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Naval Battle of Dannoura

Leaping 8 Boats - The Showdown at Dannoura
By Kunitsuna Utagawa 1805-68
By Kunitsuna Utagawa 1805-68

The great naval battle of Dannoura in 1185 was the final climax of a long series of bitter wars of two powerful families in feudal Japan. The Minamato clan under their brilliant military leader Yoshitsune defeated the Taira in the naval battle of Dannoura - off the northern island of Kyushu once and forever.

Yoritomo Minamoto - Shogun of Japan

Yoshitsune's brother Yoritomo Minamato became the first Shogun ( military leader ) of Japan. The powerless emperor had a purely figurative role. The system of the Shogunate lasted until 1867, when Yoshinobe, the last Shogun of the Tokugawa clan was forced to resign.

The Minamato are also called Genji and the Taira clan is also known as the Heike or Heishi.

Minamato against Taira

The military Taira clan under their leader Kiyomori had defeated the rival family of the Minamato during the Hogen (1156) and the Heiji wars (1159-1160). Yoshitomo, the leader of the Minamato, and his eldest son was killed. Three of his younger sons, Yoritomo, 13 years old, Noriyori 5 years and Yoshitsune, an infant at that time, were left alive. Yoshitsune was put into a monastery.

After the Taira had expelled the Minamato from the capital Kyoto, they ruled over Japan from 1159 to 1181. However they could not gain full support by the regional lords, the daimyo. And when the patriarch Kiyomori died in 1181, the Minamato had fully resumed their fight against the hated Taira. Yoshitsune, now a young man in his early twenties, had escaped from the monastery and joined the rebel forces of his elder brother Yoritomo.

The Gempei War

In 1183 the Taira were forced to retreat from the capital of Kyoto. Together with the six year old child Emperor Antoku and his mother Tokuko, a daughter of the late Kiyomori, they fled with their army to the western provinces - desperately trying to gain support from regional lords.

The Taira army finally retreated to Ichi-no-Tani near Kobe, where they built a fortress at the slope of a steep mountain cliff with the sea at the other side, where the Taira naval fleet anchored. The fortress was only accessible either by sea or by a well-guarded road.

Yoritomo had sent his younger brother Yoshitsune with a small force of 150 horsmen to pursue the Taira.

Yoshitsune was not only a courageous but also a smart military leader. He took a few of his best men and climbed down the cliffs - protected by the night and stormy weather. With bows and arrows they set the wooden roof tiles of the Taira fortress on fire. The Taira family and their soldiers were completely taken by surprise. They were either killed in combat or could escape to the sea where they were picked up by their naval fleet.

Fierce Naval Battle off Dannoura

The Taira regathered with their fleet at Yashima off the island of Shikoku. Yoshitsune had returned to Kyoto. But one day he decided to go for the final show-down. With a small group of horsemen he attacked Yashima by night, confusing the enemy with a lot of tricks. Although the Taira warriors outnumbered the Yoshitsune troop, they were finally forced to retreat to their ships and sailed into the open sea.

A few weeks later a strong army and the naval fleet of the Minamato clan had reached the Taira ships off the coast of Dannoura ( Dan-no-ura ). This time the Minamato troops outnumbered the Taira warriors by three to one. The battle was first fought by bows and arrows from ship to ship and in hand-to-hand combat after boarding the enemy ships.

The Taira had no place to flee and nothing to lose. They fought bravely. But after some of the Taira followers had switched sides during the battle, the fate had turned against them. Finally one of the renegades had revealed to the enemy on which ship the emperor Antoku could be found. After a fierce and grim battle, the forces of the Minamato prevailed.

Many Gruesome Suicides

When the battle was lost for the Taira, many Taira noblemen committed suicide by jumping into the sea and drowning themselves. Among them was also Kiyomori's widow and grandmother of the child emperor Antoku. She grabbed the child and leaped into the sea. Both drowned.

The suicide attempt by Antoku's mother, Tokuko, was unsuccessful. She was pulled out of the sea by Minamato warriors. Tokuko was brought to Kyoto and became a nun of the Jakkoin Temple. She took the name Kenreimon-in and died in 1191 at the age of thirty-six.

The brave general of the Taira clan, Tomomori, was fataly wounded. He tied himself to an anchor and drowned himself into the Bay of Dannoura.

Some Taira warriors could flee into the high mountains. According to Japanese legends, they established hidden villages in the mountains where they remained for generations.

To understand the frequent suicidal events in Japanese history, one should know that a Japanese considers a graceful death preferable to a life in shame.

Yoshitsune - a Tragic Hero

Yoritomo had established himself as Shogun. But he was too jealous of his brilliant younger brother and searched for a chance to get rid of him. He suspected Yoshitsune of maintaining close connections with the emperor and became increasingly hostile towards his brother. Besides, the noble Yoshitsune was opposed to his brother's reckless persecution of members of the Taira family after the victory of Dannoura.

When Yoritomo demanded the head of Yoshitsune's wife, a princess with Taira blood in her veins, he and his uncle Yukiie tried an uprise against Yoritome. But their rebellion was crushed. Yoshitsune and his followers were forced to flee to the north. When they were ambushed by the hostile forces of his brother, Yoshitsune killed his family and committed suicide in 1189. He was barely thirty years old.

Yoshitsune became a great, popular heroe in Japan. The Kabuki play of Yoshitsune is an emotional document about this tragic heroe from the history of feudal Japan.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura