Taira no Tokuko

"Kenreimonin" redirects here. For the asteroid, see 5242 Kenreimonin.
In this Japanese name, the family name is Taira.

Taira no Tokuko (平 徳子, 11551213),[1] later known as Kenreimon-in (建礼門院), was the daughter of the Chancellor Taira no Kiyomori, and empress-consort of Emperor Takakura.

She was also the last Heike Imperial survivor from the great naval battle of Dan-no-ura.[2]

Her life became a compelling narrative which survives as both history and literature.[3]

In history

Daughter of an emperor

Tokuko became the adopted daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa (後白河天皇, Go-Shirakawa-tennō), the 77th emperor of Japan who reigned from 1155 through 1158. In 1171, when Tokuko was adopted at age 17, the former emperor had abdicated the throne and entered the Buddhist priesthood, taking the Buddhist name of Gyōshin.

Consort of an emperor

In 1172, Tokuko was married to Shirakawa's fourth son, Emperor Takakura.[4] Takakura was also her first cousin as both their mothers were half-sisters. The wedding was an arranged one, as to cement the alliance between the two co-fathers-in-law; Shirakawa sponsored Kiyomori's rise as Chancellor of the Realm, while Kiyomori provided military and financial support to Shirakawa.

Tokuko and Takakura's son, Prince Tokihito, was born in 1178. Just a year later, Kiyomori launched a coup d'état, sacking his political rivals from their posts, banishing them, and replacing them with his allies and clansmen. He even had Shirakawa imprisoned; at this point they fallen out of their political alliance.[5]

In 1180, Emperor Takakura was forced to abdicate by Kiyomori; Tokihito ascended the throne as Emperor Antoku. Now an empress dowager, Tokuko received the name Kenrei-mon In.[6] In this period, the names of the several gates in the walls surrounding the Imperial grounds refer not only to the wall-openings themselves; these names were also used to refer indirectly to a nearby residence of an empress whose husband had abdicated, or as an indirect way of referring to an empress dowager herself.

the Kenrei-mon (建礼門), one of the entrance gates to Kyoto Imperial Palace

For example, Empress Dowager Kenrei (建礼門院, Kenrei-mon-In), whose official home, after the abdication and death of Emperor Takakura, was located near the Kenrei Gate.

Mother of an emperor

Tokuko, now Dowager Empress Kenrei-mon In, was mother to Emperor Antoku. The child emperor reigned from 1180 through 1185.[7]

Survivor of Dan-no-ura

Arguably, the most difficult moments in Kenreimon-In's life occurred near the close of the battle of Dan-no-ura, which took place near the southern tip of Honshū in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi.

The Taira were defeated decisively. Many of the Taira samurai threw themselves into the waves rather than live to see their clan's ultimate defeat at the hands of the Minamoto. Antoku's grandmother, Taira no Tokiko, Kiyomori's widow, leapt into the water with the young emperor clasped firmly in her arms.[9]

Kenrei-mon In also tried to drown herself; but according to the conventionally accepted accounts, she was pulled out with a rake by her long hair.[10]

Buddhist nun

This sometime daughter, wife, and mother of emperors became a recluse in her later years.

This once-pampered great lady is said to have composed this poem in her hermit's hut:

Did I ever dream
That I would behold the moon
Here on the mountain --
The moon that I used to view
In the sky o'er the palace?[15]

In literature

Many stories and works of art depict this period in Japanese history, and it is through these sources that the life of Taira no Tokuko is best known. The Tale of the Heike (平家物語, Heike Monogatari) is the most famous of the sources from which we learn about this historical character, although many kabuki and bunraku plays reproduce events of the war as well.

The central theme of the Heike story—and the mirrored theme of Taira no Tokuko's life story—is a demonstration of the Buddhist law of impermanence. The theme of impermanence (mujō) is captured in the opening passage:

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.[16]

In this and other classic Japanese tales, the central figures are popularly well known, the major events are generally understood, and the stakes as they were understood at the time are conventionally accepted as elements in the foundation of Japanese culture. The accuracy of each of these historical records has become a compelling subject for further study; and some accounts have been shown to withstand close scrutiny, while other presumed “facts” have turned out to be inaccurate.[17]

In English-language literature, Tokuko's life and reign are depicted throughout the two-volume historical fiction narrative, White as Bone, Red as Blood, by Cerridwen Fallingstar, published in 2009 and 2011, respectively.[18]


  1. Brown, Delmer M. et al. (1979). Gukanshō, p. 333.
  2. Kitagawa, Hiroshi et al. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, pp. 652-678; Titsingh, Isaac. (1834). Annales des empereurs du Japon, pp. 211-212.
  3. The Tales of the Heike. Translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press. 2006. pp. 148–169. ISBN 978-0-231-13803-1.
  4. Titsingh, pp. 188-190; Brown, pp. 326-327; Varley, H. Paul. (1980). Jinnō Shōtōki. pp. 205-208.
  5. Sansom, George (1958). A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford University Press. p. 268,285. ISBN 0804705232.
  6. Brown, p. 331; Titsingh, p. 424; Kitagawa, p. 764.
  7. Titsingh, pp. 200-207; Brown, pp. 333-334; Varley, pp. 214-215.
  8. Kitagawa, Hiroshi et al. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, p. 787; Titsingh, pp. 211-212.
  9. Kitagawa, pp. 676-677.
  10. Kitagawa, pp. 678; Titsingh, p. 212.
  11. Kitagawa, pp. 763-765.
  12. Kitagawa, pp. 766-768, 787.
  13. Kitagawa, pp. 769-779, 788.
  14. Kitagawa, pp. 780-782, 788. [Although The Tale of the Heike gives 1192 as the year of Kenrei-mon In's death, the Gukanshō identifies 1213 as the year of her death -- cf. Brown, p. 333.]
  15. Kitagawa, p. 772
  16. McCullough, Helen Craig. (1988). The Tale of the Heike,.
  17. Brown, pp. 385-386.
  18. White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Fox Sorceress (2009), and White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Storm God (2011).


External links

Japanese royalty
Preceded by
Fujiwara no Ikushi
Empress consort of Japan
Succeeded by
Princess Sukeko
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