The Heiji Disturbance was a conflict between the Minamoto and Taira clans, led by Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Taira no Kiyomori respectively. Along with the Hôgen Disturbance of 1156, it marks the rise of Taira power, the beginning of the decline of direct Imperial power, and the early stages of the rise of the samurai class.
The conflict arose out of the resolution of the Hôgen Rebellion which came several years prior. At that time, Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Taira no Kiyomori had been allies, supporting Emperor Go-Shirakawa against the forces of his brother Retired Emperor Sutoku. However, while Yoshitomo felt he was more responsible for their victory, it was Kiyomori who received the greater rewards. Thus, Yoshitomo allied with court minister Fujiwara no Nobuyori to make a move against Kiyomori's authority.
The attack on the Sanjô Palace on 1159/12/9 was the chief action of the conflict. Yoshitomo and Nobuyori waited until Kiyomori was away from Kyoto on a religious pilgrimage, and then attacked the Imperial residence with roughly 500 warriors, kidnapping the Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa and setting the building aflame; Go-Shirakawa and his sister Jôseimon-in were taken to the Imperial Palace. The events are dramatically depicted in a famous, later, handscroll composition now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and entitled "Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace."
Kiyomori returned soon afterwards from his pilgrimage, taking Emperor Nijô to Rokuhara, declaring himself a defender of the court, and Yoshitomo an enemy of the court. Taira and Minamoto forces clashed again at one of the gates of the Imperial Palace, resulting in a decisive Taira victory.
Following the Taira victory, Minamoto no Yoshitomo was executed along with his eldest son, Minamoto no Yoshihira. His wife, Tokiwa Gozen, was spared along with their two younger sons, Minamoto no Yoritomo and Yoshitsune, who merely fled into exile, or into hiding. Yoritomo and Yoshitsune would later grow up to lead the Minamoto in destroying the Taira clan in the Genpei War of 1180-1185.
- Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 71.
- William de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 1, Columbia University Press (2001), 274.
- De Bary indicates that Yoshitomo escaped and fled, and was killed by a treacherous vassal; however, most other sources relate that he was executed. de Bary, 274.