Battles and legends in the Seto Inland Sea 源平合戦の歴史と伝説

Naval Battle - The Genpei War

Demons, Ghosts, and Spirits; historical battles; pirates and brave warriors, myths and Japanese folklore... The Seto Inland Sea is at the heart of many legends, famous throughout the land. In four chapters, Living in Japan makes you discover these extraordinary stories. For the second part of this journey, let's explore the history of naval battles in the Genpei War in the Seto Inland Sea and associated legends.

Genpei kassen

Scene from the Genpei War (1180-1185). Kano Motonobu, (1476-1569), Muromachi period (1336 and 1573)

Wikimedia commons


At the Battle of Yashima, Nasu no Yoichi Munetaka slaughters the Taira Fan.

Denman Waldo Ross Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Battle of Dan-no-ura

On April 25, 1185, the final battle began at Dan-no-ura in the Strait of Shimonoseki. This saw 500 Taira ships compete against 850 Minamoto ships. The poor naval combat tactics deployed by the Taira are fatal to them.

In their attempt to surround the enemy ships, the Taira make a terrible mistake; of revealing despite themselves the position of the boat on which the young emperor Antoku is. From then on the imperial ship was struck relentlessly by the Minamoto archers. The arrows also fall continuously on the rowers and helmsmen of other ships. With no one left in a position to command, the Taira Clan fleet is lost.

On the imperial ship, Antoku's grandmother makes a terrible decision. Refusing to see the emperor being captured, she takes him in her arms and throws herself into the water; dragging the 7-year-old into the depths of the Seto Inland Sea. Many warriors of the clan follow this example and also prefer to commit suicide. Thus, Taira no Tomomori, one of the commanders-in-chief of the Taira army, sinks to the bottom of the water; an anchor attached to the foot.


Statue of Yoshitomo no Yoshitsune at Mimosusogawa Park in Shimonoseki


In this legend of Mimi-nashi-Hoichi or "Hoichi the Earless", a storyteller and biwa player grapples with the ghosts of the Taira clan .

Samurai lead him every night in front of an audience eager to hear the talented Hôichi recount the tragic story of the defeat of the Taira clan against the Minamoto during the battle of Dan-no-ura. Blind, the musician does not perceive that he is actually performing in the cemetery of the Akama sanctuary, where he has as spectators only the ghosts of the fallen clan.

To put an end to the hold of the spirits on poor Hoichi, priests cover his body with verses from the Heart Sutra. This protection will only be effective if he remains still and silent when we come to look for him again.

That night, the ghost samurai found nothing of Hoichi except his ears. Forgotten by the priests, the latter remained visible. It was then that a warrior, perplexed by these only two appendages, tore them from him as proof of obedience to his master.


Monument dedicated to Hôichi at the Akama jingu


Hoîchi would not be the only one to have had to deal with the ghosts of the Taira.

A few weeks after the Minamoto victory, Minamoto Yoshitsune is on his boat in Daimotsu Bay in Settsu Province (eastern part of Hyogo Prefecture and northern part of Osaka Prefecture). He flees his brother Yorimoto who has become a shogun and wrongly perceives him as a potential rival.

In the open sea, a very singular thing happens. The fog completely and suddenly darkens the horizon. The waves begin to rock the ship violently. Unable to move, the ship is then attacked by hordes of ghosts emerging from the waters. Yoshitsune and his men engage in combat but fail to get rid of these vengeful spirits; their weapons being ineffective against the specters of the Taira.

Their salvation then comes from Benkei, a faithful servant of Yoshitsune. The latter succeeds in scaring away the ghosts by fervently praying for divine protection.


Yoshitsune and Benkei attacked by the spirits of Taira warriors. Kuniyoshi Print

Wikimedia Commons by Rijksmuseum

In Shimonoseki, stories of the Taira haunting the waters of the Seto Inland Sea are still vivid. The local people tell at leisure that the Heikegani crabs that live in the strait are the spirits of the warriors of the defeated clan.

These crabs have the particularity of a carapace with a very particular pattern: the angry face of a Taira warrior! It is true that on closer inspection, the shell of the animal seems well marked with a face, which is not very sympathetic.

According to legend, these crabs would be the reincarnation of the Taira warriors since the crustaceans would have devoured their remains at the end of the battle of Dan-no-ura.

Ever since that fateful date, the Heike Crabs would roam the Seto Inland Sea in search of their lost Imperial heritage.


Heikegani crab

RD 77

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