Taira Clan

Taira Clan

The Taira (平 in Japanese) were one of the four most influential clan families, along with the Fujiwara, Minamoto, and Tachibana, that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian period.

According to the Sino-Japanese reading of their name, this family is also known as Heike (平家) and Heishi (平氏).

Their rise and fall was written down in the Heike Monogatari in about the 13th or 14th century and still serves as the basis for theater, film and television productions.

Taira Clan Origin

The name Taira was first given to descendants of the 50th emperor Kammu (桓武, 781-806) in the 9th century.

Since the numerous descendants of emperors often could not hold offices at court, princes were increasingly made subjects by receiving a surname, especially in the Heian period, and were given land or offices in provinces outside the capital Heian.

Over time, the original Taira family also gave rise to several offshoot branches, such as the Miura or the Hōjō, so that families of both the Taira and other clans were scattered throughout Japan.

Often these branch families named themselves after the region in which they owned land, e.g., the Ise Taira. The largest landholdings in the hands of the Taira were concentrated in eastern Japan.

Taira Clan Heian period

To defend their land holdings against neighbors, the emperor's descendants built up private armies in the provinces. Thus, like the Minamoto, the Taira soon developed into warrior powers whose military might was often called upon by the imperial court to suppress rebellions against the government.

However, the Taira did not only serve the dominant and secretly ruling Fujiwara at court. From the beginning of the 11th century, the Ise Taira formed a force for the monastic ex-emperors, whose goal was to reduce the Fujiwara's political influence at court.

There were also clansmen from the earliest times who used their power against the state and incited rebellions themselves, e.g., the rebellion of Taira no Masakado in 939.

Aiming to establish a second court, he occupied the provincial office in Hitachi, thus usurping rule over the provinces in the Kantō area and having himself proclaimed the new ruler of the country.

After only a short time, however, his rebellion was crushed by the army of Taira no Sadamori and Fujiwara Hidesato on behalf of the court in Heian, and Masakado was killed.

The warrior nobility's claim to power over the court nobility, who were incapable of fighting, was already emerging during Masakado's time, but the final triumph and rise did not follow until 200 years later under the leadership of Taira no Kiyomori.

Taira Clan Political Rise

From the 11th century onward, there was increasing internal conflict and strife among the nobles of the imperial court itself, paving the way for the loss of power of the kuge, court aristocrats such as the Fujiwara.

At the same time, the rise of the bushi, warrior families such as the Taira and Minamoto, began. The success of the Taira was based primarily on the ambition and skillful politics of their chief at the time, Taira no Kiyomori.

During the Hōgen Rebellion in 1156, they fought under his leadership alongside Minamoto no Yoshitomo for the interests of the Tennō Go-Shirakawa, who ultimately prevailed over the ex-Tennō Sutoku, giving both families prominence in politics.

This newfound power divided the former allies, and the rivalry between the two warrior families grew to such an extent that it was fought out in arms during the Heiji Rebellion in 1159/1160.

In the end, Yoshitomo and his eldest sons were killed and his three youngest, including Minamoto no Yoritomo and Yoshitsune, were exiled. As a result, the Taira had prevailed over the Minamoto for at least the next two decades and were able to greatly expand the reach of their power in the country.

Kiyomori himself not only amassed lands and wealth, but initially exercised direct influence on politics in the office of Daijō daijin, a kind of chancellor. Within a very short time, he stripped the powerful Fujiwara of their high offices and filled them with family members and allies of the Taira.

After a short time, however, he gave up the office of chancellor and pulled the strings at court from the background. Through a clever marriage policy, he united the line of the Taira with the imperial family and thus secured his own position of power.

Thus he married his sister-in-law to the ex-emperor Go-Shirakawa and later their son Norihito, Emperor Takakura, to his own daughter Toku.

Taira Clan Fall

The rapid rise and concentration of political power in Taira hands, and in the hands of one man in particular, soon led nobles, former allies and even clansmen to oppose Kiyomori.

When he forced Emperor Takakura to abdicate in 1180 and put his two-year-old grandson Antoku on the imperial throne, Prince Mochihito, Takakura's brother, felt especially left out. In the same year, the latter allied himself with the Minamoto and other enemies of Kiyomori.

The following five years saw a series of clashes that later went down in history as the Gempei War. In addition, since several natural disasters, famine and epidemics had struck the then capital city of Heian in the years 1177-1180, the mood among the people was also irritable.

To the conflict at the court in Kyōto, therefore, all of Japan captured uprisings against the representatives of the court in the provinces, a large part of which, thanks to Kiyomori, belonged to the Taira clan or were its allies.

After Kiyomori's death from illness in February 1181, the Taira were headed directly for their downfall. In the Battle of Dan-no-ura in March 1185, the Minamoto, led by Yoritomo, won the final battle.

In addition to the numerous Taira soldiers, Kiyomori's widow and the young emperor Antoku also died in this battle. In order to restore order to the country, the victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the first shogunate in Kamakura in the following years.

Taira Clan Kamakura Period

Despite the defeat by the Minamoto and the great losses, the Taira were not completely wiped out, nor was their political influence completely crushed. In the Kamakura Shōgunate, too, a branch of the Taira managed to conduct politics from the background.

In 1203, Hōjō Tokimasa, Minamoto no Yoritomo's father-in-law, was given the office of shikken. He was the regent for the Shōgun, meaning that de facto the Shikken and thus the Hōjō held all political power.

Their monopoly of power finally ended in 1333 with the overthrow of the Kamakura shogunate by the Ashikaga.

Taira Clan Important personalities

These were important members of the Taira clan.

  • Taira no Takakiyo (1173-1199)
  • Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181)
  • Taira no Shigehira (1158-1185)
  • Taira no Tomomori (1152-1185)
  • Taira no Munemori (1147-1185)
  • Taira no Shigemori (1138-1179)
  • Taira no Tadanori (1144-1184)
  • Taira no Masakado (903-940)