Uji no Tatakai (Battle of Uji)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Young Yoshida Iwao had no idea what he was in for, but he found out quickly. This is his story.

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Uji no Tatakai (Battle of Uji)

Submitted: October 05, 2014

Reads: 520

Comments: 4

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Submitted: October 05, 2014

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The background of this tale is important, not so much for the story’s sake, but to give you the reader an idea of the political and military scene currently in place in the twelfth century in the southern area of Honshu, the main Japanese island.  Try not to skip over this information.

 

The countryside for leagues around Kyoto had fallen on hard times.  The Heiji Rebellion officially ended in 1160.  Resentment persisted between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan for yet another seven years.  Assorted skirmishes continued and kept tensions high between the two clans.

In 1167, Taira no Kiyomori was appointed Daij? Daijin.  This made him the prime minister for the government and marked the very first time that such a position had been filled by an individual coming from a warrior family.  The Taira clan then forced the abdication of Emperor Nij? and installed their own three year old child, Taira no Rokuj?, as Emperor.  Young Rokuj? was theoretically being guided by his grandfather, former Emperor Go-Shirakawa.

In 1168, Taira no Kiyomori had the current emperor (who was now four years old) replaced by seven year old Taira no Takaku whose mother and father were Taira no Shigeko and former Emperor Go-Shirakawa.

In 1177, retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa attempted to depose Taira no Kiyomori (Daij? Daijin, or prime minister) in what was called the Shishigatani Affair.  The plot was not successful and Kiyomori killed many of the plotters, including one monk.  Kiyomori also officially ended the Insei system which was a legal system whereby abdicating emperors still had some sort of power.  Ex-Emperor Go-Shirakawa was allowed live freely but without the official power previously afforded him by the Insei System.  The Taira then began a series of executions, intended to eliminate their rivals.

It is important to note that deposed Emperor Go-Shirakawa was still a free man at this time; however, he was quite a rabble-rouser and would often find himself under house arrest by more than one powerful military foe.

In the month of December, 1179.  Taira no Kiyomori arrested the Former Emperor Go-Shirakawa because he continued to cause trouble for Kiyomori.  By the end of the year Kiyomori had had enough.  Kiyomori, along with several thousand troops, marched into the capital and placed Go-Shirakawa under house arrest.  He then forced the resignation of his rivals from all government posts and subsequently banished them.  Other high officials were reduced in rank and any open positions were filled with relatives or allies.

Three months later, on March 21, 1180, Taira no Kiyomori forced the abdication of the child Emperor Takakura and put his two year old grandson, Antoku on the throne.  All these changes eventually cast out a large percentage of the imperial court which resulted in a round of fresh resentment.

Prince Mochihito was one of the previously in-favor and now currently out-of-favor faction.  Prince Mochihito, who was former emperor Go-Shirakawa's son and former emperor Takakura's brother, felt that he was being denied his rightful place on the throne and, with the help of Minamoto Yoritomo, sent out a call to arms on May 5, 1180 which lit the fuse on the Genpei War.

I hope everyone was taking notes, because there will be a quiz later.  Now, on with the tale...

* * *

The low hills surrounding the city of Kyoto were strewn with makeshift gravesites over which tattered bunting flags fluttered fitfully in the random breezes, which were also tainted with the odor of burning incense.

Wherever one traveled, if they traveled, they would find shrines to lost warriors in every field.  Those lucky enough to have survived the active war years were eager to return to their homes and fields.  But this would never pass due to recruitment taking place everywhere for both armies.  The previous war had ended with an uneasy truce being declared following a highly formalized seppuku ritual.  Both participants were disemboweled by their own hands and after a short period their seconds separated their heads from their bodies with a swift blow from their swords.

The two men who gave their lives so that the current conflict could end were both Kyunin, officer leaders who commanded the opposing armies.  In turn, their troops, teams of ashigaru (foot soldiers) led by capable samurai and gashira (sort of a Sergeant-Major), secured their arms, and dissipated into the surrounding hills.  The samurai, still adhering to the code of bushido, remained in the service of their lord in any capacity they could fill.  Most of them resumed duties of defending their lord’s castle from anyone strong enough to attempt a siege.  They were allowed to retain their arms for this purpose.

However, not all was well in the Kyoto region.  The feud between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan, which began twenty years earlier, still smoldered despite the truce, and small clashes erupted occasionally.  The current Daimyo, Prince Mojihito, who was of the Minamoto clan, would dispatch a group of samurai each time he heard word of a conflict so that the danger, if any, to his rule might be assessed.

Ever on the lookout for strong young men, these bands of samurai would enter a village and search it for anyone who met their standards for inclusion into their ranks.  If they found anyone, the samurai would immediately press them into military service over their objections.  Fortunately, most villages, no matter how small, had outlying watchers who would report when strangers – especially well-heeled and/or armed strangers like samurai – came into sight.

Chapter 1

Spring, specifically San-gatsu (March), of the year 1179 found a young man by the name of Yoshida Iwao traveling from small town to small town in order to get back to the lands owned by the Minamoto clan.  He had been living with a distant relative near the township of Arida on the middle of three peninsulas jutting westward into the bay south of Osaka.  Iwao was only twenty, which made him eligible for induction, forced or otherwise, into the Daimyo’s army.  His family, the Yoshida clan, in trying to keep him from meeting that fate, pleaded with the local priest to intervene.  Originally, his travels were to be a quest for enlightenment levied on him by the priest who also thought Iwao a bit too wild.

Understandably, Iwao didn’t really want to be embroiled in more war, which he’d seen first hand from his home village which had been put to the torch by samurai from the Taira clan when he was six years old.  He’d grown up with war and unlike his father who had studied under a samurai for many years he just wanted to be left alone.  He had taken up the flute and while he traveled he performed in village squares for his meals and a place to sleep.  His life was relatively untroubled even though his clan was related to the just-deposed Fujiwara clan.

He was rather tall, but thin.  His dark hair, unshorn for over a month now, was tied back into a queue with a leather thong.  He wore rather roughly sewn clothing which he had won with a throw of dice two towns previously.  He wore a soft pannier on his back containing his worldly goods.  They didn’t amount to very much: a box containing a few die and other gambling items, a leather pouch with some low-value coins, a folded cloth enclosing a talisman, and a change of clothing.  His flute was safely stashed in a lengthy bamboo case tied with a wide blue silk sash.  He wore a sturdy pair of geta’s (wooden clogs), and a mended pair of tabi (low stockings with a split between the big toe and the remaining toes).

Down the road, another hamlet appeared.  As he walked down the narrow pathway he heard the sound of a kabura-ya as it soared over the treetops.  The signal arrow gave off an eerie whistling sound as it passed and then faded as it fell to earth.  In the distance, another signal arrow sounded in response.

Normally, this would have given Iwao cause to skip this village, but he had had nothing to eat for a day and his water flask was nearly empty.  He had to enter and attempt to resupply in this little town.  In his mind, he reflected that signal arrows, by their very nature, must be fired from a bow.  The only persons allowed to bear arms were samurai and their leaders; therefore, samurai were about.

Yoshida Iwao faded into the thick bamboo at the side of the lane and began a transformation.  He applied a light coating of mud and grass to his hair and donned torn clothing tied by a rope around his waist.  On his back, he carried a worn and cracked bamboo cane which, he hoped, any samurai would discount as one that would fly to pieces if used.  Using more mud, he daubed it on one of his arms and both legs.  This completed his conversion into a person who was not quite right in the head.

He was aware that in the rural society of feudal Japan, anyone who exhibited signs of foolishness or madness was given a wide berth or if they had to interact with this person, treated with a special kindness reserved for children.  He hoped, fervently, that this disguise would allow him to obtain food and lodging.  Exiting the woods after carefully scanning the area and giggling softly in a high-pitched voice, Iwao resumed his shuffle towards the distant hamlet.

It was the dogs that next detected the presence of a stranger.  They barked incessantly as Iwao approached the center of the town.  He looked around, and then began hopping on one leg while swinging his battered cane around.  One such swoop caught a dog in the ribs, sending it yipping away, followed closely by the others nipping at its heels.  Iwao stopped at a large tub of water and dipped his water bottle into it, frowning as the dust parted to reveal the green of mold.

By now, attracted by the noise of the dogs, small children began to appear – peeking around the doorframes of the rough cottages.  Iwao continued his silly dance, passing closely to a horse which had been tied in front of the town’s only inn.  Using his peripheral vision, he inspected the horse and found it did indeed belong to a samurai.  Closer inspection revealed this samurai to be in the employ of the Minamoto clan and someone to avoid if he wanted to remain free.

Veering away, Iwao headed across the street clucking like a chicken and scraping his clogs in the gravel as if looking for bugs.  Two children around seven or eight years old came a bit closer, holding out a bit of rice in a bowl.  Silently, Iwao bowed deeply and deftly relieved them of their burden, mouthing platitudes.  “Oh, thank you, kind sir.  I shall relish each and every bite.”  Then he proceeded to toss the whole ball into his mouth with an audible gulp.

The children laughed, which drew more children from within.  Soon, Iwao was playing the fool for perhaps ten or twelve and under the watchful eye of an elder who stood with arms folded.  When asked what was in the long package, Iwao winked conspiratorially and leaned close to the eldest child.  “It’s a secret!”  He whispered.

“Please show us!”  They chorused.

Iwao appeared to think about it and then relented, pulling the packaged flute from his back and untying the ribbon.  The children laughed and clapped when he pulled out his flute and played a few notes.

“Oh, please play a tune, minstrel!”

Playing loudly, Iwao began to lead the children about the town square in a sinuous dance.  Every time he skipped, they skipped and when he spun, they spun.  They became quite noisy.

“AIEE!  What is this awful noise outside!  I can hardly sleep with all this ruckus!”  Yelled a voice from the doorway to the inn.  It was the samurai squinting into the bright sunlight – and he appeared to have a mean look about him.

 


© Copyright 2020 B Douglas Slack. All rights reserved.

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