The Heikegani crab is a creature with a very unique feature; it has the face of the ancient Japanese sumo warrior on its shell. Native to Japan, these crabs are revered as sacred with an ancient myth attached to its unique patterning. But is this crab’s distinct feature a product of some ancient legend, or science?
We will begin our story on April 25th, 1185 AD Japan with the battle of Dan-no-ura. It was the epic sea major battle which would bring an end to the Genpei War and usher in the first military dictatorship in Japan. This battle took place at Dan-no-ura, in the Shimonoseki Strait off the southern tip of Honshu.
The Heike (Taira) clan and the Genji (Monamoto) clan had been in conflict for decades over dominance of the Imperial Court, and therefore rulership over Japan. For much of that time power had belonged to the Taira clan, but during their reign the Monamoto had made valiant efforts to overthrow them, all of which had ultimately failed.
After the abdication of Emperor Takakura in 1180, Taira no Kiyomori put his two year old Grandson Antoku on the throne. This led to the leader of the Monamoto clan known as Mochihito, the son of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, leading a call to arms and attempting to organizing a rebellion against the young Taira Emperor. Upon hearing of this rebellion, Taira no Kiyomori ordered Mochihito’s arrest and after a dramatic encounter Mochihito was captured and later executed.
This was just the beginning of the Genpei war. Minamoto no Yukiie took over as leader of the Monamoto clan and several battles would be fought with both sides experiencing victories and losses. Just one year later in 1181 Taira no Kiyomori died from an illness leaving the care of the young Emperor Antoku in the care of his wife. On top of this a devastating famine hit Japan which ceased warfare for the next two years. However, in 1183 the feuding between the Taira and Minamoto resumed and culminated in the defeat of the Taira at the battle of Dan-no-ura. This final battle had been close, but the unexpected betrayal of a Taira General Taguchi Shigeyoshi who defected to the Monamoto and attacked the Taira fleet from the rear was to be their downfall.
Taguchi Shigeyoshi not only attacked the Taira fleet but he also revealed to the Monamoto the ship that Emperor Antoku was sailing on. Realising that this was the end of the line the grandmother of Antoku, widow of Taira no Kiyomori drowned the young Emperor, now just six years old before drowning herself in the Shimonoseki Strait. The majority of the Taira nobles were wiped out in this final battle, and the Taira clan’s decades of rule were over. It is believed that these fallen warriors were reincarnated as crabs bearing the face of a fierce sumo warrior to show their everlasting dedication to the Taira clan. So sacred are these crabs that if caught by fisherman they are instead thrown back into the sea as a mark of respect for this fallen royal family.
But is this really how the Heikegani crab came to be, the reincarnation of a fallen warrior race, or is there a more scientific explanation? One theory which was championed by Carl Sagon in his ‘Cosmos’ series and was a theory originally put forward by Julian Huxley in 1952 was that of natural selection. With these particular crabs being thrown back into the sea, they were essentially being protected from one of their biggest predators, a luxury that other crabs and sea creatures did not have extended to them. This allowed the Heikegani crab to thrive whilst other crabs had their genetic lines thinned out by Japanese fishing practices.
Another theory which has been put forward is simply that of pareidolia, the ability of the brain to recognise or form patterns out of seemingly random stimuli – it is used as an explanation when people see a vision of the Virgin Mary on their toast or seeing various images in clouds.
Either of these theories are plausible. However, whether you believe how the distinctive patterning of the Heikegani crab has formed it seems a fitting reminder of the battle of Dan-no-ura and the once powerful Taira clan.
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