Minamoto Yoshitomo's fourth son, Noriyori was spared by Taira Kiyomori in 1160 along with Yoritomo and Yoshitsune after the murder of their father. Noriyori all but vanishes from history until 1180, when he appears in the service of Yoritomo, who declared war on the Taira from his lands in the Kanto.
In February 1184 Noriyori and Yoshitsune led an army of 50,000 against Minamoto Yoshinaka and easily defeated his forces at the Uji River. After securing the capital, the two brothers received permission to press on against the Taira and marched into Settsu. The objectives there were a number of Taira strongholds located on the western side of the province, including Fukuhara, Ichi-no-Tani, and Ikuta no Mori. Taira Munemori’s headquarters was at Fukuhara, the approaches to which were screened by the other two forts. In this action, Noriyori, with perhaps 50,000 men under his command, was to take Fukuhara’s ‘front door’, Ikuta no Mori, while Yoshitsune circled around and attacked Ichi-no-Tani with 10,000 men.1 The Battle of Ichi-no-Tani (as it came to be known) went flawlessly, and the Taira command was forced to flee for Shikoku.
After Ichi-no-Tani, the Gempei War entered a six-month lull, during which time Noriyori was in Kyôto. Fresh troops were sent from the east and by October a resumption of hostilities could commence. Noriyori was assigned the rather unenviable mission of striking westward by land, securing the provinces of the Chugoku Region, and then invading Kyushu. This promised to be no easy task - for almost a century, the western provinces had been staunchly Taira; Taira Kiyomori had been governor of Aki, for instance, and his grandson Koremori the lord of Suo.
Under clear skies on 8 October Noriyori departed for the west with 30,000 men. Once in Harima, he received word of Taira activities at the port of Kojima in Bizen and hastily made for the area. Kojima was a small island separated from the mainland by a thin strip of seawater that was nonetheless daunting enough to check Noriyori’s advance. Stymied by a lack of boats to cross to the island, Noriyori was at a loss until a certain Sasaki Moritsuna found a fisherman who would reveal a spot shallow enough to allow for a crossing. By way of sharing this knowledge with the Minamoto army, Sasaki actually rode across to the island, thereby making sure it was he would was the first to set foot on Kojima!
Noriyori led a spirited charge through the seawater and forced the Taira to take to their ships. Taira Sukemori, Arimori, and Tadafusa lingered until dark trading arrows with the Minamoto before setting their oars in motion and departing for Shikoku. With no ships to use in pursuit, Noriyori could only resume his westward march. Little is known or can be said about Noriyori’s activities for the remainder of the year, although the Heike Monogatari states rather caustically that he settled down and engaged in amusements at the expense of the local people. More likely, logistical difficulties bogged down the campaign and in the end forced Noriyori to suspend the advance into the New Year.2
By January 1185 Noriyori was reporting that as he had no boats and few provisions, he was unable to prosecute his mission to Kyushu. He reached as far as the Shimonoseki Straight (that separated Honshu and Kyushu) before being forced to sit idly, and his requests for shipping yielded no definitive reply from Yoritomo. Disquiet began to swell in the ranks and Noriyori feared desertion; luckily, word came that a number of sea-faring samurai from Kyushu desired to join the Minamoto cause. These two, Ogata Koresaka and his brother Jirô Koretaka of Bungo, came across with some 82 vessels and finally, in February, Noriyori’s weary and demoralized army landed on Kyushu. This belated and unglamorous achievement was overshadowed within a month by Yoshitsune’s victory at Yashima on Shikoku. The Taira fled further westward but owing to Noriyori’s position on the Kyushu coastline and his securing of Suo and Nagato, they had run out of places to go.
Noriyori seems to have taken little part in the climactic Battle of Dan no Ura (24 April 1185) that saw the final destruction of the Taira. He remained on Kyushu with his army for a time to secure the support the Minamoto had gained there. Afterwards he went to Kamakura and was rewarded by Yoritomo for his services. At the same time, a feud was brewing between Yoritomo and Yoshitsune. When matters reached a head, Yoritomo asked Noriyori to take an army to Kyoto and arrest their brother. Noriyori at first attempted to talk his elder brother out of the decision, then refused outright, an act of disobedience that earned him a trip into exile at the Shuzenji temple in Izu. In 1189 Yoshitsune was cornered and killed in Mutsu; in 1193 Noriyori was put to death on Yoritomo’s orders.
An average character, Noriyori has been described as ineffectual if not incompetent, and whose lack of talent made him harmless to Yoritomo and thus saw to it that he was favored over Yoshitsune. These judgments seem unfair and made mostly to enhance Yoshitsune’s status. In fact, Noriyori was by no means the leader his brother was but there is little evidence to support the notion that he was a military bungler. The support he gathered from the families of western Honshu and Kyushu served the Minamoto well, and his role at Ichi-no-Tani was just as important towards victory as Yoshitsune’s charge down the cliff side. Finally, it is often overlooked that Noriyori’s own fall came about, at least in part, by his support for Yoshitsune.
Notes to the Text
1 These figures and that for the earlier Uji action are according to the Heike Monogatari, a work not especially famous for it's accuracy. Such figures do not seem beyond the realm of possibility, however, as by this point the Minamoto could call on a sizable portion of the country for levies. A figure of 30,000 total for the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani might be closer to the truth, however.
2 The Heike Monogatari also declares that had Noriyori pushed on, he surely would have finished off the Taira, a curious statement, given Noriyori's lack of ships.
- Initial text from Samurai-Archives.com FWSeal & CEWest, 2005