Oldest extant variant: 1309 (Engyōbon)

Tale of the Heike

The Tale of the Heike, often called “Japan’s epic,” is a long narrative describing the Genpei War (1180-1185), a civil conflict that rent Japan’s political structure and ushered in its medieval period, an age of warrior rule. The tale has been an important cultural touchstone ever since, as it marks the rise of the warrior class and tells the stories of its founders. The tale portrays the war as a great confrontation between the Taira (or Heike) and Minamoto (or Genji) clans, warrior houses descended from imperial princes that had competed for imperial favor and power for several decades leading up to the war. The Genji emerged victorious at the end of the war, but, as the title implies, the Tale of the Heike is as much a paean to the losers as the story of how the victors prevailed.

alternative text

Woodcut of Gi-Ō Dancing from Book One of Tale of Heike, Yashima Gakutei, ca. 1820. Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Book_One_of_Tale_of_Heike-_Gi-O_LACMA_M.80.219.52.jpg

The arc of the tale follows the rise of the Taira patriarch, Kiyomori, to the rank of Chancellor. Kiyomori consolidated power through marrying his daughter to the reigning emperor, and then forcing the emperor off the throne in favor of the very young son born of that union. Scions of the Minamoto clan who had been exiled twenty years earlier following a failed coup d’état against Kiyomori rose up to challenge the Taira, who were eventually routed first from the capital city and then from a fortress west of it. When they fled, they took with them the child emperor and the three sacred regalia: a sword, a mirror, and a bead strand. They eventually met their ends in a sea battle, defeated by the valiant Minamoto general Yoshitsune, but that victory came at great cost: the child emperor drowned, and the sacred sword was lost with him. One important function of the Tale of the Heike is to craft a narrative that explains away these losses.

The tale is part of a performance tradition emerging in the medieval period in which itinerant blind male performers, known as biwa hōshi, recounted episodes from the tale before a broad range of audiences at locations around the realm, accompanying themselves on the biwa lute. In addition to telling a historically important moment, their tale also served the placatory function of soothing the spirits of those killed in the war, as those who died violent deaths posed the threat of returning as angry ghosts who might cause earthquakes and epidemics or otherwise wreak havoc on society. Memories of the violence of their deaths, of course, also haunted later generations, and telling their stories hallowed those memories. An interesting interpretation of this function of the biwa hōshi can be found in the “Hōichi the Earless” segment of the film Kwaidan (1965), directed by Masaki Kobayashi.

Today, scholars identify approximately eighty discrete variant lines of the tale – some short, others voluminous – that are fairly readily categorized into two general lineages: the kataribonkei (recitational lineage) of texts derived from the repertoire of the biwa hōshi, and the yomihonkei (read lineage) of texts originally intended to be read rather than heard. The read-lineage texts are culturally important, although they generally have received less attention in the West as they do not conform as easily to our notions of “epic.”  The oldest dated Heike variant is in fact a read-lineage text, the Engyōbon, whose colophon dates it to 1309. Another well-known read lineage text is the very long Genpei jōsuiki, which most likely reached its current form in the 15th century and was a very important source for noh playwrights during that same period.

The best known of the recited-lineage texts – the Kakuichibon – is the most familiar in English translation. Performance tradition texts like the Kakuichibon are comprised of about 200 episodes, referred to as ku. Records reveal that, occasionally, the 200 ku of Heike were performed over the course of many days, with either a solo performer or a pair of performers alternating ku, but it was more common that one or several individual ku were performed as one event. Thus, Heike existed as both a coherent narrative about the war and discrete shorter episodes that stood on their own. In some cases, the independent nature of the individual ku led to elaboration within that tradition.

All performance lineages that continued into the Edo period (1600-1868) are based on the Kakuichibon. By the Edo period, blind professionals (including reciters of the tale) had been organized into a guild, referred to as the Tōdōza, which held exclusive permission to perform and transmit the Heike, among other tasks. The blind tradition of Heike recitation has been carried into the present by Imai Tsutomu, of the Nagoya lineage, although his repertoire contains only eight episodes. His performance of part of the “Autumn Leaves” episode from Book Six can be found on youtube.com.

Elizabeth Oyler
University of Pittsburgh


Editions in translation:

The Tale of the Heike. Trans. Royall Tyler. Penguin Classics, 2012.


Critical studies:

Bialock, David T. Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from The Chronicles of Japan to The Tale of the Heike. Stanford University Press, 2007.

—. “Nation and Epic: The Tale of the Heike as Modern Classic.” Inventing the Classics: Modernity, National Identity, and Japanese Literature. Edited by Harou Shirane and Tomi Suzuki. Stanford University Press, 2000. 151-178.

—. “The Tales of the Heike.” The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature. Edited by Harou Shirane and Tomi Suzuki, with David Lurie. Cambridge University Press, 2015. 295-305.

Oyler, Elizabeth. Swords, Oaths, And Prophetic Visions: Authoring Warrior Rule in Medieval Japan. University of Hawaii, 2006.

Strippoli, Roberta. Dancer, Nun, Ghost, Goddess. Leiden: Brill, 2017. Explores the reception of the Tales of the Heike‘s Giō-Hotoke episode.

An introduction to Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo, a form of Japanese traditional puppet theater called “cart puppetry” with excerpts from “Death of Atsumori” (The Tale of the Heike) and “Farewell from Moriyoshi to His Wife” (The Battle at Ichinotani). Presented by Tokyo Hachioji City.


The Tale of the Heike performed by Tsutomo Arao:


Performance of the Heike Monogatari, arrangement by satsuma-biwa player Junko Ueda and flutist Wil Offermans (2011):


From the Tale of the Heike, Miki Muroi:


The following questions are geared toward a discussion of the Tales of the Heike in the context of the upper-level undergraduate course Nobility and Civility: East and West (Columbia University global core).*  A syllabus of the course can be found here.


The Tale of the Heike. Translated by Royall Tyler (Penguin, 2012), pp. 3-28 (The Jetavana Temple, The Night Attack in the Palace, The Sea Bass, One Man’s Glory, Gio); 325-28 (Death of Kiyomori); 369-71 (Sanemori); 389-91 (Tadanori’s Flight from the Capital); 401-4 (The Flight from Fukuhara); 504-6 (The Death of Atsumori); 687-709 (Kenreimon-in Becomes a Nun, Kenreimon-in Moves to Ohara, The Cloistered Emperor’s Visit to Ohara, Passage Through the Six Realms, Kenreimon-in Enters Paradise).


We don’t have many occasions to think about a female version of nobility and civility since so many of the canonical texts of the past are centered around male figures, so please pay special attention to the dialogue and actions of the female characters, starting with Lady Gio and Hotoke but also the Nun of the Second Rank (the young emperor’s grandmother) and her daughter Kenreimon’in, the Imperial Lady. Is there a particular conception of nobility/civility demonstrated by these women?

The Heike focuses on the fall of a dynasty (the Taira/Heike). How/why does the prime minister Kiyomori bring ruin not only upon himself but also upon his entire clan? (Is his nature evil? Does power corrupt? Is decline an inevitable part of existence? Is it karma?)

How does the theme of impermanence color this narrative? Cicero’s answer to the fact that “everything that is mortal is precarious and transient” is that “we ought always to go on and on searching for people who can receive our love and be loved by us in return” (On Friendship). What is instead the Buddhist response to this universal condition in the Tale of the Heike? How does it compare to other Buddhist texts such as the Life of Buddha and the Dhammapada?

There are other memorable characters whose stories may be designed to both elicit an emotion and teach a life lesson, in particular the elderly warrior Sanemori, the poet Tadanori, and the uneven opponents Kumagae and Atsumori. What sentiments and reflections do these individual tales draw out?

What is the role of nature, particularly the beauty of the natural world? What is the role of the arts (poetry, music, dance, visual art)?


For comparison, you might consider the following brief Nō play imagining an encounter between Kumagai after his conversion to monkhood and the ghost of Atsumori: Atsumori (Nō) in Royall Tyler, Japanese Nō Dramas, Penguin Classics, pp. 37-48.


Jo Ann Cavallo (Columbia University)


*This two-semester course was designed through the Faculty Workshops for a Multi-Cultural Sequence in the Core Curriculum (Heyman Center for the Humanities, 2002-2009), directed by the late Wm. Theodore de Bary, at Columbia University.