So, what is the story behind this Taira clan, and how could they have made a difference on Okinawan development? For these answers, we need to look at some Japanese history.
Early Japanese History
While China has a recorded history going back to 800 B.C., Japan did not become a single country until 500 to 700 AD. Coincidentally this was also just after or about the same time that the Japanese and Okinawan languages split apart.
The Japanese had much contact and exchange with China then. In 645 A.D. Japan entered the Taika era (Taika means “great change”). A centralized imperial state was created based on the Chinese Confucian idea that this was necessary to maintain balance and harmony in society.
The Nara and Heian periods – A Cultural High Point in Japan
The Nara and Heian periods that followed (710 to 1185) were a golden age for Japan. The Japanese imperial family borrowed many things from the Chinese and adapted them to Japan culture. Buddhist religion and Chinese writing (Kanji) were introduced. Buddhism began to replace the indigenous Shinto religion. Music, literature, art, and architecture flourished. Children were taught in Confucian style schools.
Toward the latter part of the Heian period the Japanese emperor’s central control weakened. Regional groups ruled by warlords (daimyo) gained in strength.
Two powerful families emerged, namely the Taira and Minamoto clans. As early as the 10th century, these two clans fought each other for domination over the empire.
Taira becomes first military leader of japan
In 1156 a dispute erupted over who should be emperor. Taira and Minamoto battled in an episode called the Hogen Insurrection. The Taira side won. The Minamoto family made another attempt in 1159 to take power. This one was named the Heiji Uprising. Taira Kiyomori, leader of the Taira clan, crushed Minamoto and became the first undisputed national military leader.
However, going against the advice of his advisors, he spared the life of the Minamoto's youngest son. This is a decision he would come to regret.
The Taira Reign
Taira did much for Japan. He built up a profitable trade with China in the western part of Japan. He was noted for his strong skills in shipbuilding and seafaring. He did much to improve ports and navigation for his country. Experienced in the ways of the Kyoto imperial court, he was no doubt skilled in diplomacy and court intrigue. His military skills and the loyalty of his warriors kept him in power.
Minamoto Returns – The Gempei War
20 years later, the young Minamoto son whose life had been spared grew to manhood. Seeking revenge, a plot was hatched in 1180 to overthrow Taira's rule.
In 1181 war broke out between the Tairas and Minamotos, called the Gempei War. It was to be a crossroads in Japanese history. The name Gempei comes from the Chinese reading of the kanji for the respective clan names. Gen is another pronunciation for Minamoto, and Hei for Taira. When the two characters are put together in Japanese they are pronounced Gempei.
Minamoto had his forces in the east and north. Taira's strength was in the west and south. Taira was also stronger at sea.
In 1183 Taira’s superior army was defeated in a battle at Mount Tonami. Minamoto then captured the capital city Kyoto, and forced Taira forces to retreat west. One year later Taira lost another major battle called Ichi-no-tani.
Finally, a famous sea battle in 1185 called Dannoura in western Japan sealed Taira’s fate. Despite his superior naval skills Taira forces suffered a final major defeat. This ended the Taira rule over Japan.
Minamoto became supreme leader of Japan and moved the capital to Kamakura. He and his descendants would rule for the next 700 years. The Minamoto takeover also signaled a change from the aesthetic, scholarly culture that had developed in Kyoto to the warrior samurai culture or “bushido” code. Military dictators, or Shoguns, would rule Japan until 1868, when the Meiji Restoration gave power back to the emperor.
What Taira people would have brought to Okinawa
Many Taira loyalists went south to the Ryukyu Islands. They would have brought advanced knowledge of ships, sailing and navigation. Their experience in the royal Japanese court would have provided political expertise. They would have carried knowledge of economic relations with China, with whom they had traded extensively. And of course they would also have knowledge of military strategies and tactics. All these skills would have been valued by the Okinawan local lords, called aji.
What it meant for Okinawa
The next 200 years in the Ryukyu Islands saw a proliferation of the aji, inter-village rivalries, and the construction of numerous castles (gusuku) all over the Ryukyu Islands. Better navigation skills helped to increase trade with China and other countries, thus ushering in a period of wealth such as Okinawa had never before seen.
Today, the name “Taira” is one of the 10 most common Okinawan surnames.