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  • Disaster in the MakingTaira no Kiyomori’s Move of the Capital to Fukuhara
  • Haruko Wakabayashi (bio)

Then in the sixth month of the fourth year of Jishō [1180], the capital was suddenly moved. This was a most unexpected incident. From what I have heard, this capital [Heian] was established during the reign of Emperor Saga, and more than four hundred years have passed since then. [The capital] should not be relocated blithely, without sufficient reason, and therefore, it is not surprising that people were agitated and distressed.

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki1

So goes the description in Hōjōki (An Account of My Hut; 1212) of what is commonly known to historians as the Fukuhara sento , or the move of the capital to Fukuhara. The move took place on the second day of the sixth month of Jishō 4 (1180), when Taira no Kiyomori (1118–1181) transferred Emperor Antoku (1178–1185; r. 1180–1185) and the two retired emperors Go-Shirakawa (1127–1192; r. 1155–1158) and Takakura (1161–1181; r. 1168–1180) from the capital of Heian in present-day Kyoto to Fukuhara, a city near present-day Kobe (see figure 1). Fukuhara served as the capital and the seat of the imperial court until the twenty-third day of the eleventh month of the same year, when the reigning and retired emperors returned to Heian.

Scholars describe this incident as one of the key events in Kiyomori’s rise to power. Fukuhara was the site of Kiyomori’s retirement residence, where he spent most of his time after taking the tonsure in 1168. For the purpose of creating a political center, Kiyomori, with the backing of Go-Shirakawa, had worked for years prior to the sento [End Page 1]

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Figure 1.

Fukuhara in relation to Heian and to major temples and shrines. Map by Erika Ishibashi. Adapted from Motoki 2001, p. 184.

[End Page 2]

to develop foreign trade in Fukuhara and at the Ōwada port to its south. To emphasize the city’s new political status, Kiyomori had also invited monks from the prominent temples in the capital to perform elaborate Buddhist rituals at Fukuhara, which Go-Shirakawa fervently attended. Despite this symbiotic alliance, the sento to Fukuhara occurred almost simultaneously with an irreparable breach between the two men. Immediately before the sento, Kiyomori had taken measures to suppress anti-Taira movements by Go-Shirakawa’s retainers; these led to the confinement of Go-Shirakawa and an uprising by his son Mochihito (1151–1180). Thus the move from Heian to Fukuhara represented the pinnacle of Kiyomori’s power, and the failure to make the transfer permanent foreshadowed the end of the Taira hegemony.

The sento is today typically seen as a political incident. People of the time, however, held a different perspective. Contemporary courtier diaries declared the sento a calamity and the work of demons plotting the destruction of the imperial house and associated the move with various natural disasters and strange occurrences at temples and shrines. In the same vein, Hōjōki author Kamo no Chōmei (1155–1216), writing three decades later, named it one of five fushigi (inexplicable phenomena), along with the great fire of 1177, the whirlwind of 1180, the drought and famine of 1180–1182, and the great earthquake of 1185. To today’s readers these five fushigi may seem an odd mix: in contrast to the other four fushigi, the sento had no natural cause, and it involved no major human casualty or physical damage to the capital. Nevertheless, Kamo no Chōmei’s reference to the sento alongside other calamities demands a rethinking of what was considered a “disaster” or “calamity” in premodern Japan. This article seeks to explore that question.

Certainly, in East Asia natural disasters have historically been linked to political events—as heavenly punishment for a ruler’s immoral behavior, or as Heaven’s disapproval of the ruling dynasty.2 In premodern Japan as well, natural disasters were frequently interpreted as the voice of Heaven or the wrath of the gods and buddhas in response to a ruler’s misgovernment.3 In this sense...


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