On this day in 1183, Japanese leader Taira no Munemori and his Taira clan took the young Emperor Antoku and fled to western Japan to escape pursuit by the Minamoto clan during a key event in the Genpei War. The outcome of the war would eventually lead to the fall of the Taira and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under rival Minamoto Yoritomo.
The Taira and the Minamoto were two of the four great clans that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian period between 794 and 1185 CE. The Taira, or Heiki, were nobles descended from Prince Katsurabara, the son of Emperor Kammu. The Minamoto, or Genji, were nobles descended from Prince Sadazumi, grandson of Emperor Seiwa. The two rival clans engaged in a contest for power during the late-Heian period, a culmination of a decades-long conflict over the dominance of the Imperial court and by extension, control of Japan.
The conflict began when the Minamoto attempted to regain imperial control from the Taira. In response, the Taira began a series of executions to eliminate their rivals, leading retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa to attempt a coup d’etat to oust Taira leader Taira no Kiyomori from office. Kiyomori resisted the attempt and, after the abdication of Emperor Takakura, put his two-year-old grandson, Antoku, on the throne. This angered the Taira’s rivals, especially Go-Shirakawa’s son, Prince Mochihito, who felt he was denied his rightful place on the throne. With the help of Minamoto Yoritomo, Mochihoto sent out a call to arms and the Genpei War commenced.
Battles raged for months, with heavy losses on both sides, including the death of Taira no Kiyomori. By 1182, the Minamoto, led by Minamoto no Yoritomo, began to take the upper hand. By August of 1183, frightened and demoralised, the Taira leader, now Taira no Munemori, fled to western Japan with its leader, young Emperor Antoku, to escape pursuit by the Minamoto clan. Not soon after, with Taira losses in Ichi-no-Tani, Yashima, and at the Battle of Dannoura, the Taira were defeated. At Dannoura, where the two clans’ fleets engaged in the Straits of Shimonseki and the Minamoto triumphed, many Taira samurai, along with their Emperor Antoku, threw themselves into the water and committed ritual suicide rather than witness their clan’s ultimate defeat at the hands of the Minamoto.
The end of the Genpei War in 1185 saw the destruction of the Taira, and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate and beginning of Minamoto control. The war also established red and white—the colours of the clans’ standards—as Japan’s national colours, today seen on the country’s flag.
Credit: © Niday Picture Library / Alamy
Caption: A print depicting the Battle of Dannoura, which saw the fall of the Taira clan and Emperor Antoku.