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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.
Watson's is... the best of the translations.
One of the great literary classics.
An excellent translation and a welcome contribution to the field
— Donald Richie
— Keith Garebian
— Matthew Stavros
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 . 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  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.
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|The bells of Gion Monastery||9|
|Night attack at Courtiers' Hall||10|
|The sea bass||14|
|Kiyomori's flowering fortunes||15|
|The death of the senior counselor||34|
|The death of Shunkan||47|
|The battle at the bridge||51|
|The burning of Nara||58|
|The death of Kiyomori||65|
|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|
|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|
|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|