The Emperor’s Clothes: The Story of the Awazu (Heishi) documents (komonjo)

The Awazu were a family of low ranking courtiers. These documents recount how, during the cataclysmic Ōnin War (1467-77) which devastated the capital, they rescued the Emperor’s wardrobe, which was housed in Yamashina, to the southeast of the palace. Once marauding armies threatened this region with arson, the Awazu rescued these clothes, and earned the praise of emperors, and courtiers. For four generations, the Awazu, and their lords, the Takakura, basked in the glory of these deeds, and received promotions and words of praise from three successive emperors. One even managed to attain the fifth court rank, a marker of the high nobility, in 1546.

These documents were preserved in a scroll, which contains a postscript revealing that by 1733 Awazu Kiyooki was appointed to the palace guards (takiguchi).   The name given for the scroll, the Heishi, can be misleading, for it refers to the clan (uji) name of Taira (or Heishi), but the proper name for the descendants of this house is Awazu.

Images provided by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

後花園上皇女房奉書 (Go-Hanazono jōkō nyōbō hōsho)

This document is from a court lady of Go-Hanazono, a retired emperor. These documents, which first appear in the thirteenth century, became a favored way for emperors to transmit messages. The letters are written almost completely phonetically in Japanese hiragana syllabary. This document was sealed, and viewable only to the participant, and an ink mark (sumihiki) and remains of a piece cut form the document (kirifu) remains visible to the far left of the document. This document was written during the Ōnin War (1467-77) and recounts how the emperor Go-Hanazono came to know how Awazu Kiyonori, described here as a retainer to the Takakura, rescued ceremonial robes from their storage box in Yamashina, where such robes were woven and stored. Go-Hanazono asks Takakura Nagatsugu to have Kiyonori bring them to the palace.

高倉永継書状 (Takakura Nagatsugu shojō)

Takakura Nagatsugu acknowledges and celebrates the praise that Awazu Kiyonori received from the emperor for his service in rescuing the emperor’s clothes. The Awazu were the retainers of the Takakura, and their relationship, and praise for their service (chūsetsu) mirrors the language of warriors.

後土御門天皇口宣案 (Go-Tsuchimikado tennō kuzen an)

The reigning emperor Go-Tsuchimikado issued a kuzen an to Kiyonori promoting him to the post of Governor of Chikuzen. This was a sinecure and connoted no governing privileges. Kuzen an were written on recycled documents, hence their grey color and were used solely for documents transmitted by reigning or retired emperors. Chamberlains (kurōdo) wrote these documents in the format of words spoken by the emperor. This remained the standard format for all court promotions</>

広橋守光書状 (Hirohashi Morimitsu shojō)

Hirohashi Morimitsu here writes a letter praising Awazu Kiyonori for his rescue of the clothes. This document functions in tandem with the earlier kuzen an so as to explain why Kiyonori was rewarded with the sinecure of Governor of Chikuzen.

高倉永継書状 (Takakura Nagatsugu shojō)

Takakura Nagatsugu again praises Kiyonori for his actions, and states that the glory of his service rebounds favorably on the Takakura as well. This dates from the day after Kiyonori’s promotion.

後花園上皇女房奉書 (Go-Hanazono jōkō nyōbō hōsho)

This document written on the same day of Kiyonori’s promotion, again praises him for his exemplary service as a retainer of the Takakura. The clothes, which the emperor had heard were rescued on 7.22, were transported to the palace on 7.25, which is why this second court lady document (nyōbō hōsho) was issued just three days after the first.

後土御門天皇口宣案 (Go-Tsuchimikado tennō kuzen an)

This kuzan an from emperor Go-Tsuchimikado records a promotion for Kiyonori’s son Kiyohisa to the office of Uemon no shōjō in 1478. This post was often linked to a position in the capital police, which was responsible for providing order and adjudicating cases in the capital.

後柏原天皇口宣案 (Go-Kashiwabara tennō kuzen an)

In 1501, Kiyohisa received the same sinecure of Governor of Chikuzen as his father Kiyonori from Emperor Go-Kashiwabara. Later document would reveal that this promotion stemmed from lingering glory of his father’s rescue of the imperial wardrobe.

高倉永継書状 (Takakura Nagatsugu shojō)

Late in life, Takakura Nagatsugu, who had renounced the world and adopted the religious name of Jōyū, recounted the impressive actions of Kiyohisa’s father Kiyonori in rescuing the ceremonial clothes to an otherwise unknown monk named Sonshin. Grateful for the interest in these events, Nagatsugu (Jōyū) ordered Awazu Kiyohisa to dispatch his original documents to the court so as to prove the veracity of this story, and make it more widely known.

甘露寺元長書状 (Kanroji Motonaga shojō)

Kanroji Motonaga here recounts again how during the Ōnin War, Kiyonori and Kiyohisa father and son rescued the emperor’s ceremonial clothes. This represents the first time that Kiyohisa directly receives credit for these actions. Motonaga wrote this document to Takakura Nagatsugu, showing that the Takakura received credit for the Awazu’s actions, much like a warrior would receive rewards for the actions of his retainers. This document like the others of this sequence dates from the early sixteenth century.

後柏原天皇口宣案 (Go-Kashiwabara tennō kuzen an)

This 1503 kuzan an from Go-Kashiwabara promotes Kiyohisa’s son Awazu Suekiyo to office of Uemon no shōjō, which historically had been an office of the Awazu. The chamberlain who wrote this document, Hirohashi Morimitsu, originally wrote a letter to Suekiyo’s grandfather Kiyonori (see document 4).

後奈良天皇口宣案 (Go-Nara tennō kuzen an)

In 1546, Suekiyo’s son Michikiyo is appointed to the junior fifth lower. This puts him in the lowest echelon of the “high nobilty” and represents a rank that was higher than that of his forebears. The chamberlain, Hirohashi Kunimitsu, was the grandson of Hirohashi Morimitsu. Thus three generations of Hirohashi continued to bestow ranks and rewards on four generations of the Awazu for the events of 1470.

後奈良天皇女房奉書 (Go-Nara tennō nyōbō hōsho)

This document by a lady of Go-Nara’s court, from presumably 1546, describes how the “great conflict” (gekiran) of Ōnin, Kiyonori rescued the emperor’s ceremonial clothes from Yamashina. Memories of the Ōnin War remained fresh. This document also describes the other documents in this sequence and explains that Michikiyo will be allowed to have an audience in palace and achieve the fifth court rank.

広橋兼秀書状 (Hirohashi Kanehide shojō)

Hirohashi Kanehide, the son of Morimitsu and father of Kunimitsu, wrote this letter praising the acts of Michikiyo’s grandfather in rescuing the clothes in 1470. Kanehide is incorrect, as the previous document makes clear that Michikiyo’s great-grandfather accomplished these actions. As a result of this great merit, Michikiyo was promoted to the ranks of the high nobility, an honor unprecedented for his house. This letter was dispatched first to the Takakura, who remained lords of the Awazu even though Awazu Michikiyo had ascended the ranks of nobility. This letter too was closed with a kirifu and sealed with a sumihiki.

巻末奥書 (Kanmatsu okugaki)

In 1733, Awazu Kiyooki relied on the help of nobles such as Shigeno Kinzumi to decipher these “incomparable treasures of this house” and clarify who in fact had received these documents. Based on their explanations, Kiyooki recorded this information on small sheets of paper. He also exulted at how he had received a promotion to the sixth rank, and post of palace guard (takiguchi), and instructed his descendants not to be remiss in remembering these deeds. Presumably at this time, these documents were made into a scroll, as was typical for most document collections. His descendants most likely remained in the Yamashina area, but at some time, they were parted from these documents, which were shipped to America to be part of the Yale Association of Japan Collection.

The entire Awazu collection as a scroll