Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Sword, The Jewel, and The Mirror

The death of Taira Tomomori - Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 - 1861
(Source)
In ancient Japan, the country was ruled by emperors, believed to have been descendants of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The emperors ruled from Kyoto, they and their courtiers dwelled in luxury, attending to the finer things in life. While out in the countryside, the people who eventually became the samurai, pushed the barbarians back, eventually extending Japanese rule over the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, and finally, the far northern isle of Hokkaido.

Politics then was as nasty and fickle as it is today.

Two great clans arose, the Taira and the Minamoto. They competed to gain favor from the emperors, over time they came to dominate the emperor. Eventually things came to a head. Both clans wanted to rule through the emperor. And there could be only one...

The Taira were a seafaring race, dwelling along the shores of the Inland Sea, the Minamoto were land based. Both families were descended from the imperial family, those members who were barred from succession that is.

Both clans wished to change that...

So they went to war.

Eventually the Taira were driven from the East of Japan and retreated to their lands along the coast. The Minamoto bided their time. The Taira were masters of the sea, so the Minamoto learned and built ships of their own.

Soon the showdown came in the Shimonoseki Straight, off the southern tip of Honshu...
The Taira were outnumbered, but some sources say that they had the advantage over the Minamoto in understanding the tides of that particular area, as well as naval combat tactics in general. The Taira split their fleet into three squadrons, while their enemy arrived en masse, their ships abreast, and archers ready. The beginning of the battle consisted mainly of a long-range archery exchange, before the Taira took the initiative, using the tides to help them try to surround the enemy ships. They engaged the Minamoto, and the archery from a distance eventually gave way to hand-to-hand combat with swords and daggers after the crews of the ships boarded each other. However, the tide changed, and the advantage was given back to the Minamoto. 
One of the crucial factors that allowed the Minamoto to win the battle was that a Taira general, Taguchi Shigeyoshi, defected and attacked the Taira from the rear. He also revealed to the Minamoto which ship the six-year-old Emperor Antoku was on. Their archers turned their attention to the helmsmen and rowers of the Emperor's ship, as well as the rest of their enemy's fleet, sending their ships out of control. Many of the Taira saw the battle turn against them and committed suicide. 
Among those who perished this way were Antoku and his grandmother, Nun of the Second Rank, the widow of Taira no Kiyomori. (Source)
The sword, the jewel, and the mirror of the title were the Imperial Regalia of ancient Japan. As defeat approached, the Taira threw the sword and the jewel overboard. Before they could throw the mirror overboard, their ship was captured, the survivors dove overboard to join their emperor and their clansmen in death.

Divers eventually recovered the jewel, some claim that the sword was also recovered and is now kept at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Many believe that the ancient sword, 草薙劍 (Kusanagi no Tsurugi) was lost forever at the battle and still lies somewhere on the sea floor.

The Taira were also known as the Heike, and the Minamoto were also known as the Genji. Japanese legend says that the crab native to the Inland Sea, the Heike crab, bears the faces of the dead Taira warriors. It's easy to see why.

Heikegani, or Samurai Crab
(Source)
The Minamoto eventually established the first Shogunate which made the Emperor a mere figurehead in the control of powerful warlords. This situation lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Shoguns ruled Japan for nearly seven centuries.

Japan has a rich history, it's rather a shame few people in the West know of it. For some reason, I always feel a pang of sadness to think of the defeat of the Taira, and I wonder, does that ancient sword lie on the sea bed, or is it really at the Atsuta Shrine?

In truth, I don't want to know. I prefer the mystery.

Cypress Trees Byōbu, folding screen by Kanō Eitoku
(Source)



This is my interpretation of a time in Japan which is shrouded in myth and legend. The truth may, or may not be in the ancient texts. Who knows for sure?

30 comments:

  1. Odd.... kept hearing Richard Chamberlains voice when I read this post....hmmmm... oh well.....good one Sarge.

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  2. For Japanese/Asian history loved James Clavell's Asian Saga beginning (chronologically) with Shogun. We still watch the mini-series every few years.

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    1. I ate those books up, I think I've read Shogun ten times. King Rat, Tai-Pan, Noble House, Gai-Jin, and Whirlwind are all big favorites, read 'em all at least twice.

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    2. Clavell's death was a true loss to the world.

      As to the history of Japan (and Korea, conquered by Japan over-and-over), I find it interesting. More historical fiction written by westerners is necessary to pique the curiosity and interest in the place, the times and the time when that historical culture flourished.

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    3. I get my Korean history from The Missus Herself, she really enjoys watching Korean historical dramas, which I get to watch from time to time.

      But you're right LL, Clavell's passing was devastating. Asian history is fascinating, thought the samurai period is of particular interest to me.

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    4. I think that the samurai culture fascinates all warriors. The concept of duty, honor, and responsibility was honed to a sharp edge (no pun intended) by the samurai. The samurai always had somebody to make war on. One of the problems for warriors today is the limited number of people we're authorized to kill. I realize that may paint me as blood thirsty. Hemingway said it better, "There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter."

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    5. 義理. That says it all. I remember an old saying, "Death is as light as a feather, duty is as heavy as a mountain."

      Probably more poetic in Japanese.

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  3. Very interesting. Saw a show recently about a female samurai who bested a bunch of feudal Japan's top soldiers, using the Naginata. Also saw a recent show where Naginata was being taught to ladies and children in preparation for the invasion in 1946. And a friend got to take a naginata class from one of those war-taught ladies, in her 80's, still kicking the carp out of her younger students.

    Very interesting kingdom/nation, Japan is.

    Now, in the spirit of the Olympics, do some on the even lesser known feudal Korea. So much rich history to derive stories from. You could start with "Arirang" and go from there. (Maybe a guest post from Mrs. OldAFSarge, or co-written?)

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    1. Oddly enough, the naginata is considered to be a woman's weapon in modern Japan.

      As to the Korean history - 어쩌면.

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    2. Yep. Nothing like seeing a 4'nothing granny basically slice a pig carcass in half to really make your fun-sack shrink to behind your kidneys. I think naginatas are the Japanese version of the father cleaning a shotgun when his daughter's date shows up.

      As to your cryptic comment - 기대하고 있습니다.

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    3. That mental picture of the 4'nothing granny is gonna stay with me a while.

      아주 좋아!

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    4. Something about turning a corner around a building and seeing a petite lady on tiptoes, nag shaft held vertical, blade almost to the ground, then seeing it flash upwards to between the legs...

      It's how I broke my first martial arts cup, by stepping into that very move. And, yes, it hurt. A lot.

      아, 해피 씨가 컵을 때리는 것이 얼마나 상처니까! 대머리가 된 쌍둥이들이 항의 시위로 비명을 질렀다는 이유로 작은 전사를 제거하기 위해 파울 컵을 푼다는 모욕감! 오우이!

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    5. Yup, sprayed the monitor I did. Especially on the Korean bit.

      Priceless!

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    6. All I can say about that whole incident is that I am glad I can pass for being Jewish, otherwise I'd have died from the pain.

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  4. I really hate being repetitive. That being the case, I'll just write---

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

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  5. When I was assigned to work as a liaison officer to ROK Naval Squadron 56 (ROK SEAL Teams) at Chinhae, I was privileged to have been taken on a tour of a turtle ship that cadets at the ROK Naval Academy built as a recreation. The first ironclads. There's just as much depth to Korean history as to Japanese history, but Clavell didn't live long enough to glorify and explain it for Westerner's consumption.

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    1. When I got my first weekend off on my first tour in Korea, I visited Seoul and visited a palace/museum. As would be expected in a foreign country, virtually all the signage was in Korean. However, immediately on entry through the gate was a sign, entirely in English, that explained that the palace had been first renovated....in 1492. I loved the subtlety of that sign and the Korean people. I spent at least a week in the ROK in 17 of my 20 years on AD for a total of ~5 years. Love the place.

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    2. Ok, at the risk of sounding like I'm throwing down a gauntlet at the "me too movement", I liked the Korean haircuts. A haircut in Korea (back before things got too politically correct) - even on base - was a thing of beauty. And that is all I have to say on that topic.

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    3. Ah yes! The 거북선 and Admiral Yi! Great stuff.

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    4. Oh my, the haircuts. 'Nuff said.

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  6. For those into cyberpunk, japanese animation or both:
    Remember Major Motoko Kusanagi , the ass-kicking, cyborgized spec ops operative of the Ghost in the Shell franchise?
    Her second name is taken from the legendary lost sword. (or not lost if the real one is stored at the temple mentioned above)
    There have been a quite number of female samurai down the times, and yeah Naginata is mentioned as favoured weapon.
    This makes sense as guardian soldiers of many cultures favoured similar polearms (see: Vatican Swiss Guard.... btw did you make a post about their heroic last stand in 1500s when German soldiers sacked the Rome? fullbore material)

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    1. I like the Swiss Guard story! (Excellent idea!)

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    2. Yes, I second. A most valiant forlorn hope.

      And they looked good, too!

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  7. Pillowing...when do you get to the part about the pillowing?

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    1. Ah, the 外人 always wish to speak of the clouds and the rain.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)