The Ornery Head of Taira no Masakado: a Study of Warrior Culture and Superstition in Japan

In Japan, there is a tale of a Heian period samurai named Taira no Masakado. A revered and dangerous warrior in his time, not even death could stop his eternal rage. After failing to overthrow the emperor in 940 AD he was beheaded and his head was placed upon a pike to serve as a reminder. This couldn’t stop Masakado however, as nightly his head would return to life gnash its teeth and interrogate passerby as to the location of his mortal form (Friday 7). This happened until his head managed to come loose from the tree it was bound to and searched for its mortal body (Friday 7). It finally ended its search out of exhaustion in a small fishing village near Edo where the locals cared for and enshrined the head (Friday 8) Taira no Masakado’s head may not have come to life every night or flown to modern day Tokyo, but it does bring up an interesting thought, why was Taira no Masakado given this immortal treatment? The goal of this essay is to delve into the cultural context of this strange and darkly humorous tale. Taira no Masakado’s life ended almost over a thousand years ago, yet his legacy still endures. This says something about the way Japanese culture has evolved without losing its ancestral identity.

Born to the Taira clan, Taira no Masakado was a powerful landowner and had quite a bit of political sway in his region. However his rise was not without in-fighting, often having to square off against his own family members or other powerful families in the region (Friday 48) Masakado became an expert skirmisher and ambusher. These small familial conflicts prepared Masakado for the much larger provincial conflicts that he would have to fight in the future. Taira no Masakado carried over the skills he learned in small unit combat into his insurrections on the provincial scale. Choosing to practice a doctrine of evasion, ambush, and scorched earth Masakado wreaked havoc across the land. After being ambushed by a rival in one of these larger conflicts, he not only defeated his rival in battle but carried on to burn the villages and kill thousands of supporters (Friday 116). To the uninitiated, this may seem asymmetrically cruel and vitriolic. However, it was the most pragmatic option to destroy the ability of his enemies to raise troops or bait his enemies into a stand-up battle (Friday 117). These campaigns allowed Masakado to overthrow officials in eight provinces and appoint relatives to the disposed positions. It also grew the frightful and savage reputation that would follow Taira no Masakado through his life and beyond.  With the newly founded territory and criminal status Masakado had to make a stand against the state, for reasons ranging from a power play to redemption (Friday 113). After making a rare strategic blunder, Masakado’s legendary aggression forced him into a trap between state soldiers where he was quickly vanquished (Friday 127). This marked the end of the insurrection and under unclear circumstances Taira no Masakado’s life was ended, but his legacy would continue on.

Taira no Masakado’s beheading and the attitude of the head after death not only reflected the traits that Masakado had, but also the culture of the Samurai as a whole. In the Heian and the early medieval period the taking of heads was the standard for all victorious combatants (Varley 27). In the case of Masakado, his head was taken as a show of force and a deterrent to any others who may have been inspired by his exploits. However, the taking of heads had many other symbolic meanings, including bounty collection and trophy hunting. The collection of heads became a way to quantify the skill and worth of a Samurai on the battlefield (Friday 152). In some cases, warriors would even take the heads of their allies so that the enemy couldn’t embarrass them or collect their rewards (Varley 27). Also, it was common practice to keep the head of a respected leader for reverence (Turnbull 146). Given this knowledge, the head of one of the most feared and respected Samurai of the Heian period would not only award much merit to the collector but would also give a point of reverence to those who saw Masakado’s deeds as heroic and honorable. Also, his head was known to be loud and ornery towards the people who were unfortunate enough to pass him by. This represents a common trope in Samurai culture in which the Samurai would also be a stirring orator. Often times introducing themselves, and actively challenging the opposition to a fight (Friday 146). The willingness for Masakado to return to his body to do battle again could also be traced back to roots in Samurai culture. Surrender and being captured alive was one of the most reprehensible fates that could befall a warrior (Friday 150). To show that Taira no Masakado was still willing to fight and do battle even after his mortal body was destroyed. This creates a tangible paragon of warrior spirit, a man who not even death can stop was deserving of the highest respect that could befall a warrior. It is not too difficult to conceive why Masakado’s legacy would last through the rest of the Heian and into the medieval period where Bushido (Samurai code of ethics) and the Samurai were still prominent. However, it is interesting that even after almost being erased his legacy persists to this day.

In Tokyo’s financial district lies a shrine dedicated to the legendary Heian warrior. This shrine is said to be the place in which the head of Taira no Masakado landed and was enshrined by the fishermen of the village. This shrine existed from that point until 1874 when Masakado was declared an “enemy of the emperor” (Friday 10). In 1923 the Japanese government used the damage from an earthquake to raze the site completely and also discover that the head of Masakado was not actually in the shrine (Friday 10). After that, a new ministry building was placed on top of the site and was met with woe at every turn. Many construction workers and employees either were injured or killed while working in the building. In fact, the Minister of Finance died of a heart attack in the building. In 1940, one thousand years and change after the death of Taira no Masakado, the ministry building was struck by a lightning bolt and burned to the ground. After convincing occupying forces the shrine was rebuilt to appease the spirit of Masakado (Friday 11). This whole series of events, besides being a humorous set of probable coincidences, represents an ancestral respect that is inherent in Japanese culture. The people of the area believe that Masakado was being abused in his afterlife and he was lashing out in a way that was consistent with his legacy. By rebuilding the monument and visiting it before any representations are distributed the people of the area felt that Masakado’s spirit would be appeased and he would not lash out. Failing businesses in the area also sell mineral rights to the area directly below the and most businesses pay some upkeep to the site (Friday 12). The shrine is a good representation of how the Japanese treat the ancestors of their cultural and also the healthy superstition that is an undercurrent in the Japanese way of life.

Besides being a great warrior and leader in his time, Taira no Masakado took on a much bigger role in the cultural evolution of not only the Samurai but also Japan as a whole. The tale of his cranky head is as much a story about a man who fought valiantly and aggressively in his time as it is about a warrior hero. The fact that his legacy continues on a thousand years after his death gives credence to the idea that Taira no Masakado represents something more to Japanese culture than just his battlefield exploits.

Bibliography:

Friday, Karl F. The First Samurai: The Life and Legend of the Warrior Rebel Taira Masakado. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Print.

Turnbull, Stephen R. Samurai Warlords: The Book of the Daimyō. London: Blandford, 1989. Print.

Friday, Karl F. Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Varley, H. Paul. Warriors of Japan as Portrayed in the War Tales. Honolulu: U of Hawaii, 1994. Print.

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