, if the Hei proved the stronger, to shoot his arrows at the Gen; if the Gen seemed likely to gain the victory, to aim them at the Hei. How true is it that heaven may be reckoned upon, earth may be reckoned upon; the only thing which we cannot reckon on is the heart of man."

Ultimately Shigeyoshi betrays to Yoshitsune the Hei plan of battle, with the result that the latter faction are completely overthrown.


The authorship and precise date of the Heike Monogatari are unknown. It was probably composed soon after the Gempei Seisuiki, of which it is little more than an adaptation, page after page being simply copied from the latter work. But as if its model and source had not already departed sufficiently from true history, the Heike Monogatari, which covers the same ground and relates the same events, adds a number of inventions of its own, under the inspiration of patriotic or pious motives, or for the sake of poetical or dramatic effect. It is said that a main object of the author was to produce a narrative which could be chanted to the accompaniment of the biwa, a kind of four-stringed lute. That it was so chanted by men with shaven heads called biwa-bōzu (biwa-bonzes) is a fact frequently referred to by later writers. In this form it became immensely popular, and even at the present day it is far better known than the Gempei Seisuiki, a work much superior to it in merit. Motoöri, reasoning from the premiss that everything which can be sung is poetry, classes the Heike accordingly. He says that even though the actual count of syllables will not come right, they can be slurred over in singing so as to make metre. The reader might expect from this to find that the Heike is an example of poetical prose somewhat in the style of Ossian. But there is really hardly anything to justify Motoöri's opinion. Its style, though occasionally more or less ornate, is not really more poetical than that of many books for which no such pretension is advanced. To this, however, an exception must be noticed. In a very few passages, forming altogether an utterly insignificant part of the book, there is something of that alternation of phrases of five and seven syllables which in Japan constitutes metre, and the diction and thought bear traces of an attempt to treat the subject in a poetical manner. The following is a specimen:—

A local official named Morotsune, having had a dispute with the monks of a certain temple, burnt it. The latter assembled the monks of the parent monastery, to the number of over two thousand men, and approached his official residence:—

"And now the sun went down.
Resolved to engage battle on the morrow,
That night they drew near and contained themselves.
The breath of the dew-laden wind of autumn
Fluttered the left sleeves of their armour.
The lightning which illumined the clouds above
Made the stars of their helmets to blaze.
Morotsune, feeling that resistance was in vain,
Fled up by flight to Kiōto.
The next day they advanced at the hour of the Hare [sunrise]
And abruptly raised the battle-cry;
But within the castle not a sound was heard.
A man was sent to examine,
But reported that they had all decamped.

Even in this short passage the regularity of metre and the poetical diction are not well sustained.

It would not be necessary to dwell on this feature of the Heike Monogatari but for the circumstance that we have here the beginning of a kind of composition which subsequently became very popular in Japan. The Taiheiki carried this "dropping into poetry" somewhat further, and the modern dramatists and novelists have bestowed on us much tediousness of this particular description.

After the battle of Dannoüra (see p. 135), the Mikado Antoku's nurse, seeing that all was over, took him into her arms (he was then a boy of eight years of age) and plunged into the sea with him. Both were drowned. The following is the Heike Monogatari's account of this incident:—

"Niidono was long ago prepared for this [the defeat of the Hei or Taira party]. Throwing over her head her double garment of sombre hue, and tucking up high the side of her trousers of straw-coloured silk, she placed under her arm the Sacred Seal, and girt on her loins the Sacred Sword. Then taking the sovereign to her bosom, she said, 'Although a woman, I will not allow the enemy to lay hands on me. I will accompany my sovereign. All ye who have regard for his intention make haste and follow.' So saying, she calmly placed her foot on the ship's side. The sovereign had this year reached the age of eight, but looked much older. His august countenance was so beautiful that it cast a lustre round about. His black locks hung loosely down below his back. With an astonished expression he inquired, 'Now, whither do you propose to take me, Amaze?'[2] Niidono turned her face to her child-lord, and with tears that fell bara-bara, 'Do you not know, my lord,' said she, 'that although, by virtue of your keeping the Ten Commandments in a previous state of existence, you have been born into this world as the ruler of ten thousand chariots, yet having become involved in an evil destiny, your good fortune is now at an end? Be pleased to turn first to the east, and bid adieu to the shrine of the Great God of Ise. Then turn to the west, and call upon the name of Buddha, solemnly committing yourself to the charge of those who will come to meet you from the Paradise of the Western Land. This world is the region of sorrow, a remote spot small as a grain of millet. But beneath the waves there is a fair city called the Pure Land of Perfect Happiness. Thither it is that I am taking you.' With such words she soothed him. The child then tied his top-knot to the Imperial robe of the colour of a mountain-dove, and tearfully joined together his lovely little hands. First he turned to the east, and bade adieu to the shrine of the Great God of Ise and the shrine of Hachiman. Next he turned to the west, and called upon the name of Buddha. When he had done so, Niidono made bold to take him in her arms, and soothing him with the words, 'There is a city away below the waves,' sank down to the bottom one thousand fathoms deep. Alas, the pity of it!—the changeful winds of spring swiftly scattered the flowery august form. Alas, the pain of it!—the rude billows of severance buried the jewel person. His palace had been called Chōsei, to denote that it was established as his long abode; and the gate inscribed Furō, that is, the portal through which old age enters not. But ere ten years had passed he had become drift of the deep sea. In the case of such a virtuous monarch it would be wholly idle to talk of reward and retribution. It is the dragon of the region above the clouds descending and becoming a fish."

A comparison of the above with the corresponding passage of the Gempei Seisuiki shows very clearly the different character of the two works. There is nothing in the latter about praying to Shinto deities or to Buddha, and no talk of a future Paradise. When the young monarch asks where his nurse is taking him, instead of the devout sentiments attributed to her by the Heike Monogatari, the Gempei Seisuiki tells us that she said, "The soldiers are shooting arrows at the august ship, and I have the honour to escort your Majesty to another one."

The honorifics characteristic of the Japanese language come in very oddly in some of these passages. Thus in the above the waves "respectfully" submerge the Mikado, the enemy's soldiers "respectfully" direct their arrows against the august ship, and so forth. It would be tedious to follow these peculiarities in a translation.


The authorship of the historical work called Midzu-Kagami ("Water-Mirror") is really unknown. It has been ascribed to Nakayama Tadachika, who was born 1131, and died 1195. Omitting the myths of the so-called "Age of the Gods," the writer begins his history with the legend of Jimmu Tennō, the first Mikado, and brings it down through fifty-four reigns to the death of Nimmiō in 850. It is of course impossible to give anything but a meagre outline of the history of this long period in three volumes of no great bulk. Its value is small. In the earlier part it is little more than an epitome of the Nihongi. The story is told in a plain, artless fashion, without rhetorical ornament, philosophical reflections, or the least attempt to trace the causes or connection of events. Whoever the author was, he was a devout Buddhist, to which fact is no doubt to be attributed a certain miraculous element in the latter part of the history.

The Midzu-Kagami is an obvious imitation of the Ō-Kagami. The language is comparatively free from Chinese admixture, and from the point of view of style the work is to be classed with the literature of the Heian period.

The authorship of the Hōgen Monogatari and Heiji Monogatari is attributed to Hamuro Tokinaga, who lived towards the end of the twelfth century. The former contains an account of the civil disturbances in Kiōto in the year 1157, arising out of a dispute respecting the succession to the throne; the latter is a record of the renewal of the conflict in 1159. The result of this fighting was the downfall for a time of the power of the great Minamoto (Gen) family, and the establishment of the Taira (Hei) family in power.


  1. This deity has a curious history. Originally the Mikado Ōjin, he was credited with having conquered Corea while an unborn infant. Then he became the Shinto god of war, and finally was annexed by the Buddhists, who added to his name the Buddhist title of "Daibosatsu."
  2. A respectful title for women who have taken Buddhist vows.