Sunday, March 27, 2022

How a Songbird Saved the Age of Samurai

 --Susan, Every Other Sunday

It's safe to say most people have heard of samurai--the highly skilled warriors who sat atop the social pyramid during Japan's medieval age--as well as the shōgun(s) who served as the de facto rulers of the country at that time.

Far less well-known is the fact that, but for a split-second decision by a single, otherwise unremarkable little bird, the Age of Samurai might not have come to pass.

In 1180, a long-standing feud between the noble Taira and Minamoto clans boiled over into war. Shortly after the war began, a  young nobleman named Minamoto no Yoritomo assumed leadership of the Minamoto forces and led them into battle in a mountainous region near the eastern coast of Japan, in what is now Shizuoka Prefecture. 

A path through the mountains not far from Ishibashiyama

The Taira launched a surprise attack on the Minamoto near Mt. Ishibashi (Ishibashiyama) at night, in heavy rain; the Minamoto forces were overwhelmed, and young Yoritomo was forced to flee with a small band of his surviving followers. They fled through the mountains toward the coast, hoping to escape by sea. 

Kannon statue along the route to Shitodo

The region into which they fled was controlled by a clan of noble warriors called the Doi; their leader, Doi Sanehira, had a castle on the summit of Shiroyama (Mt. Shiro) overlooking Sagami Bay (in what is now the city of Yugawara, in Shizuoka Prefecture, about 90 minutes south of Tokyo by train).

Minamoto Yoritomo and his followers hurried through the forested mountains, on narrow trails, with the Taira in hot pursuit.

One of the trails connecting Ishibashiyama and Shiroyama

At some point, the fugitives made contact with the Doi, and Sanehira agreed to shelter his young ally, Yoritomo--but not in the castle, which the Taira would have overwhelmed in a siege.  

Trail approaching the Shitodo cave

Instead, Sanehira Doi directed Yoritomo and his followers to a small cave--today, called the Shitodo no Iwaya (Shitodo cave)--on the east side of Shiroyama, about half an hour's climb below the summit. 

Statues of Kannon, the Buddhist avatar of mercy, near the Shitodo cave

Yoritomo and his little band took shelter in the cave.

Stairs leading up to the Shitodo

The Taira approached the Doi, who of course claimed they had no idea where Minamoto no Yoritomo and his men had gone. The Taira proceeded to search Mt. Shiro, determined to destroy the young Minamoto leader (and, likely, win the war) while they had the chance.

More Buddhist statues outside the Shitodo.

When the Taira approached the cave where Minamoto no Yoritomo and his little group were hiding, a little bunting, then known as a shitodo (and similar to a sparrow) flew out of the shallow cave and flew away. 

The Shitodo cave

In what has to be one of history's best examples of why "it seemed like a good idea at the time" generally isn't, the Taira decided that the cave must be empty, because a bird would not have stayed inside with humans present . . . so instead of searching the (notably shallow) cave, they turned around and went away.

After hiding in the cave for several days, Minamoto no Yoritomo and his men fled over Shiroyama and down the far side to Cape Manazuru, where they escaped by ship.

With help from the Doi and other allies, as well as surviving members of his own clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo regrouped, gathered a new army, and went on to defeat the Taira, win the Genpei War, and persuade the emperor to name him Sei-i Taishogun (征夷大将軍), shogun for short.

Thereafter, Yoritomo established the first shogunate (bakufu) at Kamakura--a city on the coast between Sagami Bay and Edo (now, Tokyo), ushering in the Age of Samurai.

Historically, there is no doubt that the Taira forces would have killed both Yoritomo and his little band, had they entered the cave that fateful night. Had that happened, the Taira likely would have won the Genpei War, and the Kamakura Shogunate--as well as the Age of Samurai--might never have come to pass. 

None of us will ever know what made that one little bird choose that one moment to take flight, but Japanese history seems to prove that if a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a bird that flies away at the proper time is worth the entire kingdom.


  1. An amazing story, Susan. It's the butterfly wing flapping theory in practice! Since neither the victors nor the vanquished come out of it looking good, I imagine we can accept that it's true.

  2. Loved it, Susan. There are so many examples of where tides have turned on the smallest of events. "For want of a nail, the war was lost..."

  3. A terrific tale, Susan, reminiscent of the biblical story of David (a later king), hotly pursued by King Saul, hiding in a cave where a small spider quickly spun a web across the entrance to the cave. Saul and his soldiers didn't bother to go into the cave, because they took the spider's web as a sign that no one had entered it. There's got to be an animated film in all of this somewhere.

  4. How beautiful, Susan. And I love the way the Japanese are so careful and enthusiastic in the way they preserve their history.