Japan History: Uesugi Kenshin

Uesugi Kenshin

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Uesugi Kenshin,( 上杉 謙信) “The Dragon of Echigo” , powerful war lord and brilliant strategist, wise administrator and man of honor. Many are the names he used in his intense life, many the battles and the enemies he fought. Among them Takeda Shingen and the famous Oda Nobunaga who is said to have rejoiced when he heard of his death. Such were Uesugi’s fame and power, and it is about him that we want to talk about this time.

Uesugi Kenshin was born as Nagao Kagetora (長尾景虎)on February 18, 1530 and died on April 19, 1578. He changed his name to Uesugi Masatora inheriting the Uesugi clan name when he became the official Kantō Kanrei (vice-shōgun of the Kantō region). To honor the 13th shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru he changed his name again to Uesugi Terutora, finally changing it for the last time to Kenshin, the name we all know. This happened after he vowed to become a Zen-Buddhist and especially a devotee of Bishamonten, god of war.
Kenshin was referred to as “The Dragon of Echigo” because of his fearsome skills in the martial arts while his rival Takeda Shingen was called “The Tiger of Kai”. In fact, in some versions of Chinese mythology, the Dragon and Tiger have always been bitter rivals who try to defeat one another, but neither is ever able to gain the upper hand.

Early life

Kenshin was the fourth son of the noted warrior Nagao Tamekage from the Nagao clan. His father was considered a great war lord thanks to his victories over Uesugi Sadanori and Uesugi Funayoshi. But Tamekage soon started a conflict with his neighboring Ikkō-ikki of Hokuriku, as the political power in the region had started to shift in favor of the Ikkō. The situation for Echigo quickly deteriorated until Kenshin’s father in 1536 gathered up an army and marched westward. However, upon arriving in Etchū, his forces were suddenly attacked by Enami Kazuyori, and Tamekage himself was slain.
Then Nagao Harukage, Tamekage’s eldest son, immediately took control of the Nagao after defeating his brother Kageyasu who died in the conflict. Kagetora (Kenshin) was relocated to Rizen temple where he spent his time studying.
Until he reached 14, when he was contacted by Usami Sadamitsu and a number of other acquaintances of his late father. They urged him to go to Echigo and contest his older brother’s rule. Harukage had not been able to control powerful kokujin families tearing the province apart.
Even though Kenshin was reluctant to take the field against his own brother, he was eventually convinced that it was necessary to the survival of Echigo. During one of the many clashes, in 1547, he was able to take control over the clan from Harukage. We don’t know what happened to his older brother then, we don’t know if he was ordered to commit suicide or not.

Though his rule over the Nagao and Uesugi clan were now unquestioned, much of Echigo was still independent. He immediately set out to cement his power in the region. Ogasawara Nagatoki and Murakami Yoshikiyo, two Shinano lords, both appeared before Kenshin requesting his help in halting the advance of the powerful warlord Takeda Shingen. Around the time Kenshin had become the new lord of Echigo and Shingen had won major victories in Shinano Province. With the Takeda’s conquests taking them remarkably close to the borders of Echigo, Kenshin agreed to join battle.

Uesugi and Takeda

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

What followed was the beginning of a rivalry which became legendary. It started of with indecisive skirmish for a total number of five such engagements at the famous site of Kawanakajima.
In 1561, in the fourth and biggest battle they would ever fight, Kenshin used an ingenious tactic. It was a special formation where the soldiers in the front would switch with their comrades in the rear, as those in the front line became tired or wounded. This allowed the front line to always have strong and fresh soldiers. The tactic was extremely effective and Kenshin nearly won the battle a number of times. It is also said that Kenshin managed to ride up to Shingen and slashed at him with his sword. Shingen fended off the blows with his iron war fan. So Kenshin failed to finish Shingen off before he could organize a counter-attack.
The Uesugi army was forced to retreat. The result of the fourth battle of Kawanakajima is still uncertain, we still don’t know if it was Kenshin to prevail, or Shingen. But one thing is certain, both of them lost a large number of soldiers. Kenshin lost up to 3000 Samurai while Shingen lost 4000 men, also losing his younger brother, Takeda Nobushige.

Though Kenshin and Shingen were sworn rivals for more than 14 years there was often an exchange of gifts between them.The most famous one was a precious sword that Shingen gave Kenshin.
Shinge died in 1573. It is said that Kanshin cried for the loss of his great rival and vowed to never attack Takeda’s lands again. The two parties became allies in three years. In addition, there was an incident when some daimyos boycotted salt supplies to Kai province. Kenshin also heard of Shingen’s problem with the Hojo clan that had refused to send him rise. So Kenshin secretly sent to the Takeda clan some salt supplies. He also wrote to his enemy, Shingen, that according to his information some of the Hojo clan had committed a hostile action. Even if he could have cut out his supplies and so defeat Shingen, Kenshin decided not to do so because it would have been a dishonorable act. As personal reflection, Kenshin said: “I do not fight with salt, but with the sword” . His actions towards his rival set a noble example that can apply to all times. Those seeking peace often use Kenshin’s statement referring to it like :”Peace is achieved with rice and salt, not with katanas and spears”.

Kenshin and Oda Nobunaga

「四十九年 一睡の夢 一期の栄華 一盃の酒」
This life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;

Part of Kenshin’s death poem.

Starting in 1576, Kenshin began to consider the issue of Oda Nobunaga. In fact, he had since grown to be Japan’s most powerful warlord of the time. With both Takeda Shingen and Hōjō Ujiyasu dead, Kenshin was no longer blocked off from this realm of expansion. So, when the death of a lord in Noto Province sparked up confusion and conflict in the area of the succession, Kenshin was quick to use the opportunity. Taking the land from the weakened clan put him in the position to threaten Nobunaga and his allies. In response, Nobunaga pulled together his own forces and those of his two best generals, Shibata Katsuie and Maeda Toshiie, to fight Kenshin, in the famous Tedorigawa battle. The expert warrior Shibata Katsuie , who had served Nobunaga from the beginning, was sent to test Kenshin’s ability on the battlefield. According to some sources, Shibata brought 18.000 to battle, and was followed by Nobunaga himself with 20.000 as backup. If this numbers were to be proven as correct, this would be the greatest battle of the Sengoku period.
Despite Nobunaga’s overwhelming numbers, Kenshin managed to score a solid victory on the field. At first, Kenshin refused to engage the Nobunaga’s army until heavy rain neutralized Nobunaga’s foot soldiers. Forced to retreat, Shibata joined the main force. Then Kenshin used one of the tactics of his old rival Takeda Shingen. He pretended to send forth a small unit to attack Nobunaga’s main force from behind and gave his enemy a great opportunity to crush his remaining force. Nobunaga took the bait. His force attacked at night expecting a weakened opponent at the front; instead, Kenshin’s full military might was waiting. After the loss of almost a quarter of his military force Nobunaga retired toward Omi Province. Kenshin just took the chance to build some fortress in Kaga province before going back to Echigo. In October 1577, Uesugi Kenshin arranged to put forth a grand army to continue his assaults into Nobunaga’s land. But we know that his health was already compromised at the time and on April 9 (according to the calendar of the Tenshō era) it deteriorated. He died four days later.

Uesugi Kenshin’s death

The cause of Kenshin’s death has been questioned throughout the years. The theory accepted by most Japanese scholars is that a life as a heavy drinker and probably a stomach cancer caused the end of this great war lord’s life.
However, it is also speculated that he was victim of one of the most famous ninja assassinations; a ninja had been waiting in the cesspool beneath the latrine at Kenshin’s camp with a short spear or sword. (Note that the theories are not mutually exclusive — the assassin, if he existed, might simply have fatally wounded an already-dying man. )
It is said that when Nobunaga heard of Kenshin’s death he said : “Now the Empire is mine.”

Kenshin’s death had dramatic consequences for his clan. While he never had children of his own, he had adopted 2 boys so that they would become his heirs. However, heard of their father’s death they started to fight each other. The conflict ended with Uesugi Kagekatsu’s victory over his brother Kagetora, becoming the new head of the clan. This internal conflict had its consequences in terms of cost and energies too. Oda Nobunaga had no problems in taking over many territories that had once been property of the Uesugi clan. The destruction of the the clan had never been so close and only Oda Nobunaga’s own death once again shattered the balance of power in Japan.


Photo credit: gacktitalia.com

Uesugi Kenshin’s historical figure and his fame have never been forgotten.
The visual kei singer GACKT played the role of Kenshin in the tv series Furin Kazan, aired from January 7, to December 16, 2007.

In August (The fourth Saturday and Sunday of the month) takes place in Jōetsu,Niigata prefecture, a festival to honor the great warrior, with the reenactment of the famous Kawanakajima battle. In the Sengoku period Jōetsu with its Kasugayama castle was the center of the Uesugi domain.
GACKT himself took part in the festival many times in the role of Kenshin, with a tremendous public success.

The writer Shino Ayako, that wrote the book “Kenshin Woman”, expresses her doubts about Kenshin’s identity. There are many rumors that want Uesugi Kenshin to be a woman.
(1) He never had a wife (nor any concubine) and he never had natural children. It is said that he preferred male company to beautiful female’s company. Homosexuality might be an explanation since at the time it was a normal practice among the samurai class.
(2)Some believe that the cause of his death might have been “omushi”, which was documented to be a kind of disease related to menopause
(3)Rumors say that he would confine in the castle once a month.
(4) With reference to his armor, he had a petite stature at about 156 cm in height.
(5) He preferred wearing clothes which were in woman’s colors.

There are no proofs to support this hypothesis, but it is certain that they are still alive even today to testify that Uesugi Kenshin has left an indelible mark on Japanese History.

Photo credit: gacktitalia.com