In The Tale of Heike, the way in which the Japanese viewed defeat and dying is revealed to the reader through various incidents covered during the time of the novel. To be defeated was shameful but to prevail was a way to gain respect and honor. The accounts in Heike tell us that one could defeat an opponent by exiling him, insulting him, or even taking revenge upon him. Because being defeated was shameful, warriors would kill themselves before being killed by the opponent. If a warrior failed in his duty, suicide would be the necessary measure taken to regain honor.
Not only could suicide be a way to gain honor, it could also be a way to shame someone. If you prohibit your enemy from killing himself (exiling him) then you have shamed him. It was the warriors’ duty in Heike to fight, even if they were grieved they still had to fight because warriors had to be courageous in battle. In Heike, Kanehira tells us that “no matter how glorious a warrior’s earlier reputation may have been, a shameful death is an eternal disgrace (380). ” To these warriors, getting killed by the enemy was a shameful death.
If a warrior in battle new he was soon to be killed by the enemy, he would commit suicide instead of risk his life being taken by the enemy. For example, when Kanehira saw Lord Kiso’s head taken by two of Tamehisa’s retainers, he had the opportunity to preserve his honor by killing himself because he no longer had to protect anyone (381). Before killing himself he exclaims, “this is how the bravest man in Japan commits suicide (381)! ” This reveals to the reader that in the ethos of the warrior class, suicide was brave and honorable.
Koremori (415) and Antoku (426) both commit suicide by drowning themselves in the sea because it was honorable to kill yourself rather than being slain at the hand of the enemy. If a warrior failed a duty, he would be shamed but again, suicide was the key to regain your honor. The Genji were approached by a boat where a woman was inviting them to shoot the fan she was holding on a pole. Munetaka was ordered by Yoshitsune to shoot the fan “right square in the middle (420),” but Munetaka hesitated to accept the order saying, “if I missed, we’d never utlive the disgrace (420). ” Not able to refuse the angered Yoshitsune, Munetaka preparing to shoot closed his eyes in silent prayer saying, “Let me hit the center of that fan! If I miss, I’ll smash my bow and kill myself’ I’ll never show my face again (420). ” Munetaka knew that his failure would disgrace the Genji and his suicide would be the only way of recompense. Heike also reveals that another way to defeat your enemy and another way to be shamed by your enemy was through humiliation. Kiyomori often humiliated his enemies.
He exiled Naritsune, Yasuyori, and Shunkan to Kikai-ga-shima, a faraway island, because they were conspiring against the Taira. Later, only Naritsune and Yasuyori were pardoned but Shunkan was not. This was Kiyomori’s revenge on Shunkan because Kiyomori had given Shunkan his job and still had the nerve to betray him (290-291). Through exile, Kiyomori shamed Naritsune, Yasuyori, and Shunkan by denying them the opportunity to commit suicide but sentencing them to death by starvation. Insults were another way to shame your enemy.
Nakatsuma passive aggressively denies Munemori the chance to ride Konoshita, his horse, by saying the horse was tired from having been overridden (306). When Munemori found out that was a lie, he had been humiliated. To take revenge he seized Konoshita, branded it Nakatsuna, and whenever a visitor came he would say “saddle Nakatsuna” or “mount Nakatsuna” (307). This brought Nakatsuna’s humiliation. To reciprocate the humiliation, Nakatsuna branded Munemori’s horse Nanryo as “Taira Buddhist Novice Munemori, formerly Nanryo” (309). This reveals to the reader that it was a part of warrior ethos to shame the person who shamed you.
Other forms of humiliation included the parading of a warrior’s head by his enemy. Before going into battle, warriors yell out their line of decent, titles, and names. Moritoshi does this formality before attempting to slay Noritsuna (392). It is also important that the warriors request the names of the enemies they are about to slay because “when a man kills an enemy, it doesn’t mean much unless he waits until he’s identified himself and made the other fellow do the same (392). ” “Fame depends on who you fight; it doesn’t come from meeting just anybody who happens along (387). After the exchange of names, the warrior after defeating his opponent is able to call out the name of who he just killed and claim his fame. For example, after Noritsuna tricked Moritoshi and cut off his head, “he stuck the head on the tip of his sword, held it high, and announced his name in a mighty shout. ‘Inomata no Koheiroku Noritsuna has slain Etchu no Zenji Moritoshi, the Heike samurai known in these days as a demon god! ’ (393). ” The fallen were not only shamed by being slain by the enemy but they also were further shamed by the parade of heads.
After battles, the winning side would gather all of the heads and paraded them through the public streets (399). For the men who were victorious the parade of heads was their honor. Noriyori and Yoshitsune explained that they warriors “risk [their] lives to destroy the court’s enemies—to calm His Majesty’s wrath and redeem the honor of [their] fathers (399). ” The parade of heads was their “incentive” to “subdue traitors in the future” (399). Another aspect of the ethos of the warrior class was that they had to be courageous and fulfill what the code expected no matter what.
The code called for the slaying of enemies who had their backs turned to you and the enemies had to accept the fact that they had to die and not plead for their lives. Noritsuna pleaded with Moritoshi to spare his life in exchange for his exploits to save the lives of Heike men (392). Moritoshi denied Noritsuna’s proposal and told him that he was “disgracing [himself]” (393). But those who were defeated were supposed to see it as their duty to die. Atsumori had his back to Naozane so Naozane called out to him not knowing he was a young boy and told him that he had to die.
Naozane was grieved after he saw that Atsumori was a young boy, a young boy who reminded him of his son. Accepting his fate and not begging for his life, Atsumori said, “Just take my head; don’t waste time,” (395). Atsumori and Naozane showed us the courage warriors were supposed to have. Naozane also revealed another way to receive an honorable death: having someone offer prayers for you. Naozane told Atsumori, “It will be better if I’m the one to kill you because I’ll offer prayers for you (395). ” To escape this vicious cycle of shaming and gaining honor one could turn to spiritual life and become a monk or nun.
After being disgraced by Kiyomori, Gio, Ginyo, Toji, and Hotoke all became nuns (265-72). Monk Mongaku lived a life of service to Josaimon’in but because of his spiritual awakening he turned to a life of performing austerities (317). Monks and nuns were removed from society and therefore were exempt from the reciprocal cycle of humiliation and shame. This was an honorable escape because Buddha was highly respected and worshiped by the Japanese. Honor was important to not only warriors but all Japanese. Warriors and courtiers alike would do anything to restore their honor.
Restoration of honor was done through humiliation; defeat an opponent by exiling him, insulting him, or even taking revenge upon him. Warriors faced their enemies in battle while courtiers faced their enemies through insults and humiliation. Suicide and spiritual devotion for life was a method in which one could restore their honor. Warriors saw that it was their duty to kill to keep their honor and the defeated accepted it as their fate to die to keep from becoming more dishonorable. This is the honor-shame code revealed in The Tale of Heike.