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Blustery Winds—The Fall of Hiraizumi

The Taira-controlled court in Kyoto had been urging Hidehira to attack Yoritomo from the rear when, in 1186, a letter arrived from Kamakura. Yoritomo addressed Hidehira as the “Ruler of the Six Back Districts,” referring to himself as the commander of the Eastern Sea Road (Tōkaidō). Despite this cordial address, Yoritomo’s message was blunt: he requested that all of Hiraizumi’s taxes in horses and gold be sent through Kamakura rather than directly to the court. This was a clear attempt to subjugate the Hiraizumi polity to the Kamakura regime. It was also an indication that Yoritomo was trapped in Kamakura, unable to pursue his western ambitions with the power of Hidehira looming at his northern border.

The fall of Hiraizumi was an event of massive historical import. In October of 1187, it is recorded that, “The [Buddhist] Novice Hidehira died in Hiraizumi Mansion.” Hidehira had called his sons Kunihira and Yasuhira to his deathbed and bade them to make Yoshitsune their leader. Unfortunately, his order was not heeded. Despite signing a pledge to Hidehira, in the end Yasuhira sent Yoshitsune’s head to Kamakura. Not a few people have directly or indirectly supported Yasuhira’s decision, arguing that he chose the way of peace, that it was because Yasuhira chose to abandon Hiraizumi rather than fight Yoritomo that the city was not reduced to ashes, or even that Yasuhira was just a regular guy unequipped for the burden with which history and genealogy saddled him. But the fact remains that he folder under pressure from Yoritomo and that his reign lasted just two years.

It is worth asking why Yoritomo was so adversarial to Hiraizumi. The first was a private grudge. Since the Former Nine Years’ and Later Three Years’ Wars of 1051-62 and 1083-1087, Mutsu had been a thorn in the side of the Minamoto clan. On the other hand, Yoritomo requested troop support from all 64 provinces outside Mutsu, evidence that his Hiraizumi campaign was also an attempt to firm up his still infant Kamakura regime. For Yoritomo, it was equally if not more important to eliminate Hiraizumi as a way to overcome dissatisfaction within the ranks of his retainers and supporters; he rewarded them with lands from the defeated northern polity’s domain.

Yoritomo entered Hiraizumi on the twenty-second day of the eighth month of 1189. In an ironic coincidence, records for this date show that an approaching typhoon brought “blustery fall winds” to Hiraizumi that same day.

The History of Hiraizumi