Susano-o-no-mikoto, is the Shinto god of wind and sea, brother of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Because of the destruction
caused by his storms and turbulent behavior, Amaterasu shut herself in a cave, leaving the world in darkness. To placate
her, the gods banished him from heaven to perform good deeds on earth.
There, Susano-o met an old couple weeping over their daughter, Inada-hime. They had had eight daughters, but an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent had taken one each year for seven years, and it was time for him to come for Inada-hime. Enchanted by Inada-hime's beauty, Susano-o said he would kill the serpent if they let him marry her.
That night, he put out eight barrels of sake to draw the serpent. The serpent drank it all, fell into a drunken sleep. Susano-o hacked it to pieces, finding a fine sword in one of its tails, which he presented to his sister, who in turn gave it to her son, the first Japanese Emperor. It is now called Kusa-nagi, and is one of the three Imperial regalia.
Jimmu is Chinese for divine valour, and the reign name given to the period of early conquest -- the
founding of what was to become the nation of Japan. Jimmu Tenno is said to have been the child of Tama-yori-hime,
daughter of the Sea-God. His Japanese name was Kami Yamato Ihare-biko, referring to his conquest of the Yamato area.
Originating in Kyushu, Jimmu is said to have begun the conquest of Japan in his 45th year. After six years of war, assisted by local dieties, who deferred to his descent from the Sun Goddess, he conquered the Yamato area and built a palace at Kashiha-hara. Traditionally, the Japanese date their history from the day Kami Yamato Ihare-biko assumed the title of Tenno, which we translate as Emperor.
Princess Saohime was first wife of Emperor Suinin, probably the 11th Emperor of Japan, from 29 BCE - 70 CE (sic). She
had just borne the required son, when she was approached by her brother, Prince Sahohiko, to murder the Emperor so
Sahohiko could seize the throne. Presented with the opportunity, she could not do it: instead, she revealed the plot. The
war that followed was bloody and protracted, eventually turning against the Prince. Saohime, mourning the loss of her
brother, joined him in his palace, refusing to leave when it was put to the torch, announcing that she would die to
expiate the guilt of rebelling against the Emperor.
Yoshitoshi included Saohime in his triptych A Mirror of Famous Women of Japan.
|In the Nihonshoki, Japan's earliest written history, (8th century), Yamato Takeru is a son of the twelfth Emperor, Keiko (reigned 71-130 AD), responsible for expanding Yamato territory at the expense of the aboriginal Ainu. There are a great many stories about him, most of which involve the deaths by trickery and violence of his opponents, and he has been compared to King Arthur, for the level of magic in his legend, and, more realistically, to Odysseus, for his preference for stacking the odds in favour of his own survival through trickery. Yoshitoshi illustrated the most famous story, in which Takeru dresses as a woman to kill two rebel brothers, more than once, in Yoshitoshi's Courageous Warriors and in his Moon Series. Here, however, he shows him in a more realistic light, as a commanding general.|
From 587 - 645, the Soga clan chief controlled the government as Grand Minister to the Emperor. Unfortunately for Soga
no Iruka, he lived in interesting times.
In 641, Emperor Jomei died. It is said that Prince Nakano-ohe refused the throne, but events suggest he was outmanoeuvred by the Emperor's wife, Takara, who ascended as Emperor Kogyoku. (This should be noted by Japanese traditionalists having conniptions because today's Crown Princess has not produced a male heir.) Soga no Iruka was her Grand Minister. It is now said that he planned to usurp the throne, but the victors write the histories.
In 645, Prince Nakano-ohe and his retainer, Natatomi no Kamatari (614 - 669), founder of the Fujiwara clan, assassinated Iruka at a reception for a Korean ambassador. Kogyoku resigned from the throne and her brother, Karu, succeeded. In 668, Nakano-ohe achieved the throne as Emperor Tenchi, and carried out the Taika Renovation, centralizing government in the imperial household.
Tawara no Toda Hidesato, historically Fujiwara Hidesato, was a Heian warrior best remembered for putting down the
rebellion by Taira no Masakado in Hitachi province, killing its leader at the Battle of Kojima (940). This was
the first major rebellion of the rising samurai class against the imperial governmentt.
Many stories grew up around Hidesato, who was called Tawara Toda, My Lord Bag of Rice, for the most popular one. It was said that the Dragon King of Lake Biwa was plagued by a monstrous centipede, several times larger than a man, that nightly stole and ate one of his servants or children. Hidesato killed the monster and was given a rich reward that included a bag of rice that could never be emptied.
Despite giving Hidesato his legendary title, Yoshitoshi does not show him fighting monsters, or even other men. Instead, he shows him in the context of an interview with the Emperor -- a real, historical setting that fits with the artist's aim of reminding the people of their rich traditions and history.
During the reign of Emperor Shujaku (923-952, reigned 931-947), Fujiwara Sumitomo deserted his Court appointment to lead
the pirates of Iyo province, commanding as many as 1,500 ships. His strength was such that he operated with impunity for
over thirty years, taking part in a number of rebellions. In 965, he invaded Dazaifu. The Court sent Ono no Yoshifuru
Ason (888-968) against him, and Ono succeeded in scattering Fujiwara's fleet and burning a number of his ships.
The print depicts Ono watching one of Fujiwara's ships burn.
However, Fujiwara was not yet out of action. In May, he raided Dazaifu and set fire to the Government Office, making off with an enormous amount of booty. An second army was sent to join the first, defeating and Fujiwara at Uranojyou Castle in Dazaifu. He escaped back to Iyo, where he was captured, and executed.
The Minamoto clan first rose to notice as "the claws and teeth" of the Fujiwara, doing bloody work that the fastidious
Fujiwara were loathe to do directly. Yoriyoshi (998 - 1082) was of the Kamakura branch of the clan. In 1051, he was
sent against the Abe family who had assumed near-autonomy in Dewa province. Upon victory, Yoriyoshi was made governor
of Iyo Province.
On June 7, 1057, Yoriyoshi and his son Yoshiie were advancing against the Abe near Iwate in intense heat, and their soldiers were failing for lack of water. Some credit the feat to Yoshiyori, most to his son, Yoshiie, but someone shot an arrow into the air at random, then, where it hit, dug the ground with the tip of his bow, releasing water to quenched the soldiers' thirst.
It is, perhaps, a salutary reminder of how vital clean water is that this story is almost identical to that of Moses finding water for the Children of Israel. Something to think about the next time you are tempted to ignore a plea for aid in building wells in far off lands....
Taira no Tadamori (1096-1153) served the Emperor Go-Shirakawa. One night, as the Emperor was on his way to visit his
favourite consort, he and his retinue were disconcerted to see in the gloom a shining figure with spikes growing out of its
head, standing beside a chapel. Fearing a demon, the Emperor ordered Tadamori, a lowly escort, to kill it. As he approached the
demon-figure, Tadamori began to think it looked somewhat less threatening, and resolved to capture it alive. It turned
out to be the agéd monk who was charged with keeping the oil lamps lit, carryin a jug of oil, a covered flame, and
wearing a straw head-cover off of which the flame had been reflected.
As a reward for his bravery and good sense, Tadamori was given the Emperor's consort as a wife. She was already pregnant by Shirakawa, and Tadamori adopted the royal bastard as his own son, naming him Kiyomori. Although the latter story may or may not be true, it would have appealled to the populace as an explanation of Kiyomori's lifelong meglomaniacal ambitions and the inability of the Imperial House to control him (see below).
In 1156, when the retired emperor Sutoku rebelled against Emperor Go-Shirakawa, Taira no
Kiyomori (1118 - 1181), supported Go-Shirakawa in co-operation with some of the Minamoto clan. However, when the
clans emerged from the battle as competing powers, Kiymori turned on the Minamoto, executing all the males except three
boys, Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune. He annexed the Minamoto property, took over the government, and
controlled the throne by marrying daughters into the imperial family. In 1179, he staged a coup, banishing all rivals
from government and replacing them with his clients and relatives, then imprisoning Go-Shirakawa. In 1180, he forced
Emperor Takakura to abdicate in favour of Prince Tokuhito, who just happened to be Kiyomori's grandson.
Kiyomori was undisputed master of Japan, but, despite lavishing money on temples to avert divine retribution, by 1180, he was paranoid and delusional, seeing the ghosts of his Minamoto victims everywhere, a situation Yoshitoshi portrayed in his New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts series. In the print here, he refers to another story of Kiyomori's megalomania. He decreed that a temple he was sponsoring would be built by the end of the day: when it looked impossible, he gestured his fan at the sun, commanding it to stand still until the work was done.
Naturally, the three Minamoto boys he spared returned to haunt him, eventually overthrowing the Taira after Kiyomori's death.
Shigemori (1137-1179) was Kiyomori's much wiser son, and while he lived, managed to moderate his father's excesses. However,
he died before the old man, and many felt that it was the loss of Shigemori's virtuous influence that lead to the Taira's
Warned in a series of inauspicious dreams of his impending death and its disasterous consequences for his clan, Shigemori turned his thoughts to the issue of kharma and the next life. Believing that his descendants would not survive long, he determined to found a temple in a foreign land, so that the monks there could pray for his soul in perpetuity. To that end, he sent three thousand taels of gold (approximately $US 1.6 million at today's values and weights -- very approximately) to Song China, where it financed the building of the Yuwang Temple. The monks there are said to have prayed as desired for nearly eight hundred years.
Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) was the first shogun.
The Minamoto were a powerful military clan with imperial ties. A rebel from his teens, in 1180, he joined the Gempai civil war, establishing his base at Kamakura. His cousin, Yoshinaka, drove the Taira out of Kyoto in 1183. Claiming that Yoshinaka's army was causing unrest in the capital, Yorimoto crushed him, setting up an independent government, which was duly recognized by the imperial court. In 1185, his half-brother, Yoshitsune, smashed the Taira in the naval battle of Dan-no-ura. Jealous, Yoritomo appointed constables to hunt down Yoshitsune, who was forced into suicide in 1189.Yoritomo declined the throne, but took the title of shogun, giving him the right to act independently against any rebel. The Minamoto held power only until 1219, when the line died out, but Yoritomo's shogunate set the pattern for Japanese government until 1868.
Yoritomo is shown releasing cranes on the shore, a pious Buddhist practice. Yoshitoshi must have felt that Yoritomo was in need of such practises: he depicts his release of cranes more than once.
Japan loves Yoshitsune (1159 - 1189). A brilliant general even in his teens, he was forced by his jealous half-brother,
Yoritomo (above), to commit suicide. Of all the Yoshitsune stories this is most popular, and has more versions than software.
Someone vowed to collect 1,000 swords. Some say this was Yoshitsune, seeking to appease his father's spirit. It is clear from the prints -- Yoshitoshi did several on this story -- that this is the version in which Benkei, a warrior priest some ten feet tall, made the vow. Either way, Benkei came up against the young Yoshitsune, dressed as a woman, on Kyoto's Gojo Bridge. Despite Benkei's prowess, Yoshitsune -- taught the martial arts by a Tengu king -- defeated him. Benkei begged to be taken on as Yoshitsune's retainer and, faithful to the end, held off Yoritomo's army long enough for Yoshitsune's suicide. When Yoritomo was thrown from his horse and killed, the popular story was that the horse had been startled by the ghost of the betrayed Yoshitsune. So much for cranes.
One of the noteworthy points in Yoshitoshi's Gojo Bridge prints is the balletic postures assumed by the fighters -- they seem to be dancing rather than fighting, and I have yet to find one in which they are engaging each other's weapons.
Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578), Dragon of Echigo, was the fourth son of a vassal of the Uesugi. Starting at fourteen, he
fought his way to clan leadership, to local dominance, and eventually defeated even Oda Nobunaga in battle.
In 1551, he forced his overlord, Uesugi Norimasa, to adopt him, gaining a prestigious name. From 1553 to 1564, he fought constant border wars with the Takeda, using a 1559 trip to the shogun to gain support, and the name Terutora. Shortly thereafter, he took Buddhist vows as Kenshin. Devoutly religious, he never married, although he became an alcoholic, vows or no.
Eventually, having subdued local enemies, Kenshin began to look west. That meant conflict with Oda Nobunaga. In 1577, he defeated Oda's much larger army, tricking his opponent into a premature attack. However, he died the next spring, and his adopted sons were unable to maintain the position.
This print, as often in this series, shows its subject in a non-military setting. Yoshitoshi also potrayed Kenshin, in his more accustomed battle setting, in his series Yoshitoshi's Courageous Warriors.
Someone tried to tell me that this is Takeda listening to crickets! He's lying in the grass with an armed retainer
at his back, staring at a mirror and chewing his knuckles. This is a man with stress issues: Uesugi Kenshin and
Takeda Harunobu (1521 - 1573), the Tiger of Kai, was eldest son of a warlord who planned to name another son heir. In 1541, he rebelled and exiled his father. Like Uesugi, Takeda expanded his lands through regular war. In 1551, he took monastic vows as Shingen, which did not stop him: in 1552, his aggression drove the Murakami and Ogasawara to Uesugi for support.
In June 1553, The Takeda and Uesugi armies clashed inconclusively near Kawanakajima: in the next decade, the they would meet there five times, but only once fight an all-out battle. Both sides suffered heavy losses, which kept them quiet for a few years. In 1568, Shingen turned south, with enough success that, by 1570, he was the most important warlord east of Mino, and in a position to block Oda's march to power. Hojo Ujimasa made peace with him and, in January 1573, Shingen defeated the Tokugawa-Oda army at Mikatagahara. However, he died in May, leaving only Uesugi with enough power to fight off Oda, until he, too, died in 1578.
Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582) was the first of the unifiers of Japan, son of a minor noble family, but an arrogant man of
boundless ambition who, it is claimed, believed himself to be a god. By his death, his combination of military genius and
aggressive warfare made him ruler in all but title and the most hated and feared man in Japan. Among those he had
alienated was Akechi Mitsuhide, a talented poet and retainer in his court.
Nobunaga was entertaining court nobles at the Honnoji in Kyoto in June of 1582, with only a small contingent of guards, as he had sent his main army to assist Hideyoshi against the Moris. During the night of the 20-21 June, Akechi Mitsuhide had the temple surrounded, and called for Nobunaga's head. Greatly outnumbered, Nobunaga died, either in the fire that broke out during the battle or by his own hand. Within two weeks Akechi Mitsuhide was killed by Hideyoshi at the Battle of Yamazaki.