The Outline of the Gempei War

Published 26 Dec 2016

Introduction Essay

This was a civil war between two clans namely the Taira and the Minamoto which was started in the year 1180 after emperor Takakura decided his two year old son Antoku instead of the legitimate prince Mochihito. Due to this Mochihito declared war unto the Taira and he was joined the Minamoto clan led by Yorimasa. It brought to an end the leadership of the Taira clan through a one Minamoto no Yorimasa when he mutinied against Taira no Kiyomori thus ending the heian era and bringing in military rule or the Kamakura Bakufu. Taira responded quickly and this led to the death of Mochihito within months and Yorimasa was terribly defeated, but his three sons namely Yoritomo, Noriyori, and Yoshitsune were spared death but banished to Uzi instead. This was a big mistake Taira had made since it is Yorimasa’s eldest son who was to defeat Taira many years to come.

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The Rise of Yoritomo

It was in the eighth month of the year 1180 when Yoritomo declared war against the Taira clan and declared himself the lordship of the province east of Japan. He also declared that he would be issuing land grants to all his followers after getting it from his enemies. His declaration was a clear challenge to the courts nobility and this brought the first non-centralized political power in Japan’s history. Despite the fact that Yoritomo had started the war with a lot of enthusiasm, in 1181 to1182 there was no war since he had no army to fight.

The Death of Kiyomori

The Taira were dealt a big blow by the death of the old Kiyomori in February 1811 and the country was plunged into uncertainty and lawlessness. Looting became common between warring clans as they used this as an excuse to attack one another and grab land from peasants. Yoritomo was ready to enter in real blown war in 1813 with the help of his cousin Minamoto Yoshinaka as he triumphed against Taira in Kurikawa and again in Tokyo when Taira was been led by Taira Munemori, a son to Kiyomori. Yoritomo, with the help of his brothers was able to overthrow Taira in Shikoku and his northern stronghold of Kyushu. The entire remnants of the Taira leadership were cleared in the year 1185 on the 24th day of April at the peninsula of Dannoura. There had been other wars in Japan before but the Gempei war was very significant.

The triumph of Yoritomo

After Yoritomo realized that he couldn’t defeat the Taira clan alone, he formed an alliance with other clans in order to form an army strong enough to challenge Taira. After they defeated Taira they abolished aristocratic rule and instead formed new offices and nominated warriors who were loyal to them during the war. This went a long way in limiting the powers of the courts although the system was not stronger as compared to the alliances. The military aristocrats and the noble didn’t immediately feel the lasting implications which were brought about by the governmental change. The Minamoto rule did not try in any way to eliminate the courts altogether but he and his close allies very generous to various noble entities who had prestige in cultural matters.

After the War

Yoritomo made an agreement with Go-Shirakawa towards the end of 1185 which gave him the control of a new system of warrior like police. He gave his allies many of these offices who used them for their own selfish needs. Yoritomo had brought up decentralization of power by having his office at Kamakuri since previously all the power was from Tokyo. Although the police otherwise known as jito and shugo was made up mostly by his allies he still needed their support to rule. Although the police had powers Yoritomo respected the nobility of the courts but most of the powers of the court had been transferred to the warrior government.


It was the high handedness of the Taira clan which led to the start of this war; and although it took many years for the Minamoto clan to win it was good for them. I think that it was the perseverance of the Minamotos that led to their triumph. One would loose but there was always another one ready to continue.

There was a time when Yoritomo was on the verge of giving up but he held on to the war and he finally won although the death of Kiyomori played a significant role in the war.


  • Hall John Whitney, Government and Local Power in Japan, 500 to 1700: A Study Based on Bizen Province, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1966
  • Schomp Virginia, Japan in the Days of the Samurai, NY, Marshall Cavendish Publishers, 1998
  • Seal F.W., Gempei War, retrieved on 19th, November, 2008, available at
  • Turnbull Stephen R., The Samurai: A Military History, London, Routledge Publishers, 1996
  • Yamamura Kozo, Hall John Whitney, Jansen Marius B. The Cambridge History of Japan: Medieval Japan, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990
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