Thursday, December 29, 2011

No. 5: Yoshitsune Minamoto: a tragic military commander incapable of understanding the game of politics (December 29, 2011)

Yoshitsune descends on a horse
Yoshitsune Minamoto (1159-1189) was undefeated in wars, but he was killed by the army sent by his brother Yoritomo Minamoto. He was the greatest military commander in his time. The war between the Taira family and Minamoto family began when Yoritomo Minamoto decided to fight against Kiyomori Taira. Convinced of the military genius of Yoshitsune, Yoritomo appointed Yoshitsune the military commander.

Surprise attack characterizes Yoshitune’s strategy. In the battle in Kobe, a city in the Kansai district, the Taira army took up a position facing the Seto Inland Sea with mountains behind. Because the mountains in this area have rather steep slope, it was hardly possible to attach the Taira army from the mountainside. The Taira family never dreamt of being attached from the mountainside. When the two armies were in the middle of the war, the unit led by Yoshitsune, soldiers and horses alike, descended at full speed the slope and attacked the Taira army from the mountainside. Before he ordered his soldiers to ascend the slope ahorse, he asked a local hunter if a deer could descend the slope. Responding to the farmer’s affirmative reply, he and his soldiers went down the slope at full speed and destroyed the Taira army. 

Yoshitsune achieved an overwhelming victory over the Taira family, but he failed to recover one of the three sacred imperial treasures that symbolize the sovereignty of the emperor. Yoritomo wished to use the three treasures as the bargaining chip in the negotiations with the emperor because he tried to establish a samurai government for the sake of samurais. Presumably, Yoritomo strongly ordered Yoshitsune to bring them back to him, but Yoshitsune failed to execute the order not knowing how important it was. Yoritomo naturally got angry with Yoshitsune, but Yoshitsune was not able to understand why his brother was so angry. It was his tragedy that he had no competent subordinate with the ability to understand political affairs.

Ultimately, Yoshitsune was killed by the army sent by Yoritomo. Ironically enough, however, the tragic death made Yoshitsune even more popular among people. It was believed that Yoshitsune went to Mongolia and became Genghis Khan (1162-1227). This plot shows how popular Yoshitsune is among Japanese, though it is totally absurd and nonsense.  

A legendary hero: Yoshitsune Minamoto

Monday, December 26, 2011

No. 4: Yoritomo Minamoto: the military commander who opened a samurai government for the first time (December 27, 2011)

Yoritomo Minamoto
Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199) established a samurai government for the first time in Japan in 1192. He was not killed by Kiyomori Taira despite the fact that his father was defeated by Kiyomori Taira. In those days, it was quite natural that he was killed because he was a son of the military commander of the defeated army. Instead of being killed, he was marooned on the Izu area at the age of 13. The Izu area is now famous as a hot spring resort, but it was a very isolated area back in the 12th century. In the Izu area, he mingled with various kinds of people including farmers and fishermen. His life in this area enabled him to know the daily life of commonalities and the dissatisfaction of samurais. As is often the case, no one can predict what may turn to your advantage. 

Yoritomo had originally no intention of fighting against the Taira family because the Taira family was in the heyday of its power. However, a member of the Minamoto family recklessly tried to defeat the Taira family and lost the battle. Kiyomori Taira angrily asked his subordinates to ruin the Minamoto family. Accordingly, Yoritomo had only two choices: running away from and fighting against the Taira family. He decided to start a war against Kiyomori Taira. In the initial stage, he lost and ran away to a rural area. However, his decision to fight against the Taira family spread among samurais in the Kanto region, and his soldiers increased in number tremendously in a short period of time. This was purely because samurais were dissatisfied with the current situations. In those days, only aristocrats and shrines & temples were allowed to own their land, and samurais were allowed to own their land that they reclaimed and cultivated by themselves. Kiyomori Taira was not able to formulate measures for the stalemate. He knew nothing about the situation in the rural area because he lived in Kyoto. But Yoritomo knew it very well because he lived in a rural area not in Kyoto.

Yoritomo sent an advance unit to Kyoto. The advance unit successfully defeated the Taira family, but the unit members looted Kyoto. The looting made people in Kyoto angry with the Minamoto family, saying that even the Taira family never looted. Then, Yoritomo sent a unit to kill the commander of the advanced team. At this moment, Yoshitsune Minamoto, Japan’s most famous genius of military affairs, made a dazzling debut. One of the indispensable abilities of a leader is to find an asset of a person and make it function effectively in an organization. In this sense, Yoritomo was a great leader because he detected the natural gift of Yoshitsune Minamoto (to be covered later) immediately. Although he sent Yoshitsune to Kyoto, Yoritomo never moved from his hometown because he knew very well that he was not a good military commander.

Thanks to the natural gift of Yoshitsune Minamoto, the Minamoto army defeated the advanced unit and the Taira family completely. However, Yoshitsune was ultimately killed by the unit sent by Yoritomo because he was not able to understand Yoritomo’s strong resolution to establish a samurai government. In short, Yoshitsune was not a politician but a military man, while Yoritomo was not a military man but a politician. No Japanese accuse Yoshitsune of his inability to understand Yoritomo’s real intention. As a matter of fact, root for the underdog (sympathy with the weak) that still clearly exists in the mindset of Japanese results from Yoshitsune’s tragedy.  

The Yoritomo Festival

Sunday, December 25, 2011

No. 3: Kiyomori Taira: the military commander who brought samurais to the front stage of politics (December 26, 2011)

Kiyomori Taira
Kiyomori Taira (1118-1181), head the Taira family, was the military commander who virtually ruled Japan for the first time in Japan. Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), head of the Minamoto family, defeated the Taira family and became the military commander who established a samurai government for the first time in Japan. In this sense, Kiyomori Taira opened up the road to and laid the foundation for a samurai government. Yoritomo Minamoto who opened Japan’s first samurai government in 1192 will be covered later. In the Japanese system, only an emperor can rule Japan, and only a member of the emperor family can be an emperor. This is the firmly established system since the beginning of the Japanese history, though emperor’s sovereign power is nominal at present. 

What Kiyomori Taira did was to rule Japan under the auspices of the incumbent emperor. In the Heian period (794-1192), aristocrats owned their lands across the country under the sponsorship of an emperor. They lived in Kyoto, then capital of Japan, and never engaged themselves in the reclamation of rural areas. It was samurais who reclaimed rural areas to create paddy fields and develop cities. Living in Kyoto, the aristocrats lent their ownership rights to samurais and received a certain amount of money in exchange for the lending. That is, samurais were never able to own the land that they cultivate by themselves. Samurais worked hard to reclaim rural areas and became powerful in their respective areas, while paying a fixed amount of money to the aristocrats in Kyoto. 
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine built by Taira Kiyomori
It is quite natural that the more powerful samurais became, the stronger their dissatisfaction with the present situations grew. The head of these samurais was the father of Yoritomo Minamoto. The samurais fought against the Kiyomori Taira under the leadership of Yoritomo’s father, but they lost the war. Kiyomori Taira killed Yoritomo’s father but did not kill Yoritomo. In later years, the Taira family was ruined by Yoritomo and his brother Yoshitsune (to be covered later). This is an irony of history. He should have killed Yoritomo. In a sense, Kiyomori Taira was a politician and not a military commander.

Kiyomori Taira was not able to work out effective measures to settle the dissatisfaction of samurais because he lived in Kyoto and knew nothing about the reality of the rural areas. In some ways, he was not a good politician. Anyway, Kiyomori Taira should be memorized as a great leader to bring samurais to the front stage of politics for the first time in the Japanese history. A drama that features Kiyomori Taira will be televised by Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) starting on January 8, 2012. 

Seto Inland Sea Kiyomori loved most

Saturday, December 17, 2011

No. 2: Ieyasu Tokugawa: the end of the age of civil wars (December 18, 2011)

Ieyasu  Tokugawa 
Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616) established his government in 1603. Coincidentally, it is the same year that Queen Elizabeth the First passed away in Great Britain. As is often the case, one has gone, and one is born. His greatest achievement is that he brought an end to the age of civil wars. He is often said to have only completed the ideas created by Nobunaga Oda who is the most innovative and creative warlord in the Japanese history, but it is not too much to say that he successfully built the foundation for the unity of Japanese under the name of peace. 

The Tokugawa government is associated with the policy of national isolation, but we have to take note that it never used the phrase national isolation. What the Tokugawa government tried to do was to prevent Japanese from being affected by Christianity that was militant in those days. That is why the Netherlands, a country of Protestants, was allowed to do business with Japanese in Nagasaki Prefecture. Anyway, national isolation helped the government last for such a long period of 265 years. And the peace-loving mindset of Japanese can originate in the peaceful period under the Tokugawa regime.

The Tokugawa government did not need military force because of the lasting peace for the 265 years. This is because it was so stunned by the arrival of four steam ships led by Matthew Calbraith Perry of the United States in 1853. Reflecting the easy-going policy of being satisfied with peace, the Meiji government hastily built up military strength to catch up with Western countries. The radical reform changed the mindset of Japanese in some ways and resulted in the disaster in 1945, and now Japanese proclaim the importance of peace. History repeats itself. 

He is a great leader, but he failed to work out measures for samurai warriors. In a sense, Ieyasu Tokugawa established his government entirely thanks to the efforts of his samurai warriors. Nonetheless, he sacrificed them for the sake of peace. However, abandoning samurai warriors was the right policy to promote peace across the country, however ruthless and merciless it was. To make up for the sacrifice of samurai warriors, the Tokugawa government categorized Japanese people into four classes and gave the samurai warriors the highest class of the four. The profession of samurai was followed by agriculture, industry, and commerce in this order. 

In the age of civil wars, samurai warriors fought for a reward that was usually land. However, as population grew, land for allocation to samurai warriors for reward grew smaller and there were scarcely any more land for allocation around the time when Ieyasu Tokugawa opened his government. Actually, the Tokugawa government had no way but to sacrifice samurai warriors to promote peace throughout Japan. In any event, the determination to promote peace seems to have affected the mindset of Japanese seeking eagerly for peace, like it or not.   

Reproduced cityscape in the Edo period

Friday, December 9, 2011

No. 1: Prince Shotoku and his days (December 10, 2011)

Prince Shotoku
Prince Shotoku (574-622) is unquestionably Japan’s first great leader. Though he was nable to become an emperor, he was the most influential figure in the early days of Japan. China was tremendously powerful in his days, and all Asian countries except Japan were subordinated by China. But Prince Shotoku strongly felt the necessity of Japan’s independence of China, and dispatched a mission to China to deliver his personal letter to then emperor of China. In his letter, Prince Shotoku expressed his desire to develop cooperative relations between China and Japan on an equal footing. 

His diplomatic sense is rather reckless from the viewpoint of the Sinocentrism. To make the matter worse, then Chinese emperor was tremendously powerful and tyrannical. Naturally, the Chinese emperor got furious about the personal letter from Prince Shotoku. However, the domestic political turmoil prevented the Chinese emperor from taking retaliatory actions. We Japanese have to remember that the resolute and decisive attitude taken by Prince Shotoku set Japan free from the subordinate position imposed by China and enabled Japan to develop without any inhibition.

The enactment of the Constitution of Seventeen Articles is another great achievement of Prince Shotoku. He emphasized the importance of harmony in Article 1 and suggested having discussions to solve a big problem in Article 17. These two articles enormously affected the mindset of Japanese in every respect of activities including politics and business. Today, lots of discussions are under way on various political issues in the Diet, and no diet member dares to take a risk. Playing safe for the sake of election seems to be prevailing in the Diet. How does Prince Shotoku evaluate today’s situation in the Diet? 

Horyuji Temple built by Prince Shogoku