The Tales of the Heike / Edition 1

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Originally written in the mid-thirteenth century, The Tales of the Heike chronicles the epic Genpei war, a civil conflict that marked the end of the power of the Heike clan and changed the course of Japanese history. Featuring a vivid cast of characters, the book depicts the emerging world of the medieval samurai and recounts in absorbing detail the chaos of the battlefield, the intrigue of the imperial court, and the gradual loss of courtly tradition. This new, abridged translation presents the work's most gripping episodes and includes woodblock illustrations, a glossary of characters, and an extended bibliography.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Intriguing, mini-sagas of samurai derring-do and nimble wit, with a distinctly Buddhist flavor. Garbed in fabulous gear-"black-laced armor over a dark blue battle robe"-the 15th-century Japanese warrior monk Jomyo Meishu of Tutsui, in the blink of an eye, nails 20 men with his bow and arrow. A cunning chancellor ferrets out court conspiracies by infiltrating 300 teenagers, "the Rokuhara lord's short-haired boys," into the populace to spy on subversives. The wondrous champion dancer Gio, realizing that "we are mere sojourners in this life" turns her back on glamour and, retreating to a mountain sanctuary, spends the rest of her days reciting the name of the Buddha. Such are the facets of this jewel of a collection, compiling warrior tales, told by blind lute minstrels, that form the basis of No and Kabuki drama. Intended to laud and lament the courageous fallen, the adventure yarns are permeated often with an elegiac, wistful air, a resigned sense that "what flourishes must fade." Fans of classic Asian literature, especially of the world's first novel, Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, will recognize the fastidious attention to detail here-the cut of the clothes, the nuanced etiquette, the lyrical language-that contrasts these stories with their Western counterparts, either Homeric or Arthurian. What also distinguishes these tales is the poignant tension between the hero's inspiring quest for glory and his ultimate realization-perhaps even more inspiring-that any transitory glory is only another form of attachment: the chief adversary of Buddhist enlightenment. An excellent introduction, tracing the genre's historical context, and a complete glossary of characters make this editioninvaluable not only for aficionados of Japanese writing but for all students of myth. Terrifically exciting and spiritually rich.
The Japan Times - Donald Richie

Watson's is... the best of the translations.

The Globe and Mail - Keith Garebian

One of the great literary classics.

Japanese Studies - Matthew Stavros

An excellent translation and a welcome contribution to the field

The Japan Times
Watson's is... the best of the translations.

— Donald Richie

The Globe and Mail
One of the great literary classics.

— Keith Garebian

Japanese Studies
An excellent translation and a welcome contribution to the field

— Matthew Stavros

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231138024
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 6/20/2006
  • Series: Translations from the Asian Classics Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Burton Watson has taught Chinese and Japanese literature at Columbia, Stanford, and Kyoto Universities. He is the winner of the PEN Translation Prize and in 2005 was awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize in literature. His translations include Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, Ryokan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, and The Lotus Sutra, all published by Columbia University Press. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.Haruo Shirane is Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at Columbia University. He is the author and editor of numerous works on Japanese literature, including Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900 (Columbia University Press); Inventing the Classics: Modernity, National Identity, and Japanese Literature; Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho; The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of The Tale of Genji; Classical Japanese: A Grammar (Columbia University Press); and the forthcoming Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600 (Columbia University Press).

Columbia University Press

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Read an Excerpt

The Tales of the Heike

By Burton Watson Haruo Shirane

Columbia University Press

Copyright © 2006 Columbia University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13802-4

Chapter One


The Bells of Gion Monastery (1:1)

The bells of the Gion monastery in India echo with the warning that all things are impermanent. The blossoms of the sala trees teach us through their hues that what flourishes must fade. The proud do not prevail for long but vanish like a spring night's dream. In time the mighty, too, succumb: all are dust before the wind.

Long ago in a different land, Zhao Gao of the Qin dynasty in China, Wang Mang of the Han, Zhu Yi of the Liang, and An Lushan of the Tang all refused to be governed by former sovereigns. Pursuing every pleasure, deaf to admonitions, unaware of the chaos overtaking the realm, ignorant of the sufferings of the common people, before long they all alike met their downfall.

More recently in our own country there have been men like Masakado, Sumitomo, Gishin, and Nobuyori, each of them proud and fierce to the extreme. The tales told of the most recent of such men, Taira no Kiyomori, the lay priest of Rokuhara and at one time the prime minister, are beyond the power of words to describe or the mind to imagine.

Kiyomori was the oldest son and heir of Taira no Tadamori, the minister of punishments, and the grandsonof Masamori, the governor of Sanuki. Masamori was a ninth-generation descendant of Prince Kazurahara, a first-rank prince and the minister of ceremonies, the fifth son of Emperor Kanmu.

Night Attack at Courtiers' Hall (1:2)

While Tadamori was still governor of Bizen, he built a temple called Tokujoju-in to fulfill a vow taken by the retired emperor Toba. The main hall had thirty-three bays and enshrined one thousand and one Buddhist images. The dedication ceremony took place on the thirteenth day of the Third Month in the first year of the Tensho era [1131]. In recognition of Tadamori's services, the retired emperor announced that he was assigning him to one of the currently vacant governorships, and Tadamori was accordingly granted the post of governor of the province of Tajima. As a further expression of the retired emperor's gratitude, he was given permission to enter the imperial palace. Thus at the age of thirty-six, Tadamori was able for the first time to enter the palace.

Persons of privilege that they were, the courtiers resented this move and plotted a night attack on Tadamori at the time the Gosechi Harvest Banquet was to be held on the evening of the twenty-third day of the Eleventh Month of that year. Upon learning of the plot, Tadamori declared, "I am not a civil official. I was born into a warrior family, and it would bring grief to both me and my family if I were to meet with unexpected humiliation. In the end, even the first thing they teach us is to defend ourselves so that we may serve our lord!"

Tadamori therefore made preparations to meet the attack. When he entered the palace, he carried with him a large dagger thrust casually under his court dress, and as he advanced toward the dimly lit interior of the chamber, he quietly drew out the dagger and held it up by his sidelocks. It glittered like ice. The courtiers' eyes were transfixed. In addition, among Tadamori's retainers was a man named Sahyoe-no-jo Iesada, the grandson of an assistant director of the Carpentry Bureau named Sadamitsu, a member of the Taira clan, and the son of Shinnosaburo Daifu Iefusa. This man, wearing a greenish yellow stomach guard under his light green hunting robe and carrying a sword with a bowstring bag under his arm, waited in attendance in a small courtyard by the hall.

Their suspicions aroused, the head chamberlain and his staff sent a chamberlain of the sixth rank to question him. "Who is this person in an unfigured hunting robe behind the rain pipe by the bell pull?" he demanded. "You're causing a commotion! Get out!"

But Iesada replied, "I have been told that my liege lord, the governor of Bizen, is going to be attacked tonight. So I am waiting here to see what happens. I have no intention of leaving!"

Iesada held his ground, watchful as ever. As a result, the courtiers, perhaps concluding that the time was not right, did not attack that night.

But when Tadamori was summoned into the presence of the retired emperor and invited to dance, the courtiers, pretending to accompany his movements, sang out:

This Taira (wine jar) of Ise is a vinegar (squint-eyed) jar!

Although the members of the Taira clan were descended from Emperor Kanmu, they spent very little time in the capital, being of rather lowly rank, but they had close ties to the province of Ise. Hence they came to be known as the Ise Taira, or Heishi, which is pronounced the same as the word for "wine jar," a noted product of the Ise region. In addition, Tadamori happened to be squint eyed, which led the courtiers to make another pun.

Tadamori realized there was nothing he could do about this situation, and so before the dance performances had ended, he quietly prepared to withdraw. Proceeding to the rear of the Shishinden, the Palace Hall, he took out the dagger at his waist and, making sure that the others could see what he was doing, handed it over to one of the women attendants on duty and then left.

"How did it go?" asked Iesada, who was waiting outside.

Although Tadamori wanted to tell him, he was fearful that if he were to divulge everything, Iesada might rush in slashing. So he replied, "Nothing in particular."...

Not surprisingly, no sooner had the Gosechi dances ended than all the courtiers began to complain to the retired emperor. "When people appear at official banquets with swords at their waists or go in and out of the palace with an armed guard, they all do so in accord with the rules laid down for such behavior. For a long time, imperial orders have regulated these matters. And yet Lord Tadamori, claiming that the person is a longtime retainer, summons this soldier in commoner's dress to wait in attendance in the palace courtyard and then to take his place at the Gosechi banquet with a sword slung at his waist. Both actions are a gross breach of etiquette that has rarely been seen in the past. He is guilty of a double fault and should not be let off lightly! We beg you to strike his name from the roster of those permitted in the palace and to relieve him at once of his post and duties!"

Much taken aback by their censures, the retired emperor sent for Tadamori and questioned him.

Tadamori responded: "I did not know anything at all about my retainer who was waiting in the courtyard. But recently there have been indications that certain persons were plotting against me. This man, who has been in my service for some time, got wind of this and hoped to save me from possible embarrassment. Since he acted on his own without informing me, I had no way of forestalling him. If he has committed a fault, perhaps he should be summoned for questioning.

"As for the weapon I carried, I already have handed it over to a palace attendant. Perhaps it could be brought here so that you may determine whether it is a real weapon and whether I am at fault."

"That would seem reasonable," replied the retired emperor.

When the weapon was brought to him and the retired emperor examined it, he discovered that although the hilt was lacquered black like that of an ordinary dagger, the blade was made of wood coated with silver foil.

"In order to avoid possible humiliation, Tadamori had thought it best to provide himself with a weapon of some sort," the retired emperor pointed out. "But since he knew he was likely to meet with accusations later, he took the wise precaution of arming himself with a dagger made of wood. Such resourcefulness is precisely what one would expect from a warrior accustomed to carrying a bow and arrow with him. As for the retainer who stationed himself in the courtyard, he too behaved in a manner wholly appropriate to the retainer of a samurai, and therefore Tadamori is not to blame for the matter."

Thus the retired emperor ended by praising Tadamori's conduct, and the question of possible punishment was dropped.

The Sea Bass (1:3)

... After having risen to the office of minister of punishments, Tadamori died on the fifteenth day of the First Month in the third year of the Ninpei [1153] era at the age of fifty-eight. He was succeeded by his heir, Kiyomori.

It is said that the Taira family's unusual fortune and prosperity were due to the divine favor shown them by the deities of the Kumano Shrine. 4 Some years earlier, when Kiyomori was still governor of Aki, he made a pilgrimage to the Kumano Shrine by boat from the bay of Ise. During this time a large sea bass leaped into the boat.

"This is a mark of divine favor bestowed by the deities," announced the ascetic in charge of the pilgrimage. "You must hurry and eat it!"

"Long ago in China a white fish leaped into the boat of King Wu of the Zhou dynasty," Kiyomori remembered. "This must be a good omen!" Accordingly, although the members of the party had been observing the ten precepts of Buddhism and eating strictly vegetarian fare, Kiyomori had the fish cooked and fed to all his family members and samurai retainers.

Perhaps because of this, he had one stroke of good fortune after another, until in the end he rose to the post of chancellor. Moreover, Kiyomori's sons and grandsons advanced in their official careers faster than dragons climbing up to the clouds. Such was Kiyomori's fortune that he outshone all his ancestors of the preceding nine generations.

Page-Boy Cuts (1:4)

No matter how wise a ruler may be or what policies his chief ministers may pursue, there always will be some worthless and insignificant fellows who, when others are not around, speak slanderously of the government; such is the way of the world. And yet when the lay priest Kiyomori was in his days of glory, not a soul dared to criticize him. The reason was this.

As part of his plans, the chancellor selected some three hundred boys aged fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen; had them cut their hair short and wear red battle robes; and go here and there around the capital. If someone spoke ill of the Heike, he might escape so long as his words were not detected. But if one of these boys heard about the matter, he would alert his companions and they would break into the person's house, confiscate his goods and belongings, tie him up, and drag him off to Rokuhara. As a result, whatever people saw with their eyes or knew in their heart, they never dared express it in words. If "the Rokuhara lord's short-haired boys" were so much as mentioned, carriages and horsemen along the road would get out of the way. Even when the boys went in and out of the imperial palace, no one asked their names. For these reasons, the high officials of the capital looked the other way.


Excerpted from The Tales of the Heike by Burton Watson Haruo Shirane Copyright © 2006 by Columbia University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The bells of Gion Monastery 9
Night attack at Courtiers' Hall 10
The sea bass 14
Page-boy cuts 15
Kiyomori's flowering fortunes 15
Gio 16
The admonition 29
Signal fires 33
The death of the senior counselor 34
Yasuyori's prayer 35
The pardon 37
The foot-drumming 40
Ario 43
The death of Shunkan 47
The battle at the bridge 51
The burning of Nara 58
The death of Kiyomori 65
Sanemori 72
Tadanori leaves the capital 75
The flight from Fukuhara 77
The death of Lord Kiso 83
The old horse 89
The attack from the cliff 93
The death of Tadanori 95
The capture of Shigehira 97
The death of Atsumori 98
Regarding the precepts 101
Senju-no-mae 105
Yokobue 109
Koremori becomes a monk 113
Koremori drowns himself 117
The death of Tsuginobu 122
Nasu no Yoichi 126
The lost bow 130
The cockfights and the battle of Dan-no-ura 133
Far-flying arrows 137
The drowning of the former emperor 141
The execution of Rokudai 144
The imperial lady becomes a nun 148
The move to Ohara 151
The retired emperor visits Ohara 153
The six paths of existence 160
The death of the imperial lady 165
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