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Robes of Red Brocade: Dressing for Death in The Tales of Heike

In Book Seven of The Tales of the Heike, an epic chronicle compiled anonymously in the 1330s, the Taira samurai Sanemori of Musashi petitions Lord Munemori for permission to don “a battle robe of red brocade,” to prove his valor after an incident of past cowardice [1]. When the elderly Sanemori is killed in single combat, his opponents discover that he has also dyed his beard and sidelocks black in order to be mistaken for a young man [2]. Sanemori’s tale exemplifies the transformative role of dress in The Tales of the Heike, particularly as it relates to death. A character’s acceptance or denial of death is instantly understood by what he wears, and how he wears it. Furthermore, dress fluidly conveys status, character, gender, loyalty, age, and spirituality. Descriptions of fine brocades and patterned battle armor lend beauty and elegance to a fervently martial society. The depiction of clothing as transformative also reflects the turbulent nature of the late Heian period (784-1185 A.D); one of democratized religion, disorder, creativity, war, and a pervasive darkness evident in both life and art. While the description of a warrior’s clothing in The Tales of the Heike functions as an aesthetic device, it also serves as an enshrinement of valorous deeds. Above all, dress is a visual representation of a character’s relationship with death, conveying the contents of his character and the state of his soul, which must ascend or transform in order to obtain enlightenment.

The war-like nature of the story ensures that clothing is deeply entwined with battle and death. In the case of Sanemori, an old warrior who dons youthful armor may transform into a fighter in his prime, both for the benefit of his enemies and to die with pride and dignity. While preparing for battle, Sanemori “put on armor laced with greenish yellow leather over a battle robe of red brocade. He wore a horned helmet and carried a sword with gilt fittings” [3]. Sanemori’s atonement for his previous display of fear is only complete with his honorable death. His intention to die is clear both from his singlehanded defense of the bridge, and by disguising himself as younger and stronger than he actually is in anticipation of a worthy foe, who then strikes him down. His wearing of fine brocade has a funerary quality: he is quite literally dressing for death. This suggests that by wearing meaningful and often beautifully-made battle armor, a samurai is preparing his soul as well as his body. The young warrior Nakatsuna also wears red brocade into a battle, before which he and his father both discard their helmets, “as though anticipating that this day would be [their] last” [4]. The wearing or dispensing with certain articles of clothing are proof of a samurai’s acceptance of death and his courage. A willingness, even an eagerness to die valiantly in battle is depicted as honorable and often necessary, either to restore lost honor or to acquire it. Death is inevitable, but the manner in which one meets it is both revealing and potentially transformative of a warrior’s legacy and worthiness.

Yoshu Chikanobu, “Protecting his master, Tsugunobu is felled by Noritsune’s arrow” (1898)

In Heike, red or crimson brocade is worn chiefly by the nobility as a symbol of wealth and status. Politically, the description of fine clothing is a visual reminder of the concentrated wealth and might of the most influential samurai clans. The Taira and Minamoto, no longer privatized hinterland police forces, have obtained centralized and wide-reaching power and riches [5]. The doomed Lord Kiyomori wears “a black-laced stomach guard… over a red brocade battle robe” in anticipation of a treacherous plot [6]. The crimson, evoking battle and blood, also displays a readiness to fight and shed blood for one’s clan and country. In some cases, the wearing of brocade reflects a nobility of spirit that has inherent aristocratic associations. Sanemori’s Minamoto killers mistake him for a commanding general because of his fine dress and commend his courage in holding the bridge alone [7]. The fact that Sanemori must ask his lord’s permission to wear the brocade reflects the stratified nature of the aristocratic samurai, reminiscent of, and in some aspects modeled on, the clothing laws of the previous Fujiwara government [8]. That fine brocade was largely limited to warrior nobility implies that gallantry and self-sacrifice were considered aristocratic values, and that high-ranking samurai in particular were expected to possess and exhibit them in order to justify their position. However, Sanemori’s tale reveals a more complex and meritocratic perspective, suggesting that the qualities and dress of the nobility may be obtained through valorous deeds in battle, even if a warrior is not aristocratic himself.

The affiliation of beauty with order, and uncleanness with disorder, permeates the moral and religious fabric of the story. As evidenced by Sanemori and Nakatsuna, a warrior’s purity is often denoted by the color, material, and elegance of his dress. The inverse is also true, with clothing and armaments sometimes revealing an unscrupulous or doomed character. Kiyomori’s snake-handled halberd, a weapon which he “kept constantly by his side even when he slept,” reflects both his paranoia of treachery and his cruel, snakelike character, while his vibrant black and red armor exhibits his wealth and standing [9]. Conversely, his wise and reverent son Shigemori wears an “informal robe and loose, large-pattern trousers…making a soft rustling sound as he [walks]” [10]. Shigemori’s dress is monk-like in its simplicity, contrasting with the elaborate battle armor of his father and fellow warriors. Shigemori’s clothing likewise reflects the purity and patience of his character. Heike’s association of beauty with purity, and decay with disorder, is concurrent with Shinto and Buddhist values before and during the late Heian period.

With the growing prevalence of Amida Buddhism, religion became disseminated across multiple levels of society, its rituals no longer shrouded in mystery but widely available [11]. Most significantly, the attainment of enlightenment, previously available only to those wealthy enough to obtain higher learning, also became democratized, as supplicants could appeal to Amino, an incarnation of Buddha, through a simple invocation [12]. The rise of Amida Buddhism, a potent spiritual undercurrent during the ascension of the Taira and Minamoto clans, further informs the atmosphere of turbulence, transition and the constant upheaval chronicled in The Tales of the Heike.

Through the influence of Amida Buddhism, the cultural relationship with death and the afterlife also changed, with great emphasis placed on karmic retribution. Much like the use of clothing and armaments to convey order or disorder, death in The Tales of the Heike also serves a dual function, providing transcendence or karmic punishment depending on the character’s moral state. Death and the downfall of one’s house is often foretold or confirmed by a character’s actions. On a pilgrimage to Kumano, Shigemori, “asks…for a quick death should the Taira’s end be near. Almost immediately, [he] falls ill and dies” [13]. For Shigemori, death is not only a portent of doom but a reprieve from the horrors to come, sparing him from witnessing the physical and moral decay of his own family. By contrast, his father Lord Kiyomori suffers the ultimate consequences for his brutality. Kiyomori’s wholesale destruction of the city of Nara and the burnings of its temples results in the deaths of thousands, as well as the desecration of religious symbols, like the bronze Buddha Vairochana [14]. Heike describes, “Amid the flames, the head fell to the ground, and the body melted…smoke rose to blanket the sky, flames filled every corner of the empty air [15].” Kiyomori’s burning of Nara is depicted as a defilement of religion and the Buddha himself, which effectively seals his doom. The severity of the crime is matched by an equally severe divine punishment. Kiyomori effectively boils alive before being borne off to “The Hell of Scorching Heat” [16]. As Kiyomori’s body scorches anything it touches, his clothes and finery are also presumably burned. The association of rich brocades and beautiful armor with purity and courage ensures that Kiyomori’s end is made even more ignoble and torturous. He is effectively stripped bare, both physically and spiritually. As his finery is stripped away and he is reduced to infirmity, Kiyomori transforms, or decays, from the powerful and wealthy Prime Minister to a damned and desecrated soul.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “Taira no Koremori Slashing at a Demon” (1879)

In The Tales of the Heike, the role of clothing is both an effective artistic device and an essential expression of late Heian warrior culture and religion. Clothing may depict a character’s personality, role and ultimate fate. The concept of “dressing for death” signifies the centrality of honor and the acceptance of mortality in samurai society. Furthermore, it portrays the prevailing association of beauty with purity and order, and the intricate stratification inherent in aristocratic culture. However, the rewards of meritorious conduct are acknowledged by examples of lower-ranking characters, such as Sanemori, donning finery in anticipation of a noble death. Finally, Heike’s depiction of how characters present themselves for death is deeply connected to religion and the afterlife. Clothing as a transformative or decaying device mirrors the transformation and decay inherent in death, reflecting the creative, disorderly turbulence of the late Heian period itself.


[1] Watson, Burton, and Haruo Shirane. The Tales of the Heike. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. University of Maryland: eBook Academic Collection. Accessed: Monday, September 27. pg 76.

[2] Watson and Shirane, pg. 76.

[3] Watson and Shirane, 74.

[4] Watson and Shirane, 52.

[5] Hane, Mikiso, and Louis G. Perez. Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991. Print, pg. 51.

[6] Watson and Shirane, 29.

[7] Watson and Shirane, 73.

[8] Rubinfien, Louisa. History 482: Japan Before 1800 Lecture. 13 September 2021. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[9] Watson and Shirane, 42.

[10] Watson and Shirane, 32.

[11] Hane, 104.

[12] Hane, 105.

[13] Watson and Shirane, 52.

[14] Watson and Shirane, 62.

[15] Watson and Shirane, 62.

[16] Watson and Shirane, 72.


Hane, Mikiso, and Louis G. Perez. Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991. Print.

Rubinfien, Louisa. History 482: Japan Before 1800 Lecture. 13 September 2021. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

Watson, Burton, and Haruo Shirane. The Tales of the Heike. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. University of Maryland: eBook Academic Collection. Accessed: Monday, September 27.


Chikanobu, Yoshu “Protecting his master, Tsugunobu is felled by Noritsune’s arrow.” Woodblock Print. (1898) Date Accessed: March 7, 2023.

Yoshitoshi, Tsukioka “Taira no Koremori Slashing at a Demon” Woodblock Print. (1879). Date Accessed: March 7, 2023.


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