Battle of Slim River II

Tragically for the British, no word of the fiasco had reached either the remaining battalions of the 12th Brigade (the Argyls and the 5/14th Punjabis) or the 28th Brigade. The Japanese armored juggernaut, (about 16 tanks strong at this point), with what remained of the accompanying infantry and engineers, continued south at a fast pace.

The next unit they encountered was the unsuspecting Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, who had established two roadblocks in their defensive sector. The speed of Japanese movement, and the abysmal nature of British communications, caught the Argyls unaware and unprepared. The Japanese column burst through the first blocking position almost before the Argyls could offer any resistance. The fight at the second roadblock took only a little longer, with the Japanese destroying several British armored cars before continuing on. The remainder of the Argyl battalion was engulfed by the follow-on Japanese infantry in much the same manner as the other battalions.

To their credit, the Argyls fought ferociously in small groups and held the Japanese infantry longer than any of the other battalions. This, in turn, increased the distance between the Japanese armored column and the follow-on infantry. Had the 28th Brigade been in a better defensive posture, this might have made a difference. As it was, the Argyls’ sacrifice was in vain.

The Japanese tankers took full advantage of the confusion in the British defense to continue their advance down the main road towards the Slim River bridge. Upon reaching Trolak, they scattered the engineers who were preparing the bridge for demolition. The lead tank platoon leader, Lieutenant Watanabe, personally dismounted from his command tank and slashed the demolition electrical wires with his sword. The lieutenant and his company commander sensed that they had the momentum in this drive and that it was urgent to keep the pressure on the disorganized British. The Japanese tanks and the few remaining infantry and engineers that had somehow stayed with them raced ahead. It was approximately 0730. South of Trolak, the Japanese armor encountered the 5/14th Punjabis, who were moving along the road in march column towards their designated blocking position. The tanks literally raced through the surprised battalion, machine-gunning a large number of the Punjabis before they could even get off the road. In only a few minutes, the 12th Brigade’s reserve ceased to exist as an effective unit. The Japanese armor continued its unchecked advance along the main road.

The British had lost track of the battle. General Paris was not informed of the breakthrough until 0630.6 He immediately ordered the 28th Brigade to occupy its defensive positions and to detach its antitank battery forward to the 12th Brigade. Unfortunately, the battery met the Japanese while moving up the road and was destroyed before it could unlimber its guns and engage the enemy. Thus, one of the few units in the 28th Brigade that was capable of stopping the Japanese armor was eliminated at the outset of that brigade’s fight. Incredibly, the 28th Brigade had not received word of the complete penetration of the 12th Brigade. The Japanese armor slammed into the 28th Brigade while it was moving to its defensive positions and swept it aside in a series of short bloody encounters. Like the 5/14th Punjabis, the 2/1st Gurkhas were surprised in march column on the road while moving to their defensive positions and suffered severe casualties before they could get out of the way of the Japanese armor. The other battalions of the 28th Brigade, 2/9th and 2/2nd Ghurkas, tried to engage the Japanese armor, but with no antitank obstacles and only a few 12.7-mm AT rifles, they were quickly bypassed.

The Japanese armor continued to move down the road, shooting up transport columns and disrupting demolition efforts on the road and at three lesser bridges. The Japanese tanks had by now completely outrun their accompanying infantry and engineers. The follow-on infantry battalions continued to fight through the disorganized defenses bypassed by the armor. The Japanese tanks next shot up two artillery batteries of the 137th Field Regiment before reaching the Slim River bridge at approximately 0830. The antiaircraft defenses of the bridge consisted of 40-mm Bofors antiaircraft guns. These engaged the Japanese tanks but were ineffective – their shells would not penetrate. Their crews took many casualties from Japanese return fire. The antiaircraft gunners and the engineers preparing demolitions on the Slim River bridge scattered. Lieutenant Watanabe (who was wounded by this time) directed the machine gun fire of his tank against the wires to the bridge demolition and succeeded in severing them. The Japanese force (by this time consisting of about a dozen tanks) left two of their number to guard the bridge and continued south along the main road. Finally, after continuing for two more miles, the Japanese ran into another British artillery battalion, the 155th Field Regiment. This artillery unit deployed its 4.5-inch howitzers in the direct fire mode and engaged the Japanese over open sights at less than 200 meters. The lead Japanese tank (commanded by Lieutenant Watanabe) was destroyed and the entire crew killed. Other Japanese tanks were damaged. Checked at last, the Japanese tankers returned to the Slim River bridge to guard their valuable prize. The Japanese infantry accompanying the tanks, not less than a company in strength, arrived a few hours later. The main body of the 42nd Infantry Regiment did not link up with the armored unit until almost midnight. The Japanese had lost about eight tanks, some of which were recoverable. Their infantry losses had been moderate, but replacable. Their morale was sky high.

In his book Singapore Burning, Colin Smith quotes Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Harrison, a British artillery commander who was at the battle, as paying a respectful comment to Watanabe. “Heedless of danger and of their isolation they had shattered the [11th Indian Division],” Harrison admits. “They had captured the Slim Bridge by their reckless and gallant determination.”

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart, commanding the 12th Indian Brigade, meanwhile, accepted the blame for having not destroyed the line of tanks at the beginning of the battle when it might have made a huge difference in the outcome. As he wrote to the British Army’s official historian after the war, “I am rightly criticized for … not using the Field Artillery in an anti-tank role … It is no excuse, but I had never taken part in an exercise embodying a coordinated anti-tank defence or this type of attack. The use of tanks on a road at night was a surprise.” “Surprise” had been the purpose of the night attack, and this gamble, which might have failed, worked splendidly for the vanguard of Yamashita 25th Army.

If the time it took his engineers to rebuild the Perak River bridge is an indication, capturing the Slim River bridges intact shaved a week off Yamashita’s timetable. Meanwhile, the battle of Slim River devastated the 11th Indian Division. Its 12th and 28th Brigades were so badly mauled that they were practically erased, as was the 2nd Argylls. As many as 500 men were killed, and more than 3,000 were captured. Of those who were unable to retreat southward along the main road, a few managed to escape into the jungle. Some were captured and others simply disappeared. One man was found alive, still living off the land, in 1949.


The Japanese had won a smashing victory. In the space of about seven hours, with a single company of obsolete tanks supported by infantry and engineers, and followed by an infantry regiment, they had almost completely destroyed an entire British division. By the afternoon of the 7th of January, the British units the Japanese armor had bypassed were a jumble of disorganized fugitives. In the best shape were the infantry battalions of the 28th Brigade, who could retreat across an adjacent railroad bridge. In the worst shape were the men of the 12th Brigade; literally all of them were either killed, taken prisoner, or moving in fugitive groups trying to infiltrate back.

The losses to the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders were especially tragic to the British, as they had repeatedly proven themselves to be the best trained battalion in Malaya. Had they not been surprised by the Japanese armor, they could conceivably have held the Japanese advance long enough for the 28th Brigade to have reached its positions and unlimbered its antitank guns. The battle probably could not have been salvaged, but at least a more orderly retreat would have been possible, followed by the demolition of the Slim River bridge. As it was, less than one hundred men of this battalion managed to reach British lines. The magnitude of the disaster is reflected in the number of survivors from each brigade. Only 400 men of the four battalions in 12th Brigade managed to break out and rejoin the retreating British army. The 28th Brigade did slightly better, with approximately 700 men, but this unit was also clearly decimated. All in all, the British lost two brigades in the Slim River battle, along with most of two battalions of artillery, as well as transportation, signal, engineer, and other supporting units. Those British and Indian soldiers and units that escaped, escaped on foot. Not a single vehicle was retrieved from north of the Slim River.

The remainder of the Japanese pursuit of the British down the Malay peninsula retained the same flavor as the Slim River actions – relentless, aggressive Japanese pursuit of tired British units who had suffered too many losses in personnel and equipment and who could never keep the Japanese from operating inside their decision cycle. The Japanese did meet a series of reverses when they encountered fresh Australian troops of the 8th Australian Infantry Division. A cautionary note on headlong armored exploitation was sounded just 11 days later near the small town of Bakri. The Japanese attempted to repeat their Slim River success by sending a light tank company to attack down the main road. The Australians defending the antitank obstacle on the road coolly waited for the Japanese to begin negotiating the obstacles and then quickly knocked out nine Japanese tanks with antitank gun fire. The accompanying infantry was also temporarily stopped by the Australians, suffering numerous casualties. The Japanese formula from Slim River was unchanged. The defenders however, were fresh troops who had had the opportunity to emplace their defense properly. Unfortunately for the Australians, the rest of the British forces were simply too depleted from their earlier defeats to offer an effective resistance. As a result, they were compelled to retreat to the island of Singapore with the rest of the British army, abandoning Malaya to the Japanese on 30 January. Singapore would surrender two weeks later.

As the morale of the IJA soared with every victory, that of the Allied defenders plummeted. Kenneth Attiwill later wrote:

brooding above all, adding weakness to morale as well as to military efficiency, lies the jungle itself – a terrifying morass of tangled vegetation, steamy heat, nerve-racking noises and the discomfort of insects; mosquitoes by the myriad, moths, beetles, insects of all kinds, biting, buzzing, irritating and debilitating. Rubber, too, with its gloom, dampness and sound-deadening effect breeds a feeling of isolation. The enemy may be anywhere – everywhere – in front or behind to left or to right. Noise is difficult to pinpoint; men appear and disappear like wraiths. Rumor begins to spread. In the monsoonal season there is the added handicap of torrential rain, hissing down incessantly upon the greenery, dripping dankly on heads and bodies, humid, sweaty, destructive.

Speaking of himself, Attiwill went on to say that:

it was like this for the young and inexperienced troops who took up their places for the first defensive battle of the Malayan campaign, a battle which was noteworthy for two reasons – it was Britain’s first defeat in the jungle; it was the pattern of future defeat in all the attempted defensive actions down the Malayan peninsula.

Masanobu Tsuji recalls debriefing an unnamed British brigade commander who was among the large army of prisoners that had been captured, asking, “Why did your men raise their hands so quickly?”

“For what reason did you attack only on the front where we had not prepared to meet you?” replied the British officer. “When we defend the coast, you come from the dense jungle. When we defend the land, you come from the sea. Is it not war for enemies to face each other? This is not war. There will be no other way than retreat, I assure you.”

As Tsuji comments, “this criticism was characteristic of the British attitude throughout the whole period of operations, and was common to every front.”

The stunning British defeat at the Slim River and the equally surprising Japanese amphibious landings along the coast were met with great consternation by the British. The initial outflanking maneuver along the coast had worked so well that Yamashita conducted more of these using troops of General Takuma Nishimura’s Imperial Guards Division.

Bibliography Allen, Louis, Singapore 1941-1942, Associated University Press Falk, Stanley, Seventy Days to Singapore, G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1973 Hall, Timothy, The Fall of Singapore, Mandiran Books, Australia, 1983 Kirby, Woodburn S., Singapore, The Chain of Disaster, Macmillan Co., 1971 Owen, Frank, The Fall of Singapore, Pan Books, London, 1960 Palit, P. K. Brigadier, The Campaign in Malaya, The English Book Store Press, New Delhi, 1960 Percival, Arthur, Lieutenant General, The Campaign in Malaya, Byrne and Spotteswoode Publishers, London, 1949 Stinson, Arthur, Defeat In Malaya, The Fall of Singapore, Ballantine Books, 1969 Tsjui, Manasoburu, Singapore, The Japanese Version, Oxford University Press, 1960 Wigmore, Lionel, The Japanese Thrust: Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957


Yalu River 20 September 1894

The year 1862 was a momentous one. Civil war raged in America, Britain was in the full flush of her Industrial Revolution, and continental Europe, as ever, hovered on the brink of internal conflict. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a gauntlet was thrown down at the feet of Western interference. On the Japanese island of Kyushu, a British merchant, Charles Richardson, when about his lawful business in the port of Kagoshima, was murdered by the locals. The British Government demanded recompense, but none was forthcoming – the insular Japanese did not even offer an apology for Richardson’s murder. The inevitable retribution came early in the following year, when a British fleet commanded by Admiral Kuper sailed into Kagoshima Sound and reduced the port to a smoking ruin.

At that time Japan had no fighting ships to defend the realm, but the forts of Kagoshima, equipped only with primitive stone-shotted guns, hit back defiantly at Admiral Kuper’s warships. Amongst those manning the guns of Kagoshima on that infamous day was 16-year-old Heihachiro Togo, a young Samurai of the Satsuma clan. When the battle was over – and lost – Togo swore on the graves of his ancestors that Japan would never again suffer the humiliation of being unable to meet an aggressor at sea, ship for ship, gun for gun. There were many in Japan who shared Togo’s determination.

A few years after Kagoshima, Japan slipped into civil war as the Shogun Princes fought to subdue the emerging forces for change. The Princes failed, and the nation that for centuries had been content to stagnate in genteel isolation threw off the feudal yoke and began to industrialize along European lines. With industrialization came a swelling population and a desperate search for export markets. This led to a desire – again, following the European example – to reach out and colonize. As a means to this end, the new Japan first required a powerful navy.

Since Nelson’s crushing defeat of France and Spain at Trafalgar more than half a century earlier, Britain had dominated the seas around Europe and beyond. No other nation had such expertise in the building of warships and the training of crew to man them, and so it was to her that Japan turned to for help in setting up her own navy. She ordered the best ships British yards could build and sent her officers to be taught the arts of seafaring and sea-fighting by the Royal Navy. With them went Heihachiro Togo.

Togo took command of his first ship in Japan’s Imperial Navy in 1879, at the beginning of a period of great turbulence in the affairs of the Far East. Much of the trouble could be laid at the doors of the big European trading powers Britain, France, Germany and Russia, all of whom were intent on securing new markets in the East. As the end of the century drew near, the focus of attention became the Korean peninsula, long dominated by China but now showing an increasing tendency to lean towards its next nearest neighbour, Japan. Under the pretence of establishing peace and stability in Korea, Japan had been quietly working to take over her weaker neighbour by stealth. China, fearing the loss of her erstwhile satellite, was making threatening noises. While the two Eastern rivals were thus preoccupied, Britain had moved into Burma, the French had moved into Indo-China and Russia was working on a take-over of Manchuria. All the ingredients for war were in the mixing pot, waiting for the catalyst to be added.

In the morning of 20 July 1894 a Japanese Flying Squadron of three ironclad cruisers was on patrol in the Gulf of Asan on the west coast of Korea. The ships were an impressive trio, led by the 4,150-ton Naniwa Kan, which was under the command of Captain Heihachiro Togo. The Naniwa Kan, British-built and said to be one of the most powerful ironclad cruisers in the world, was almost 300 feet long and carried two 10.2-inch and six 5.9-inch guns, four torpedo tubes and fourteen machine guns. She had a top speed of 18.7 knots. Her consorts were the 4,180-ton Yoshino, armed with four 6-inch and eight 4.7-inch guns and also British-built, and the Japanese-built Akitsushima, a third-rate cruiser of 3,150 tons mounting four 6-inch and six 4.7-inch guns. The latter had a speed of 19 knots; the Yoshino was reputedly capable of 23.

Togo’s orders were to sweep the Gulf of Asan for Chinese transports rumoured to be landing troops on the Korean coast. However, as, to the best of his knowledge, China and Japan were not yet at war, the captain was somewhat unsure what to do should he come upon such vessels. But the sea was calm and the day promised to be pleasantly warm, and he decided to meet that challenge when he came to it. He did not have long to wait.

Just before 9 o’clock the Japanese squadron was nearing the head of the gulf when two unidentified ships were seen emerging from the entrance to the port of Asan. As they drew nearer, it became clear that the approaching ships were Chinese men-of-war, and, purely as a precautionary measure, Togo ordered his men to stand by their guns. The Chinese ships were the 2,355-ton ironclad cruiser Tsi Yuen, carrying two 8.2-inch and one 5.9-inch guns, and the 1,300- ton Kwang Yi, a lightly armed sloop. Both ships were steaming at full speed for the open sea, and they had no transports with them. In the circumstances, Togo decided to let them pass unchallenged.

It was at this point that an uneasy peace changed to war, for the leading Chinese ship, the Tsi Yuen, suddenly altered course and headed straight for the Japanese squadron, her bow-wave foaming and her funnels belching black smoke. Her actions caused Togo to assume that she was about to attack with torpedoes, and he gave the order to open fire. The Naniwa Kan heeled under the blast as her great 10.2-inch Krupp guns thundered out in unison. The Yoshino and Akitsushima joined in with their lighter guns, the Tsi Yuen and Kwang Yi replied, and within minutes a full-scale battle was in progress – the first action ever to be fought by Chinese and Japanese ironclads.

The British-trained Japanese gunners were soon bracketing the Chinese ships, and then scoring hits. The Tsi Yuen sustained heavy damage and the Kwang Yi was unscathed, but neither of the ships’ captains had any stomach for the fight: before long they had turned tail and were fleeing back towards the shelter of Asan harbour, with the Yoshino and Akitsushima in pursuit.

The Naniwa did not join in the chase, for Togo had seen two more ships entering the gulf from seaward. These proved to be a merchant ship flying the British flag, escorted by another Chinese warship. This raised serious problems for Togo, for, although, following the attack on his ships by the Tsi Yuen, he assumed that his country must be at war with China, he thought it unlikely that the British would be involved. Yet, through his telescope, he could see that the merchantman was crowded with troops, almost certainly Chinese, and on their way in to Asan. They must be prevented from landing.

Togo opened fire on the Chinese warship, which turned out to be the sloop Tsao Kiang. Without more ado, the latter ran away at full speed, leaving her charge to fend for herself. Togo was reluctant to interfere with a ship flying the Red Ensign, but he patently could not ignore her military passengers. Holding her under his guns, Togo sent away a boarding party, which returned with the news that the trooper was the 2,134-ton Kow Shing, owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company of London and commanded by Captain T. R. Galsworthy. She was under charter to the Chinese Government and had on board 1,500 Chinese soldiers, fourteen field guns and their ammunition and a German artillery officer, Captain C. von Hanneken. Galsworthy protested loudly against his detention, declaring that he was on a lawful voyage, Britain and Japan not being at war, and that Togo had no right to hold his ship. Galsworthy was technically correct, but Togo was not about to allow 1,500 fully armed Chinese troops to land on Korean soil. He demanded surrender.

The situation on board the Kow Shing was chaotic. Galsworthy was in favour of surrendering, but he and his officers were surrounded by Chinese with loaded guns, who made no secret of what would happen to them it they refused to take the ship into Asan. The Chinese general argued that the Japanese would not dare sink a ship under the British flag, but Galsworthy was not convinced. Much as he feared the Chinese guns, he feared the wrath of his owners more. He declined to continue the voyage. It was stalemate.

This dangerous confrontation went on for nearly four hours, with the Japanese threatening, the Chinese obstinately refusing to surrender and Galsworthy and the Kow Shing’s British officers caught in the middle. Then Togo did something of which his Royal Navy mentors would not have approved. He torpedoed the helpless merchantman, pounded her with his big guns and, when she sank, machine-gunned the troops struggling in the water. Only Captain Galsworthy, his chief officer, his boatswain, Captain von Hanneken and 41 Chinese survived.

Togo’s ill-judged and brutal action elicited a howl of protest from Admiral Fremantle, commanding the British Far Eastern Fleet, and, later, rumbles of disapproval from the Foreign Office, but as far as Britain was concerned the incident was soon closed. For the Chinese, however, the attack on the Tsi Yuen and Kwang Yi, followed by the slaughter of more than a thousand of their troops in the Kow Shing, could mean only one thing: China and Japan were at war.

The cruel irony of the Asan Gulf incident was that it all came about as the result of an unfortunate accident. The Tsi Yuen did not intentionally charge Togo’s Flying Squadron, as it had appeared to the Japanese. The ships would have passed each other with no more than the exchange of hostile stares if the Tsi Yuen’s steering gear had not jammed at the crucial moment, causing her to take an involuntary run at the Naniwa Kan and her consorts. The Sino- Japanese War, although brewing for a long time, was, like so many wars, sparked off by an unfortunate misunderstanding – and the callous actions of Heihachiro Togo following the confrontation destroyed any hope of negotiation.

Togo’s masters in Tokyo were certainly not pleased with his heavy-handed diplomacy. They feared that Russia might come to China’s aid, in which case the Imperial Japanese Navy would have to face not only the Chinese Fleet in the Yellow Sea but also the Russian Asiatic Fleet operating out of Vladivostok, both of which were believed to have superior ships. But, for the time being, Russia stayed uncommitted, and the build-up to the war on land went ahead. At the northern end of the Yellow Sea, in Korea Bay, the Chinese Fleet, under Admiral Ting, occupied itself with covering the landing of troops near the Yalu River, while further south Admiral Yuko Ito’s Japanese ships did the same on the Taidong river. For six weeks after the declaration of war the rival fleets had no contact with each other.

On 16 September the Japanese Navy, having carried out a landing operation at Chinnampo, was returning to sea. Admiral Ito had with him a powerful force comprising ten cruisers, a gunboat, an armed merchantman and a flotilla of torpedo boats. Ito’s flagship, the 4,277-ton Matsushima, mounted one 12.5- inch and eleven 4.7-inch guns, as did her sister ships Itsukushima and Hasidate. The Fuse and Takachico carried two 10.2-inch and six 5.9-inch, the 2,200-ton Hiyei one 10.2-inch and two 5.9-inch and the 2,450-ton Chiyoda ten 4.7-inch guns. Togo’s Flying Squadron, the Naniwa Kan, Yoshino and Akitsu- shima, were also in company.

Having completed his mission, Admiral Ito, tired of playing nursemaid to a flock of troop transports, took his ships north into Korea Bay looking for action. He had an unconfirmed report that the Chinese were landing troops at the mouth on the Yalu River, about 100 miles to the north. Steaming in line abreast, their immaculate paintwork gleaming and their funnels trailing black smoke, the Japanese ships stretched from horizon to horizon, an impressive sight. Unfortunately, they were constrained by the speed of the slowest ship, the 1,650-ton armed merchantman Saikio Maru, and progress was made at little more than 10 knots. Ito fumed, for he was anxious to demonstrate the prowess of his fleet.

The report received of Japanese landings at the head of Korea Bay was correct. Six Chinese transports, carrying 4,500 troops and 80 pieces of artillery, had entered the Yalu River and were discharging their cargo as Ito steamed north. Offshore, at the mouth of the river, the escorting force of two battleships, nine cruisers, four gunboats and six torpedo boats had anchored, forming a shield to prevent any interference with the landings from seaward. Admiral Ying, in command of the expedition, flew his flag in the battleship Ting Yuen, a German-built ship of 7,430 tons. She had a top speed of 14 knots and carried four 12-inch and four 6-inch guns in barbettes, armour-protected raised platforms on deck; her sister ship, the Chen Yuen, anchored close by, was identical. The larger cruisers, the King Yuen, Lai Yuen and Ping Yuen, each of 2,850 tons, were 16-knot ships armed with 8-inch and 6-inch guns, while the 2,300-ton Tsi Yuen and Chi Yuen were similarly armed. The smaller Chinese cruisers, the Kwang Chia, Kwang Ping, Yang Wei and Chao Yung, the latter pair British built, were, at 1,300 tons, little more than sloops but carried an assortment of 10-inch and 4.7-inch guns. It was a large and formidable fleet, but the presence on board the ships of a number of British, American and German advisers, including Captain von Hanneken, late of the Kow Shing, indicated some weakness in the calibre of the Chinese officers. That may have been so, but the fact that Admiral Ting had chosen to anchor his ships rather than stand off the river entrance with full steam up did not say much for the advice his foreign experts were presumably giving him.

At daybreak on the 17th the Japanese fleet was in sight of Hai-yang Island, 35 miles off the coast at the northern end of Korea Bay and 100 miles east of Port Arthur, China’s main naval base. As the grey light of the dawn paled and the first rays of the rising sun touched the tall peaks of Hai-yang, Admiral Ito’s lookouts were on full alert, but they could see no sign of the Chinese fleet. The gunboat Akagi was sent to check the deep-water anchorage on the western side of the island, but here again there was no trace of the enemy. Ito decided to continue on towards the mouth of the Yalu River, some 70 miles to the north-east. It was the typhoon season, but as the sun climbed in a flawless blue sky it showed the promise of a fine autumn day unmarred by strong winds. With the Matsushima impatiently in the van, the great fleet swept on majestically, eager for confrontation.

Hai-yang dropped astern, and for the next three and a half hours the fleet steamed at full speed, working up to 18 knots and leaving the hard-pressed gunboat Akagi and the Saikio Maru straggling in its wake. The enthusiasm of the Japanese stokers sent tall columns of smoke drifting skywards, where, trapped by a temperature inversion, the smoke merged to form an extensive black cloud in an otherwise unmarred sky.

Ito’s unintentional warning beacon was sighted by Admiral Ting’s lookouts at around 10.30 that morning, by which time the disembarkation of the troops and their equipment was nearing completion. Ting recognized that the smoke signalled the imminent arrival of a large enemy fleet, which left him in something of a dilemma. He could not leave the transports unprotected, but, on the other hand, if his fleet remained at anchor it would be at a distinct disadvantage. After some deliberation he gave the order for all ships to weigh anchor and steam out to sea. Forty minutes later the Chinese warships, in some disarray, had formed a ragged line of battle across the entrance to the Yalu River. Behind them, with the landing operation suspended, the transports had also weighed anchor and were seeking refuge in the shallows.

The opposing fleets came in sight of each other at 11.40, ten ironclads on each side and probably the greatest concentration of guns seen afloat since Trafalgar. The Japanese mounted in all three 12.5-inch, seven 10.2-inch, eight 6- inch, twenty 5.9-inch and fifty-seven 4.7-inch, while the Chinese mustered eight 12-inch, five 10-inch, thirteen 8-inch, eighteen 6-inch, one 5.9-inch and sixteen 4.7-inch. In weight of firepower it was a fairly even match, but it was the men behind the guns who would decide the outcome of the day, and Admiral Ito, leading his ships in his flagship Matsushima, harboured no doubts as to who would see victory.

Heihachiro Togo, whose Flying Squadron formed the rearguard of the battle fleet, supported the Admiral’s view. He had the advantage of having inspected the Chinese ships when they were on a courtesy visit to Yokohama before the war. He had been amazed by the casual attitude of the Chinese officers, the lack of discipline of the men and the generally slipshod state of the ships. Further¬ more, the experience of the Gulf of Asan, when he had easily put to flight three Chinese warships, was proof enough of their reluctance to fight. From the neat, orderly bridge of the Naniwa Kan Togo could see nothing to frighten him.

Admiral Ting, the quality of his ships and men apart, was already at a great disadvantage. If he kept his ships close inshore he would be unable to manoeuvre freely for fear of running aground on the numerous shoals off the river entrance. On the other hand, if he steamed out to meet the Japanese fleet there was the risk of some of the enemy’s smaller ships slipping through his line to get at the transports. He compromised, advancing a few miles out to sea, then formed his cruisers into line abreast, with the two battleships at the centre of the line. The smaller cruisers Kwang Chia and Kwang Ping, with four torpedo boats, he sent back to guard the transports against attack.

As he approached the enemy, Admiral Ito manoeuvred his ships into two parallel lines ahead, the heavier cruisers, with the Chiyoda, Hiyei and the torpedo boats, bringing up the rear. In every ship men stood to their guns, loaded and ready to fire on the command. At the Matsushima’s yardarm a huge Japanese Imperial Standard, which carried a gold chrysanthemum on a deep red background, whipped defiantly in the breeze. The flag provided the only frivolous splash of colour in the well-drilled formation of sombre-painted ships. The Chinese ships, on the other hand, with their gaily painted, ornate woodwork on deck and multi-coloured displays of bunting at the halyards, might well have been taking part in a carnival. But even carnivals must be organized: Ting’s undulating line of battle appeared to lack all coherence, and its advance was now noticeably lacking in enthusiasm.

Ito had eased back the speed of his ships and the opposing fleets moved towards each other at a closing speed of 17 knots. The sun was nearing its zenith and, without a single cloud to veil its brilliance, reflected back from the mirror-like sea with a dazzling glare. This put the south-facing Chinese ships at a double disadvantage, which might have accounted for some of their lack of co-ordination. There was, however, a great deal of apprehension on both sides, for, with the exception of Togo’s Flying Squadron and the foreign advisers in the Chinese ships, most were yet to hear a gun fired in battle.

For the next 45 minutes the two fleets stood slowly on towards each other, the distance between them closing yard by yard, but, so it seemed, each resolving not to be the first to fire. It was a silent game of poker, played out on a silver sea. The stakes were high, the penalty for the loser certain death and destruction.

Ting was the first to crack. At 12.45, unable to bear the tension any longer, he gave the order for a ranging shot to be fired. Instantaneously – the Chen Yuen’s gunners had been nervously fingering their lanyards for some time – one of the battleship’s 37-ton, 12-inch guns thundered out and slammed back in recoil, scattering its unwary crew to the four corners of the barbette. The heavy shell screeched through the still air, reached the top of its trajectory, curved downwards and fell half a mile short of the leading Japanese ships. At 6,000 yards, the range was far too great for the 12-inch, but, the flagship having fired, and in the absence of orders to the contrary, the rest of Admiral Ting’s ships now opened up with every gun they could bring to bear. It was a noisy exhibition of indiscipline that served only to provide rich pickings for the fishermen of Korea Bay when they came sailing out to cast their nets.

The Japanese ships made no response to the provocation but continued to bear down on the Chinese in their impeccable line-ahead formation. Then, when Ito judged the range to be right, a string of flags was broken out at the Matsushima’s yardarm and the two lines of Japanese ships wheeled to port and formed one line ahead, exposing their full broadsides to the enemy. Speed was increased to 14 knots and, on another signal from the flagship, the guns of the fleet roared out in unison, adding a disciplined voice to the ragged cannonade begun by the Chinese. The battle had commenced.

Much of the Japanese fire was directed at the two battleships Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen, and both were hit repeatedly. As Ito’s ships were now steaming across the bows of the Chinese vessels they were at a temporary disadvantage; their line might easily have been pierced, with disastrous results, if Ting had increased speed, but he made no attempt to do so. The Chinese fleet in fact appeared to be in state of paralysis, plodding doggedly on at 6 knots and throwing out a wall of shot and flame they hoped would clear a path for their advance. The truth was that, since the outbreak of the war six weeks earlier, the Chinese had not thought it necessary to exercise their ships, and, face to face with the enemy for the first time, they had no clear plan of action. The cruiser Tsi Yuen, survivor of the brush with Togo’s Flying Squadron at Asan, was the first ship to be hit, and, true to form, she broke away from the line and ran for the sanctuary of Port Arthur. She was closely followed by the Kwang Chia.

The gap in the Chinese ranks left by the fleeing ships offered the Japanese an unexpected opportunity to break through and attack from behind. Ito was quick to act, and he sent in the cruisers Yoshino and Akitsushima with three torpedo boats in support. Panic broke out in the Chinese fleet. The Chi Yuen and Chao Yung went full astern, and all ships in the immediate vicinity turned their guns on the Japanese infiltrators, who were beaten back by the sheer weight of fire directed at them. In the melee the Chao Yung, twisting and turning to avoid the Japanese torpedo boats, ran ashore, and all efforts to refloat her failed. She was soon reduced to a blazing hulk by the accurate fire of Ito’s gunners. The battleship Chen Yuen was hit several times above and below the waterline, and her 12-inch guns were put out of action, but she fought on, using her smaller guns to some effect. Her determined fight was in no way due to her commander, Commodore Lin, who had deserted the battleship’s bridge in a blind panic when the shells began to fall. Lin’s American adviser, Commander Philo N. McGiffin, had taken over, and would fight the ship to the end.

In the midst of their nightmare, the Chinese found another weakness in their ships exposed. The profusion of carved and painted woodwork on their decks showed itself to be a serious hazard, any shell-burst almost certainly leading to a fire. In the Chao Yung and Yang Wei, fires on deck prevented ammunition reaching the 10-inch guns, thereby rendering these ships all but useless as fighting units. The Yang Wei, engulfed in flames, followed the Chao Yung ashore.

The cruiser Chi Yuen, commanded by Captain Tang, and with Chief Engineer Purvis, a Scot, in the engine-room, had taken a severe battering from the Japanese guns and was making so much water that Purvis feared she would sink. He conveyed his fears to Captain Tang, who then foolishly decided to inflict some damage on the enemy while he was still able to do so. Ringing for full speed, Tang charged at the nearest Japanese ship with the intention of ramming. Unfortunately for the Chinese captain, he had chosen as his target the 23-knot Yoshino, the fastest ship in Ito’s fleet. The Japanese cruiser had no difficulty in avoiding the Chi Yuen and opened fire on her with all guns at close range. Other Japanese ships joined in, and the Chi Yuen was quickly reduced to a burning hulk. She sank, taking most of her crew with her.

And so the battle raged on throughout the afternoon, with the Chinese, having recovered some of their nerve, giving as good as they received. The cruiser Lai Yuen was ablaze from end to end but her guns fired on; her sister ship, the King Yuen, took a plunging shell through her decks, caught fire and capsized. The two battleships Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen each received between three and four hundred direct hits. On the Japanese side, the flagship Matsushima was hit by a 12-inch shell which exploded among some ready-use ammunition and caused terrible carnage. Otherwise, only the Yoshino and the armed merchant ship Saikio Maru sustained heavy damage. By nightfall the opposing sides had fought each other to a standstill, many of the ships being out of ammunition. The battle ended with Admiral Ito withdrawing his ships to the south, leaving the remains of the Chinese fleet to limp back to its base at Port Arthur.

One who was later to express his puzzlement over Ito’s decision to discontinue the action when darkness fell was Commander McGiffin, adviser to the faint-hearted Commodore Lin of the Chen Yuen. The American reported that by then the Chen Yuen was down to her last twenty rounds of ammunition for her big guns, while her smaller guns were without a shell among them. This was, in fact, the situation in many of the Chinese ships. Additionally, they had suffered heavily, losing the 10-inch gun cruisers Chao Yung and Yang Wei, the Chi Yuen, Admiral Ting’s fastest ship, and the 2,850-ton cruiser King Yuen. Most of the remaining ships had sustained major damage, and Ting had lost nearly 1,000 men, with another 500 wounded, including himself. The Japanese fleet was relatively intact, having only three ships damaged, 90 men killed and 204 wounded. If Ito had chosen to press home his advantage that night he might well have destroyed the Chinese fleet altogether and thus shortened the war considerably. As it was, Ting’s surviving ships were repaired within a few weeks, and although they were reluctant to put to sea again they remained a real threat to Japanese troop movements around the coast.

Interested observers, especially the Europeans, considered the Battle of Yalu River to have been a victory for the Chinese, for although the Japanese appeared to have won the day they failed to prevent the landing of Chinese troops, which was the primary object of their attack. For those same Europeans, certainly the British and Germans, having built many of the ships and guns involved, Yalu River, regardless of its final outcome, was of great significance. It was the first major encounter involving ironclad ships using heavy breech-loading guns. The battle had, in other words, been a test run for much of the new maritime technology coming out of Europe at the time. The lessons learned would be of considerable value in the future.


FILM: RAN (1985)


Ran is a Japanese-French war film/period tragedy directed, edited, and co-written by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear and the legends surrounding daimyō Mōri Motonari. The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord who abdicates for his three sons—with disastrous results.


Akira Kurosawa first conceived of the idea for the film that would become Ran (Japanese for “chaos” or “discord”) in the early 1970s, when he read about Mōri Motonari (1497–1571), a powerful daimyō in the Chūgoku region of Japan who is remembered as one of the greatest warlords of the Sengoku period (mid-16th century). Though a brilliant diplomat and strategist, Motonari is best known for an event that probably never happened: the “lesson of the three arrows,” a parable that Motonari illustrated by giving each of his three sons an arrow to break. He then gave them three arrows bundled together and pointed out that although one may be easily broken, three bundled together are impossible to break. Motonari actually had nine sons (two of whom died in childhood) but most prominent of them were the three sons the parable concerns: Mōri Takamoto (1523–1563), Kikkawa Motoharu (1530–1586), and Kobayakawa Takakage (1533–1597). Formulating a scenario that could generate real drama, Kurosawa imagined trouble among the three brothers rather than unity and reasonableness. As he later told an interviewer, “What might their story be like, I wondered, if the sons had not been so good? It was only after I was well into writing the script about these imaginary unfilial sons of the Mōri clan that the similarities to [Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy, King] Lear occurred to me. Since the story is set in medieval Japan, the protagonist’s children had to be men; to divide a realm among daughters would have been unthinkable” (Grilli, 2008, p. 126). Kurosawa and two co-writers—Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide—had a draft of a screenplay completed by 1975, but Kurosawa would not be able to arrange financing for an expensive, large-scale epic set in medieval Japan for another seven years. In the meantime, he painted storyboards of every shot in Ran and made Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980), the latter of which he described as a “dress rehearsal” for Ran. In 1982 Kurosawa finally secured funding for Ran from two sources: Japanese producer Masatoshi Hara (Herald Ace Productions) and French producer Serge Silberman (Greenwich Film Productions). After the box office success of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), Silberman was able to put up most of the money needed to back Ran, which ended up costing ¥2.4 billion (i.e., $12 million), the most expensive Japanese film produced up to that time. Kurosawa cast Tatsuya Nakadai (who played the dual lead roles in Kagemusha) as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord based on Mōri Motonari who decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons. Prior to production, several hundred elaborate costumes had to be created by hand, an arduous process that took two years to complete. Pre-production also involved extensive location scouting and set construction, for example, a castle destroyed in the middle of the movie had to be specially built on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to be burned down.


Akira Kurosawa was 75 years old when he directed Ran (June 1984–February 1985) and was nearly blind when the initial photography started. He required assistance in order to frame his shots, and his assistants used hundreds of his storyboard paintings as templates to construct and film scenes. Almost the entire film is done in long shot, with only a handful of close-ups. An enormous undertaking, Ran used some 1,400 extras, 1,400 suits of armor (designed by Kurosawa himself), and 200 horses, some of them imported from the United States. Over his long career, Kurosawa worked with the same crew of technicians and assistants. Toward the end of the shoot, Kurosawa lost two of his old stalwarts. In January 1985, Fumio Yamoguchi, the sound recordist on nearly all of Kurosawa’s films since 1949, and Ryu Kuze, action coordinator on many of them, died within a few days of each other. A month later (1 February 1985), Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, Yôko Yaguchi, also died. Kurosawa halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.

Plot Summary

[Act I] Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a powerful warlord near the end of his life, decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). The oldest son, Taro, is bequeathed the sought-after First Castle and is named commander of the Ichimonji clan. Jiro and Saburo are given the Second and Third Castles, respectively. Hidetora retains his title of Great Lord, and the two younger sons are expected to rally behind Taro. Saburo calls his father a fool, stating that he can’t expect loyalty from sons who grew up watching their father use the most cruel, heartless methods for power and domination. Hidetora is threatened by his son, but his servant, Tango (Masayuki Yui), defends Saburo. Hidetora responds by exiling both men. Nobuhiro Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), a visiting warlord, sees Saburo’s fervor and forthrightness and asks him to wed his daughter. [Act II] After Hidetora divides his remaining lands between Jiro and Saburo, Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), encourages Taro to gain control of the entire clan. Emboldened, Taro tells Hidetora to give up his title of Great Lord. Hidetora, now betrayed by two sons, runs to Jiro’s castle only to discover that Jiro plans to use him in his own scheme for power and influence. Unsure of where to go, Hidetora and his company depart from Jiro’s castle. Tango finds his father and informs Hidetora of Taro’s new decree: anyone who assists Hidetora will be sentenced to death. Hidetora flees to Saburo’s castle, which was left empty when Saburo went into exile. [Act III] Hidetora and his samurais are attacked by Taro’s and Jiro’s forces. In the ensuing battle, almost all of Hidetora’s men are killed and the Third Castle is set on fire. Hidetora, alone and losing his mind, leaves the castle as it is consumed by flames. During the siege on the castle, Taro is killed by a bullet from Jiro’s general, Shuri Kurogane’s (Hisashi Igawa) gun. Meanwhile, Hidetora wanders the wilderness and is found by Tango, who tries to assist him. The pair take shelter in a peasant’s home, but realize that the peasant is Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), the brother of Lady Sué (Yoshiko Miyazaki), Jiro’s wife. Tsurumaru was a victim of Hidetora’s regime: he was blinded and left for dead after Hidetora murdered his father and conquered their land. [Act IV] After Taro’s death, Jiro takes on the title of the Great Lord, moving into the First Castle and commanding the Ichimonji clan. Jiro returns to the castle to find Lady Kaede, unbothered by Taro’s death, waiting to blackmail Jiro into an affair. Lady Kaede uses her influence with Jiro to call for Lady Sué’s death. Jiro orders Kurogane to carry out the task, but he declines, stating that Kaede will be the ruin of both Jiro and the clan. Kurogane runs to tell Sué and Tsurumaru to leave. Meanwhile, two ronin are captured by Tango, who coerces them to reveal plans for assassinating Hidetora. Tango leaves to share the news with Saburo. Hidetora is overtaken by madness and runs off into a volcanic plain while Kyoami (Pîtâ) runs after him. Saburo and Jiro meet on the battlefield and agree on a truce, and Saburo becomes concerned by the report of his father’s onset of madness. While Saburo meets with Kyoami and takes 10 warriors along to rescue Hidetora, Jiro takes advantage of the situation and sends gunners to ambush his brother and father. Jiro also attacks Saburo’s army, which falls back into the woods as the soldiers go on the defensive. As the family is warring, a messenger shares news that Ayabe, a rival lord, is headed towards the First Castle. At the same time, Saburo locates Hidetora, and the father experiences a reprieve from his insanity and begins to heal his relationship with his son. However, in the midst of the reconciliation, one of Jiro’s snipers kills Saburo. Hidetora dies out of sadness. Fujimaki arrives with his troops to see Tango and Kyoami grieving. [Act V] In the meantime, Tsurumaru and Sué get to the ruined castle, but realize that they forgot a flute at Tsurumaru’s home, one that Sué had gifted to Tsurumaru at the time of his banishment. She goes back for the flute, but is discovered and murdered by one of Jiro’s assassins. Simultaneously, Ayabe’s army attacks the First Castle. When Kurogane hears that Lady Sué has been killed by Jiro’s assassin, he corners Kaede and pushes her for information. She comes clean about her plot to obliterate Hidetora and his clan to avenge the deaths of her family members. Kurogane decapitates Kaede for her treachery. As Ayabe’s army overtakes the First Castle, Jiro, Kurogane, and all of Jiro’s men are killed. Tsurumaru is left amidst the rubble, alone.


Ran had its world premiere in Tokyo on 25 May 1985. It was subsequently screened at a number of film festivals before going into staggered general release in about two dozen countries. Ran did not do very well at the box office, initially making only enough to break even. It did, however, receive Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design (which it won), among many other international nominations and awards. Reviews were, for the most part, adulatory. Vincent Canby wrote, “Though big in physical scope and of a beauty that suggests a kind of drunken, barbaric lyricism, Ran has the terrible logic and clarity of a morality tale seen in tight close-up, of a myth that, while being utterly specific and particular in its time and place, remains ageless, infinitely adaptable … Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion” (Canby, 1985). Roger Ebert called the film “visually magnificent” and said he realized on seeing it again in 2000 that “the action doesn’t center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil” (Ebert, 2000). Decades after its release, most film critics and scholars view Ran as Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

Reel History Versus Real History

The story that Ran tells is, of course, entirely fictional. One can only judge its historical accuracy in terms of its depictions of medieval Japanese castles; the look, dress, and demeanor of the Ichimonji clan; the conduct in battle of the samurai; etc. On these counts, Ran has extraordinary verisimilitude.


Preliminary reconstruction of one of Khubilai Khan’s lost ships. The result of generations of Chinese engineering and development, these were the world’s most advanced warships duringthe Medieval period. He squandered his naval advantage with poorly executed attacks on Japan, Vietnam, and Java.

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet

In Search of a Legendary Armada

by James P. Delgado (Author)

On October 19, 1274, a massive Mongol war fleet sailed into Hakata, Japan’s most important harbor for overseas trade. Chinese records of the time claim a thousand ships and more than twenty-three thousand soldiers, though modern scholars believe that the actual numbers of both ships and soldiers were considerably smaller. To the beat of huge war drums the Mongols and their allied Korean troops came ashore in small landing craft. News of the imminent invasion had well preceded the fleet’s actual arrival, and a substantial force of samurai, at least six thousand, awaited them.

Hand-to-hand combat began on the beach. Both sides took heavy casualties. Japanese sources claim that two thousand samurai died on the beach and in the pine grove adjoining the shore. The Mongol forces gradually pushed the samurai back into Hakata town. Fighting continued in the streets and alleys. By nightfall, the invading troops had taken and burned the port. The defending samurai regrouped in the hills above the town.

Through the early hours of night the commanders of the Mongol/Korean force debated tactics. One faction favored an immediate night attack to press their advantage. Other commanders argued that the troops were exhausted and needed sleep. Finally, it was decided to continue the battle in the morning, and the troops returned to their ships. In the morning, however, the fleet was gone from Hakata Bay. Japanese sources report that a strong, “divine” wind blew the ships out of the harbor and into the sea.

The likeliest scenario is that the fleet simply sailed away, its commanders aware of problems that the Japanese were not. The fleet was low on arrows, having used large numbers in taking two strategic islands on the way to Hakata. The commanders perhaps also wanted to reconsider their strategy. Struggling ashore and fighting hand to hand on a beach and in trees was probably the least favorable terrain for Mongol troops. They were superb cavalry, trained for plains battles, massed arrow attacks, and group maneuvers, but largely untrained in hand-to-hand sword fighting on foot, and avoided this sort of battle whenever possible.

The results of the first battle of Hakata were perhaps satisfactory to the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. His strategy was straightforward: conquer all China and supplant the Song dynasty. By and large, the war was going well. Mongol armies had pushed the Song into far southern China. The destruction of Hakata meant that the Song would gain no revenue from trade with Japan.

This first battle of Hakata, however, produced no shipwrecks. Even the Japanese sources concede that only a few of the Mongol ships were beached by the mysterious wind that blew the fleet back to “their lands.”

Much had changed between the first invasion attempt in 1274 and the second invasion in 1281. Mongol armies had pursued the remaining Song forces into South China, defeated them, and captured and executed the last emperor. Kublai Khan was, indeed, ruler of a united China, with all the resources and the problems that entailed. He founded a new dynasty, the Yuan, and moved his capital from Karakorum, deep in Mongolia, to Beijing, the better to rule his new conquests.

Kublai Khan sent envoys to Japan, in 1279, demanding surrender. The bakufu, head of the alliance of Japanese nobles, had the envoys executed on the beach at Hakata. Kublai Khan and the king of Korea conferred and agreed the invasion force to conquer Japan would consist of one hundred thousand troops. The king of Korea agreed to construct an enormous fleet, which would carry Mongol and Korean troops across the Korea Strait to Hakata. Kublai Khan ordered a second fleet constructed on the Chinese coast, which would carry Chinese troops to join the Koreans and Mongols at Iki Island off Japan’s west coast.

For more than a year, in both Korea and south China forests were stripped for the ships and harsh taxes levied to equip them. The Koreans, eager to engage, sailed in early May 1281, knowing that the Chinese fleet was not ready. The samurai had constructed a stone wall along the beach at Hakata, which halted the invading force. In heavy fighting the samurai drove the Mongols and Koreans back to their boats. A stalemate set in, the samurai holding the beach and the port and the Mongols and Koreans holding the harbor. The samurai attacked the fleet in small boats, sometimes boarding, sometimes pushing fire-rafts to burn the invader’s ships. The attacks eventually forced the invading fleet into a compact defensive circle in the bay.

The Chinese fleet eventually did arrive but could not assist in the stalemate at Hakata. Instead, the Chinese attacked inland from Imari Bay, thirty miles south of Hakata. Samurai fought the Chinese soldiers in the inland hills, finally pushing them back to their ships. In the end a typhoon destroyed both fleets, which were at anchor through the height of the typhoon season. The fierce storm piled ship upon ship, driving them onto the rocky shore. Casualty estimates are, of course, speculative but run upward of fifty thousand men. Some thirty thousand Chinese soldiers were captured and enslaved. Both Chinese and Japanese sources agree that the second battle of Hakata Bay littered the bottom with wreckage.

The Mongols at War

The two opponents at Hakata Bay had quite different military and political backgrounds. Fifty years earlier Genghis Khan had reorganized bands of steppe cavalry into the most successful rapid strike force the world had ever seen. The important changes were in organization, discipline, and ideology. Genghis Khan reassigned the men of family and ethnic units into mixed units, thereby promoting loyalty to the larger Mongol goals rather than narrow family concerns. The units were arranged on a decimal system, with commanders over one hundred, a thousand, and ten thousand men. Cavalry practiced daily and honed their skills in frequent large hunts. Genghis Khan also enforced discipline on the welter of ethnicities that constituted his army. For example, looting after battle was prohibited on pain of death. The military goal was to annihilate the opposing force, and looting disrupted the process. Genghis Khan promulgated and practiced his belief in “world conquest”—his forces were destined to defeat all opposition and rule the entire world. This ideology is perhaps best exemplified by a letter from Guyuk, grandson of Genghis Khan, to Pope Urban IV. The pope, in an official letter, proposed an alliance between the European kings and the Mongols against Muslims, as their common foe. Guyuk replied:

Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven? Now your own upright heart must tell you: “We will become subject to you, and will place our powers at your disposal.” You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender us service and pay us homage; then only will we recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and run counter to our orders, we shall know that you are our foe.

Mongol forces were mounted cavalry and used a short reverse-curve bow, which could be shot from horseback. With both hands occupied with the bow and arrow, Mongol cavalry had to control their horses with their knees, commands every horse knew and every horseman practiced from childhood onward. The reverse-curve bow was of composite materials, including wood, horn, and steel. It was enormously powerful, capable of penetrating armor at 150 yards. The preferred tactics of Mongol cavalry therefore avoided charges into well-entrenched positions. They much preferred tactics that included massed arrow attacks from outside the range of enemy weapons; the feigned retreat, which drew the enemy into ambush; or large-scale flanking movements, which resulted in attacking the enemy on three sides. These maneuvers depended on careful tactical coordination, usually by means of large signal flags. Mongol armies were, therefore, at their best in plains battles, with room to maneuver their horses and sweep in large formations.

Commanders of opposing forces quickly learned that they would likely lose a plains battle to Genghis Khan. Those who could, retreated to fortified positions. Genghis Khan’s first siege was in 1218 at Otrar, a typical Silk Road fortified town in what is now southern Kazakhstan. After establishing friendly relations with the king of the region, Genghis Khan equipped and financed a large caravan of Muslim traders to buy luxuries on the Silk Road and bring them for sale to his capital. Four hundred and fifty Muslim traders purchased silks, satins, carpets, and gems. When the returning caravan halted at Otrar, the governor of Otrar seized the goods and animals and executed the traders. In the colorful language of the Secret History of the Mongols (written shortly after Genghis Khan’s death),

The control of repose and tranquility was removed, and the whirlwind of anger cast dust into the eyes of patience and clemency while the fire of wrath flared up with such a flame that it drove the water from his eyes and could be quenched only by the shedding of blood. In this fever Cheingiz-Khan went alone to the summit of a hill, bared his head, turned his face toward the south and for three days and nights offered up prayer, saying: “I was not author of this trouble; grant me strength to extract vengeance.”

Genghis Khan divided his army, half attacking in the north of the kingdom to tie down the king’s forces, the other half investing Otrar, which had been reinforced with thousands of royal troops. Genghis Khan had no clever siege engines, no catapults or trebuchets, only tenacity. The army formed “several circles around the citadel,” fought the sallies from the city, and maintained the siege for five months. In desperation some of the town’s troops rode out and offered service to Genghis Khan. He saw their action as dishonorable and executed them as his troops poured through the undefended gate. “All the guilty and innocent of Otrar, both the wearers of the veil and those that donned kulah and turban, were driven forth from the town like a flock of sheep, and the Mongols looted whatever goods and wares were there to be found.” The Mongol troops eventually fought their way into the citadel and captured the offending governor alive. He was executed by pouring molten silver down his throat, just punishment for his greed.

Though the Mongols are famous for their sweeping cavalry strategies, a majority of Genghis Khan’s battles were actually fought against a fortified hill, palisade, or town. The Mongols quickly copied from their opponents a weapon of war new to them, the trebuchet, which utilized a heavy counterweight’s force multiplied by a long lever arm and an equally long flexible sling. Invented either in Europe or the Muslim West (though perhaps an improvement of an earlier Chinese catapult), the trebuchet hurled a heavy stone (generally more than 150 pounds) with enormous force, capable of knocking down men and horses like bowling pins and equally capable of crashing through gates and walls. Genghis Khan recruited and gave military appointments to Muslim technicians capable of building such a weapon.

Less than two decades later Mongol siege engines from the West and the technicians to build them had moved across all Asia and were attacking fortified cities in China. Only three years after Otrar, the Mongols were using siege engines on the eastern front in their campaign against the fortified cities of northern China. Thus, it is no surprise that the Mongols took great, fortified cities. Baghdad, one of the largest cities in Asia at the time, fell to the Mongols in 1258 (fifteen years before Kublai Khan attacked Japan). It is likely that the great Mongol fleet that attacked Hakata Bay carried siege engines such as the trebuchet in anticipation of attacking forts and fortified cities.

Mongol armies generally suffered defeats in only two circumstances. First, highly trained professional soldiers who knew Mongol strategy and tactics occasionally simply outperformed them. The Mamluks, full-time, trained slave-soldiers, were just such a force and defeated the Mongols in Egypt. Second, problems of adverse terrain limited the effectiveness of Mongol cavalry. Mountains were a serious problem for the Mongols. Horsemen could not wheel and move in large units. Ambush lurked in every defile. Even in defeat the enemy could disappear into the mountains, eliminating the Mongol tactic of annihilating the opposing army. Massed arrow attacks did little against mountain fortresses, which were also almost impossible to surround. Troops from the fortresses could often defend agricultural land nearby, which provided the fortress with food. The combination of mountains, fortresses, and resolute resistance, for example, made the conquest of Sichuan, a southwestern province of China, slow, difficult, and costly. Mongols fought in the mountains of Sichuan virtually every year for more than three decades before conquering it.

China’s coastal plain was equally difficult terrain for Mongol armies. Canals crisscrossed it, and the rice fields were flooded much of the year. Large-scale cavalry movements were impossible. Fortified cities were frequent and were connected by boat more than road. The Mongols had to adapt, and they did, incorporating Chinese and Korean leaders and infantry who knew how to fight in this watery terrain, so different from the dry steppe of the Mongol homelands. Mongol armies traveled by boat and learned siege techniques. They recruited artisans to build the powerful Chinese trebuchet. Chinese troops used gunpowder weapons extensively for the first time.

Samurai Warriors

On the beach at Hakata Bay were six thousand of the most highly trained, most professional, and best-equipped troops the Mongols ever faced. Samurai were the elite product of an entire social and economic system, just as were the Mongols. Within the fragmented Japanese political system, wars between elite families were frequent, and formal training in schools of the martial arts was mandatory for elite men (and a few elite women). A nineteenth-century text of one of these schools well illustrates the focus and rigor of samurai training. Students learned, for example, unarmed fighting, grappling, short sword fighting, quick sword drawing, stick fighting, dagger technique, the use of rope, and crossing rivers in armor on horseback. The training was as much mental as physical:

Because the beginner does not know how to stand with the sword in his hands or anything else, in his mind there is not a thing to be attached to. When he is attacked, without any deliberation he tries to fend off the attack. But gradually he is taught many things, he is instructed how to hold the sword, where to concentrate his mind and other things. So his mind will be attached to those things and when he attempts to attack his opponent, his movements will be awkward. However, as days, months and years pass, due to innumerable trainings, everything, as he stands, as he holds the sword will lose consciousness, in the end getting back to the state of mind he had in the beginning, when he did not know anything.

The samurai code of honor preferred single combat, which was almost certainly a detriment in their first encounter with the Mongols. Samurai quickly learned that Mongols were quite content to fire massed arrows at any opponent who sought single combat. The samurai also learned that their superior sword skills made up for lesser numbers in close combat. A recent scholarly book has persuasively argued that the samurai needed no “divine wind” to drive off the Mongol ships. They repelled the invasion based on their skills, armor, and training.

Shipbuilding in the China Sea

What sort of ships brought the Mongol invasion fleet from Korea to Japan? The evidence is meager but suggests that Korean long-distance trade ships were the likeliest carriers. The decorative back of a lady’s mirror from the period shows such a Korean ship, sails reefed, in roiling seas. Recovered timbers and planks of actual vessels show that these craft had an almost flat bottom. Shipbuilders attached successive planks of pine with overlapping edges and mortise-and-tenon joints. Elm was used for pegs to lock the mortise and tenons in place. Oak was used for a heavy yoke, which was set amidships and served as a sturdy cross member to stabilize the hull. Cross planks of oak were fitted low in the hull for the same purpose. Another layer of heavy oak crossbeams joined the upper planks of the two sides of the hull. The pattern of crossbeam support passing through the planks was apparently unique to Korea. Xu Jing, a Chinese emissary to the court of Korea, noted that the Korean ships were different from contemporary Chinese craft.

Both Chinese and Korean long-distance ships had a stern rudder, a large mast set amidships, and a smaller foresail. Sails were rectangular and reinforced with battens. Chinese and Korean ships used a windlass to raise the heavy anchor (as the scene on the Korean mirror shows). Korean ships had a planked deck, but it is unknown whether the space below the deck was divided into holds, as was typical of Chinese ships of the period. The mirror scene shows piled goods on deck and commodious cabins for the rich merchants who owned the goods. Korean sources assert that seventy people could comfortably sail on these ships. The current state of the archaeological, textual, and visual evidence does not permit even a speculation on the size and tonnage of these craft.

About the Chinese ships, which formed the second fleet attacking Japan, we have good material evidence. In 1974, Chinese archaeologists excavated a hull from the mud off Quanzhou Bay. The ship was amazingly intact from the waterline down. Coinage aboard dated the ship to 1272, only two years before Kublai Khan’s first attack on Hakata Bay. The ship was 113 feet long, with a beam of 32 feet, drew only 10 feet of water, and displaced about 375 tons. Unlike stereotypical Chinese ships with flat bottoms and ends, the Quanzhou ship had a keel, was V-shaped in section, and had sharp prow. Twelve bulkheads divided the hull, which also had stepping for three masts. A flat transom carried the rudder, rather than a sternpost. Iron nails secured the overlapping planking. The cargo of incense wood, pepper, and hematite suggests that this was a long-distance goods carrier, returning from Southeast Asia. Such a ship could have been impressed to carry troops to Japan.

In the last three decades Japanese archaeologists have been searching Hakata Bay for the physical remains of the battle of 1281. Tantalizing evidence has turned up, such as Chinese- and Korean-style anchors, Chinese ceramics, disc-shaped articulated armor, and weapons typical of Mongol fighters. Various scans of the bottom of the bay have revealed clumps of timbers, which are likely the remains of a ship or the mixed remains of several ships. Much of the timber is smaller than that used in big Korean trade ships, which suggests that the Mongols also commandeered coastal craft and probably even flat-bottomed river craft.

Archaeologists in 2013 located a section of an intact hull. Ultrasound scans revealed a thirty-six-foot section of keel with adjoining planking under only three feet of sediment just off the shore in Hakata harbor. Ceramics, stone anchors, and other artifacts surround the wreck. For now, it remains buried, awaiting future excavation.

In a larger geopolitical perspective, Japan, Korea, and the east coast of China formed a complex a maritime world, which was roughly the same size as Europe’s northern littoral. From Nagasaki, Japan, to Shanghai, China, across the Yellow Sea is five hundred miles, about the same distance as Scandinavia to England. Korea and Japan are only one hundred miles apart, roughly comparable to the twenty-five miles that separate England and France across the Channel. Over the centuries, just as the Scandinavians invaded England and the English used their ships to invade the French, so too did Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dynasties invade each other’s territory, trade with each other, sponsor piracy of each other’s shipping, ally in attacks on each other, call in each other to put down indigenous rebels, and constitute places of refuge for defeated or aspiring rulers.

Dynasties of Korea, Japan, and China sometimes chose to close their maritime borders, forbidding traders from entering and citizens from leaving. These legal prohibitions typically were not effective. Traders and travelers found ways to circumvent them. As also happened in Europe, local or regional powers in the China Sea region founded new ports beyond the reach of the central government. One of the most famous of such ports was Hainan Island off the southern coast of China, which served smugglers at the time of the Kublai Khan expedition and for several subsequent centuries.

Since the history of China is usually written as the history of dynasties, we might assume that the royal court of China was always the dominant power on land and at sea, but this is simply not the case. Periods of warring states were as frequent as periods of stable, large dynasties. The south of China was always difficult for a northern-based dynasty to integrate. Declining dynasties sometimes looked across the seas for a Japanese or Korean alliance.

Japanese Cruisers at the Battle of The Java Sea

In May 1937 Ashigara represented Japan in the Coronation Review for King George VI. Afterwards she paid a goodwill visit to Germany. In the course of this tour she became the most heavily photographed member of the class.

The two forward turrets and the tower bridge of Haguro are shown in this photograph from March 1941. The ship has completed her Second Modernisation and the upward slanting yardarms on the new tripod foremast are clearly shown. Under orders to reach peak efficiency by July 1941, Japanese warships significantly changed appearance in this period. Gone were the light natural canvas dodgers and main gun blast bags, which contrasted so smartly with the grey of the paint scheme, in favour of much less visible brown stained canvas.


This is the tower bridge of Haguro in March 1941. The ship has already taken on a wartime appearance. Canvas dodgers, originally left in natural canvas colour, and the rope-filled canvas bags for additional splinter protection are now dyed a light to mid brown, as were the blast bags for the main guns.


In July 1922, after Japan had signed but not ratified the Washington Treaty, a new naval program proposed four new 10,000-ton cruisers, as well as two more 7,500-ton cruisers, which was the Aoba class. Authorised in March 1923 the new 10,000-ton design was known officially as large model cruisers. The original requirement was for eight 200mm guns in three twin mounts forward and one twin mount aft, four 120mm (4.7in) guns, eight 610mm torpedo tubes in four twin fixed mountings, protection against 200mm shells in indirect fire and 6in shells for flat trajectory direct fire for critical areas, a 10,000 nautical mile range at 13.5 knots, and a maximum speed of 35.5 knots. Captain Hiraga Yuzuru was assigned as Constructor for the design. Captain Hiraga convinced the naval staff to make some changes to the requirements. These were an increase in main armament to ten 200mm guns, reduction of range to 8,000nm at 13.5 knots and deletion of torpedo armament. Captain Hiraga thought the torpedo mounts, located inside the hull above the engine spaces, would present as much danger to the ships themselves as to the enemy. Hiraga was promoted to Rear Admiral and Lieutenant Commander Fujimoto Kikuo took over the design. The design was approved on 23 August 1923. The new cruisers were to be 10,000 tons standard in English tons, 11,850 metric tons at 2/3 trial displacement, so the original construction order had the ships meeting the terms of the Washington Treaty.

However, additions were quickly made to the design, each of which added weight. The Torpedo Branch convinced the Naval General Staff to add back the four twin tube torpedo armament and the staff increased the secondary to six 120mm HA single gun mounts. While the ships were under construction the twin tubes were changed to triple tubes and in 1928 a deckhouse on either side of the bridge and forward stack was added for additional living accommodation. The Naval General Staff calculated that these changes would add 500 metric tons and that the revised 2/3 trial displacement would be 12,350 metric tons. Since the original design was right at the treaty limit, the staff knowingly exceeded treaty limitations with these additions. Called the Myoko class, the first of the cruisers to complete was Nachi. The trial displacement of Nachi was 13,338 metric tons, which was 12% over design trial displacement. This would place the ship at about 11,250 tons standard, clearly in violation of treaty limits. Of course the Japanese reported the design as in compliance with the treaty.

As built the Myoko class had an armour belt of 102mm in thickness and inclined inward at 12 degrees. The belt started forward of No 1 barbette and ended aft of No 5 barbette. For torpedo and mine protection, the ship was fitted with underwater bulges that were 300 feet (93m) long and 8 feet (2.5m) in depth. They were to be left as a void but in case of war, watertight steel tubes would occupy the space. Since the cruisers were 12% over designed displacement, other design calculations were out of kilter as well. Draft was increased by almost 4ft (1.2m), so amidships only 6ft (1.8m) of the belt was above the waterline and only 1ft (0.3m) at the bow and stern. In any sort of seaway any battle damage to the hull could entail a significant intake of water.

The ten Type 3 20cm/50 main guns were capable of 40 degrees elevation with a maximum range of 26,700m. The main gun turrets were more gun houses than turrets as they were armoured by only 1in (25.4mm) plates. They were proof against splinters but not against 6in shell strikes. On completion the Nachi carried her six 4.7in (120mm) secondary guns in open, hand-operated mounts, but these were quickly replaced with power-operated mounts with gun shields. The catapult was offset to starboard of centreline on the quarterdeck level, just forward of the aft turrets. Although the requirements were for the ship to carry two floatplanes, only one Type 15 seaplane was carried by the ships in the class until November 1932. To reach the designed speed of 35.5 knots a power plant generating 130,000shp was installed. It is interesting to note that the Japanese ran the ships in light condition for their speed trials. Instead of running at the stipulated 2/3 trial displacement, which would have been around 13,300 tons, they were actually tested at a displacement of 12,350 metric tons. This would be far less than their operational displacement, and in this unrealistically light condition all four cruisers attained 35 knots, but only Nachi and Haguro exceeded the designed 35.5 knots.

Battle of The Java Sea

The Dutch East Indies were the major prize for which Japan had gone to war. With the pre-war oil embargo against Japan strangling Japanese fuel supplies, the Japanese government saw the capture of the oil fields of Borneo and the Dutch East Indies as essential to make their country self-sufficient. The northern barriers to the Java Sea, Borneo and the Celebes, surrendered in January 1942, and operations against Java and the rest of the Dutch possessions began. The Japanese planned a double envelopment of the islands. The 5th Cruiser Squadron was assigned the mission of covering force for the eastern invasion force.

Opposing the Japanese naval force was a polyglot allied force of American, British, Dutch and Australian warships entitled the ABDA Combined Force. Established on 10 January 1942 ABDA’s organisation and communications were appallingly poor and in the event only provided targets for the extremely well prepared and coordinated Japanese attack on the islands. On 3 February 1942 the bulk of the allied warships still operational in the area were placed under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman.

Nachi was the flagship of Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi, commander of Main Body, Eastern Invasion Support Force. The 5th Cruiser Squadron was down to just Nachi and Haguro, as Ashigara was acting as flagship for Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi, overall Southern Force commander, and the Myoko was at Sasebo for repairs. The eastern invasion force sailed on 19 February but their southward passage was not confirmed by ABDA command until 24 February. Admiral Doorman’s strike force consisted of the heavy cruisers HMS Exeter and USS Houston, the Dutch light cruisers, Java and De Ruyter, along with HMAS Perth. With minimal reconnaissance the allied force started making a series of sweeps in an effort to find Japanese troop convoys, and on 27 February it ran into the Japanese screening forces.

On paper the two forces looked fairly closely matched. In addition to the two heavy and three light cruisers, Doorman’s force also had nine destroyers – four American, three British and two Dutch. Facing them were three groups of Japanese forces. One group was the light cruiser Jintsu and four destroyers. Another was the light cruiser Naka and six destroyers. Furthest north of the Japanese forces were Nachi and Haguro, along with another four destroyers. However, the allies only had a total of twelve operational 8in guns as Exeter had only three twin turrets and Houston had only her two forward turrets in operation (Houston’s aft turret had been wrecked by a bomb earlier in the month). The forces sighted each other around 15.21 and one of the rarities of the Pacific War occurred: a daylight surface engagement in which aircraft played a minimal role.

In the first of a series of engagements, Nachi scored a serious hit on Exeter setting her on fire. Two minutes later, a Long Lance torpedo from Haguro blew up the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer. Doorman turned his force away from the Japanese; the Exeter, down to 5 knots and screened by the one Dutch and three British destroyers, separated.

At 17.20 it appeared to Doorman that the Japanese forces were retiring, so he reversed course in another effort to get at the transports, but at 17.28 the Japanese light cruisers with their destroyers altered course towards the Exeter group, and the destroyer HMS Electra was hit twice and sank at 17.46. The forces lost sight of each other and it appeared that the battle was over. After some time passed, Doorman made his third attempt to find and attack the Japanese troop transports. At 18.50 contact was restored and Java, Houston, Perth and De Ruyter, with one British and four American destroyers engaged in a harmless skirmish with the Japanese Nachi, Haguro, Jintsu and eight destroyers before contact was again broken.

HMS Jupiter was lost when she ran into a mine and Doorman detached his four American destroyers to return to port to refuel. So at 22.33 when the Nachi, Haguro, Jintsu and eight destroyers regained contact with the allies there were just the Houston and three light cruisers left in the allied force. Long range gunfire failed to hit on either side but then the Japanese fired more torpedoes, eight from Nachi and four from Haguro. As they would continue to prove through 1942 and 1943, the 24in Japanese Long Lance torpedoes were the battle winners for the Japanese Navy. One hit De Ruyter and she soon sank, taking Admiral Doorman with her. In a few minutes another struck Java and she quickly followed. The surviving Houston and Perth broke contact and headed back to Batavia, while the Exeter, Encounter and US destroyer Pope were at Surabaya.

On the evening of 28 February the Exeter force put to sea again with orders to escape to Ceylon. On 1 March the crippled HMS Exeter and her two destroyers were trapped between all four members of the Myoko class, the Ashigara and Myoko to the north and the Nachi and Haguro to the south. Torpedoes from either or both Nachi and Haguro struck Exeter and she sank at 11.30. At 11.35 Encounter went down due to hits from Ashigara and Myoko. The USS Pope was the last to go, when she too succumbed to overwhelming fire at around 12.05. The Battle of the Java Sea had lasted two days and was an overwhelming victory for the Japanese Navy. The Myoko class cruisers were the key Japanese components in the battle, and although their gunnery at long range had been unimpressive, there is no doubt about the value of their heavy torpedo battery.

Although Chokai was with the Suzuya and Kumano in the 7th Cruiser Squadron, the other three Takao class cruisers still made up the 4th Squadron, supporting the western pincer against Java. Maya and two destroyers encountered and sank the destroyer HMS Stronghold on March 2, and Takao and Atago sank the old four-stack destroyer USS Pillsbury; it took only seven minutes.


There was a time—only a year earlier, at the time of his triumphant entry into the capital—when Yoshinaka had commanded 50,000 warriors. Those were the days. He had scoffed at the effete courtiers and taught them a few lessons in so-called etiquette.

Yoshinaka had clambered into the palanquin any way he saw fit. If he needed a bowl to drink, he would just take one from an altar. If he needed something done, he would just shout at the closest courtier. He had no time for the careful rituals and picky ceremonies of the imperials. There was work to do.

But now he was on the run, commander of just a few hundred horsemen, pursued by his own cousins in the Minamoto family. A roadside scuffle reduced his numbers to fifty, then a mere dozen.

One of them was a woman.

Critics are divided as to why Lady Tomoe should show up in The Tale of the Heike as Yoshinaka is fleeing for his life. Perhaps, as modern feminists hope, she is more typical than the historical record lets on. Traditions imply that samurai women are only expected to fight in the last-ditch defense of the homestead, but perhaps things were different in the twelfth century. Perhaps Tomoe, with a bow taller than she was and a sword that she swung with two hands, was just one of many samurai women who fought on the front line. Modern archaeology has uncovered mass graves on samurai-era battlefields in which up to 30 percent of the bodies were female. Were female fighters more prevalent than Tomoe’s lone appearance suggests?

The Tale of the Heike begins in sexist terms, speaking of Tomoe’s great beauty, her white skin, her long hair…and then, as if shaking himself awake, the author suddenly returns to matters of greater importance: her skill at archery; her abilities at breaking in horses and riding on rough terrain; the fact that, even though she was a woman, she was a front-line captain in Yoshinaka’s forces. “She was a warrior worth a thousand,” says The Tale of the Heike, “ready to confront a demon or a god.”

The awe with which the teller of tales appears to have regarded Tomoe does not come across in Yoshinaka’s own dialogue. As his forces decline and he finds himself leading little more than a fugitive platoon, Yoshinaka knows that his days are numbered. He knows that he is not going to make it out of the forest alive. And so he turns to Tomoe and tells her:

You are a woman, so be off with you; go wherever you please. I intend to die in battle, or to kill myself if I am wounded. It would be unseemly to let people say that [Yoshinaka] kept a woman with him during his last battle.

Yoshinaka has already been presented as a buffoon, committing a series of ridiculous gaffes in his brief sojourn in Kyōto. Perhaps Tomoe is included as an example of just how clueless he is—letting a woman fight on the frontline? What savages these Minamoto clansmen must be, if even their womenfolk wrestle in the mud for trinkets of power!

Why does he want Tomoe to run away? It is usually assumed that he still has some unreconstructed macho sense of honor, the first stirrings of bushidō, what would be later known as the Way of the Warrior. It would be dishonorable to die with a woman present. Perhaps Tomoe was just a plaything; perhaps she was one of the shirabyōshi “sword-dancers”—military-themed strippers who enjoyed something of a fad in the age of the samurai.

Or perhaps Yoshinaka cared for her deeply. The wording of his command for her to leave is open to interpretation. “You are a woman, so be off with you; go wherever you please.” In other words, anyone and his henchmen will be sure to recognize a male warrior on the run, even if he cast off his armor, even if he threw away his sword. They will see who he is from his haircut and his scars. But you, Tomoe, you can melt away into the forest. With a dab of mud and a switch in clothing, you’ll look just like any other peasant girl, and the enemies will be none the wiser. You’ll have a shot at living. There is no need for me to cause your death, too.

An alternate version of the same story has him actively threatening her with punishment beyond the grave. If she does not do as he says, he tells her, he will revoke the bonds that join lord and vassal for three iterations. In other words, if she obeys him on this occasion, he promises they will be reunited in the next life, perhaps with their roles reversed. But if she refuses to leave, their souls will never meet again.

Tomoe allows her horse to slow, dropping back in the party of fleeing samurai. Before long, she and her mount are alone on the forest path, the sound of Yoshinaka’s squadron already faded away in the green distance.

Sadly, Tomoe wishes for one last battle.

Then she hears the thunder of hooves.

A troop of thirty horsemen is in pursuit, chasing after Yoshinaka, led by the samurai Morishige. As he passes, Tomoe rides her horse straight into his, grabbing the surprised leader and dragging him across her saddle. She draws her dagger and knifes Morishige in the neck, savagely twisting his head from his shoulders.

Spattered in warm blood, she holds his head aloft, a trophy that in better days would have been retained to show to one’s lord for rewards and prestige. But Tomoe has no lord any more, not in this life, so she hurls the head into the trees and whirls her horse around to gallop away.

The Tale of the Heike does not say whether Morishige’s men give chase or not. Do they break off the pursuit of Yoshinaka, or do they even notice that one of their men is down? Regardless, Tomoe and her horse fly between the trees as she tears off the bulky, blood-drenched panels of her armor. She throws her helmet into a ditch, she loses her sword. By the time she rides out of the forest, she is a merely a woman on a horse…then she loses the horse, washes in a stream…and fades into the countryside.

Yoshinaka was right; he would never make it out of the woods. His horse gets stuck in the mud, and he leaps off with his own sword in his mouth to guarantee he won’t hit the ground alive.

As for Tomoe, some say she was unable to stay away from the battlefield, and would become the wife of another samurai and the mother of a famous strongman in the following generation. Others said that she went into seclusion and died in her nineties as a Buddhist nun. Another story claims that she hunted down Yoshinaka’s pursuers, stole back her lover’s severed head, and was last seen cradling it in her arms, walking out to sea.

In 1068, the Fujiwara were successfully played at their own game. The seventy-first emperor of Japan, Go-Sanjō (1032–73), was the first emperor in 170 years not to have immediate connections to the Fujiwara family. Consequently, his career was initially blocked by the Fujiwara faction at court, but the death of his predecessor without a direct heir suddenly propelled him to the throne. He immediately set about annoying the Fujiwara clan, overriding his kanpaku (spokesman) and calling for an audit of shōen estates and provincial governors. Inconveniently for the Fujiwara, the constitution set in place all those years ago by Prince Shōtoku and his successors made this all reasonable, and the threat loomed that Go-Sanjō might sweep all the Fujiwara from the court with a single edict. He was only headed off when the Fujiwara effectively threatened to go on strike—there were so many of them that their complete removal would have rendered the state powerless and unable to function.

Quitting while he was ahead, Go-Sanjō abdicated while still in his thirties, leaving the throne to his adult son, who had a Fujiwara mother and might thereby be expected to run things more in accordance with the wishes of the shadowy power brokers. But Go-Sanjō was young enough to be able to interfere himself, and his chosen successor, the seventy-third emperor, Shirakawa (1053–1129), was demonstrably old enough and able enough not to require a regent.

Go-Sanjō’s run of luck ended with his death, at the suspiciously young age of forty, shortly after taking holy Buddhist orders. Shirakawa, however, would continue to play his father’s game, himself abdicating only fourteen years later and then entering a monastery to embark upon his own scheme to steer events from behind the throne. Owing to the location of his hideout, this process became known as “cloistered rule” (insei); it would be used by many of his descendants.

For Shirakawa and his immediate heirs, cloistered rule was a success. More by luck than judgement, Japan enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, and the stranglehold of the Fujiwara on government appointments was broken. But in divorcing his descendants from collusion with the Fujiwara, Shirakawa cut the imperial family off from its main supplier of muscle—and cloistered emperors had no army of their own. In order to secure their position with force, many of his descendants would lean upon the loyalties of their hungrier, less-established cousins from the frontier—the likes of the Minamoto and Taira clans, long excluded from court life, but always keen to find a way back in.

Many years after the events recounted in this chapter, scribes set down a collection of epic tales about the early part of the great struggle for mastery of Japan. It is a wholly different Japan from the image presented by Murasaki Shikibu, as if the weepy romance of The Tale of Genji suddenly gained a distaff war-movie sequel. Genji was a fictional creation likely to have been distantly inspired by real people, created over many years by a female author in the court. Two centuries on, his complement is the rise and fall of an entire rival clan, born from the same kinds of family politics and pruning that shunted Genji from the spotlight, memorialized in a huge and occasionally untrustworthy saga of battles and betrayals, seemingly written by a committee of excitable men. But even The Tale of the Heike cannot resist beginning on a melancholy tone. Although later chapters are full of glorious deaths and stirring heroism, its opening pages lament the pointlessness of it all, foreshadowing the desolation of its own finale:

The Gion bell tolls, sounding the knell that all things must pass. Like the colors of the summer camellia, prosperity is ever followed by decline. The proud do not endure; they are like a dream on a spring night. Even the mighty meet with destruction, until they are as dust before the wind.

Sometime around the year 850, Japan had ceased to be a nation with an insecure frontier. There was a trading post on the southern tip of Hokkaidō during this period, but Japanese rule did not extend far beyond it. The Korea Strait separating Japan from Korea, along with the Tsugaru Strait between Honshū and Hokkaidō, functioned as an effective barrier for potential large-scale trouble. Unlike China, from which much of its model government was derived, medieval Japan did not really have a border problem—there was no serious chance of foreign invasion or of disaffected noblemen forming alliances with foreign tribes. Japan was neatly cut off, which allowed its system to prosper and flourish without further adaptation. China’s Tang dynasty was deteriorating, and when it fell, the Japanese did not rush to communicate with its successor states—although China was not entirely forgotten, the great influx of Chinese culture was shut down. The only drawback here, for a system that relied on pushing its dregs and spares onto the borderlands, was that without any new lands to be won, the Japanese would soon start fighting each other over the lands they already had.

Inevitably, the shōen estates and the farthest marchlands assumed the status of autonomous counties or baronies. In particular, the Taira and Minamoto families, united by their mutual ancestry and shared experience of exile, came to dominate many of these outer estates, turning the edges of the nation into a patchwork of holdings with allegiance to either Red (Taira) or White (Minamoto). To this day, these two colors remain a symbol of polar opposites for the Japanese; teams in game shows are divided into Red and White, and the colors of the Japanese flag even represent the standoff. From the tenth to the twelfth century, these two clans experienced a series of huge reversals and resurgences in an era that some commentators call “feudal Japan.”

Others vigorously deny the classification. It is easy to see elements of feudalism in medieval Japan, but the term is unpopular with many historians. There is an easy temptation, particularly in popular accounts such as this one, to over-translate all terminology into European equivalents, talking of Japanese dukes and viscounts, barons and knights. British parallels are particularly alluring—an island kingdom at the edge of a continent, with a monarch ruling by divine right over contending noble houses…But even though the samurai pledged allegiance to a semi-divine emperor, each emperor’s real-world power was highly limited. European schoolchildren might learn about the deeds of their great kings and queens, but Japanese schoolbooks often gloss over the emperors in favor of the real rulers—the regents who held power through several reigns, the shōguns who effectively ran the country in the name of their bosses, or the relatively lowly princelings who achieved something concrete while their imperial siblings were kept busy with rituals and ceremonies. It was, in theory, possible that any lord might lose his manor overnight and be ordered to hand over the keys to a successor newly appointed by the government. The real question in Japan, as ever, was who the government actually was: all orders were given in the emperor’s name, but true power resided in the ability to gain that particular stamp of approval.

In many ways, this is what the samurai houses were fighting over. It no longer mattered quite so much if they had access to the luxuries of the court—many of them were living very well on their own estates. But now they required greater influence at that same court in order to make sure that everything they had built over generations was not taken away from them because a minister had fallen out of favor, or because the arrival of a pretty concubine had propelled her father into a new ministerial role at court and ousted his predecessor. Whereas the samurai families had once been “servants” of the court, they now increasingly tried to make the court serve them.

There was, at least on paper, no need for the Taira and Minamoto to be at odds with one another. They were, after all, both supposedly loyal to the same emperor. In the early days of their ascension, they were not even clearly divided into Us and Them—multiple branches of both Taira and Minamoto were often pitted against others of their own surname. Inevitably they would clash over allegiances and the nature of their service. The Taira lost their Kantō power base after one of their major lords, Masakado, proclaimed himself to be independent. That in itself might have been enough to plunge Japan into civil war in 940, but the problem was dealt with by his own clan—the Taira pretender was defeated by his own Taira cousins. The scandal cost the Taira their hold on the Kantō plain, but left them eager to prove to the emperor that Masakado was the exception rather than the rule. They were swift to volunteer for piracy suppression operations in the Inland Sea and on the western coast, in which capacity they were even obliged to sail against a Fujiwara sea-lord who had also decided to defy the central authority. Back in Kyōto, the emperor was pleased with their loyal service; his Fujiwara in-laws, not so much. Luckily for them, they could find some military champions of their own among the Minamoto.

The greatest expansion of the Minamoto came under the leader Minamoto Yoshiie (1041–1108), who made a name for himself carrying out dirty work for the capital’s prominent Fujiwara family. After he led a campaign to neutralize rebels in the Kantō region, the court found a way to wriggle out of paying him off. Instead of complaining, he reached into his own treasury for the money. This made him popular not only with his own troops, who now trusted him more than their government, but also with many newfound allies, who flocked to associate with him and extended the reach of his already-large holdings.

As the generations passed, the tensions caused by the samurai families became increasingly obvious. Two year’s after Yoshiie’s death, his son started a revolt in the provinces that was put down by a Taira general. His grandson Tameyoshi almost caused the downfall of the entire clan in 1156, when he backed the wrong side in an imperial power struggle.

Bear with me. We’ll slow down for a moment and look at the origins of this one crisis just to get a sense of the complexities and hidden conflicts that would characterize dozens of similar intrigues throughout the period. We won’t do this for the next thirty emperors, many of whose situations were no less confusing, but the roots of what became known as the Hōgen Insurrection are a textbook case of the intricacies of court politics—a multisided standoff with half a dozen factions. The conflict dated back to the seventy-fourth emperor, Toba (1103–56), who spent his whole childhood and teens as the ruler in name only, while his “retired” grandfather ran the state from a monastery. At age twenty Toba himself retired, leaving the throne to his own infant son, the seventy-fifth emperor, Sutoku (1119–64).

With up to three imperial predecessors still at large, Sutoku stood no chance at all of making his own decisions; he passed a frustrating, boring twenty years as emperor in name only. He, too, looked forward to the day when he could skip the court with his own entourage, but his father was still very much hands-on. Retired Emperor Toba was still only in his thirties, and had recently become a father again. Favoring the new child’s mother (a Fujiwara) over Sutoku’s (another Fujiwara), Toba shunted his son off the throne and had the new successor, Konoe (1139–55) crowned as Japan’s seventy-sixth emperor.

Stories would be told about the incident for centuries afterwards. Later authors would create an entire supernatural scandal around the events, claiming that Toba had been bewitched and cursed by an evil twin-tailed fox spirit. The spiteful creature had originally come from China, where, in the glamorous form of a famous beauty of ancient times, it had caused the downfall of an ancient king. It had moved on to India, where it had similarly caused havoc among impressionable men. Now it was in Japan, where it adopted the sensual form of Tamamo-no-mae, an impossibly beautiful servant girl at Toba’s monastery. Toba, who was at least officially a monk now, engaged her in conversations about philosophy, in which her replies came with citations from ancient scriptures no human girl should have known.


Toba fell ill, and his condition progressively worsened, until a bold fortune-teller said the words no other courtier would utter: that his mistress, with her odd mastery of scripture and her propensity to glow in the dark, was not a Buddhist saint at all, but a malicious demon who intended to kill Toba and supplant him. Tamamo-no-mae supposedly disappeared at this point, leading to a savage cull of foxes in the surrounding countryside until Toba regained his health.

I repeat the story here not for its historical accuracy, which is nonexistent, but for the glimpse it offers of the whispers and petty jealousies of Heian life, with bedroom companions influencing political decisions, and courtiers hiding behind coincidence and innuendo in their fox-shaming campaign against some poor concubine. Tamamo-no-Mae was never seen again, although her angry spirit was said to influence many of the scandals that followed. Even in the afterlife, it seems, there were intrigues and scandals, dead emperors and wronged courtiers who might be persuaded to avenge forgotten insults. It was, some said, the curse of Tamamo-no-mae that brought down Toba’s young proxy, Konoe; the young boy was always sickly, and reigned for barely more than a decade, dying at the age of seventeen, before he had the chance to sire an heir of his own.

The year was 1155. Retired Emperor Sutoku hoped to regain the throne, but Retired Emperor Toba still had seniority, and managed to recommend that his own fourteenth son, Sutoku’s brother, should be crowned as Japan’s seventy-seventh emperor, Go-Shirakawa (1127–92). Sutoku had hence been passed over in the succession three times—forced to abdicate against his will, and then replaced by two of his siblings when he regarded himself as a prime candidate for restoration. There was also a scurrilous rumor, never quite discounted, that Toba hated Sutoku because he wasn’t really his son at all, but the secret love-child of Toba’s father, sired on Toba’s wife in some tawdry incident.

If all that looks confusing, it’s only half the story, since these feuding emperors were themselves merely the outward manifestation of another conflict underway over who got to be the emperor’s chief minister. In fact, it hardly mattered who the emperor was; the real issue was who his mother was, with the various fallings in and out of imperial favor masking internal conflicts within the Fujiwara family, which had supplied most of the brides and concubines, and hence most of the regents.

Nobody dared challenge the decision directly, and the new emperor Go-Shirakawa, a man who had never expected to be emperor and rather seemed taken by surprise by the whole thing, endured a tense first year on the throne, ending in the summer of 1156 with the death of his father Toba. Toba had taken two months to die, on a sickbed attended by hushed whispers and intense conferences, in a mansion guarded by stern samurai.

It was Toba who had held everything together, and whose factions had crushed any resistance. With him gone, Sutoku was the new senior retired emperor, and he was ready to pounce.

Emperor Go-Shirakawa knew trouble was brewing. Three days after his father’s death, his officials were ordering samurai to steer clear of the capital. Two days after that, known associates of Retired Emperor Sutoku were directly ordered not to recruit troops. Forty-eight hours later, samurai loyal to the incumbent emperor and samurai loyal to the retired emperor clashed in open combat on the streets of Heian.

It was a landmark moment. The intrigues of the court had erupted into open violence, and had done so not at the border, but within the very capital itself. That, at least, was how things felt to the court at large—the attentive reader will recall that some of the courtiers’ own ancestors were not above stabbing their enemies to death in the emperor’s presence in ages past—but it seems that many of the contemporary courtiers had come to believe their own hype, and were ill-prepared for violence returning to their doorstep.

The samurai in play amounted to several hundred on each side, but the only prize was Go-Shirakawa himself, who might be persuaded to abdicate if he fell into the hands of his brother’s rebels.

There were Fujiwara courtiers and Minamoto samurai on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately for the pro-Sutoku faction, their nominal leader, Fujiwara Yorinaga, was very much an armchair general whose ideas about warfare were based solely on the idealized, rather ceremonial events described in old stories and songs. His Minamoto advisers, veterans of many an asymmetrical skirmish in the northern wars, suggested that the best thing to do was to start a fire at the emperor’s residence, which was sure to lead their target to flee in his palanquin with a small group of bodyguards. They could then overwhelm the guards, seize the palanquin, and thereby obtain control of the only figure who could order the enemy to stand down. The conflict would be over before it started, with minimal loss of life.

Yorinaga was not interested. The whole thing sounded sneaky and underhanded to him, and he very much preferred to imagine things the way they were in the old songs, with a few hundred samurai marching out to a nice area of flat ground, stating their names and lineages, and then taking each other on in single combat until the victor was revealed.

It does not seem to have occurred to Yorinaga that if his own samurai had come up with the idea for such a ruthless, surgical strike, then the enemy, whose samurai hailed from a different branch of the same family, was liable to have a very similar idea. In fact, his enemies had already apprehended one of his men, who had spilled all their plans, leading the incumbent emperor to authorize the seizure and search of Yorinaga’s house.

At dawn on the eleventh day of the seventh lunar month, 1156, the emperor led his court in prayers while his loyalists converged on Yorinaga from three directions with several hundred mounted men. Within an hour, there were flames and smoke in the east of the city. The battle was bloody but brief, although its aftermath would stretch on for two generations.

Several of the rebel leaders were killed in the skirmish. The pretender Sutoku was packed away into monastic exile on a remote island, where he lived for another eight years, muttering curses against his enemies, and, it was said, forming a malicious faction in the afterlife with the fiery fox spirit Tamamo-no-mae. In subsequent years, his angry ghost would get the blame for many famines, earthquakes, and misfortunes, becoming one of the great bogeymen of Japanese history.

For centuries, the Kyōto aristocracy had boasted of the civilized nature of their capital. It was a mark of the drastic changes in attitudes and expectations that the uprising ended with a round of beheadings. Courtiers had prided themselves on the peaceful capital for the last three and a half centuries—nobody had been executed in Kyōto since the failed coup of Retired Emperor Heizei in 810. Now, Sutoku’s surviving supporters were executed, sometimes in cruel situations in which their own relatives were ordered to carry out the task.

In the most infamous case, the Minamoto loyalist Yoshitomo was ordered to behead his own father. He was unable to carry out such a terrible command, but one of his lieutenants, seeing that a Minamoto would die at the hands of a Taira unless he took action, did the deed himself. Shortly after he had spared his lord from committing patricide, the loyal lieutenant killed himself in contrition.

It was by no means the first reference to suicide in the tales of the samurai, nor even in the events of the Hōgen Insurrection. But it is during this failed rebellion that the chronicles of the samurai first start referring not only to suicide, but to a particular kind of suicide. The cult of the samurai had already begun to take on certain new elements. One was the desire to wear flashy armor, decorated with striking icons or tied with distinctive color strings, in order to make it clear who was winning fame on the field of battle. Samurai helmets, in particular, became notorious for their ostentatious adornments; these have included, among many other things, a giant snail shell, insect’s wings, antlers, devil horns, sunbursts, and rabbit ears. The samurai had started to develop a sense of themselves that placed them on a hierarchy of bravery and battle prowess, and that meant it was necessary for their victories to be obvious to all. A side effect of this ease of identification was that it would also be clear who was running away. The distinctive nature of samurai battlefield adornments promoted a gung-ho sense of always charging, never retreating.

There were times when victory was impossible. Samurai might be surrounded with no possible retreat. They might be disarmed. They might find themselves just about to fall into enemy hands, where they might suffer the further shame of being used as hostages or bargaining chips, or tortured for information. Or, like Yoshitomo’s lieutenant, they might find themselves in an impossible situation, where they had done the right thing by their lord but could not possibly be expected to go on living after having done so.

Instead, they chose to kill themselves, but not with the throat-slitting or defenestration favored by women in search of a quick death. Instead, they killed themselves in the most painful way imaginable, by slicing open their own abdomen as a mark of their bravery and inner strength—the belly was thought to be the seat of the soul, and hence also a mark of sincerity. Cutting the belly, seppuku (more vulgarly, hara kiri) was a one-way trip to agony. There was no cure; only a slow, lingering death. The decision to slice open one’s abdomen was also a get-out clause for one’s underlings—they would not dare lift a finger against their master, but would be justified, once he had voluntarily wounded himself in such a fashion, in ending his suffering by beheading him.

Over the years, seppuku would take on new rituals. Samurai would wear a white kimono, symbolising death and purity. They would write a death poem, ensuring that parting words, criticisms, or curses were encapsulated in repeatable form. The nature of the wound would become deliberately cruel, with “tradition” demanding four cuts through the abdominal muscles—shi, meaning four, being a homonym for death, but also demanding incredible determination and strength of purpose in the self-harming samurai. Seppuku started as a battlefield compromise—a last resort by besieged men in burning castles, determined not to surrender to enemies who would torture and humiliate them. But once it became enshrined in tradition, it became the default means of repentance, and even criticism. It faded out after the era of the samurai, but still occasionally returns to haunt the country.

If this seems shocking to the modern reader, we should bear in mind that religious belief played an important part. Buddhism had taken hold, but with a certain nihilistic angle. The concept that “all life is suffering” had been embraced by the Japanese with a melancholy sense of poetry, as well as a certain sense that the end of the world was nigh. Certain Buddhist scriptures predicted the rise, peak, and subsequent fall of the Buddha’s teachings: five hundred years of struggle for success, a thousand years of worship and achievement, and then five centuries of worsening conditions as things fell apart. It was, hence, widely believed among the medieval Japanese that they were living in the “Latter Days of the Law” (mappō). Any natural disasters, reversals of fortune, or atrocities could be written off as further evidence that the teachings of Buddha were under attack, and that any ends available would justify the means of sustaining them.

One particular Buddhist sect, the Essence of the Pure Land (Jōdo Shinshū) gained ground in medieval Japan. Pure Land Buddhism regarded the country’s troubles as yet another example of the Latter Days of the Law, in which it was almost impossible for anybody to engage in correct Buddhist devotion. In a sense, Pure Land Buddhists all but gave up trying, instead paying a new form of devotion to Buddha that recognized that things were terrible—people were trapped in cycles of toxic karma, eating meat, drinking booze, fornicating, and otherwise coping with the onrushing end of the world—but that it was still possible to at least make it obvious to Buddha that you bore him in mind. You would do this by chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” (I take refuge in Amida Buddha) as often as possible, as a little spell to hold back the worst of the world. Most importantly, Pure Land Buddhism was a sect that offered the chance of rebirth in a Buddhist paradise to absolutely everybody. It was not restricted to monks or the rich who could afford costly demonstrations of devotion; literally anyone could find refuge in the Pure Land—even warriors.

Buddhism was actually abundantly clear about killing people being a sin. “A disciple of the Buddha,” said the fifth-century Sutra of Brahma’s Net, “should not possess swords, spears, bows, arrows, pikes, axes, or any other fighting devices. Even if one’s father or mother were slain, one should not retaliate.”

It was, however, the Zen flavor of Buddhism, originating in the Shaolin Temple in China, which achieved prominence among the samurai. Yes, killing people would bring about bad karma, but what about standing up for what was right, if that involved breaking a few heads? What about killing an assassin hell-bent on killing one’s lord? In such cases, presumably we would not be talking so much about bad karma, but about the least-worst.

Zen found plenty of adherents in Japan’s warrior class, in part because of some of its teachers’ habit of cutting through knotty issues of philosophy with seemingly dismissive put-downs. In fact, there was substantially more to it than that, but the nature of certain Zen parables and questions for meditation did lend itself well to a breed of anti-intellectualism. The Chinese Zen master Linji, for example, once famously said, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” He meant that the earnest Zen scholar should question all presumptions, and never lean on credentials or blind faith. But in the hands of the samurai, this became a recipe for a nihilistic battlefield philosophy.

It is often necessary to read between the lines in comments from the history books about “Buddhist monks” in medieval Japan. We already know, for example, that certain retired emperors were shaving their heads and ruling “from the cloisters,” even though their lives (and loves) continued in much the same way as they did in lay life. We also know that wily landowners were evading their tax responsibilities by “donating” their lands to Buddhist monasteries. With such deceptions at all levels of Japanese religious life, it should come as no surprise that there was an entire class of Buddhist “monks” who were little more than shaven-headed militia employed as military muscle to deal with their institution’s widening secular responsibilities. Even legitimate temples got in on the act, employing mercenaries to protect them from their newly proactive rivals.

Despite proscriptions against violence in other areas of Buddhism, and indeed within Zen itself, the interpreters of Zen among the samurai came to regard it as a warrior’s creed. Meanwhile, monasteries of doubtful provenance—some established as tax refuges—were prepared to offer prayers for the soul of a samurai who killed in the name of justice. Although not quite like the selling of indulgences in a European sense, it did give rise to a warrior class whose members felt that their religion entitled them to fight.

It was during the time of the wars of the Taira and Minamoto that Zen Buddhism first began to take hold in Japan, brought back to Japan, like so many other things, by monks who had studied in China. Zen was an offshoot of Buddhism that emphasized self-reliance. As brought to China by the monk Bodhidharma, Zen was a teaching “outside the scriptures”; sometimes this was interpreted as an extremely brawny, no-nonsense dismissal of much scripture and philosophy in favor of sparks of insight and moments of direct action.

Zen Buddhism hence threw away many of the accretions of Buddhist religions in favor of the cultivation of enlightenment (satori)—a perpetual moment of clarity. The version brought to Japan by the monk Eisai (1145–1215) was keen on short, punchy aphorisms designed to function as tools for thinking. Known in Japanese as kōan, these parables have come to characterize much Zen thought, as acolytes meditate on such questions as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”; “What is the face you had before you were born?”; and that old favorite from Tang-dynasty China, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Later sects postdating the Taira-Minamoto war would introduce other ideas, such as zazen, “sitting meditation,” in which the aspirant emptied his mind of all thought except for a single mantra or goal. This was particularly appealing to the samurai, who loved the idea that there was no difference between life and death—there was only the singleminded pursuit of one’s mission.

Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, soon turned in the hands of the samurai into an elaborate game of death in which killers accepted the risk of bad karma balanced against the accrual of merits for loyal service and just actions. As Buddhism splintered and evolved in Japan, there were plenty of sects that could offer warriors the chance to buy off bad deeds with donations and penances, and priests who spoke of the wheel of reincarnation. The samurai believed that the relationship between a lord and vassal was, if not immortal, then sure to last for at least three lifetimes. Die well in this life, and you were assured of respawning at a higher social station, under better conditions, perhaps even having been dealt a better hand. Die badly or with dishonor and you might not return as a samurai at all, but as a peasant, or a woman or an animal. In the multiple reversals of fortune and wars over nothing that would come to characterize medieval Japan, a “good death” became one of the primary aims of a samurai life.

And the result? As implied by the opening lines of The Tale of the Heike, you might say that it was all for nothing. Go-Shirakawa, the reigning emperor in whose name so many fought and died, sat on the throne for barely two years before deciding that he, too, would abdicate in favor of his own teenage son, the seventy-eighth emperor, Nijō (1143–65).

Go-Shirakawa would remain the main power broker for the next thirty years, through the troubled reigns of five successors. He gained such a reputation among historians for cunning plans and dastardly schemes that he is still referred to as the “Grand Crow-Demon” (Dai Tengu) or even the “Shadow Lord” (Anshu). Meanwhile, there were mixed feelings among his supporters in the skirmish. Taira no Kiyomori (1118–81), the scheming, moustachioed courtier who brokered the power behind the scenes, gained an impressive promotion and a nearby coastal fief to rule over. Minamoto no Yoshitomo, however, who had done the actual fighting in a conflict that had cost him the deaths of his own relatives—sometimes at his own hands—received much less. As far as the court was concerned, he was a loyal servant being granted some great concessions of noble rank and title. Yoshitomo felt that Kiyomori was getting the glory for his own hard work, and that once the fighting was done, the courtiers had suddenly remembered again how much they despised the samurai.

The Fujiwara, meanwhile, were up to their usual tricks, making sure that the new emperor had a Fujiwara bride. The one they found had previously been the child-bride of her new husband’s uncle, the sickly teenage emperor Konoe. Kiyomori made sure one of his own daughters was married to the new emperor’s chief minister, and, it seems, dismissed Yoshitomo’s complaints that he was not getting what he deserved.

Yoshitomo took action in January 1159, waiting until Kiyomori and his cronies were on a pilgrimage. His men snatched both Emperor Nijō and his father Go-Shirakawa, who were then obliged to sack many of their ministers and replace them with appointees favorable to the Minamoto clan.

This was by no means the first time such a power grab had occurred, but the outcome was different. It used to be that whoever had lost the upper hand would run for the provinces, to lean on their power base there. But Kiyomori had observed the fate of such former figures: absent from the capital, they had been branded by the captive administration as “rebels,” which led all loyal samurai to take arms against them. Kiyomori had seen several such examples in recent memory, and was determined not to be another one. Accordingly, instead of running for the coast of the Inland Sea, he rode straight back to Kyōto, daring his enemies to make their move.

Kiyomori and his Taira samurai were unable to act for as long as commands were issued in the name of the emperor—the confidence of the samurai had yet to achieve that arrogant tipping point whereby they acted out of regard for what the true emperor’s orders might be. Instead, the capital endured a tense ten-day standoff of messengers and conferences, with a substantial number of samurai at battle readiness. Four years earlier, the troops fielded had numbered in the hundreds; tellingly, there were now thousands ready to strike.

The impasse was broken through subterfuge. Two aristocrats switched sides and dolled up the teenage emperor Nijō in makeup and women’s clothes, sneaking him out of his palace in disguise and whisking him away to Kiyomori’s compound in the middle of the chaos caused by a convenient fire at the palace. Go-Shirakawa was even bolder, sneaking from the palace by simply dressing in commoner’s clothes and riding out the gate.