c. 1218-21. Japanese prose epic.
The Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese literature. A martial epic deeply influenced by Buddhism, it describes the events that led from the end of a long peaceful period to the revolutionary Genpei War, which was waged between the Taira (or Heike) family and the Minamoto (or Genji) clan from 1177 to 1185. The tale concludes with the annihilation of the Heike clan. Scholars believe that Yukinaga was the author of the original text of the Heike Monogatari, called the Shibu kassenjo. Yukinaga reportedly taught the blind monk Shobutsu to recite the tale, and Shobutsu helped write the portions dealing with war. This first version, written in a combination of Japanese and Chinese, is now lost. The Heike Monogatari was chanted by blind musician-monks who accompanied themselves on Japanese lutes. They wandered the country, singing the tale wherever they found people who were interested. The story enthralled its audience and led to well over one hundred variant editions spanning a period of approximately a century and a half. The text considered standard for the last six hundred years was written by Akashi Kakuichi, a blind singer, who finished dictating his version shortly before his death in 1371. Although the Heike Monogatari has been accepted as legitimate history by general readers for centuries, modern scholars realize that the fictional elements of the tale outnumber the factual. For all its romanticism, however, the Heike Monogatari vividly describes how the courtier class gave way to the warrior class. It has also inspired countless other Japanese works based on its characters and incidents.
Plot and Major Characters
The period covered in the Heike Monogatari is ninety years, from 1131 to 1221. The focus, though, is on eighteen years, from when Taira no Kiyomori assumed leadership in 1167 until the destruction of the Heike forces at Dan-no-ura. The Heike Monogatari draws much of its factual material from diaries and temple records. Most of the tale is presented chronologically, although there are generous insertions of myths and legends, often dealing with Buddhist philosophy and practice. Additionally, ninety-seven short poems are included. The first half of the work describes the power and pride of the Taira and includes unsympathetic accounts of Kiyomori's outrageous behavior. Readers have sometimes been disturbed by the central character acting so shamelessly, but the work does not aim to glorify each of its actors. Taira no Shigemori, Kiyomori's son, is much the opposite of his father. He is sound in judgement, practices Confucianism, and is merciful. He represents the traditional rights of the royal family and its courtiers. Some chapters of the Heike Monogatariare mostly devoted to individual characters, including Yoshinaka, a great Genji fighter but poor leader, and Yoshitsune, also a victor at war. The second half of the Heike Monogatari concerns the battles of the Genpei War, climaxing with the abandonment of the capital by the Taira. Initially, battles are described in general terms, but later the narrative personalizes war by describing the specific acts of heroes. The most famous of all the battles depicted is that which was fought at Mikusa. The Heike are barricaded near the ocean in a fort which Genji forces have found impenetrable. One side of the fort is a steep cliff, and the Heike believed it was unnecessary to protect themselves on that side because no one could possibly climb down such a precipitous cliff and attack from it. The Genji, however, accomplish the impossible and descend on horseback. They vanquish the Heike and order those they spare to swim to their boats in the harbor.
The Heike Monogatari mainly concerns itself with the fall of the Heike courtiers and the concurrent rise of a new warrior class in Japan. Differences between aspects of the old and new moralities constitute one of the main themes of the work, and much attention is focused on the warrior code, so central to Japanese culture. Another thematic focus is Buddhist philosophy, especially as it relates to man's vain nature and the uncertainties and transitory nature of life.
Critics point out that perhaps no other story has ever captured the imagination of the Japanese public as has the Heike Monogatari. It has often been deemed the Japanese equivalent of the Iliad and it appeal has been wide; in addition to English, it has been translated into French, Chinese, Russian, and Czech. Scholars frequently focus on the textual development of the tale. Although the exact chronology of the major revisions and the interaction between oral versions and written texts can never be totally resolved, there is much broad agreement. Most scholars believe the Heike Monogatari began its life as a written text and then was revised for recitation. There is some disagreement over the matter of whether before the modern twelve-scroll version there existed three-scroll and six-scroll versions; most scholars are skeptical of the existence of the three-scroll version, but more accepting of the possibility of the six-scroll text. Through the process of being told over and over by professional storytellers, the work evolved and improved. Its ultimate form, critics agree, is the nearly perfect rendition of Kakuichi, which unites the best of written and oral styles. Scholars also find the Heike a rich source for the study of Japanese history and culture. Kenneth Dean Butler has made a case that the depiction of the Heike as given by the blind singers led to the code of the warrior: “We therefore have the paradox of the Japanese of later ages modeling their actions not on those of the Gempei warriors as they actually were, but rather upon the ideal warrior as conceived by oral singers who formed their heroes by means of formulaic techniques of oral composition.” William E. Naff states that although the Heike Monogatari was “created for a society of warriors it is unflinchingly realistic about both the physical and the moral shortcomings of the warrior's trade. It is almost entirely free of the morbid and obsessive preoccupation with the minutiae of slaughter and mutilation which military tales the world around so often offer as a counterfeit of honesty about their subject.”
The Heike Monogatari (translated by Arthur Sadler in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan) 1918 and 1921
The Tale of the Heike (translated by Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida) 1975
The Tale of the Heike (translated by Helen Craig McCullough) 1988
(The entire section is 39 words.)
SOURCE: “The Textual Evolution of the Heike Monogatari” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 26, No. 5, 1966, pp. 5-51.
[In the following excerpt, Butler examines the authorship and dates of creation of the Shibu text, arguing for its acceptance as the original Heike Monogatari.]
… THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE SHIBU TEXT
The starting point for all investigations of the authorship of the original Heike monogatari has been the following section of the Tsurezuregusa, a miscellany written by Yoshida Kenkō (1282-1350) about the year 1330.
Section No. 226: During the time of the Retired Emperor Go-Toba,1 the former Governor of Shinano Yukinaga2 was renowned for his learning, but because he forgot two of the virtues of the “Dance of Seven Virtues”3 when he took his turn in discourse on yüeh-fu, he was given the sobriquet of “Five Virtues Kanja.”4 Feeling miserable, he forsook scholarship and took Buddhist vows. The Priest of the First Rank Jichin5 took people even of low rank who had some artistic talent into his service and carefully looked after them, and so he gave this Shinamo Lay Priest a stipend.
This Lay Priest Yukinaga composed the Heike monogatari, taught it to a blind...
(The entire section is 10170 words.)
SOURCE: “The Early Stages of the Heike Monogatari,” in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. XXII, No. 1-2, 1967, pp. 65-81.
[In the following essay, Tadashi provides an overview of the Heike Monogatari, examines the significance of the blind lute players who recited it, and traces the development of its written text.]
The culture of the Heian period was the product of a small aristocracy which flourished in the metropolis of Heian or Kyoto, capital of a highly centralized political system. It bloomed in the soil of luxury consumption maintained by the produce of lands which the aristocracy held in every province of the country. But the power structure of this society was severely shaken by three disturbances which came in succession after the middle of the twelfth century. These were the Hōgen and Heiji wars of 1156 and 1159, the war between the Taira and Minamoto from 1177 to 1185, and the Shōkyū war of 1221. Centered on the second of these disturbances, the war between the Taira and Minamoto, the Heike monogatari tells of the eminence of the warrior clan known as Heike or Taira and its ultimate downfall. It is in many ways a description of the age itself.
The warrior class had undergone a considerable period of development before it was ready to play its leading role as a political force in the Hōgen and Heiji wars of the mid twelfth century. The rise of the warrior...
(The entire section is 8376 words.)
SOURCE: “The Heike Monogatari and the Japanese Warrior Ethic,” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 29, 1969, pp. 93-108.
[In the following essay, Butler argues that the code of the Japanese warrior as presented in the Heike Monogatari is more a creation of the tellers of the tales than historic fact.]
The Heike monogatari has exerted a strong influence on many aspects of the later development of Japanese society. In the political sphere, it is well-known that the accounts of warrior battles contained in the Heike provided a model for the attitudes and standards of conduct of the warrior class until the nineteenth, and even into the twentieth, centuries.1 The degree of historical validity of these accounts, and their relationship to the actual battles themselves, is less well-known. The present article is an attempt to outline briefly the process by which the narrative passages, which taken as a whole define the warrior code at the time of the Gempei battles of 1180-1185, came to be a part of the Heike monogatari text. The manner in which these passages came to be accepted as historical fact, and how they came to be regarded as superior examples of the code of the Japanese warrior, is also considered.
It is possible to isolate in the standard Heike monogatari text all of the important qualities which later came to be...
(The entire section is 6525 words.)
SOURCE: “A Tale of the Heike,” in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 87-95.
[In the following essay, Naff discusses the difficulties in translating the Heike Monogatari and specifically criticizes the efforts of Kitagawa and Tsuchida.]
The Heike Monogatari occupies a seminal position in the Japanese literary tradition. For the greater part of a millenium it has been the model in Japan for treatments of the human and religious implications of war. Among epics and military tales, the Heike Monogatari is notable for its posture toward war, the occasions of war and the roles of the contending sides in war. It was developed by chanters whose most important audiences were the victors of the wars of the twelfth century and the heirs of those victors, yet it is the vanquished who are most frequently sympathetic. Although created for a society of warriors it is unflinchingly realistic about both the physical and the moral shortcomings of the warrior's trade. It is almost entirely free of the morbid and obsessive preoccupation with the minutiae of slaughter and mutilation which military tales the world around so often offer as a counterfeit of honesty about their subject. Although it tells of what was becoming a man's world, many of its most important and most fully-realized characters are women.
The twelfth century in Japan constituted a brutal and...
(The entire section is 4046 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Tale of the Heike, translated by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. 1-11.
[In the following essay, McCullough considers the political and social changes taking place in twelfth-century Japan which inspired the creation of the Heike Monogatari.]
As the twelfth century waned, no thoughtful Japanese could have failed to recognize that the long Heian interlude of peace, economic security, and cultural florescence was nearing its end, and that a new political force was threatening the imperial court's hegemony. The signs were unmistakable.
In the countryside, there had been a steady evolution away from the institutions established by the seventh-century Taika Reform, which had brought all rice lands under state control and had created organs of local government to collect taxes and maintain order. At the time of the Reform, some powerful families had stayed on the land, where they had typically occupied subordinate government offices; others had moved to the capital and, as members of a new aristocracy, had helped create the brilliant civilization depicted in the eleventh-century Tale of Genji.1 Over the years, the court's preoccupation with the immediate concerns of aristocratic life had led to the discontinuance of the periodic land allotments on which the Taika economic system was based; to the widespread growth of...
(The entire section is 5162 words.)
SOURCE: “Warriors as Courtiers: The Taira in Heike Monogatari,” in Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations, edited by Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 53-70.
[In the following essay, Varley examines how later interpretations of the Heike Monogatari served to lend an aristocratic character to various warriors.]
Japan's entry into the medieval age (1185-1573) in the late twelfth century was accompanied by an epochal transition in leadership of the country, when the emperor and the ministers who served him at his court in Kyoto relinquished national rule to provincial warrior chieftains. But this transition did not occur immediately, nor was it ever carried to completion in medieval times. Through much of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), for example, government continued to be divided between the court and the new warrior regime (bakufu) that was founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo in Kamakura. And even during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when the court's political fortunes sank to their nadir, the emperor and his ministers still held high authority and the potential to exercise at least some political power.
In addition to thus retaining a measure of rulership, however slight, throughout the medieval age, the court (comprising imperial and courtier families) influenced and in various ways shaped and even culturally...
(The entire section is 7887 words.)
SOURCE: “The Placatory Nature of The Tale of the Heike: Additional Documents and Thoughts,” in Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations, edited by Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 71-80.
[In the following essay, Plutschow contends that a major purpose for the Heike Monogatari was to appease angry gods and guilty consciences.]
In my book Chaos and Cosmos: Ritual in Classical Japanese Literature, I discuss a number of texts suggesting that the Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) was recited in part to placate the spirits of its heroes. These texts range from legends such as “Earless Hōichi” and “Earless Danichi” to war tales (gunki-mono), historical works, and diaries. I introduce the pioneering research of Tsukudo Reikan and others who interpret The Tale of the Heike as placatory literature. Furthermore, I support my hypothesis with a discussion of the fear of vengeful spirits in Japanese religion and refer to the traditional role of blind performers in placating them.1
Based on a combination of these factors, I conclude that the account in Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) of the role of Priest Jien (1155-1225) in producing The Tale of the Heike needs serious reconsideration:
During the reign of the Emperor Go-toba, a...
(The entire section is 4335 words.)
Arnn, Barbara Louise. “Medieval Fiction and History in the Heike Monogatari Story Tradition.” Dissertation Abstracts International 45, No. 5 (November 1984): 1402-A.
Outlines study of the role played by the Heike Monogatari in passing on Japanese cultural traditions.
Bialock, David Theodore. “Peripheries of Power: Voice, History, and the Construction of Imperial and Sacred Space in The Tale of the Heike and Other Medieval and Heian Historical Texts.” Dissertation Abstracts International 58, No. 2 (August 1997): 459-A.
Outlines study which emphasizes the historiographical tradition of the Heike Monogatari and the Kakuichi variant, which is the product of a marginalized group.
Keene, Donald. “Tales of Warfare.” In Seeds in the Heart, pp. 613–42. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1993.
Explains why the Heike Monogatari, defined by its dramatic contrasts and brutal portrayals of warriors, deserves its reputation as the foremost example of the Japanese martial tale.
Kitagawa, Hiroshi. “Translator's Preface.” In The Tale of the Heike: Heike Monogatari, Vol. 1, Books 1–6, translated by Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida, pp. xxi-xl. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1975.
(The entire section is 278 words.)