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The Tragedy of Emperor Antoku

Today, the tragedy of Emperor Antoku, the child emperor trapped between two families warring for control of Japan.

The Tragedy of the child emperor

Today Is the birthday of Emperor Antoku who ruled Japan from 1180 – 1185. He was the 81st Emperor of Japan. By ruled what I really mean is was a pawn of more powerful people, which is the norm for Emperors of Japan1. In this case, the others ruling in his name were even more obvious than with other emperors, as Antoku was only one years old when he became emperor. His grandfather Taira no Kiyomori ruled in his name.

This wasn’t a good time to be emperor. These years 1180 – 1185 also mark the Genpei War, a bitter struggle between the powerful Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan. When Taira no Kiyomori (the head of the Taira family) placed Antoku on the throne, this pissed off a whole bunch of people, including another family member who felt he should have been emperor instead. This fellow, Prince Mochihito, went to the Minamoto for help with his cause. This action was one of the sparks that started the Genpei War.

The entire ordeal is somewhat confusing. I will cover the war itself in another post in the future. Basically the Taira and the Minamoto families backed different puppets — I mean, people — for emperor and went to war over this.

The war ended with the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a navel battle, a decisive win for the Minamoto. Not wanting the emperor to fall into enemy hands, Antoku’s grandmother drowned both herself and the child emperor.

This tragic story is the subject of The Tale of Heike, one of the most famous and popular stories in Japan. Every single Japanese knows the first lines of this poem:

祇園精舎の鐘の聲、 諸行無常の響あり。 娑羅雙樹の花の色、 盛者必衰のことわりをあらはす。 おごれる人も久しからず、 唯春の夜の夢のごとし。 たけき者も遂にほろびぬ、 偏に風の前の塵に同じ。

Gion shōja no kane no koe shogyō mujou no hibiki ari. Shara sōju no hana no iro jōsha hissui no kotowari o arawasu. Ogoreru hito mo hisashikarazu, Tada haru no yoru no yume no gotoshi. Takeki mono mo tsui ni horobinu. Hitoe ni kaze no mae no chiri ni onaji.

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple
Echoes the impermanence of all things.
The color of the flowers on its double-trunked tree
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall.
He who is proud is not so for long,
Like a passing dream on a night in spring.
He who is brave is finally destroyed,
To be no more than dust before the wind.

Daily Photo: I Could Sit Under Here Forever With You

Let’s change to a happier note for the daily Japan photo. The autumn leaves! Relaxing under the maple leaves in autumn is always a nice idea.

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  1. Few emperors throughout Japan’s long history have had any real power. Most were controlled by powerful families, the shoguns, the bureaucrats, or the military. So if you think the Emperor’s current role as only a figurehead is a recent development: no, it’s always been that way (with a few exceptions). 

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