The First Samurai
Japan in the 10th century was experiencing change and disorder as its relatively new central government sought techniques for a strong and enduring legacy. In this period lived a man named Taira no Masakado. In events which are swirled with mystery and legend, Masakado found himself in direct opposition with the government, even proclaiming the title of the “New Emperor”.
His legacy endures to this day and is a fundamental component in contemporary Japanese folklore.
Was Masakado a product of his environment or a self-motivated rebel, examining this question is important in the discussions of the motivations behind his actions. Whether he should be viewed as a villain or a hero is to be considered by the reader. Taira no Masakado is both revered as a hero and accused of being a trader. When considering the beginning of Masakado’s conquests it is important to note that not much is known of the exact motives of his first altercation with Minamoto Tasuku.
All that is clear is that Minamoto sprang a surprise attack on Masakado as he neared the Hitachi region. Why was Masakado riding towards Hitachi with a group of armed men? Why did Minamoto attack Masakado? Both of these questions are vital in determining the real nature of Masakado and would link to the motives of his actions from this battle to his demise. The lack of answers to these questions seriously hinders one’s attempt at revealing Taira Masakado as a villain or hero. The events of Masakado’s insurrection seem to suggest that his actions were not justified and that he knew this.
After being attacked by Minamoto, Masakado went on a rampage attacking many villages in southern Hitachi. Regardless of the dispute between the two, it is improbable that all of the victims of his attack were directly involved or deserving of murder. Preceding these events, Masakado is summoned to Kyoto to argue his case against allegations brought by the Minamoto family. Masakado is quick to travel to Kyoto to explain himself, then, when he arrives back in Shimosa he is attacked by Yokishane.
Looking for payback from the attacks in Hitachi, Yokishane aggressively seeks Masakado, even abducting his wife in the process. Having just been found innocent in Kyoto for his attacks in Hitachi, would it not make sense for Masakado to bring accusations against Yokishane? Masakado does not seek government help in deterring Yokishane, this suggests that he knew he was in the wrong and was hesitant to return to Kyoto, mainly because he felt as if he got lucky at his previous hearing.
Skipping to Masakado’s confrontation with Sadamori in Hitachi, as Masakado wins the battle, storming the provincial capital grounds in the process, one gets a sense of the sudden panic defining his proceeding actions. Masakado immediately flees home to Shimosa. Once home, in an utterly confusing turn of events, Masakado heads out again, this time to conquer a handful of other eastern provinces. Instead of formerly addressing the rulers in Kyoto as the “new emperor” of the east or even as an adversary, Masakado writes a letter in an attempt to explain his actions and how they are justified.
Using his imperial family ties, he tries to undermine the stories of his actions as propaganda from his opposers and claim that he remains loyal to the government. This is the act of a desperate man; a man who, maybe, has realized that he has made a grave mistake. Masakado wanted to believe that his conquests were justified, yet based on his actions it is apparent that he was not and knew it. Not having a strong cause and knowing he made a mistake defines Masakado as a villain, not a hero.
It is likely that Masakado’s position in society and experiences deluded him and was a contributing factor to his demise. In this time period of Japan, in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the imperial family, fourth generation members of the imperial family were removed from the bloodline by way of changing their family name. Taira was used in the renaming and is the surname of Masakado. This link to the imperial family would have affected Masakado’s view of himself in society. Being a known descendent, he would have felt a sense of entitlement that could create an egotistical mindset.
The feeling of superiority would have amplified when his father used his influence to secure an internship in Kyoto with the government for his son. Expecting to obtain a full-time position in Kyoto, it would have been very disappointing to return home with no long term position or title. This event probably added to the aggressive nature of Masakado as an adult. Having been denied a chance to participate in the government, as he felt entitled to, Masakado from then on decides to take matters into his own hands working as if he holds the title which he never received.
The sense of entitlement and his failure to succeed in Kyoto helped to define the character traits that motivate Masakado for the rest of his life. Taira no Masakado remains an important component of contemporary Japanese folklore. Natural disasters, economic downturns, and other misfortunes are often attributed to times when the shrine to Masakado is neglected. The fascination with this legend plays a taboo role in Japanese culture. The story reveals a man who is individualistic and bold in his opposition to authority.
For a society which is group oriented and generally suppressed for most of its history, Masakado’s legacy is intriguing and mysterious. Although interpretation of Masakado differs, his lack of a consistent cause and his hesitation suggests the actions of a villain. Feeling a sense of entitlement from his imperial ties and not being accepted into Kyoto’s bureaucracy were critical in his motivations. Leading the first recorded rebellion since the establishment of a unified government in Japan, Taira no Masakado has solidified himself into Japanese culture today.