The Genpei War in Senryū

The Genpei War 源平合戦 (1180-1185) was Japan’s “civil war” (that fact that “civil war” is an oxymoron I’ll leave for another time!) Prior to the war the aristocratic class controlled Japan’s hegemony, but they were ousted by the warrior class, who would go on to rule the country for centuries.

The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari 平家物語) is the epic narrative-tale encapsulating the glories and horrors of the Genpei War. In it readers find tales of heroism, cowardice, cunning, idiocy, skillful warriors, hapless victims, and all the other elements befit the age of legendary warriors.

There were different versions of The Tale of the Heike that appeared as both oral and written versions. Despite these variant literary/performative mediums, “it” became one of the most influential works of literature, as is evident in the countless new literary genres it inspired and the numerous allusions authors make to it in later literary and performance arts.

I am currently teaching a class on Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi. Although Bashō is known most commonly to western readers for his haiku, he is perhaps more well known to scholars for his travel writing, in which many of his most famous haiku appear (consequently, when you read his travel writing you read his haiku within the context that they were meant to be read and not necessary as stand-alone entities).

About 500 years after the Genpei War, Bashō travels through many of the famous places in which the Genpei War was fought–this is the journey that is recorded in Oku no hosomichi. He is keenly aware of these places’ historical significance and often writes about his own reflections and experiences while passing through them.

When Bashō travels through what is now Fukushima he writes,

I went into the temple to ask for some tea, only to discover that Yoshitsune’s sword and Benkei’s portable altar were kept here as temple treasures.

Sword and altar both

Display on Boy’s Day in May

When paper banners fly1

(oi mo tachi mo satsuki ni kazare kaminobori / 笈も太刀も五月にかざれ紙幟)

In Hiraizumi he writes the poem,

The summer grasses–

Of brave soldiers’ dreams

The aftermath2

(natsukusa ya tsuwamono domo ga yume no ato / 夏草や兵どもが夢の跡)

Not knowing what to expect to find while reading the collection of senryū in Makoto Ueda’s Light Verse from the Floating World: an Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu I came across this senryū:

“Do as you see fit”–

saying those words was Yoritomo’s

one great achievement3

(yoki ni hakarae de Yoritomo yaku wa sumi)

This poem alludes to Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝, leader of the Minamoto family/clan that won the Genpei War by defeating the opposing Taira family/clan.

As I noted in an earlier post, as poetic forms go senryū resemble haiku in that they consist of 17 syllables, however their mood and subject matter are often quite different.

Unfortunately this was the only senryū Ueda included that alluded to the Genpei War. But, when comparing Bashō’s haiku to these senryū readers can really understand a difference between the two poetic forms. Bashō’s haiku both show nostalgia for the Genpei War, its warriors, and its [tragic] heroes. I didn’t include it here, but when setting up the 2nd haiku, Bashō writes that he is sitting in this field that was once a battlefield, weeping at the thought of the tragedy that occurred their.

However, the senryū alluding to the Genpei War is not nostalgic or sad, but rather sarcastic of the Minamoto general, Yoritomo. Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経, Yoritomo’s younger brother (and who is referenced to in the first haiku here) is the one who is accredited with winning the battles that are considered to be the decisive factors in the Genpei War. But, upon the defeat of the Taira, Yoritomo had Yoshitsune (and those loyal to him) executed. Thus, this senryū alludes to the idea that Yoritomo took a back seat in winning the war, but took all the glory in the end.

This shows that in senryū, nothing is sacred! A characteristic certainly not shared with haiku.

1 See Donald Keene’s The Narrow Road to Oku, 58.

2 See Donald Keene’s The Narrow Road to Oku, 86.

3 From Haifū Yanagidaru 誹風柳多留 in Makoto Ueda, 241)


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