Read Japanese Literature

The Tale of the Heike

December 04, 2021 Alison Fincher Season 1 Episode 3
The Tale of the Heike
Read Japanese Literature
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The great samurai epic and the rise of the samurai class.

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This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.


  • History of Japanese fiction and some of its most famous works
  • We’re going to start with some of the oldest works written in Japanese. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want.
  • I know it’s been a long wait since episode 2
    • My family and I caught COVID and have taken a while to get healthy again.
    • Now we’re back—expect to post new episodes every 2 weeks
  • Today we’re talking about important Japanese classic, The Tale of the Heike
    • The great samurai epic
    • The rise of the samurai class


The Tale of the Heike is also the tale of the end of Heian Japan… Genji’s Japan

  • I’ve heard Heian Japan compared to France in the 1870s under Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
    • Several thousand people making up a cultural elite with virtually no knowledge of what went on in the outside world
  • The nobles contracted the provincial warrior class to handle tax collecting and defense
    • Power of the imperial court gradually declined; by the 11th century, noble families, religious orders controlled more land than imperial gov.
    • Under their dominance, a new genre emerged: gunki monogatari—martial stories
  • Today, we’re going to focus on 2 of the most powerful warrior families:
    • And the Minamoto (kanji alternately pronounced Genji, as in The Tale of Genji)
    • And the Taira (kanji alternately pronounced Heike)
  • Heike is the epic account of the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clan that resulted in the fall of the Taira, the end of the Heian Period
    • Unlike Genji, Heike is “based on a true story”
      • Plot is intricately tied to the Genpei War (1180-1185)
    • We’re going to look at how Heike reflects courtier culture giving way to warrior culture in late Heian Japan
      • Reading some short excerpts to give you a taste of Heike
      • Take a closer look at the role of women in Heike, this period of Japanese history

  • First, two comparisons that might help us make sense of the cultural place and context of The Tale of the Heike as a work of literature
    • The ancient Greek epic, The Iliad
      • Like The Iliad, The Tale of the Heike is also a product of oral tradition
        • The epic of a great war
        • Passed down by blind bards playing biwa lutes
    • Heike is also near-contemporary with European chivalric romances that celebrate a contemporary class of powerful warlords (knights)
      • e.g. The Song of Roland; various Arthurian romances
      • The best comparison is probably The Poem of El Cid
        • The oldest preserved Castilian epic poem—Spain’s national epic
        • Like Heike, El Cid is strongly based on a true story
          • El Cid tells the deeds of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a Spanish warrior knight who briefly overthrew the Moors on part of the Iberian Peninsula


As I mentioned, Heike is the story of the rise and fall of the Taira clan

  • Enduring Buddhist understanding: the things of this world are fleeting
    • Familiar from Genji
    • The epic opens:

The Jetavana Temple bells

Rings the passing of all things.

Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,

Declare the great man’s certain fall.

The arrogant do not long endure:

They are like a dream one night in spring.

The bold and brave perish in the end:

They are as dust before the wind.

  • Buddhism in Heike is both familiar and new: 
  • Buddhism in Heian Japan didn’t leave a lot of room for lay people—non-elites, people who live separate from monasteries
  • Starting around the 12th century, many Japanese people began to practice Pure Land Buddhism:
    • Amida Buddha was a king who was deeply moved by other people’s suffering.
      • He gave up his throne and became a monk.
      • He made a series of vows, including this: “If I were to become a Buddha, and people, hearing my name, have faith and joy and recite it for even ten times, but are not born into my Pure Land, may I not gain enlightenment.”
      • Amida Buddha did reach enlightenment, presides over the Western Paradise.
        • Warriors, ordinary people call upon his name during their lives and especially when they are near death
  • Pure Land Buddhism was very appealing to the warrior class:
    • Live a secular life; end with an honorable death
    • No reason to hold onto life at all costs

  • Readers can roughly divide The Tale of the Heike into three parts with different central characters:
    • All real, verifiable historical figures
    • Taira no Kiyomori is a high-ranking official in the court of Emperor Go-Shirakawa
      • Head of the Taira clan
      • We’ll call by just his given name, “Kiyomori”
    • Minamoto no Yoshinaka is an important figure in the Minamoto
      • Boisterous oaf
    • Minamoto no Yoritomo is his more genteel cousin
      • Eventually becomes the 1st shogun of the Muramachi Shogunate
        • After Yoshinaka, shoguns more or less rule Japan until the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s

  • 1: Taira no Kiyomori (books 1-6)
    • The book begins as the former emperor retires.
  • Power is increasingly in the hands of the Taira clan.
  • Kiyomori is the leader of the Taira clan.
    • As Kiyomori’s despotism and nepotism grow, the first few chapters build a sense of impending doom for the Taira clan.
    • The next several chapters build a sense of the impending doom Kiyomori’s despotism will bring on the whole Taira family:
  • There are fires, angry spirits…
  • Kiyomori arrests and imprisons the retired emperor and loses his support
  • He orders the burning of many important temples, statues, and Buddhist texts in the old Japanese capital, Nara
    • This is sacrilege–a signal to the reader that Kiymori has become a villain
  • Karma–Kiyomori’s evil deeds in Nara come back to haunt him
    • He falls very ill.
    • He fever is literally hellish:
      • It’s too hot to stand within 30 feet of him.
      • Whatever water touches him turns to fire.
    • After he dies, we get a reminder of the epic’s most important themes–everything on earth is transient:

He whose fame had so resounded the whole length and breadth of Japan,

Who had wielded colossal power,

Kiyomori, in an instant

Floated as smoke into the sky

Over the city, while the remains

Mingled soon with the sands of the shore,

And all he had been returned to earth.

  • Books 7-9 focus on the fall of the Taira
    • Kiyomori made a lot of enemies before he died.
    • The retired emperor’s son calls for the Minamoto clan to rise up against the Taira.
    • The Minamoto crush the Taira at the Battle of Kurikawa.
    • The Taira flee Kyoto.
      • They take with them 3yo Emperor Antoku and the 3 sacred treasures Ameterasu gave the imperial family:
      • Sword, mirror, jewel

  • The victorious Minamoto clan isn’t united; it’s really divided between 2 factions: followers of Yoshinaka and followers of Yoritomo
    • Differences between the two men highlight a second important theme in Heike–ambivalence about court culture:
    • Taira fell from power in part because the became “too refined”
    • Minamoto still clearly value court manners, admire high culture
    • We see that continued admiration of court culture clearly in Heike:
    • Yoshinaka is a bit of an oaf (“boorish in the extreme”) because he was raised in the country, away from the capital.
      • The narrator makes that clear:

...Between infancy and the age of 30,

He had lived in a mountain village in the Kiso

Region of Shinano.

How could he possibly have acquired polish?

  • He is a great warrior, great man—doesn’t behave like a gentleman
  • Unlike his cousin, Yoritomo is at home in the capital.
    • In part because he has better manners, Yoritomo is appointed “barbarian subduing commander”—shogun
  • Eventually the two groups take up arms against each other. 
    • Yoritomo’s faction destroys Yoshinaka and his followers.

  • One of the most famous episodes in The Tale of the Heike closes book 9; almost a parable about the loss of refined Heian culture
  • Minamoto fighter Kumagai Naozane finds a high ranking Taira alone on the road.
  • Kumagai knocks the man from his horse and tears the helmet from his head, preparing to decapitate him.
  • But the man behind the helmet is a “a youth in his 16th or 17th year, his face lightly powdered, his teeth blackened, and about the same age as Kumagi’s son.”
    • This young man is a member of the failing courtier class
    • The kind of beauty he represents is fleeting—it will never come again
  • Kumagai wants to spare him
    • Since the boy will definitely be killed either way, Kumagai decides it would be more merciful to kill the young man himself
  • He kills the boy, strips the body
  • Entire episode is an allegory for refinement being destroyed along with the Taira:

He took off the young man’s [formal robe],

Meaning to use it to wrap the head,

And found at his waist a brocade bag

Containing a flute. “Oh, how awful!

At dawn today, within the fortress,

You could hear men making music,

And obviously he was one of them!

We boast in our army from the east

Warriors by the tens of thousands,

But I am certain not one of them

Brought a flute with him into battle!

These noble gentlemen are so refined!

  • Now that the Minamoto clan is united under Yoritomo’s faction
  • Books 10-12 are the story of the rise of Yoritomo’s younger brother and greatest general, Minamoto no Yoshitsune
    • Yoshitsune finally defeats the Taira in a naval battle at Dan-no-ura
      • Some of the remaining Taira are taken alive: the head of the clan and Kiyomori’s daughter
      • Most of the remaining Taira perish:
        • Kiyomori’s son Tomomori drowns himself
        • Kiyomori’s nephew Noritsune dies fighting
        • Kiyomori’s widow, her 8yo grandson—as we’ll discuss
    • In 1192, Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa dies
      • Before he dies, he makes Yoritomo sei-i tai shogun—the de facto leader of all Japan.
      • Yoritomo orders the execution of the last Taira male heir.
  • The Tale of the Heike ends
    • Japan won’t see lasting political stability for more than 400 years.


Women in Heike

  • Unlike The Tale of Genji, The Tale of the Heike is told from a male perspective and mostly highlights the actions of men
    • Nevertheless, women played an important role in Heike and in the historical events on which it is based.
  • Westerners tend to think of Japan as a perpetually patriarchal society
    • Really not quite true, especially historically speaking
    • When Japan was forcibly opened to the West, Japanese women had few rights
      • Expected to follow three obediences: first to father, then to husband, then to oldest son
    • Keep in mind, though, that contemporary Victorian England was a low point for women’s rights, too
      • Think about the works of Jane Austen, how difficult it was for women to support themselves if they were unmarried or widowed
    • Prehistoric Japan may have been matriarchal
    • Examples of women in important positions of power we’ve discussed:
      • Sun goddess Ameterasu who founded the imperial line
      • Queen Himiko
    • In Heian, Muromachi Periods, many examples of powerful women, women warriors

  • We’re going to talk about four such women from Heike and its historical moment:

  • Political power: Hoji Masako—Yoritomo’s wife/regent
    • Not especially important in Heike
    • But after Yoritomo died, help found a council of regents for Yoritomo’s 18yo son
      • She shaved her head and became a nun; nevertheless intimately involved in the political infighting of the Muromachi Period
      • Eventually, she acted as de facto shogun from 1219
        • Other nuns called her the “nun-shogun”
        • Historians compared her early empresses in China and Japan

  • Martial power: The oafish Yoshinaka had a famous woman fighting alongside him: Tomoe
    • Tomoe is probably the most famous samurai warrior period.
      • May or may not have existed; Heike doesn’t tend to make up characters whole cloth
    • Generally presented as not only Yoshinaka’s mistress—also one of his most trusted generals
      • Beautiful and deadly:

An archer of rare strength, a powerful warrior,

And on foot or on horseback a swordsman to face any demon or god,

She was a fighter to stand along against a thousand.

  • Appears in book 9 at Yoshinaka’s last stand
    • He tries to send her away, thinks it’s dishonorable to die alongside a woman
    • She refuses, waiting for “a worthy opponent” to fight her last fight against
      • When she finds that opponent, she brutally decapitates him before following Yoshinaka’s orders to flee
  • Women warriors weren’t all that unusual in medieval Japan:
    • Onna-bugeisha—defensive female fighters protecting their lands while their men were away

    • Onna-musha—rarer offensive fighters who engaged in offensive battle
      • Like Tomoe

  • Subversive “feminine” power:
    • Gio appears in a minor episode in book 1
      • When he spurns her, it’s one more piece of evidence that Kiyomori has become a villain.
    • Gio is the most acclaimed shirabyoshi performer.
      • A shirabyoshi performer—sings, dances while dressed as a man
        • Not courtesans, although they did sometimes sleep with their patrons
    • For 3 years, she has been Kiyomori’s favorite.
    • A younger performer comes to Kiyomori’s home and asks if she can perform.
    • Gio talks him into seeing the young woman, whose name is Hotoke.
      • Hotoke performs.
      • To Hotoke’s horror, Kiyomori instantly dismisses Gio.
      • Gio is heartbroken.
    • When Kiyomori later tries to call Gio back, she refuses:

Now that he is finished with me,

I want never to see him again.

  • Eventually her mother guilts her into going back to see Kiyomori, but he treats her disrespectfully.
    • Again, Hotoke is horrified.
    • Gio sings a song that is not only a restatement of Heike’s themes, but also a rebuke toward Kiyomori:

What misery it is to share,

As we do, the buddha nature

Yet to be so far removed

from that happy state!

  • Gio finds her own way out of the situation by becoming a nun.
  • One night, she hears a knock at the door of her hut—it’s Hotome, who has now also left Kiyomori.
  • Scholar Elizabeth Oyler describes this episode as an account of “independent professional women who find strength and community while repudiating a male-dominated world that treats them as objects of pleasure”

  • Finally, one of the most poignant episodes of Heike is of the death of Kiyomori’s widow, Tokiko: 
    • After Kiyomori’s death, his widow flees the capital with her 3yo grandson Emperor Antoku and 3 imperial treasures
      • W/ Antoku absent from the capital, Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa appoints his own younger brother emperor
      • So, while Antoku could still claim legitimacy, still has the treasures—never again returns to the capital, holds position as emperor
    • Naval battle at Dan-no-ura takes place toward the end of Heike
      • It’s clear the Taira are going to win
      • Capture is imminent; no way the victorious Minamoto are going to let Antoku live
      • Tokiko decides to take matters into her own hands, plans to leap from the boat and drown herself–along with her now 8yo grandson
        • Sounds harsh; possibly more merciful than whatever the Minamoto have in mind
        • Tokiko’s final words in Heike reveal bravery and loyalty to rival any of the soldiers in the battle
          • Also note her faith in Amida and Pure Land Buddhism

“I may be a woman,” she said, “But I will not let the enemy take me.

No, Your Majesty, I shall accompany you.

All those loyal to our sovereign, follow me!”


Your Majesty… trusting Amida to welcome you into his Western Paradise,

Face west and call his Name.

This land of ours, a few millet grains scattered in remote seas, is not a nice place.

I am taking you now to a much happier one, the Pure Land of Bliss.”


In conclusion...

  • Question I want to consider for each of the books we’ll be talking about: why are we still reading this book?
    • Important…
      • Subject of Noh and Kabuki plays, popular stories, woodblock prints, video games...
    • Beautiful
      • Hope I’ve convinced you with the excerpts we’ve heard today
      • Some of the most beautiful writing of any epic from any culture
    • Powerful meditation on mortality
  • If you want to read along with us, I’ve been using the 2012 translation by Royall Tyler
  • For more on the history of Japan, “History of Japan” podcast by historian Issac Meyer
    • You can look on our website,, for links to a couple of episodes relevant for Heike
  • Next time: Medieval and Early Modern Japanese literature
    • We’ll see the valiant female warrior Tomoe again—this time as a mournful ghost


  • If you want to offer feedback, suggestions, tweet us at @readjapaneselit
  • Special thank you to Adam Solove for production assistance
  • Thank you to Professor Rebecca Copeland for help with secondary sources and to the Japanese Literature group on Facebook
  • Thank you to Producer Khaim (K-H-A-I-M) for today’s music, @khaimmusic and

For the blog:

Support this podcast by buying your copy from 


A. L. Sadler’s text of The Tale of the Heike (free online)

Website for The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari)

  • Reading notes and summaries of the entire Tale of the Heike

The History of Japan Podcast, hosted by Isaac Meyer

Linfamy’s Japanese History and Folktales YouTube Channel

“Tomoe Gozen: Badass Women in Japanese History” at

Japanese Literature at Facebook


Marcus, Marvin. Japanese Literature from Murasaki to Murakami. Association for Asian Studies, 2015.

De Bary, Theodore, et. al, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, Columbia, 1964.

McAlpine, Helen and William. Japanese Tales and Legends, Oxford, 1989.

Mori, Masaki. Epic Grandeur: Toward a Comparative Poetics of the Epic. State University Press of New York, 1997.

Oyler, Elizabeth. “Gio: Women and Performance in the ‘Heike Monogatari’.” Harvard Review of Asiatic Studies, 2004.

Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Columbia, 2008.

Context and overview
Plot summary
Women in Heike