The Heiji Rebellion and the 'Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace.'

The following print is a scene from a handscroll illustrating the epic battle narrative ‘The Tale of the Heiji Rebellion’. The tale describes the confrontation in late 1159 between two rival military clans: the Minamoto and the Taira. The scroll was painted in the 13th Century. There were 5 parts to the scroll, the most famous scene of these five scrolls is the ‘Night Attack’ and burning down of the Imperial 'Sanjo Palace’.

28NOV1159 The Heiji Rebellion was a short civil war fought in order to resolve a dispute about political power.
 In Japan at the time there were often battles between rival clans. A clan was a large number of different military and land owning wealthy families that were all in some way related or descended from a common ancestor. As years passed by, within each clan, if not the clan leader’s son, then it was whichever Daimyo landowner was the strongest at that time, that would rise up to become the leader of that clan. Their claim to the position could be strengthened by marrying the previous clan leaders daughter.

The following description of the politics and power struggles within the ruling class in Feudal Japan will help set the background scene for the short story you are about to read. The story is the true account of one of the many battles that were common in feudal Japan between the samurai of rival Daimyo lords, except that in this case it also involved treason. This battle also put Japan on a new path that would lead to the eventual overthrow of the power of the Royal court nobles, the land based aristocrats and the Emperor. It led to the rising power of the military class and a Japan destined to be led by a long line of Shogun Military Rulers:

… the events originated in the unusual, even unique, nature of Japan’s imperial world. It was prey to shifting loyalties, betrayals, and factional divisions among ambitious families who would stop at nothing in the quest for power. As elsewhere, emperors had several consorts, and daughters of the nobles served as tools in political marriages to elevate the power of their families, and above all their clan.

A scene from the 13th Century scroll: 'Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace’.

The Heiji Rebellion of 1159

The Heiji rebellion (sometimes called the ‘Heiji  Disturbance’) was started after two clans joined forces in an alliance and attacked the Emperor’s Imperial palace. They were attempting a coup where they would over throw the rule of the Emperor and place themselves as head of the government instead.

The two rebel clans wanted more political power and were also angry because they believed the Emperor had not given them enough rewards after they sent their samurai to help the Emperor win an earlier war. 

The Emperor had angered them more by giving large rewards of land and wealth to a rival clan, the Taira Clan, which they thought had given little support and sent far fewer samurai to help the Emperor in battle.

The Taira clan and one of the rebel clans, the Minamota clan, had been old rivals for many years over which coul get dominant influence in the imperial court.

These rebel forces of the Minamoto and Fujiwara Clans attacked the Imperial Palace. They attacked with 500 samurai and kidnapped the retied emperor, Go-Shirakawa and his reigning son, Emperor Nijo, placing them both under house arrest. They next attacked the manor house of the Michinori, another rival clan of the Minamoto. They set their manor house aflame killing all those inside, with the exception of Michinori himself, who was captured later and decapitated.

 After also killing the Emperor’s chief scholar the two rebel Daimyo Clan lords then started to control the Government.

However, later the Taira clan under the Daimyo leader Kiyomori led a samurai cavalry of 3000  to the Imperial Palace to fight the rebels and free the Emperor. The two rebel Clans, the Minamoto and Fujiwara clans, were taken by surprise and had not prepared a strong enough defence at the Imperial Palace.

These rebel forces were easily defeated by the Taira and the ex-Emperor Go-Shirakawa and his son were freed. The rebel leader of the Minamoto clan as well as his eldest son were killed, and leader of the Fujiwara clan was also killed. However, Kiyomori , the Taira clan leader showed mercy and allowed the two younger Minamato sons to live, and they were banished with their mother.

      (Kiyomori  Taira would one day regret this. The little boys grew up to be fierce warriors. They would one day return with a large army of samurai looking for revenge and would change history, putting Japan on a very different path.)

After Kiyomori Taira had the rebels killed, he then seized the Minamoto wealth and lands.

The victory made the Taira become the most powerful political rival in the country and the samurai gained higher social status. After the Heiji Rebellion was crushed, the government that was formed was more dominated by the samurai than any other government in the history of Japan. This rebellion marked the rise of the Taira clan power, the beginning of the decline of direct Imperial power, and the early stages of the rise of the samurai class.


A scene from the scroll of flames from the burning palace.
How well could you follow the details of the battle?
On a new page in your book or folder, under the following heading write out these sentence starters and then finish the sentences from what you remember of the battle.

    A.  The Heiji Rebellion of 1159
The two rebel clans that attacked the imperial palace and kidnapped the emperor were the...
2. Two reasons why this clan alliance attacked the emperor's palace were...
3.  After the Minamoto Clan and their allies attacked the palace they... (list five or six things the rebels did after the initial attack.)
4. You could argue that three reasons why Kiyomori, the Daimyo leader of the Taira clan were successful in defeating the rebel clans were...
5. Kiyomori of the Taira clan, later regretted sparing the lives of the two younger sons of the Minamoto clan leader because...
6. The lasting effects of the rebellion and the rise of the Taira clan to power were...

You are going to have an in-depth view of a photograph of one of the scrolls depicting the Heiji Rebellion. This scroll called "A Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace" will be highlighted for you to study by viewing it through magnifying view finder.

The view finder has a set of controls in a control panel that is easy to use.Before you use the view finder read this brief description of how the events of the rebellion are captured in the painted scrolls:

“You read the scrolls from right to left and all action flows to the left. Beginning from a point of ominous calm, a single ox carriage transports the eye to a tangle of shoving and colliding carts and warriors. With escalating violence, the energy pulses, swells, and then rushes to a crescendo of graphic hand‐to‐hand mayhem—decapitations, stabbings and hacking, the battle’s apex marked at the center by the palace rooflines slashing through the havoc like a bolt of lightning followed by an explosion of billowing flame and women fleeing for their lives amid the din.

The chaos ebbs as victors and dazed survivors stream through the rear gate, and ends in grisly, surreal calm with the dressed and tagged heads of vanquished nobles on pikes, a disorderly cluster of foot soldiers and cavalry surrounding the ox carriage, their general trotting before them in victorious satisfaction over the smoking wreckage and bloody atrocity left behind.”

When you open the viewer study the control panel on the right and work out how to manipulate the view finder:  

 You read the scrolls from right to left and all action flows to the left.

When the Japanese artists in the 13th Century painted picture scrolls, to help the viewer to understand the different stages in the rebellion or coup, the main characters appear in the scroll painting more than once.

B.  The Heiji Rebellion of 1159

1. Try and find the following scenes in the scroll painting that are depicting events described in the historical account or story recounting the actual rebellion:
a)  The rebel samurai surrounded the palace
b) The capturer of the ex-sovereign (Emperor)
c) where Fujiwara Nobuyori can be seen ordering the ex-Emperor into a cart
d) the retired emperor is placed in a cart
e) the rebels set fire to the palace.
f)  a bystander being crushed by an ox cart
g) the dead archer
h) women of the palace attempting to flee
i) supporters of the Taira clan being killed
(or is it the execution of lord Michinori ?)

2. Use the view finder to locate the paintings of the two clan leaders. Using ‘print screen’ copies, crop into thumb nail size/ small pictures one painting of each of the rebel clan leaders. Paste these pictures onto a new page in your book or folder under the above heading. Remember to label the paintings and record the source:

Nobuyori, the leader of the Fujiwara Clan firstly in colourful armour. Then later Nobuyori in court robes and on horseback, appearing in front, glancing back at the carriage.

A mounted Yoshitomo, the Minamoto clan leader, is distinguished by his red armour and a distinctive horned helmet. He appears firstly behind the carriage as it crashes onto the veranda. Then later, brandishing a bow and arrow, he is seen cantering behind carriage in the departing crowd.

 3. See if you can also find the different gestures and facial expressions - from horror to morbid humour, robes, armour, and weaponry easily identifiable according to rank, design, and type.
       Add to your collection of small pictorial primary sources, different painted figures that show each of the different types of weapons the samurai warriors, cavalry samurai and bare foot soldiers carried. Find out the correct names for each of these weapons and one or two key points of information about each.
4. The attention to detail by the artist makes this source very valuable and useful to an Historian studying this period in Japanese history. See if you can find the royal mansion’s walled gateways, unpainted wooden buildings linked by corridors, bark roofs, large shutters and bamboo blinds that open to verandas.
        Print off and paste in your book one of these architectural features, and also one of  the following: courtier, priest, imperial policeman, or one of the ladies.

This site also contains good reproductions of this source.

A modern artists impression of a Samurai battle.