Heiji Scroll Heiji Monogatari Emaki
(Tale of the Heiji Rebellion)

Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace from the Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era

Japanese, Kamakura period,
second half of the 13th century
Object place: Japan
Handscroll: ink and color on paper
41.3 X 699.7 cm (16 1/4 X 275 1/2 in.)


The Heiji disturbance, which occurred late in 1159, represents a brief armed skirmish in the capital. The event itself was of relatively minor importance. Supporters of Go-Shirakawa, who possessed sovereign authority as a "retired emperor," vied for influence with the sovereign. One faction, composed of Fujiwara Shinzei and Taira Kiyomori, gained more influence over another group, led my Fujiwara Nobuyori and Minamoto Yoshitomo. Nobuyori and Yoshitomo advanced on the palace, captured the retired emperor, placed him in a cart and set fire to the palace. This scene is depicted here, and Nobuyori and Yoshitomo appear prominently as they attack and burn the palace, kill partisans of the Taira, and parade their decapitated heads.

Shinzei had attempted to hide, but was eventually captured and beheaded. Ultimately, the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, and the reigning emperor, Rokujo, were able to escape by disguising themselves. Taira Kiyomori thereupon launched an attack on the plotters, Nobuyori was defeated, captured and later executed. Yoshitomo fled but was killed while taking a bath.

After the Heiji disturbance, Taira Kiyomori gained influence as a trusted advisor to Go-Shirakawa, and ultimately a high ranking noble. He perished in 1181. One of Yoshitomo's sons, Minamoto Yoritomo, was spared in 1160 and exiled, and he later led a revolt which resulted in the death of Taira Kiyomori's relatives in 1185. Even though Go-Shirakawa remained retired emperor until 1192, the victory of Yoritomo came to be thought of as being epochal, for it represents the establishment of a warrior government, the Kamakura bakufu, in Eastern Japan.


The Heiji scrolls date from the thirteenth century. They can be documented as being viewed by courtiers in the fifteenth century, and represents a masterpiece of "Yamato" painting. The quality of the scrolls, and the accuracy of the images is unsurpassed. This scroll is particularly valuable in that it provides an early thirteenth-century depiction of Japanese warriors. The scene appearing here, which shows the burning of the Sanjo palace, is the property of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Two other scenes of the scrolls, depicting the death of Shinzei, and in fragmentary form, Taira Kiyomori's later attack still survive in Japan.


This scene provides a great tutorial as to how to read picture scrolls. The scrolls read from right to left, and the focus of attention is invariably drawn to the left. First we see some people hurrying to the left, and a few individuals become a confused mass of nobles, warriors and a troupe of imperial police. Thereupon attention shifts to the palace, where Fujiwara Nobuyori, is ordering the retired emperor into the cart. Wisps of smoke appear, and as the scroll further unfolds, one witnesses the burning of the palace, the decapitation of Taira supporters, and women of the palace fleeing for their lives. Gradually order is restored, and a troupe of warriors surrounds Go-Shirakawa's cart. Fujiwara Nobuyori, now in court roads, leads the cart, and Minamoto Yoshitomo is located immediately behind.

These scrolls also reveal how action unfolds temporally. The cart that appears before the burning palace represents the same cart that is surrounded by warriors later in the scrolls. Likewise, the men shown being decapitated by the burning palace have their heads, carefully dressed and made up, placed on pikes in the final procession. Thus as one unfolds the scrolls, one advances in time. These images are not meant to be seen in their entirety, but rather in a discrete section that shows a progression of events.

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