Osprey’s newest Campaign title The Gempei War promises to be the most up do date and authoritative English account of the pivotal Samurai Civil War yet written. In anticipation of the release later this month, author Stephen Turnbull, Samurai author and all around good guy, has been kind enough to answer some questions about the Gempei war.
J: The role of the Shogun is a familiar one, most people will know about it through Clavell’s book and the series that followed, and I guess more recently the Total War video game franchise. But given that this book focuses on how the Bakufu [Bakufu is the shogun’s government] was created and the rise of the first Shogun, could you tell us a little more about how Japan was run before Taira Kiyomori [the guy who kicked things off] came to power?
ST: It was essentially an imperial bureaucracy on the Chinese model, defended by the loyal samurai (until they appreciated the advantages of being disloyal!!)
J: There is constant reference to aids, guards, grooms and retainers in addition to the Samurai. Would these be considered just common foot solders, or would they too be samurai, and is there a typical dynamic in the small familial units that predominated and were they in turn supported by these men?
ST: You have to remember that the idea of samurai as a definite closed class really only begins with the Tokugawa in 1603. There was wider spectrum in the 1100’s.
J: This sort of leads on for the last question. You speak of the varying degrees of samurai. Some were obviously wealthy and some where humble, is it generally accepted that these served as foot soldiers and did they tend to form a sort of retinue around mounted samurai, who in turn fought for a specific lord?
ST: Spot on!
J: During the Battle of Ichinotani Hirayma Sueshige’s standard bearer was killed and he put himslef into considerable danger to take revenge. Unlike in the 16th and 17th century, Samurai don’t seem to have worn the distinctive back banner during the Gempei War. So standard bearers, who we may assume must have been of fairly high status, were obviously important and would have had to have remained close to their master at all times. What was the status of these men and why did Sueshige feel it necessary to avenge his man?
ST: Spot on again. The standard was the rallying point and as precious as regimental colours.
J: The ritualistic nature of much of the fighting described in the Heike Monogatari [primary source] is often wonderfully romantic, but is tempered by the ghastly reality of Samurai warfare (the fight between Zenji and Noritsuna is utterly primal). So much of which seems to inform the later ideals of Bushido as you point out. Minamoto Yarimosa committed seppuku at 1st Uji, seemingly in the face of the enemy, similarly there is a trend during the war for warriors to do this, such as when Okabe Tadazumi paused his killing stroke on Taira Tadanori to allow him to say a prayer before taking his head. Was it a part of the “code” to allow an opponent to stop mid fight, or give him breathing room to take his own life, or prepare himself properly for death?
ST: Remember Heike Monogatari is a story based on fact for the edification of the samurai. I think it was far more brutal!
J: Can you just elaborate a little on some of the huge cultural impact the Gempei War had on Japanese history?
ST: Yes, the Shogunate, the reduction of the emperor and the creation of samurai mythology big time.
J: Is there anything you didn’t have room to include in the book that you would like to mention about the Gempei War?
ST: Lots more battles and blood!!
Well I hope this has wetted your appetite for this book, thanks so much to Stephen Turnbull for answering all of my (rather long winded) questions. My review will be posted next week, and until then take a piece of advice for your own peice of mind: Always make sure you double check your horse’s girth strap before starting a race to be first into battle. (If you want to find out what that means… You will need to buy the book which is available to pre order from Osprey https://ospreypublishing.com/the-gempei-war-1180-85 and Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gempei-War-1180-85-Samurai-Campaign/dp/1472813847 now)
Please note there is an error on the Amazon “Look inside function” that shows a different book.