Taira no Masakado

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  • Died: 940
  • Japanese: 将門 (Taira no Masakado)


The Life of Taira no Masakado

Taira no Masakado was a provincial official and early samurai in the Kanto region of Japan. He briefly served in the capital under the regent Fujiwara no Tadahira, and later became an important figure in his home province. In 935 he began a campaign against rivals in and around Hitachi that would become known as the "Taira no Masakado Incident" (Taira no Masakado no Ran). Over the next five years, he would wage both a physical and legal battle with his rivals, alternating between the status of outlaw and deputized official of the court in Heian-kyo. Finally, in the 10th month of 939, he attacked the Hitachi Provincial Headquarters, an act that placed him in official rebellion against the court. He then went on to attack other capitals, eventually consolidating eight of the eastern provinces under his direct control. He was finally killed on the 14th day of the 2nd month of 940. After his death, his head was taken back to the capital and put on display. In later eras there were many rumors, myths, and legends regarding Taira no Masakado's severed head, including attributions of wrathful vengeance in the mid-20th century. One of the chief stories of his life and death is a late 10th century gunkimono known as the Shômonki.[1]


Taira no Masakado was a fifth generation descendant of Emperor Kashiwabara. His family lived on the northern end of the Kantō plain, in the Toyoda and Sashima districts of Shimōsa, between the Kogai and Watarase rivers. Shimōsa was a distant province, and it could take about a month to journey from the capital of Heian-kyō.

Masakado grew up in horse ranching territory, which probably formed a goodly portion of his family's wealth.

Taira no Masakado Rebellion

In 935, Taira no Masakado was ambushed by Minamoto no Tasuku at a place called Nomoto, near the borders of Hitachi, Shimozuke, Musashi, and Shimōsa. The reason for the attack is unknown, but it sparked off a series of events that would become known as the Rebellion of Taira no Masakado.

News of Masakado's death had reached the capital by the 25th day of the 2nd month of 940. However, rumors swirled around the news, with claims that Masakado's soldiers were coming to the capital to avenge his death, or that he was still alive. Fears were finally put to rest when Fujiwara no Hidesato and Taira no Sadamori returned with Masakado's severed head as proof of his demise, entering the capital on the 10th day of the 5th month of 940.

The heads of Masakado and his followers, which had been tagged and preserved in salt, were paraded through the streets on spears. Before them went an officer with a banner enumerating their crimes, and Masakado's head, at least, was hung from a tree near the East Market.

What happened from there is more legendary and historical. There are many tales of the head gnashing its teeth, or otherwise remaining animated and unchanged for months after it was first hung. Some stories claim that the head flew off towards the east, with at least two shrines claiming to be the final resting place of Masakado's cranium. One of them is in present-day Tokyo, and Masakado's spirit is still said to cause strange happenings in the neighborhood of kubizuka. There are still other shrines claiming to hold other parts of his body--including torso, hands, etc.--or pieces of his arms or armor.


Masakado was enshrined as one of two central deities at Kanda Shrine in Edo, until 1874, when in conjunction with efforts to coordinate discourses of national heroes, the Meiji government had him demoted to being only a secondary deity.[2]


  • 2008, Friday, Karl. The first samurai: the life and legend of the warrior rebel Taira Masakado, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, ISBN 978-0-471-76082-5.
  • 2006, A User-Friendly Timeline of Ancient Japanese History (with furigana): From the earliest times to 1155, Yoshikawa Kobunkan, ISBN 4-642-01436-5.
  1. Shômon being the Chinese-style or on-yomi of the characters for "Masakado."
  2. Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1998), 17.
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