Our story begins nearly 1,000 years ago, in the 12th century of Japan, during the 1180-1185 Genpei War between two clans: the Minamoto and the Taira, led respectively by Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Taira no Munemori. Surnames first in this blog article.
I know, I know... what the hell does a type of Japanese crab have to do with a real-life historic battle?
For me, plenty… it's a good thing this combines two favorite topics - history and the animal kingdom. Oh yeah… and the supernatural.
It was during the Battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185 at the Shimonoseki Strait that the Minamoto clan (also known as the Genji) defeated the Taira clan clan (also known as the Heike) on March 24, 1185.
It was during this epic sea battle, that lasted a half-day, that the tides of war can indeed, be fickle.
The Taira clan, who were outnumbered (500 ships), knew the waters and tides in the area, and being adept at naval tactics, decided to split their fleet into three squads, awaiting the Minamoto enemy that arrived in one huge flotilla (800 ships), ships abreast - archers ready.
These would be the very long-bow kyudo archers, a sport I participated in, but did not excel in, despite hitting a target in a city competition – it wasn’t my target, even though I was aiming at my own.
Nasu no Yoichi, by the way, was a member of the Genji side... and is a hero of my (former) city Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken... My business card (meishi) is presented to you all with both hands and a deep reverent bow (not the archery but a homonym):
AJ Biz card
Anyhow, back to the naval battle. The battle began, as most of the wars do, with long-range attacks meant to soften up the enemy.
|Heikegani with human-like faces (left) depicted in an ukiyo-e print by Kuniyoshi Utagawa.|
The Taira then went on the offensive, as they knew how the tides in the area worked, surrounding the invading Minamoto fleet. The long-range archery attacks soon gave way to hand-to-hand, hand-held weapons, battling with katana et al, as the warriors from each side boarded one another’s ships.
But then the tide changed, both literally and figuratively, as the changing waters soon gave the edge back to the invading Minamoto clan.
That alone, shouldn’t have done it, but one of the Taira clan – General Shigeyoshi Taguchi turned traitor and defected to the Minamoto side and directed the forces to the exact ship that the Taira clan’s Emperor Antoku was upon. Emperor Antoku (安徳天皇 Antoku-tennō), born December 22, 1178 – died March 24, 1185 (there’s that date again) was then the 81st Emperor of Japan.
The Minamoto clan set about bombarding the Emperor’s boat and other boats meant to protect the Emperor.
When the Taira clan saw that the tide had turned and that all appeared lost, commanding officers began to kill themselves by throwing themselves overboard.
Why? Because if your lord and master dies, you have failed as a samurai, and aside from begging or being a ronin (masterless samurai), or maybe making umbrellas (for example), it is impossible to be accepted again as a full-blown samurai with honor.
Better to die with honor than with dishonor or without honor. Although… in my mind, the fact you still screwed up means you screwed up. There is no honor in that… perhaps the samurai kill themselves because who they are - samurai - is already dead. Hmmm.
Anyhow, some of the locals - even to this day - believe that the spirits of the dead Tairo clan warriors inhabit the bodies of the hekiegani (haiku kani) crabs, which is why the crab's shell bears an image of the disgraced warriors, which, you can see on the images above.
Why would the dead warrior spirits inhabit a crab? Well, crabs are garbage eaters… manning if a body sank to the bottom of the waters, it would sidle over and eat it. Of course, so would eels, fish and possible even a SpongeBob or a Patrick Starfish or two.
The whole idea of the spirits inhabiting the heikegani is cool - why does it look the way it does? It must mean something… and why do they only live in the area where this battle was?
Anyhow… there is next to zero chance that this heikegani crab looked any different before and after the war.
This losing battle of the Taira clan meant the end of their bid for control of Japan.
Instead, the Minamoto clan (aka the Genji clan) took control of Japan. Yoritomo Minamoto became Japan's first ever Shogun, when the clan established a military government known as a bakufu in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa-ken about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Edo (later Tokyo).
Meanwhile back in the ocean, those heikgani… Japanese fishermen tend not to fish for these crabs, as they are simply not eaten as food… maybe because the damn things are only 30 millimeters in size… that's a little more than an inch!
Still, I find that very strange. Surely they have some food-value?
Regardless, even today, Japanese fishermen toss hike crabs back into the waters… some say, if pressed, that it is out of respect to the spirit of the Heike warriors who died trying to save the Emperor.
Okay… you've seen the images… WTF would cause it to look like a human face? Well, these ridges on the shell - the carapace, if you will - it's just where muscle attachments are… and, apparently, it's not all that uncommon a thing to see in other species around the world.
Interesting… in Japan, eating the dead is not done out of respect, whereas other cultures would eat parts of a fierce warrior in order to gain their strength.
If we ate a heike crab, would we gain the strength (or cowardice) of a dad Heike warrior?
So… not every Heike clan member died during this battle.
In the area… on March 24, a festival is held in honor of the Heike who died at the Battle of Dan-no-ura.
There is also one in June in the small Tochigi-ken town of Yunishigawa - the Heike Ochudo Matsuri… as apparently the town was founded by Taira clan survivors of the Dan-no-ura Battle.
Great video, Ronin Dave!!! And what an entertaining festival! Best I've seen! BTW … weren't you once Samurai Dave? Oh… you let your master die...
Somewhere passing the butter,