Go-Shirakawa (1127-1192) was one of the last Emperors of Japan to exercise real political power. As a retired emperor under the insei system of cloistered rule, Go-Shirakawa doggedly resisted the growing power of the warrior class while weathering a series of momentous national crises.
Born Prince Masahito on October 18, 1127, Go-Shirakawa ascended to the throne in 1155 as the 77th emperor following the death of his half-brother Konoe. But Go-Shirakawa's ascension was embroiled in controversy. When former emperor Sutoku had abdicated in Konoe's favor in 1141, he had done so on the condition that his own son succeed Konoe, but when Konoe died, Go-Shirakawa's father, the powerful cloistered emperor Toba, ruled that his own son Go-Shirakawa would succeed to the throne. But as soon as Toba died, a year later, however, Sutoku immediately and disastrously pressed his claims by issuing a nationwide call to arms on behalf of the "true" emperor, precipitating the Hôgen Incident between the powerful Taira and Minamoto warrior clans. The Minamoto, who backed Sutoku, were defeated by the Taira, who supported Go-Shirakawa, and Taira chieftan Kiyomori rose to national prominence in the process.
Sutoku's elimination from the scene left Go-Shirakawa as the senior member of the Imperial family. Eager to exercise real power as a retired emperor, Go-Shirakawa reigned as emperor for only three years before abdicating in favor of his son Nijo in 1158. As a cloistered emperor, Go-Shirakawa now assumed personal control of the vast network of imperial shôen estates, and thus became the most powerful man in Japan.
But his power was not to last. Just one year later, Kiyomori took advantage of a Minamoto insurrection, now known to history as the Heiji Incident, to march his troops into Kyoto and force Go-Shirakawa to name him to the newly created post of dajôdaijin, or "prime minister of the realm." It was an unprecedented event; a mere provincial warrior had been elevated to the status of nobility while essentially holding the imperial court at swordpoint. It was a grim sign of things to come, and thenceforth Go-Shirakawa was forced into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with Kiyomori.
Go-Shirakawa now schemed incessantly to mitigate the growing power of Kiyomori, siezing every opportunity to weaken the Taira while shoring up his own position. Go-Shirakawa's machinations drove Kiyomori to ever more blatant showings of his own power, until finally Kiyomori tried to have his own grandson named emperor. This outrageous ploy precipitated the Gempei War, in which the Minamoto at last defeated the Taira once and for all. Go-Shirakawa tacitly sided with the Minamoto against his enemy Kiyomori, and the aging Kiyomori died before the war concluded, but instead of solving Go-Shirakawa's problems, the war only created a new one, as Go-Shirakawa traded one power hungry warrior-hegemon, in Kiyomori, for another, in Minamoto Yoritomo. Yoritomo's victory in the Gempei War was absolute, and so was his military power, and in 1192, Go-Shirakawa was forced to bow to the new reality of warrior rule by recognizing Yoritomo as the first shogun of Japan. The sun had set on the last vestiges of real imperial authority. The golden age Heian Era drew to a close, and the newer, more violent Kamakura Era dawned. Go-Shirakawa died that same year, on April 26, 1192.
Go-Shirakawa left his mark on Japanese culture as well as politics. An ardent supporter of both Shintoism and Buddhism, he became a Buddhist monk himself, and sponsored the construction of numerous shrines and temples, including perhaps most notably the magnificent Sanjusangendô on grounds of his personal estate in Kyoto. Go-Shirakawa was especially fond of a kind of Heian Era folk singing known as imayô (literally "modern style"). Whenever he heard about good imayo singers he would visit them or invite them to perform at his palace, regardless of their social status, and since imayo was a style of the common people, its practitioners included people from all walks of life, from courtiers to prostitutes to monks to fishermen. It is said that Go-Shirakawa would sometimes sing imayo songs all day and all night until his throat began to bleed from overuse. Aggrieved at a decline in the popularity of the imayo style, Go-Shirakawa undertook to compile a 10 volume collection of imayo song lyrics, the Ryôjin Hishô and write a companion 10 volume instruction manual, the Kudenshû, both of which he completed in 1179. Today, however, only three volumes of the lyrics collection survive. The instruction manual has been lost entirely, and the way imayo songs were sung and performed remains unknown.
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