Did you know the Japanese also used to have sabong? Sabong ,or cockfighting, is so ingrained in Fil-Hispanic culture we sometimes forget it was widespread in Asia long before the European Age of Exploration.

There was even a time in Japan when it was a means of knowing the will of the gods, and  one cockfight in particular made an indelible mark on Japanese history.

Battle of Dan no Ura

The year was 1185 A.D. All Japan was torn between two warring clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. The two clans had been feuding for years, and their samurai armies had rampaged all up and down the islands — some of Kyoto’s oldest temples were burned in their conflicts. By this time the Taira were in retreat, having abandoned the capital at Kyoto and pulled back to western Japan where their family was stronger. The Minamoto armies glared at their opponents across a formidable barrier — the treacherous waters of the Straits of Shimonoseki, between Honshu and Kyushu.

As long as they could keep the Minamoto on the eastern shore, the Taira held the stronger political cards — they had the Emperor Antoku with them and the treasures of the Imperial Regalia, which gave their candidate a stronger claim to legitimacy. And they had a strong navy, for the Taira had made their reputation quashing the pirates of western Japan. The Minamoto on the other hand had the samurai of the eastern provinces, battle-hardened veterans who had proven their ability to beat the Taira many times, and their own Emperor, Go-Toba. It would’ve been hard, even up to this point, to decide which clan to side with.

Caught in the middle of this dilemma was the Abbot Tanzo of Kumano, who controlled a fleet of 200 ships. He had ties to both clans, and couldn’t decide which one to support. After praying at the Kumano Shrine in Tanabe, he had been told to “follow the white flag of the Minamoto.” Still doubting his course, he called for seven white cocks, standing for the Minamoto white flag, and seven red cocks, standing for the Taira red flag, and set them to fight one after the other. All the white cocks won.

Abbot Tanzo brought his 200 ships over to the Minamoto side, and this defection along with that of other lords, spurred by Kumano’s example, disheartened the Taira much. Moreover, the defectors brought crucial information: they told the Minamoto commander, Minamoto Yoshitsune, how the tides would run in the strait. With this advice, Yoshitsune held the Minamoto fleet back during the morning, when the tide was running against them, then attacked with full force in the afternoon with the tide bearing their ships at speed like charging warhorses.

The Taira were crushed.

With this victory, Minamoto Yoritomo, chief of the clan, was able to get Emperor Go-Toba to make him Shogun, military governor of all Japan; and for the first time ever make the office hereditary. Previous Shoguns had held power only for the duration of the emergency for which they were commissioned. Now the title had been made the property of one clan, and when later the Minamoto disintegrated, it was one of their descendants–Tokugawa Ieyasu–who would complete the reunification of Japan and become Shogun, the first of the Tokugawa dynasty that would last 250 years.

All that, because of a cockfight.

The city of Shimonoseki is now visited for its beautiful natural location overlooking the straits. Akama Shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Antoku. The nearby island of Ganryujima was the site of the epic duel between Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most famous swordsman, and his arch-rival Sasaki Kojiro. If you’re an adventurous eater, you’ll be interested to know that Shimonoseki handles 80% of Japan’s fugu (pufferfish) catch, with Haedomari Market being the only market in Japan that specializes in this dangerous delicacy. It’s cheaper here than anywhere else in Japan. The home branch of Shunpanro, the first restaurant ever to be licensed to serve fugu, is also here. A huge fireworks festival is held every 13th of August, with 13,000 fireworks displayed. Shimonoseki has ferries to Busan, South Korea, and is the Honshu terminus of the Kanmon Bridge to Kyushu.

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