Gen Sanmi Yorimasa, The Knight

Long, long ago in Japan there lived a brave knight named Gen Sanmi Yorimasa. Yorimasa was his own name, while Gen was the great clan to which he belonged, the Genji, or Minamoto, famous in history, and Sanmi showed that he was a knight of the Third Rank at Court, from the word san, which means “three.”

Now Yorimasa is so celebrated a warrior that to this day his picture is painted on the kites which the little boys of Japan fly at the New Year, and if you visit the temple of the Goddess of Mercy, at Asakusa, in Tokyo, you will see his portrait even there. And at the Boys’ Festival, on the fifth of the fifth month, when in every household where there are sons the favourite heroes of the land are set out in the alcove of honour of the guest-room, you will surely find amidst the martial show of toys the figure of an archer clothed from head to foot in gay armour, with a huge bow in his hand and a quiver full of arrows on his back. That is Yorimasa of brave and dear memory.

Yorimasa was the fifth descendant of the Great Knight Raiko, who killed the demons of Oyeyama about whom you will soon read. As a youth Yorimasa was noted for his valour and his skill in archery, and he was soon called to the Court and given the important post of Chief Guard of the Imperial Palace.

Now, though Yorimasa was a man of ability and the greatest archer of his time, and though he had done deeds of note which had brought him into prominence, yet for some unaccountable reason his rank at Court remained stationary, and he did not advance from the Fourth degree (Shi-i), which he had when he first entered the sacred precincts of the Palace. The humour of the situation caught Yorimasa’s fancy, for he was very quick-witted, and one day, smiling to himself, he sat down at his writing-table and composed a poem lamenting his bad luck. From the earliest ages the Japanese have trained themselves, at the times when their feelings are stirred by some event which causes happiness or sorrow or disappointment, not to give way to their emotions, but to control their minds sufficiently to compose a poem on the subject.

Yorimasa’s poem was of thirty-one syllables,[1] and in five short lines he said gracefully that “one who has not the means of climbing upwards remains under the tree and passes his life in picking up beechnuts.” Now in Japanese the word for beechnuts is shi-i, and this word also means the Fourth Rank at Court. So that the couplet was a pun on his not being promoted. Yorimasa read the poem laughingly to some of his friends, and they, admiring his wit, repeated it and talked about it till it became quite famous in the Palace, and at last reached the Emperor’s ear. The sympathy of His Majesty was aroused, and soon after this Yorimasa was raised to the rank of the Third degree, sanmi, and by this title he has ever afterwards been known.

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Now it happened that at this time the Emperor became ill and could not sleep at night. He complained of disturbance and a great sense of oppression from sunset to sunrise. His courtiers, full of anxiety, sat up to watch the night through, to see if they could discover the cause of the Emperor’s agitation. Some kept vigil in and round the Imperial chamber, others on the wide-eaved verandahs, and some in the courtyard of the Palace. Then the watchers on the verandahs and in the courtyard noticed that as soon as the sun set a black cloud came from the eastern horizon of the capital, and travelling across the city finally rested on the roof of the Palace called the Purple Hall (Shishinden) of the North Star, where the Emperor slept. As soon as this cloud alighted on the Palace, the Emperor’s sleep became disturbed, as if by frightful nightmare. Those in attendance round the royal bed heard strange scratchings and noises on the roof as if some dreadful beast were there. These unusual sounds and the nightmare of the Imperial sleeper lasted till dawn, when it was noticed that the black cloud always withdrew.

Now in the Palace there was great commotion. The Minister of the Right and the Minister of the Left, whose duty it was to guard the Emperor from all harm, held long and anxious consultation as to what should be done. Every one in the Palace was of the opinion that the black cloud hid some monster which for some unknown cause haunted the Emperor. It was quite certain that unless the monster were killed, and that soon, the Emperor’s life would be endangered, for he was growing weaker and thinner every day. The question was, who was brave enough to undertake the task? The Palace sentinels were already scared, so it was useless to expect help from them. The Ministers must seek for some brave samurai well known for his daring and his skill as an archer and put him on night-duty, charging him to kill the monster as soon as it should appear. The courtiers, one and all, said that Yorimasa was the man. An Imperial messenger was therefore at once sent to the knight, with a letter telling him what was demanded of him.

Yorimasa, when he read the letter, looked very grave, for he felt the responsibility of his new duty, which was different from all other work; for on him now depended the recovery of the Emperor, who was visibly growing worse and living through each day in terror of the nightmare which haunted him in the darkness.

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Yorimasa was a man of great courage and resource, and lost not a moment in getting ready. He strung his best bow most carefully and placed his quiver in two steel-headed arrows. He then put on his armour, and over his armour he donned a hunting-dress, and to look more courtly he put on a ceremonial cap instead of a helmet. He chose his favourite retainer, the bravest and strongest of all his soldiers, to accompany him. Yorimasa now set out as calmly and quietly as if he were simply going to his every-day duty and nothing more. As soon as his arrival was made known, he was summoned to the presence of the Ministers of the Right and the Left and told of all that was happening at Court—how every night at the hour of sunset a black cloud was seen to issue from the east, approach the Palace, and finally cover the roof of the Purple Hall of the North Star where the Emperor always slept. Then the Ministers told the knight of the strange noises that were heard on the roof, of the howlings and scratchings which lasted all night till the dawn broke. It behoved him, they said, to do his best to kill the monster, if such it was, for all the guards were now thoroughly frightened, and none of them dared attack it in hand-to-hand fight, and none had skill enough to hit it in the dark, though the Emperor’s own body-guard of archers had tried again and again.

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Yorimasa listened to the strange story gravely. He saw that the whole Palace was in a state of alarm and disturbance, but he did not lose heart. With the greatest self-possession he waited for the end of the day. As soon as the sun set, the night grew stormy; the wind blew a hurricane, the lightning flashed, and the thunder roared. Nothing daunted by the fury of the elements, the brave archer waited and waited. It must have been near midnight when Yorimasa saw a thick black cloud sweep down and settle on the roof of the Palace. He bade his retainer be ready with sword and torch at any moment and to follow him closely. The black cloud moved along the ridge of the grey-tiled roof till it stopped at the northeast corner, just over the Imperial sleeping-chamber.

Yorimasa cautiously followed the movements of the cloud, his man just behind him. Straining his eyes, Yorimasa saw, during a vivid flash of lightning, the form of a large animal. Keeping his eyes on the spot where he had seen the head, while the peals of thunder crashed like cannon above, in the darkness which followed he caught the glare first of one eye and then of the other as the creature moved along.

“This must be the monster who disturbs the Emperor’s rest!” said Yorimasa to himself.

With these words he fitted an arrow to the bow, and aiming to the left of where he saw the left eye glare he pulled his bow as round as the full moon and let fly. Yorimasa felt that his arrow had touched flesh. At the same moment there was a frightful howl and a heavy thud, and the writhing in agony of some animal on the ground, which showed that Yorimasa had done his work well.

Now Yorimasa’s retainer rushed upon the monster; in one hand he held a blazing torch, in the other a short sword with which he stabbed the creature nine times and quickly despatched him. Then they both raised their voices and called to the sentinels and the courtiers to come and look. A strange sight was in store for them. Never had any of them seen anything like the monster that lay before them. The dreadful beast was as large as a horse; it had the head of an ape, the body and claws of a tiger, the tail of a serpent, the wings of a bird, and the scales of a dragon. They had heard and read of such creatures in some of the old books, but had always thought that such stories were old women’s fables, to be told and whispered by grey-haired dames round the hibachi (fire-brazier) to their wonder-struck grandchildren, but never to be entertained seriously by men of sense. For a few moments they were all struck dumb with astonishment; they gazed silently first at the strange and horrible beast before them, then at Yorimasa, the slayer of it. Exclamations of wonder burst from their lips. Then one and all turned to the brave archer and congratulated him on his wonderful feat, his courage and his marksmanship. It seemed as if they would never cease applauding him.

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The animal was flayed and its skin was carried to the Emperor, who ordered it to be stored as a curiosity in the Imperial treasure-house. His Majesty was highly pleased. He sent for Yorimasa and bestowed on him a sword called Shishi-Wo, or the King of Lions. The time of the year was the beginning of the fifth month; the crescent moon hung like a silver bow in the twilight sky, and the cuckoo[2] was calling from the trees near by; so the Minister of the Left who handed the sword to Yorimasa improvised the first half of a stanza saying:

“O cuckoo of wonder, even your name Climbs ever upward to the Heaven!”

Then Yorimasa, on his knees with uplifted hands and bowed head, received the sword, and as he did so he completed the short poem with these words:—

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“Not through thine own: but through the merit of a moon-shaped bow!”

The Minister used the cuckoo then calling in the trees as simile of the brave warrior whose fame was rising now at Court because of his brave deeds, and Yorimasa modestly answered that all was due not to his skill, but to his bow, which he likened to the crescent moon then reigning in the sky. Both turned to the scenery of the moment for inspiration—the Minister in expressing his praise and the warrior in receiving it with becoming humility and grace. The Emperor also considered this a fitting occasion to give Yorimasa the Lady Ayame (Iris) for his wife, and about this incident there is a pretty story.

The Lady Ayame was the most lovely lady-in-waiting in the Palace, and as good as she was beautiful. Not only in beauty, but in mind and heart, was she superior to all the other ladies-in-waiting, and both the Emperor and Empress held her in high esteem. Many were the Court nobles who fell in love with her, but all in vain; there was not one, however great or rich or handsome, who could make her so much as grant him even a fleeting smile. Time after time these noble suitors wrote her letters and poems, telling her of their hopeless love and beseeching her to send them but a single line in reply. But only her silence answered them. She remained obdurate to all entreaties.

One day Yorimasa, when on duty in the Palace, caught a passing glimpse of the Lady Ayame, and from that hour his heart knew no rest. He could not forget the witching grace nor the modest beauty of her lovely face; sleeping or waking the vision of his lady-love was always before his eyes, and it seemed to grow more vivid as the days went by. Time after time he wrote her letters and composed poems asking her to marry him, but the Lady Ayame treated Yorimasa as she treated all her other wooers—she vouchsafed him no reply. For three long years Yorimasa waited and hoped and despaired, and waited and hoped again, content if once in a way from a respectful distance he could catch a glimpse of her. In spite of long and cold discouragement he loved her perseveringly.

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The Emperor had heard of the knight’s constancy, and now sent for his favourite lady-in-waiting, thinking this the right time to reward Yorimasa’s prowess and the Lady Ayame’s merit, and to make them both happy.

As soon as Ayame appeared, His Majesty said: “Lady Ayame, is it true that you have received many letters from the knight Yorimasa? Is it so?”

At this the Lady Ayame blushed like a peach-blossom in the glow of dawn, and hesitating a moment she replied: “May it please the Son of Heaven to condescend to send for Yorimasa and ask him!”

His Majesty then commanded her to retire, and forthwith summoned Yorimasa to his presence.

It was the fifth of May, the Spring Festival, and Yorimasa came robed in gala attire. He presented himself below the dais on which the Emperor was seated and prostrated himself before the throne.

“Is it true,” and the Emperor smiled as he spoke, “that you love the Lady Ayame?”

Yorimasa was bewildered by the suddenness of the question and knew not what to reply, for he knew it to be strictly forbidden by Court etiquette to write love-letters to any lady-in-waiting, and he had done this persistently.

Now the Emperor saw Yorimasa’s confusion and felt sorry for him. A bright thought struck His Majesty. He would please and puzzle Yorimasa and have some fun at his expense at the same time as well. He whispered an order to the chief master of ceremony.

In a short time three ladies appeared, heralded by attendants. As they moved across the mats of the immense hall, Yorimasa saw that they were all dressed exactly alike, and that even their hair was done in the same style, so that it would be impossible for any one who did not know them well to distinguish one from the other.

Who were they? Was the Lady Ayame one of them?

Like maidens of Heaven (tennin) did the three noble damsels appear and their robes were beautiful to behold. So alike were they, and their beauty so extraordinary, that Yorimasa compared them to plum-blossoms on a branch seen through a window.

“The Lady Ayame is here,” said the Emperor. “Choose her from among three ladies and take her.”

Yorimasa bowed to the ground. He was overcome with the graciousness and kindness of the Emperor. But the task laid upon him he felt to be too difficult. Being a military man and inferior in rank to the Court circle, Yorimasa had never had an opportunity of seeing any of the Court ladies face to face. All he had seen of the Lady Ayame was sometimes a glimpse of her from the courtyard, where he was stationed, as she passed along the corridors of the Palace. Once at a poetical party, to which he had been admitted as a great favour, he had seen her, at the further end of the hall, glide with trailing robes of ceremony into her place behind the silken screen which always hid the women from view at such gatherings. That was all he had ever seen of her, so that now he could not distinguish her from the rest.

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The Emperor was pleased at the success of his pleasantry. He saw that Yorimasa was fairly perplexed, and that he was unable to pick out his lady-love from her companions.

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“I am a soldier and no courtier,” thought the knight, “I may not presume to lift my eyes to a lady above the clouds.[3] Nor can I be sure which is Ayame. Were I to make a mistake and choose the wrong lady, it would be a lifelong disgrace and disappointment to me!”

The perplexity in his mind at once rose to his lips in the form of a short poem, which he repeated:—

“In the rainy season when the waters overflow the banks of the lake, who can gather the Iris?” Such is the meaning of the verse.

By the rainy season Yorimasa meant his three years of hopeless courting, during which his eyes had become dim with the tears of disappointment he had shed, so that he could no longer see clearly enough to discover which was the lady of his choice. In this way he excused himself for his seeming stupidity, and showed a modest reserve which pleased all present.

The aptness and quickness of Yorimasa’s verse won the Emperor’s admiration. The tears stood in the august eyes, for he thought of the great love wherewith Yorimasa had loved the Lady Iris, and of the sorrow and patience of his long wooing and waiting. His Majesty rose from his throne, descended the steps of the dais, and going up to Ayame took her by the hand and led her forth to Yorimasa.

“This is the Lady Ayame, I give her to you!” were the golden words of the Emperor.

To Yorimasa it must have seemed too wonderful almost to be true. The great desire of his life was given him by the Emperor himself!

Then Yorimasa led his beautiful lady-love away and married her, and we are told that they lived as happily as fish in water; and it seemed as if they had but one heart between them, so harmonious was their union. In the Palace there was great rejoicing over the auspicious event, and all the courtiers praised the merit of the verse which had finally given Ayame to Yorimasa and won the Emperor’s special commendation. The happy couple received the congratulations of the Emperor and Empress, of the courtiers and many noble people, and wedding-presents innumerable. Surely at this time there was no one happier than Yorimasa in all the land.

There are many stories told of Yorimasa which show us that he was not only a brave soldier and a man of learning and a poet, but also a man of wit and tact who knew how to use men as he willed.

Now one day a band of discontented turbulent priests came to the Palace Gate where Yorimasa was on guard, and demanded entrance. It must be explained that in those days the Buddhist priests of Kyoto were a set of wild and lawless men who often brought shame to their religion by their wicked lives. They lived outside the city on Mount Hiei, which they made their stronghold, and, forgetting the dignity of their religion, they took sides in war and in politics. They gave trouble to those in authority, especially to those who did not favour them. They used the smallest event as an occasion for carrying swords and bows and arrows, and it was their habit to go out equipped like soldiers going forth to war.

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Yorimasa saw that the priests were all well armed, and only too anxious to find a pretext for drawing their swords. They carried with them in great state the sacred palanquin of their temple. In this palanquin their patron god was supposed to dwell, and it was borne aloft on the shoulders of fifty men. With loud shoutings and a wild display of strength the priests rushed the car along, now lifting it high above their heads, now staggering under its weight, as it seemed about to crush them to the ground.

Now Yorimasa was in no mood for fighting that day, and it seemed to him not worth his while to set his men—the best fighters and archers in the realm—against a handful of priests whom he could disperse in a few minutes; besides, these priests from Mount Hiei were troublesome fellows and he did not wish to earn their enmity. So laughing quietly to himself he said that he would have some fun at their expense.

When the procession stopped opposite the gate, Yorimasa with his captains of the guard sallied forth to meet the noisy crowd, and coming in front of the palanquin bowed in reverence before it with slow ceremony.

The priests, who had expected and were prepared for a very difficult reception, were surprised and somewhat taken aback. After some parley amongst themselves, their spokesman advanced and asked leave to enter the gate, saying they had a petition to present to the Emperor.

Yorimasa sent his captain forward.

“My lord bids you welcome,” he said, “and wishes me to say that he worships the same god as yourselves, and he is therefore averse to shooting against the Mikoshi [sacred palanquin] with his bows and arrows. Besides this, we are very few in number, so that your names will be dishonoured and you will be called cowards for having chosen the weakest post to fight. Now the next gate is guarded by the Heike soldiers, who are much stronger in numbers than we are. How would it do for you to go round and fight there? You would surely gain glory in an encounter with them.” The priests were so pleased by the flattery of this speech that they did not see that it was a ruse on the part of Yorimasa to get rid of them easily, and that he was sending them round to bother his rivals. He had also appealed to their best feelings, for Japanese chivalry teaches that in the event of choosing between two enemies the weaker must always be spared.

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Some polite answer was made to Yorimasa, and then the priests shouldered the Mikoshi and departed in the same spirited and vociferous manner that they had come. They went to the next gate, guarded by the Heike. Battle was given at once, for they were refused admittance. The priests were beaten and fled for their lives to the hills.

All these stories show us that Yorimasa was a clever man in every way, but in the end he was unfortunate, and for this there was no help.

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When we read the story of his ill-fated death our hearts are filled with sorrow for him. It is not always as one wishes in this world, and Yorimasa did not meet with the fate his meritorious deeds and character deserved.

The Heike or Taira clan were now in the ascendant (Yorimasa, it will be remembered, belonged to the Genji or Minamoto), and Kiyomori, their despotic and unprincipled leader, was Prime Minister. All the important posts in the Government he gave to his sons, grandsons, and relations, who under these circumstances, seeing that they owed everything to him, did just as the tyrant ordered. All samurai who did not belong to the Heike clan he treated unjustly, even throwing those he did not like into prison, whether they were innocent or guilty of the crimes or behaviour deserving such punishment.

As a general of the rival Genji clan, Yorimasa suffered much from this unfair treatment. As he watched the arrogant conduct of Kiyomori and his son Munemori, he longed to be able to punish them and to bring retribution on the whole clan, and to this end he thought and worked and planned.

At last the Heike became so overbearing and so powerful that their actions passed the bounds of all reason, and Kiyomori, on a question of succession to the throne, confined the reigning Emperor in his Palace.

This last step was too much for Yorimasa; he could endure this state of things no longer, and he resolved to make a bold strike for the right. He placed Prince Takakura, the son of the late Emperor, at the head of his army and set out to do battle with the Heike.

But the Genji were far inferior in numbers to the Heike, and, sad to relate, Yorimasa was defeated in his good and just cause. With the remainder of his army he fled before the enemy and took refuge in the Temple of Byodoin, situated on the river Uji.

The Byodoin Temple, a large edifice near Kyoto, remains to this day. Here Yorimasa made a last stand to afford time for Prince Takakura to escape. He divided his men into two parties—one division he stationed as a reserve force in the grounds of the temple, while the other he drew up in battle array along the banks of the river. In case of pursuit, to prevent the enemy from crossing the river, they tore up the planks which formed the flooring of the bridge, so that only a skeleton of posts and cross-beams remained. Then they rested and waited to see what would happen.

The Heike soon came in sight following hard after them. First came the generals, then the soldiers, twenty-eight thousand strong. They approached the bridge, but stopped short when they saw what the Genji had cleverly done. In a few minutes they ranged themselves along the bank facing the enemy.

Both armies now stood confronting each other on either side of the Uji. Simultaneously the order was given to fight by both the Genji and the Heike generals and a fierce discharge of arrows from both sides ensued.

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Then there rushed forth from the ranks of the Genji a huge priest, Tajima Bo by name (in those days the Buddhist priests often took part in battles); brandishing an enormous halberd he dashed out alone on the skeleton bridge. The Heike, thinking that he made an excellent target, shot a shower of arrows at him, but he was not in the least daunted. When the arrows were aimed at his head, he stooped and they passed over him; when they were aimed at his legs, he jumped high in the air and they flew under him; when they were aimed at his body, he swept them aside with his halberd; and in this way he escaped free from hurt. So quick was he in his movements, and so marvellous was the way in which he balanced himself in his progress across the bridge, that he seemed to be endowed with power more than human; and not only his own comrades but the enemy also looked at him in breathless admiration.

Then another of Yorimasa’s men, also a priest, Jomyo by name, inspired by this example, came forth and stood up at the end of the bridge, and fitting his arrows to the bow, in rapid succession shot about a dozen of the foe, in the twinkling of an eye.

Crying out, “Oh, this is too much trouble!” he threw away his bow and arrow, and walked over the bridge on another beam, sweeping aside with his sword the arrows aimed at him.

Yet another priest, famous for his great strength, dashed out and followed after his friends across the bridge. He soon came up with Jomyo, but as the beams of the bridge were narrow he could not pass him. Stopping for a moment to think what he should do, he stretched out his hands and touched the helmet of the man just in front of him, then lightly and quickly jumped leap-frog over his head. The bridge was now soon swarming with the Genji, who with fierce battle-cries began to attack the Heike, whose advance was entirely checked. For some minutes the Heike were greatly put out, not knowing what to do.

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Then one brave youth, seeing how matters stood, and that it required some one to take a dauntless lead, sprang forth in front of the Heike and called out: “Now that it comes to this, there is no other way!” and with these words he dashed his horse into the river. It was the rainy season, and the waters were higher and the current stronger than usual. Black with mud the river ran swirling and whirling on its course.

Never was there a braver sight than when the young soldier drove his horse into the swollen river and made for the other side. His comrades could not stand still and watch him; fired by his courage, numbers of the Heike, shouting “I also! I also!” dashed in after him. In a few minutes, while the Genji looked on in surprise, three hundred men had followed the gallant young captain, stemmed and crossed the torrent, and landed on the other side; and with the same dashing spirit, carrying everything before them, they broke through the last lines of the Genji and entered the Byodoin Temple, where their last stand was made. The Genji, with Yorimasa at their head, were now in a desperate condition. Seeing his father hard-pressed, Kanetsuna, Yorimasa’s second son, an intrepid young knight, rushed into the thickest of the fight and tried to defend his father. A Heike captain coming up with fifteen of his men seized Kanetsuna, overpowered him, and cut off his head.

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Not one of Yorimasa’s little band turned to flee. Although they knew there was no hope, they fought on face to face with the foe, for samurai traditions held it a disgrace to be even wounded in the back. One famous general in ancient history issued an order to the effect that prizes would be awarded to those who were shot in the forehead, but those who were wounded in the back should be slain.

One by one, the Genji fell, slain either by sword or arrow. Yorimasa received several wounds. Then he saw that there was no use in fighting more; all was lost. Those of the Genji who were still left made a brave stand round their chief; while they kept the enemy at bay Yorimasa slipped away and hastened to Prince Takakura, in the temple, and begged him to flee in safety while there was yet time.

Having seen his Imperial master safe, Yorimasa then retired to an inner part of the garden, and sitting under a large tree drew out his sword and prepared himself to commit harakiri, for samurai honour would not let him survive defeat. Calling his retainer Watanabe, who had escaped unhurt and who never left his master’s side, Yorimasa bade him act as second in the rite. Then quietly taking off his armour, he composed a poem. He likened himself to a fossil tree that never knows the joy of blossoming, for he had never attained his ambition (the destruction of his enemies), “and sad indeed is the end of my life,” the last line of the verse, were the last words he uttered.

He took out his short sword, and thrusting it into his side died like a brave and gallant samurai, without a moan. Then from behind, as was his duty as second, Watanabe cut off his master’s head, and so that it should not be discovered by the enemy and carried away as a trophy of war, he tied a large stone to it, and with sorrowful reverence dropped it into the river and watched it sink beneath the water out of sight.

In this way died Yorimasa; those of his followers who were not killed by the enemy died by their own hand, and Prince Takakura, fleeing to Nara, was overtaken by the Heike and put to death on the way.

Yorimasa was seventy-five years of age when he died. Though, as he lamented in his last poem, he had not achieved his ambition in punishing the Heike, yet years later his work was carried on, and the Heike were completely exterminated by Yoritomo, the great chief and mighty avenger of the Genji; and the name of Gen Sanmi Yorimasa lives forever in the history of his country.

[1] All Japanese poetry is regulated and counted by syllables, not by lines and feet, as with us. Many words have several meanings and the witty use of these punning facilities is greatly sought after.

[2] The cuckoo in Japanese literature and fancy takes the same place as the nightingale in England.

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[3] “Above the clouds”—a complimentary expression used for the exalted Court circle.

Gen Sanmi Yorimasa, The Knight – Warriors of Old Japan and Other Stories

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