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Battle of Kurikara

The battle of Kurikara, also known as the battle of Tonamiyama (砺波山), was a crucial battle of Japan's Genpei War; in this battle the tide of the war turned in the favor of the Minamoto clan.

Background

Minamoto no Yoshinaka, commander of a contingent of warriors from Shinano province, raided Taira lands several years earlier, before his raids, and the war itself, were put on hold on account of two years of famine. As conditions improved in 1183, the Taira sought retribution against Yoshinaka. Taira no Koremori, son of Taira no Shigemori and grandson of the late Taira no Kiyomori, took charge of this operation, backed by Michimori, Tadanori, Tomonori, Tsunemasa and Kiyofusa. Their forces severely reduced by battle and famine, the Taira sought to recruit warriors from the surrounding lands, and did so at the risk of further famine, since many of these warriors were farmers leaving their farms. Though some chronicles list their numbers as exceeding 100,000, this is a highly unlikely number, and other, more reliable sources have estimated it as being closer to 40,000.

Minamoto no Yoritomo, Yoshinaka's cousin, moved to fight him for dominance of the clan in March 1183, but was convinced to stand down and withdraw by Yoshinaka, who argued that they should be united against the Taira. To ensure his intentions, Yoshinaka also sent his son, Yoshitaka, to Kamakura as a hostage. Shortly afterwards, Yoshinaka received news of Koremori's army, and moved to engage him, along with his uncle Minamoto no Yukiie and so-called shitennō, his four most loyal retainers: Imai Kanehira, Higuchi Kanemitsu, Tate Chikatada, Nenoi Yukichika.

Battle

Approaching the mountain passes which connect western Honshū to the east, Koremori split his forces in two, one part taking the Kurikara Pass up to Tonamiyama, and the other entering Etchū Province through Noto Province to the north. Minamoto no Yoshinaka, seeing the Taira forces coming up the pass, arranged a large number of white flags (white being the Minamoto clan color) on a hill a few kilometers away to trick his enemies into believing that his force was larger than it really was. This was a delaying tactic, aimed at keeping the Taira atop the pass until night fell, so that the second part of his strategy could fall into place.

He divided his own forces three ways, sending one group to attack the Taira from the rear, a second beneath the Pass, as an ambush party, and the third he accompanied and held centrally. In order to conceal these movements, Yoshinaka sought to distract his enemy with a highly formal battle, beginning with archery exchanges using whistling-bulb arrows. This was followed by individual combats, to which the Taira gladly indulged, in the hopes of earning their individual places in the chronicles and epic poetry which were sure to follow such a war. In many of the chronicles, in particular the Heike monogatari, and quite possibly in historical fact, the Taira were not as accustomed to the ways of war as the Minamoto, being more effete, and more suited to the lives of courtiers. Thus, the opportunity to engage in formal, civilized, battle was an attractive one for many Taira warriors who sought to make use of their martial skills as they learned them, in the most formally proper manner.

Meanhwhile, Yoshinaka's armies moved into position, and as the sun set, the Taira turned to find behind them a Minamoto detachment, holding far more flags than a single detachment should merit, again giving the illusion of greater numbers. Yoshinaka's central force, having gathered a herd of oxen, now released them down the pass, directly into the Taira army, with lit torches tied to their horns. Many of the Taira warriors charged into the herd, while many others were simply knocked clean off the path, to their deaths in the rocky crags far below. Many more tried to retreat, but became lost in the various paths, meeting their deaths at the hands of Minamoto warriors lying in wait for them, or falling into various gorges and the like.

The surviving Taira, confused, demoralized, and having suffered heavy losses, fled. This was a major victory for the Minamoto, leading to the Taira abandonment of Kyoto. A few months after the battle of Kurikara, the Taira, along with Emperor Antoku, retreated to Shikoku.

References

  • Sansom, George (1958). 'A History of Japan to 1334'. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Turnbull, Stephen (1987). 'Battles of the Samurai'. London: Arms and Armour Press.
  • Turnbull, Stephen (1998). 'The Samurai Sourcebook'. London: Cassell & Co.

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