The medieval Japanese prose narrative Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) follows now the victors, now the vanquished, in an account of a one of the great turning points in Japanese history. In my research my main interest is literary: in the narrative style of the Heike and its influence on later Japanese art and drama (example). On this page you'll find a short explanation of the rivalry between the Taira and Minamoto clans. There are also links to pages here with more detailed information about the Heike intended for those reading it in the original or in translation, followed by notes on related material elsewhere, both in Japan and abroad.

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Heike monogatari
The Tale of the Heike
Nakakuni finds Kogo

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ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB and in the real world (J=Japanese only)

A litttle history: the Genpei War of 1181-5

The twelfth-century struggles between the Taira and Minamoto clans mark a violent end to the long and largely peaceful Heian period (794-1185). The Minamoto or "Genji", were severely weakened in two "disturbances" of Hogen and Heiji in the 1150s, power struggles at court. The Minamoto leaders were executed, but the lives of two young boys were spared, the brothers Yoritomo and Yoshitsune. For twenty years the Taira were dominent at court under the leadership of Kiyomori, encroaching on the traditional power of the Fujiwara nobles. Different factions plotted against the Taira with little success until Yoritomo rose in revolt in 1180. Yoritomo left the bulk of the fighting to be conducted by his relatives: Yoshinaka, Noriyori, and Yoshitune. Yoshitsune was a master tactician, winning decisive victories at Ichi-no-tani (1184.2.7) and Yashima (1185.2.18). The Taira were finally defeated at the naval battle at Dan-no-ura (1185.3.24). There is surprisingly little description of Yoritomo, who destroyed who ruled from Kamakura in eastern Japan as the first shogun after the war. [go to top of page]

CD-ROM introduction to the Heike

In publicizing this set of two CD-ROMs, I must first of all declare an interest. My fellow AAS 1996 panelist Sakurai Yoko of Kumamoto Univ. was the general editor, while I translated (some 50,000 words!), making a general nuisance of myself asking awkward questions. The CD-ROMs contain hundreds of photographs, illustrations, recordings, and short texts. Famous passages are given in classical & modern Japanese and in English translation (click buttons to choose), and you can even hear them read aloud in Japanese while following on the screen in English. There is much explanatory material about episodes and characters, illustrated with scenes from the Heike scroll paintings (emaki). "Rekishi kiko" (Journey through history) takes you to sites of memorable episodes, and not just the well-known places in Kyoto, but all over Japan, from Kyushu to Hokuriku. There are also short movies and audio recordings of performances of biwa hoshi and related noh plays. The hybrid (Mac/Windows) CD-ROM set was produced by Fujitsu SSL and is marketed in the U.S. by Fujitsu Software Corporation (408-432-1300) or Fujitsu SSL in Japan (044-739-1527), see the Japanese or English introductions on their respective sites. 7000 yen or $98 for the set.

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TRANSLATIONS of Heike monogatari

  • Three complete translations in English, and versions in at least four other languages.
  • Sadler, Arthur. "The Heike Monogatari." Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 46.2 (1918): 1-278; 49.1 (1921): 1-354. [Complete translation of the rufubon, the version of Edo printed texts.]
  • Sadler, A. L. The Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike: Being two thirteenth-century Japanese classics, the "Hojoki" and selections from "The Heike Monogatari" . Sydney: Angus & Robertson Limited, 1928. [Revised and abridged version of his earlier translation. Issued as paperback by Tuttle in 1972 and still in print]
  • Kitagawa, Hiroshi, and Bruce T. Tsuchida. The Tale of the Heike. Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 1975.
  • McCullough, Helen Craig, trans. The Tale of the Heike. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.
  • McCullough, Helen Craig. Genji & Heike: Selections from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. [Abridged translation, with some added notes and revisions to the translation, mainly stylistic.]
  • McCullough's translation is the most reliable English version. Her annotation is especially detailed for poetic allusions. The notes in Kitagawa and Tsuchida are sometimes informative on cultural and religious references, but neither translation nor annotation is always accurate. To get an idea of a different text tradition one may compare Sadler's pioneering translation of the rufubon version. More recent translations have been based on the Kakuichi text edited by Takagi (texts) .
  • It is sometimes instructive to consult the complete but unannotated French translation: Sieffert, Rene. Le Dit des Heike. Le Cycle epique des Taira et des Minamoto. Paris: Publications Orientalistes de France, 1978. In the same series can be found his translation of the accounts of the earlier "disturbances" (Hogen monogatari and Heiji monogatari ).
  • There are also translations in Chinese, Czech (Karel Fiala) and Russian (I. L'vovoi). Tell me if you know of others.
  • A modern Japanese translation can be found in the NKBZ edition listed below, and Tomikura Tokujiro's translation is found in his commentary. There isn't quite the same tradition of "literary" translations as there is with Genji monogatari.
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  • TEXT EDITIONS can be found in all the major Japanese series of classical texts, most recently:

    SOME RECENT STUDIES (Western languages)

  • four essays in Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and
    . Ed. Amy Vladeck Heinrich. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997
    Paul Varley "Warriors as Courtiers: The Taira in Heike monogatari" / Herbert Plutschow, "The Placatory Nature of The Tale of the Heike: Additional Documents and Thoughts" / Barbara Ruch, "Transformation of a Heroine: Yokobue in Literature and History" / Susan Matisoff, "Deciphering the Code of Love: Yamato kotoba in Literature and Life."
  • Morrison, Clinton D. "Context in Two Episodes from Heike Monogatari" in The Distant Isle, ed. Thomas Hare, Robert Borgen and Sharalyn Orbaugh. Michigan Monography Series in Japanese Studies, Number 15. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Japanese Studies, the University of Michigan, 1996. 321-336.
  • David Theodore Bialock, "Peripheries of power: voice, history, and the construction of imperial and sacred space in 'the Tale of the Heike' and other medieval and Heian historical texts" (Columbia University, 1997) (UMI abstract) [not yet available for order?]


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    This page added 96/11/18. Content last revised 99/10/22. Got rid of frames: 2002/05/07.
    Michael Watson, Faculty of International Studies, Meiji Gakuin University
    e-mail to: watson[at]
    The address of this URL: heike/heike.html