Serpent of Time

Historical context

Kala Sarpa is a yoga in Vedic astrology. The name translates as "the serpent of time." Its appearance brings forth abrupt changes in fortune and close encounters with death, though the lessons learned under its lash can be turned to good ends.

I posit that Kala Sarpa was enchanted into corporeal form and brought to the court of Ying Zheng, the first emperor of China. (He began the construction of the Great Wall, instituted "legalism" as a political ideology, and was buried with 8000 terracotta soldiers.)

From there, Kala Sarpa was drawn into the service of the Heian period diviner (onmyôji) Abe no Seimei. At the end of the Heian period in 1185, Abe no Seimei's disciples sealed the serpent within the lake. There it remained until unbound by Ryô, Sen and Gendô (Sen's uncle).

Its encounter with Fujiwara no Hidesato, the hero of My Lord Bag of Rice, would have taken place during this time.

The Nanboku Period

The era of the Northern and Southern Courts (Nanboku-chô) was the only time following the end of the Heian period when the Imperial Court regained the right to rule as well as reign, albeit for barely a half-century. Otherwise, de facto power resided with the shoguns.

The Southern Court began with Emperor Go-Daigo's revolt against the Kamakura shogunate, which collapsed in 1333. Following the abdication of Go-Kameyama in 1392, the Southern Court ceased to exist. The Ashikaga shogunate took up the reins of power.

All emperors since are descended from the Northern Court. Early in the 20th century, a political scandal erupted when historians argued that the legitimate line of succession ran temporarily through the Southern Court. After much debate, this became the "official" version.

The Ôei Rebellion

At the end of the 14th century, soon after the defeat of the Southern Court, the long-simmering conflict between Ôuchi Yoshihiro and Ashikaga Yoshimitsu erupted into open hostilities. Yoshimitsu sent the Rinzai Zen priest Zekkai Chûshin to Sakai to negotiate.

But according to George Sansom (A History of Japan, 1334–1615),

Yoshihiro was obdurate. Instead of giving way, he took a firmer line than ever, and produced a long list of grievances. Zekkai was therefore obliged to return empty-handed, and Yoshimitsu saw that he must attack at once.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu sent in three divisions made up of soldiers from the Hosokawa, Shiba, and Hatakeyama clans, while buying off the Shikoku and Awaji privateers supplying Yoshihiro. Besieged on all sides and cut off from the sea, Sakai was doomed.

In my retelling, I have substituted Princess Ryô for Zekkai Chûshin.

In all fairness, Ôuchi Yoshihiro was motivated by more than injured pride in launching his attempted coup. Historians have since concluded he was justified in believing the shogun was scheming to weaken the Ôuchi clan by stoking an ongoing feud with the Shôni clan.

The Hatakeyama Clan

The Hatakeyama clan helped the Ashikaga Bakufu defeat the Southern Court. As a reward, the clan was granted five prominent hereditary governorships, including that of Kii Province (now Wakayama Prefecture).

In the mid-15th century, feuds in the Hosokawa and Hatakeyama clans triggered the Ônin War. The war wrecked Kyôto and weakened the Ashikaga Bakufu. The power vacuum led to the Warring States period, that ended with Tokugawa Ieyasu's victory at Sekigahara in 1600.

Muko-Iri Marriage

Muko-iri marriage, where the groom marries into the wife's family, is still practiced in Japan. The system of pro forma adoptions that supplied a lower-class spouse with an upper-class pedigree are less necessary today, though they played an important role in the past.

By the 19th century, Satsuma Province had become the most powerful in Japan. Its forward-thinking governor, Shimazu Nariakira, wanted open and legal trade with the west (Satsuma had grown rich thanks in part to smuggling), and more autonomy in local governance.

One of his schemes to garner support in Edo—which, if successful, might have at least forestalled the downfall of the Tokugawa regime during the Meiji Restoration—involved marrying the adopted daughter of a close retainer to Tokugawa Iesada, Japan's the third-to-last shogun.

Here is the chain of adoptions that took place (all the same person):

  • Shimazu Katsu, biological daughter of Shimazu Tadatake.
  • Shimazu Atsuko, adopted daughter of Shimazu Nariakira.
  • Fujiwara no Sumiko, adopted daughter of Konoe Tadahiro, a prominent Japanese court noble.
  • Atsuhime, her married name.
  • Tenshôin, her Buddhist name after taking the tonsure when Tokugawa Iesada died two years later.


Emperors, shoguns and aristocrats (Genji being the most famous literary/quasi-historical example) often had several sokushitsu (consorts/concubines) besides a legal wife. This was never seen as a problem as long as the main house recognized the offspring.

A notable example is the 16th century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of Japan's "great unifiers." He was not from a samurai family and could not be appointed shogun. So he took Lady Yodo, a niece of Oda Nobunaga (the first great unifier), as his mistress.

Their child could have become shogun. But Tokugawa Ieyasu (the third great unifier) claimed the title after the Battle of Sekigahara, and then wiped out the Toyotomi clan during the Ôsaka Campaigns. Ieyasu himself fathered sixteen children by ten different women.

Barrier Gates

The barrier gates (sekisho) that regulated trade and traffic between the provinces were more a product of the Edo period, as they were crucial in enforcing the hostage system (sankin kôtai). A transit permit (internal passport) was required to travel past a barrier gate.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook describe the policing of these border crossings in Secrets of the Samurai:

Women were subject to particular scrutiny. Their value to the shogun as hostages was incalculable, and each woman's [transit permit] minutely specified her position in society (widow, wife, prostitute, etc.) and her physical appearance so as to prevent misrepresentation through disguise.

Travelers could expect to be questioned, searched, and inspected as thoroughly as at a modern airport. This is why Sen has Ryô avoid the main coastal roads (Gokaidô), the "interstates" of the medieval period. Modern-day rail lines follow these same routes.

Mt. Kôya

In 816, Emperor Saga granted a request by the monk Kûkai (Kôbô Daishi) to establish a mountain retreat at Mount Kôya. The project broke ground in 819. Mt. Kôya is the home of Kôyasan Shingon Buddhism and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Mt. Kôya could not escape the medieval entanglements of church and state (the church more often yielding to the state), but it remained nominally independent. During the Warring States period, Mt. Kôya was a preferred location for internal exile when a defeated warlord "retired."

Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.