The Rebellious Samurai: Traitor of Kyoto

Have you ever wondered if there was actually an instance where a Samurai – whose life revolves around their unwritten Bushido code stating that a true warrior must hold that loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honor is important above all else – can actually betray his master and become a rebel? There is one case where a Samurai rebelled. He became well-known and his name written in the history of Japan. This rebel who became the symbol of betrayal and horror (yes, you read that right!) during his time.

Taira no Masakado was born during the time of the Heian Era. Japan’s countryside wasn’t doing so well and the Emperor of Kyoto didn’t do much to help, leaving power and authority in the hands of provincial governors and landowners, when at that time, had their own armies and soldiers.; where starvation, corruption, and bandits were rampant.

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Masakado was one of the 12 grandsons of the very powerful Taira clan, which was a family of wealthy landowners. You can say that he was a privileged boy, living a dream. His troubles began when his father died.

A Rebel is Born

During his time, inheritance laws were not strictly formulated and so his relatives tried to steal his father’s lands. They claimed that being a part of the royal lineage gave them the right.

In 935 CE, their family dispute became a battle. Masakado was ambushed by his relatives believing they could use him as leverage to get what they want. Opposite of what they had in mind, Masakado did not need any saving for he was a powerful warrior; he defeated them all and took his revenge by killing thousands from the countryside and from burning his relatives’ lands. This occurrence created a butterfly effect: increasing his enemies, which were also his blood and by marriage relatives. Knowing that they can’t defeat him only by strength, his relatives came to the Emperor for help.

What they didn’t know, Taira no Masakado wasn’t just brave, he was also intelligent. So when he was summoned to the court to comply with his charges created by his relatives, he successfully proved his side while abiding the law. After a few months, the court gave him a general amnesty in commemoration of Emperor Suzaku’s coming of age.

Masakado was able to go home and live in peace for a short time. His relatives, who never forgave what he did and were still greedy enough to strip him of his wealth, attacked him once again. He wanted to avoid any political mix-ups and so he got a warrant to capture his assailants. With the law behind his back, he then began his quest for revenge.

Quest for Revenge

Strongly confident, he began storming his enemies’ lands and had his revenge. In the year 938 CE, he was again summoned in the court due to getting in a quarrel with one of his cousins -slash- assailant. Unlike his previous obeyance,  he neglected the summons and began invading large provinces. Here are some of the provinces he was able to conquer: Izu, Shimotsuke, Musashi, Kozuke, Kazusa, Sagami, Shimosa, and Awa. He stood firm that his quest was legal because of the terms of his warrant.

During that time, nobles seemed to be more powerful than the government itself. They even abuse the peasants of their province and took advantage of their hardships. On the other hand, Taira no Masakado treated the peasants of his conquered provinces way better than the former nobles did. He was seen as a salvation (yes, just like Robin Hood!) and so he was welcomed gladly. The inefficient government feared he might overthrow the administration and so they condemned him as a traitor and a rebel.

The Hunt Begins

The government knew how much his family hated Masakado. That is why they commissioned them to take his head. Even his friends and allies aligned with the government to hunt him.

They reached Masakado’s army in the Shimosa province; planned an ambush during the night and quickly defeated the rebels. Masakado was beheaded, his hatred deeply embedded as he lost his consciousness. His head was brought to Kyoto and was displayed as a message and a warning for anyone who plans to become a rebel.

That’s just Half the Story

You may be thinking…. That’s it? That’s the story of the rebellious samurai? Well, that’s just half the story.

Odd enough, Taira no Masakado’s head did not decompose. Months have passed and yet it still looked fresh like it was just severed. His eyes became fiercer and his mouth twisted into an unsightly grimace. According to the people, every night the head would call out looking for its murdered body and looking for a fight with his enemies. This was when his enemies realized, that death won’t stop his revenge.

One time, the head began to glow. It was said that it flew off and roamed around the country towards Shimosa. But the head grew tired and so it landed in a fishing village known as Shibasaki (now the city of Edo). The next day, the people in village found it and cleansed the head. After which they buried it and eventually built a shrine over the head. This shrine was called Kubizuka meaning, the mound of the head. Masakado was worshipped and honored by peasants and was considered a true warrior. He became their symbol of justice who fought back and stood up defying corruption and the abuse of the nobility. Despite the love and respect he had, his soul was not contented. A few years later, a ghost of a samurai began haunting the neighborhood of Kubizuka shrine.

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The Indestructible Shrine

Fast forward and almost a millennia has passed. A large city has replaced the fishing village where the Kubizuka shrine stands.

After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the Minister of Finance wanted to get rid of the shrine and put an office building instead. Within the span of two years, fourteen office workers and the Minister of Finance died. The other employees got unexplainable injuries. This caused fear and so the building was once again replaced by the shrine. And now every year a Shinto ritual is held to please the angry spirit.

During WWII, people were busy that they forgot to do the Shinto ritual, and in Taira no Masakado’s 1000th death year anniversary in 1940, a lightning bolt struck the building beside the shrine, destroying most of it. The people then held a Shinto ceremony, and a stone memorial was built for him.

Creepy, right?

People who have visited the shrine said one thing: it has a creepy vibe that will make your hair go up. You might not believe Taira no Masakado’s story, but he did definitely had an awesome life….and death.

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