Taira no Tokuko

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  • Born: 1155
  • Died: 1213
  • Distinction: Wife of Emperor Takakura

The fate of the Heike clan has often been considered tragic, and with good reason. The sad tale of Tokuko provides a prologue to this story. She was born the daughter of Taira Kiyomori (1118-1181), an ambitious and talented man who managed to lift the Taira (or Heike) to a place of great power in the second half of the 12th Century. To seal his place in politics, he endeavored to marry into the Imperial family, with young Tokuko the instrument of his designs. To make any such matchmaking feasible, he first arranged for Tokuko to be adopted by Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Once this he was done, he saw to it that Tokuko was married to the then child-emperor Takakura. Some years later, Kiyomori was delighted to learn that the young couple had given birth to a boy - a child destined to be Kiyomori's grandson and the Emperor of Japan. The birth, incidentally, was a difficult one, and it is said that even Go-Shirakawa himself, a priest in addition to his duties as ex-emperor, was called upon to provide spiritual help.

Only two years later Takaura was pressured to retire, and the child, named Antoku, was named titular emperor. Tokuko enjoyed a lavish life as the Taira reached the height of their power. Unfortunately, the situation was to change rapidly. The Gempei War began and in 1181 both Takakura and Kiyomori died, the latter's passing leaving his faction without strong leadership. In 1183 the forces of Minamoto Yoshinaka forced the Taira - including Tokuko and Antoku - to flee for the western provinces. In 1185 the Taira were cornered and forced to fight to the death at Dan no ura. In the course of the battle, Kiyomori's widow took Antoku and plunged into the ocean with him. Tokoku (known by this point as Kenrei-mon-in) attempted to follow suit, but was fished from the water by Minamoto warriors. In the aftermath of the Minamoto victory she was permitted to retire to the Chorakuji and shave her head as a nun, forgotten in the political upheaval.

That same year, fate dealt her another blow - an earthquake tumbled her small hut and left her homeless. She ended up going to the Jakko-in, a nunnery in which she was to spend the remaining thirty or so years of her life. The Jakko-in was a particularly lonely place in those times, and Tokuko filled her days with prayers for the spirits of the fallen Taira clan, her late husband, and son. After about a year, she received an unexpected visitor: Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who had come to wonder what had become of his adopted daughter. They talked for an afternoon, with Tokuko giving a moving recount of the years leading up to the fall of her clan and in the end both parted in tears, with Tokuko watching Go-Shirakawa's procession until she could see it no more. Tokuko was to die of illness in 1213, her passing providing, perhaps fittingly, the closing words of the Heike Monogatari, which records in its closing section, "After her chanting voice had gradually weakened, a purple cloud trailed in the west, a marvelous fragrance permeated the chamber, and the sound of music was heard in the heavens. Man's time on earth is finite, and thus the lady's life drew to a close at last, midway through the Second Month in the second year of Kenkyû."