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The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan

Tr. Helen Craig McCullough

New York: Columbia University Press, 1959; Pp. xlix, 401

Review © 2002 Branislav L. Slantchev

The Taiheiki, sometimes also translated as Chronicle of Grand Pacification, is one of the most famous war tales, or gunki monogatari, of Japanese history that relate the often tragic fates of warriors and courtiers in times of perilous civil disturbances. The greatest of them all, Heike monogatari tells of the fall of the Taira to the onslaught of the Minamoto that resulted in the establishment of the Kamakura bakufu.

The rule of the military shoguns quickly evolved into a complicated system where regents from the Hôjô family (of Taira stock) ruled in the name of the shogun who ruled in the name of the sovereign emperor, whose own affairs were really ruled by the cloistered government of the retired emperor. This continued for over a hundred years until Emperor Go-Daigo ascended the throne in 1318.

The matter of imperial succession is too complicated to describe here and one should consult a good source one the matter (e.g. Sansom's History or at least McCullough summary in the introduction). Suffice to say that Go-Daigo was resolved to rule as well as reign and to this end began a series of reforms that quickly put him at loggerheads with the military in Kamakura. The Taiheiki opens with Go-Daigo's accession, follows his fall in 1331 when Kamakura forced him to abdicate, replaced him with a prince from the senior line, and sent him into exile. The present translation of the chronicle includes only the first twelve chapters and thus ends with Go-Daigo's triumphant return to the capital in 1333 following the fall of Kamakura and the destruction of the Hôjô family.

The most regrettable shortcoming of the present translation is that it omits two thirds of the 40 chapter chronicle. McCullough's reasoning for this is that the 12 chapters included are "all of the original version of the Taiheiki" and that may be so, but in its present form the story ends on an unnaturally high note and is silent on the very disturbing and engrossing events that followed. For barely two years after the Kemmu Restoration, Go-Daigo's loyal supporters found themselves fighting the overwhelming military might of Ashikaga Takauji, the turncoat who was more than instrumental in bringing about the imperial success in 1333. The present version is silent on the fateful Battle of Minatogawa, where Nitta Yoshisada and Kusunoki Masashige were defeated and Kusunoki took his own life, to enter popular imagination as the best exemplar of a loyal tragic hero. Nothing is said about the rise of the Ashikaga that resulted in the establishment of a new line of shoguns that would last until it was destroyed by Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi in the 16th century.

Still, since it is not likely that we shall see a complete version any time soon and because most of us cannot read the original, we have to contend with what we have and for the rest we can only read Sir George Sansom's excellent narrative in the second volume of his A History of Japan.

The Taiheiki can be rather dull at times, especially when it recites with monotonous gusto the countless names of warriors, something that was doubtless fascinating to the Japanese listeners but that is excruciating to someone who wants to read the story. It does have its inspired moments, like the descriptions of the momentous sieges of Akasaka Castle, the successful defense of Chihaya, the repeated assaults on Rokuhara and Kyoto. Even with the tiresome parallels frequently made with Chinese history (and legend), the stories simmer with energy and make an exciting narrative.

The Taiheiki is the main source on Kusunoki Masashige, of whom much has been written. His dogged resistance even in the face of temporary setbacks did much to encourage the loyalist cause even at the time when the Emperor was banished to Oki and Prince Morinaga was in hiding. Kusunoki's imaginative guerilla tactics and inventive defensive operations make a rather breathless read. Still, one must not forget about Prince Morinaga, who did much to organize the imperial rebelion, lending legitimacy with his persona and using his considerable talents in the service of the Court. Both Morinaga and Kusunoki's fates are tragic, the former's perhaps even more so because he died on the order of Takauji's brother Tadayoshi while in captivity, abandoned by the Emperor whom he had helped restore. Sansom's characteristic understatement summarizes it well when he says that "in this melancholy story the Emperor Go-Daigo plays a sorry part," a correct assessment that goes contrary to traditional interpretation that assigns the Emperor a generally benevolent role of one being constantly thwarted in his good designs by unscrupulous courtiers or the boorish military.

Another remarkable part of Taiheiki comprises of the stories of the destruction of the Hôjô clan and its supporters. Once the tide of the civil war was turned with the defection of Ashikaga Takauji and his conquest of Rokuhara, Nitta Yoshisada advanced on Kamakura. What followed was pitiful, even if one believes the generally biased Taiheiki that the Takatoki (the Regent until 1326) was as dissolute and base as described. For the story is one of utter destruction, with story after story of betrayal --- when the cowardly abandon the family that had provided them with honors and privileges for years --- and death --- when the loyal commit suicide to expiate the favors bestowed on them by the sinking benefactors. One cannot fail to be moved by such sad stories as the last battle of Nagasaki, or the suicide of the protector of Etchû and his retainers who saw their wives drown themselves before ripping their bellies open and burning to death.

Although not as dramatic as Heike monogatari, the Taiheki does not lack in memorable personages, or in valiant deeds, or in base treacherous behavior, all the essential ingredients of an excellent epic. One can only hope that we shall one day have the full translation of quality comparable to the gifted narrative by Helen McCullough.

December 24, 2002

    title     = {The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan},
    author    = {Anonymous},
    year      = 1959,
    publisher = {Columbia University Press},
    address   = {New York},
    isbn      = {},
    note      = {Tr. Helen Craig McCullough; introduction, index}