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The Heian Aristocracy, The Rise of the Warriors

brigands, bushi, military skills, swordsmanship, imperial family

As the effective influence of the imperial court gradually waned from the 9th century through the 12th century, power in the provinces devolved to local warriors (bushi or samurai). The warriors were typically landholders, usually small estate proprietors or estate managers. They lived in small, fortified compounds, surrounded by palisades or earthen fortifications, and they dominated the surrounding peasant communities. Often warriors served as local district officials, responsible for collecting taxes on remaining public lands. Much of their time was devoted to the cultivation of martial skills—archery, horsemanship, and swordsmanship. With their land holdings, military skills, and access to local office, the warriors constituted a powerful local elite.

Local warrior families often banded together for protection into larger groups based on kinship ties. These warrior bands were effective in settling disputes over land and protecting their local communities from brigands and bandits. The imperial court, which maintained no standing army of its own, often relied on regional alliances of warrior bands to put down local rebellions or to deal with piracy. The court appointed members of distinguished provincial families, many of them descended from the imperial family or aristocratic families, to command these regional alliances. Particularly important were two warrior families descended from early 9th-century emperors: the Seiwa Minamoto, based in eastern Japan, and the Ise Taira, based in the southwest.

By the mid-12th century the Minamoto and the Taira had been drawn into political disputes at the capital. In 1156 an attempt by a Fujiwara official to regain power sparked an imperial succession dispute at the court, with each faction recruiting military leaders to its cause. The Taira and one branch of the Minamoto together defeated the Fujiwara faction, but Taira Kiyomori emerged as the dominant figure at court. His authority was briefly and unsuccessfully challenged in 1160 by an alliance between the Minamoto and the Fujiwara. Thereafter, Kiyomori continued to build his influence at court, placing relatives in key offices at the capital and in the provinces, and marrying one of his daughters into the imperial family. His infant grandson became emperor in 1180.

That same year Minamoto Yoritomo, a Minamoto leader, led an uprising against the Taira. The ensuing civil war, known as the Gempei War, ended five years later in 1185 when the Taira forces were finally defeated at the Battle of Dannoura near the modern city of Shimonoseki on the Inland Sea.

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