Japan History: Minamoto no Yoshitsune

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Minamoto no Yoshitsune

Photo credits: wikipedia.org

Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) era il nono figlio di  Minamoto no Yoshitomo (1123-1160), ed il terzo figlio avuto con Tokiwa Gozen. Nome d’infanzia di Yoshitsune era Ushiwakamaru (牛若丸). Poco dopo la sua nascita, scoppiò la ribellione di Heiji, nella quale suo padre e i suoi due fratelli più grandi persero la vita. Mentre suo fratello maggiore Yoritomo, ormai erede designato del clan, fu esiliato nella provincia di Izu, Yoshitsune fu affidato al tempio di Kurama, sulle montagne di Hiei, vicino Kyoto. Fu infine preso in custodia da Fujiwara no Hidehira (藤原秀衡?), capo del potente ramo settentrionale del clan Fujiwara (Fujiwara del Nord), e portato a Hiraizumi, nella provincia di Mutsu.

Photo credits: wikimedia.org

Nel maggio 1180, il figlio dell’imperatore Go-Shirakawa appoggiato dal clan Minamoto,  scrisse una dichiarazione per spingere i Minamoto a sollevarsi contro i Taira. Il contesto è quello della guerra Genpei (1180–1185) che vide contrapposti i clan Taira e Minamoto sulla scelta dell’imperatore da porre sul trono e così assicurarsi il controllo del Paese. La battaglia di Uji fu l’inizio di una guerra che durò 5 anni, e durante la quale Yoshitsune e Yoritomo si riunirono dopo la loro separazione avvenuta nel 1160.

Nel 1184 Yoshitsune andò contro suo cugino Yoshinaka. Quest’ultimo aveva preso il controllo dei Minamoto dopo aver sconfitto i Taira nel Giugno del 1183. A quel punto, Yoritomo mandò contro Yoshinaka suo fratello Yoshitsune che nello stesso anno ottenne la carica di Sô-daisho (generale dell’armata). Le truppe di Yoshinaka furono sconfitte e non appena lo stesso lo venne a sapere, abbandonò Kyoto insieme a Tomoe Gozen, unico esempio di samurai donna.  Fu poi messo alle strette a Awazu e costretto a suicidarsi.

Senza più Yoshinaka, Yoritomo ottenne il supporto di Go-Shirakawa per continuare la guerra contro i Taira. Il 13 marzo Yoshitsune si  spostò a Settsu, ed il suo primo obiettivo fu una fortificazione dei Taira, Ichi no tani.

Yoshitsune guidò in battaglia 10.000 uomini attaccando da Ovest, mentre 50.000 uomini guidati da Noriyori, fratello di Yoshitomo,  attaccavano da est. Il 18 Marzo Yoshitsune arrivò a  Mikusayama, attaccando di notte. Secondo lo Heike Monogatari i difensori rimasti vivi scapparono verso la costa rifugiandosi poi nello Shikoku, lasciando 500 morti. Allora Yoshitsune mandò 7000 uomini guidati da Doi Sanehira dal lato ovest verso Ichi no tani, mentre lui stesso ne guidava altri 3000 dalla cima delle scogliere. I Minamoto vinsero sui Taira, e la loro vittoria fece spazio ad un altro assalto a Yashima, il quartier generale dei Taira nello Shikoku. Yoritomo decise per un approccio cauto. I sei mesi successivi furono spesi a consolidare i guadagni già ottenuti e per mettere in ordine le numerose famiglie che avevano finora sostenuto i Minamoto.

Dopo Ichi no tani, Yoshitsune e Noriyori tornarono a Kyoto mostrando per le strade le teste dei Taira. Nell’ottobre successivo Noriyori fu mandato a distruggere i sostenitori dei Taira nel Kyushu e iniziò una lunga e faticosa marcia attraverso le province occidentali. Yoshitsune rimase a Kyoto e agì come il vice di Yoritomo fino ai primi del 1185. Ufficialmente, Yoshitsune era responsabile di emanare decreti che ordinavano la cessazione di qualsiasi violenza all’interno del territorio dei Minamoto. In pratica, le sue direttive riguardavano altri temi, tra cui la proibizione di  tasse di guerra senza il consenso espresso della leadership dei Minamoto.

Durante il periodo di Yoshitsune a Kyoto ci furono i primi segni della rottura con Yoritomo. Sembra infatti che quest’ultimo avesse negato a Yoshitsune i titoli imperiali che la corte voleva concedergli, e che si infuriò quando nonostante il suo diniego gli vennero comunque riconosciuti.

Nel Marzo 1185, con Noriyori pronto ad invadere il Kyushu, Yoshitsune fu autorizzato al rientro in guerra. Volendo assaltare Yashima, assemblò una flotta a Watanabe. Durante i preparativi  litigò con Kajiwara Kagetoki, uno dei servitori di suo fratello maggiore, riguardo la strategia da adottare, ma nella notte del 22 Marzo Yoshitsune  ordinò ai suoi uomini di salpare. Siccome il tempo era brutto, molti uomini rifiutarono di salire sulle navi, ma lo fecero nel momento in cui Yoshitsune minacciò di uccidere chiunque avesse disobbedito ai suoi ordini. Nonostante questo, non tutte le navi lo seguirono.

Yoshitsune arrivò all’alba nello Shukoku, per poi partire per Yashima. La base dei Taira era situata sulla spiaggia e Taira Munemori, accortosi dei fuochi che gli uomini di Yoshitsune avevano acceso nelle vicinanze, ordinò l’immediata evacuazione della fortezza. Lui stesso scappò in nave con Antoku, l’imperatore bambino protetto dai Taira .  Nonostante tutto, il clan Taira fu completamente sradicato in quella che viene ricordata come la battaglia di Dan-no-ura, una delle più importanti della storia giapponese.

Dopo la vittoria, nel 1192 a Yoritomo fu dato il il titolo di Shogun. Ma in quell’anno Yoshitsune era ormai già morto perchè Dan-no-ura segnò non solo la consacrazione della sua fama e abilità, ma anche la sua tragica fine.

Da tempo infatti i rapporti con il fratello erano turbolenti. E probabilmente anche la gelosia per l’abilità dimostrata fino ad allora da Yoshitsune ebbe un ruolo nella scelta di Yoritomo di dichiarare il fratello una minaccia per i Minamoto e per l’Impero stesso.

Photo credits: wikimedia.org

Dopo aver tentato di opporsi a Yoritomo, Yoshitsune fu costretto a trovare rifugio a Mutsu, dove si trovava il suo vecchio guardiano Fujiwara Hidehira. Hideara però morì nel Novembre 1187 lasciando come sua ultima volontà una dichiarazione in cui si affermava che Yoshitsune sarebbe dovuto diventare governatore di Mutsu. Un desiderio che il figlio di Hidehira, Yasuhira, ignorò completamente.  Scoppiò un inevitabile conflitto con i Fujiwara e le autorità di Kamakura scoprirono dove Yoshitsune si rifugiava.

Benkei, servitore e fedele compagno di Yoshitsune, fece in modo di trattenere i loro assalitori, dandogli così il tempo di uccidere la sua giovane moglie e commettere suicidio. La testa di Yoshitsune fu trasportata a Kamakura, creando una forte emozione in chi la vide.

Venne sepolto nel tempio shintoista di Shirahata Jinja, a Fujisawa, dove la sua salma è tuttora custodita.

Miti e leggende

Nonostante tutto, le notizie riguardanti la morte di Yoshitsune sono sempre state un po’ elusive.  Secondo l’Ainu historical accounts, non fece seppuku, scappò a Koromogawa, assumendo il nome di Okikurumi/Oinakamui.

A Hokkaido, il tempio di Yoshitsune è eretto in suo onore nella città di Biratori. Alcune teorie lo vedono scappare da Hokkaido e risorgere come Genghis Khan. Ma ovviamente si tratta solo di leggende

Photo credits: samurai-archives.com

Un grande soldato ed una figura classica tragica, Yoshitsune divenne una leggenda ben prima della sua morte.  Kujô Kanezane, un supporter di Yoritomo, ha scritto sul suo diario nel 1185,

“Yoshitsune ha lasciato grandi successi; su questo non c’è niente da dire. In coraggio, benevolenza, e giustizia, lascerà una grande eredità ai posteri. In questo può essere solo lodato ed ammirato. L’unica cosa è che ha deciso di andare contro Yoritomo. Questo è un crimine da traditore.”

Il modo in cui Yoshitsune morì, gli assicurò un posto d’onore nel futuro, mentre il ricordo di Yoritomo porterà per sempre una macchia nera. Cosa accadde in quell’estate del 1185 sarà sempre un mistero. E’ certo però che i successi di Yoshitsune nella guerra Genpei hanno cambiato il corso della storia giapponese e gli ha assicurato il posto tra i più grandi Samurai.

La vita di Yoshitsune nella letteratura e nell’era moderna

La vita di Yoshitsune, nonostante il suo eccezionale talento militare, finì con una morte cruenta, che attira la compassione di molti. Nella lingua giapponese l’espressione Hougan’biiki (判官贔屓), che vuol dire “compatire o accogliere nelle proprie grazie un debole”, contiene il nome postumo di Yoshitsune, Hougan (判官) appunto. Questo nome gli spettava grazie al rango affidatogli dall’imperatore Go Shirakawa, infatti un’altra pronuncia degli ideogrammi di Hougan è Hangan, che significa “magistrato”. Inoltre, la vita di Yoshitsune è considerata eroica al punto da essere narrata. Le leggende e i racconti con questo tema si sono moltiplicate col tempo, delineando così una figura di Yoshitsune piuttosto lontana da quella storica. Tra le varie leggende è famosa quella del suo incontro a Oobashi con il fortissimo Musashi. O quella in cui, grazie all’aiuto della figlia dello stregone Kiichi Hogen, riuscì a rubare i due leggendari volumi di tattiche belliche Rikuto e Sanryaku, e a studiarli. O ancora quella dell’improvvisa morte in piedi di Benkei, monaco guerriero, fedelissimo servitore e amico di Yoshitsune, nella battaglia del fiume Koromogawa. Queste leggende sono state rese famose presso un vasto pubblico circa duecento anni dopo la morte di Yoshitsune, all’inizio dell’era Muromachi, grazie alle “Cronache di Yoshitsune”. Yoshitsune infatti compare come protagonista nella terza sezione dell’Heike Monotogari, il classico della letteratura giapponese che racconta degli eventi della guerra Genpei e che ispirò molte opere posteriori, soprattutto di teatro Nō e Kabuki. In particolare, si narra che l’aver studiato il “Libro della Tigre”, contenuto nel Rikuto, sia stato la causa della sua vittoria a Sunaga, e che da quel momento, esso si sia rivelato indispensabile per le vittorie seguenti. In epoche successive, il nome di Yoshitsune venne utilizzato per consacrare la gloria di una discendenza. Ad esempio, esiste una scuola di arti marziali che avrebbe ereditato delle tecniche da Yoshitsune stesso o da quello che viene ritenuto il suo maestro, Kiichi Hogen.

MOON SAGA e MOON SAGA 2

La figura di Yoshitsune è stata ripresa anche dal cantante e attore giapponese GACKT nelle rappresentazioni teatrali MOON SAGA  e MOON SAGA 2. Lui stesso interpreta Yoshitsune descrivendolo come un mononofu, ovvero un essere metà umano metà demone. GACKT, con le sue eccezionali capacità interpretative,  è riuscito perfettamente ad interpretare questa dualità, dando vita nella prima parte ad un personaggio ironico, divertente ed anche un po’ impacciato che nella seconda parte diventa demoniaco, spaventoso. Le avventure di Yoshitsune sono, in questo caso, romanzate e rese anche un po’ sovrannaturali, ma raccontano comunque la sua storia, perchè Yoshitsune era così. Una dualità, un personaggio pieno di contrasti in cui la benevolenza si alternava con la crudeltà. Yoshitsune perdeva, probabilmente, completamente il controllo quando si sentiva in pericolo e per questo faceva uscire il suo lato “demone”.

MOON SAGA 2 è stata anche la prima rappresentazione teatrale al mondo ad usare il projection mapping.

Photo credits: gackt.com

Photo credits: gackt.com

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Minamoto no Yoshitsune

Photo credits: wikipedia.org

Yoshitsune was the ninth son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, and the third child he had with Tokiwa Gozen. Yoshitsune’s childhood name was Ushiwakamaru (牛若丸). Shortly after his birth, Heiji’s rebellion broke out, and his father and his two older brothers lost their lives. While his older brother Yoritomo, now the designated heir of the clan, was exiled to the province of Izu, Yoshitsune was entrusted to Kurama temple, in the mountains of Hiei near Kyoto. He was then put under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira (藤原秀衡), head of the powerful branch of the Fujiwara clan in the North (Northern Fujiwara), and brought to Hiraizumi, in the Province of Mutsu.

Photo credits: wikimedia.org

In May 1180, the son of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, that was supported by the Minamoto clan, issued a statement urging the Minamoto to rise against the Taira. The context is that of the Genpei War (1180-1185) which saw the clans Taira and Minamoto fight for their choice of the rightful Emperor to be put on the throne and thus secure control over the Country. The Battle of Uji was the beginning of a 5-year war during which Yoshitsune and Yoritomo met again after their separation in 1160.

In 1184, Yoshitsune went against his cousin Yoshinaka. Yoshinaka had taken control of the Minamoto clan after defeating the Taira in June of 1183. At that point, Yoritomo sent his brother Yoshitsune against Yoshinaka, who had obtained in the same year the position of Sô-daisho (general of the army). Yoshinaka’s troops were defeated and, as soon as he learned that, he abandoned Kyoto along with Tomoe Gozen, the only example of a female samurai warrior. He was soon cornered at Awazu and committed suicide. With Yoshinaka out of the way, Yoritomo secured the support of Go-Shirakawa to continue the war against the Taira. On March 13 Yoshitsune moved to Settsu, and his first objective was a Taira fortification, Ichi no tani.

Yoshitsune led in battle 10,000 men attacking from the West, while 50,000 men led by Noriyori, Yoshitomo’s brother, attacked from the East. On March 18, Yoshitsune arrived in Mikusayama, attacking at night. According to the Heike Monogatari, the surviving defenders fled to the coast and passed over to Shikoku, leaving 500 dead. Yoshitsune then sent 7,000 men under Doi Sanehira down to the western side of Ichi no tani while he led the remaining 3,000 men down the top of the cliffs. The Minamoto won over the Taira, and their victory cleared the way for an assault on Yashima, the Taira headquarters on Shikoku. Yoritomo opted for a cautious approach. The next six months were spent consolidating the gains already made and sorting out the families who had thus far supported the Minamoto.

After Ichi no tani, Yoshitsune and Noriyori returned to Kyoto and paraded the Taira heads taken through the streets. In the following October Noriyori was dispatched to destroy Taira adherents on Kyushu, and began a long and tiring march through the western provinces. Yoshitsune stayed in Kyoto acting as Yoritomo’s deputy there into early 1185. Officially, he was responsible for issuing decrees ordering the termination of any violence within Minamoto territory. In practice, his directives covered various other issues, including the forbidding of war taxes without the express consent of the Minamoto leadership.

During Yoshitsune’s time in Kyoto the rift between him and Yoritomo became evident. It seems that Yoritomo had denied him the titles that the imperial court had granted Yoshitsune, and that he became furious when the court proceeded and approved the titles anyway.

In March 1185, with Noriyori preparing to invade Kyushu, Yoshitsune was authorized to return to the war. Intending to launch an assault on Yashima, he assembled a fleet of ships at Watanabe. During the preparations, he argued with Kajiwara Kagetoki, one of his elder brother’s closest retainers, about strategy, but in the night of March 22, Yoshitsune ordered to his men to set sail. Since the weather was extremely bad many sailors refused to go to sea, and departed only after Yoshitsune threatened to kill any man who disobeyed his orders. Even still, not all of the ships followed him.

Yoshitsune landed on Shikoku at dawn and set out for Yashima. The Taira base was situated on the beach and Taira Munemori, alerted by fires set nearby by Yoshitsune’s men, ordered an immediate evacuation of the fort. He himself fled to the ships with Antoku, the child Emperor protected by the Taira. Nonetheless, the Taira clan was completely eradicated in what is remembered as the battle of Dan-no-ura, one of the greatest battles of Japanese History.

After this victory, Yoritomo was granted the title of Shogun in 1192. However, by that time, Yoshitsune was already dead because Dan-no-ura marked not only the ultimate recognition of his ability and fame but also his tragic end. In fact, for a long time, the relationship with his brother had been turbulent. And it was probably the jealousy of the skills demonstrated so far by Yoshitsune that played a role in Yoritomo’s choice to declare his brother a threat to the Minamoto clan and the Empire itself.

Photo credits: wikimedia.org

After attempting to oppose Yoritomo, Yoshitsune was forced to find shelter at Mutsu, where his old guardian Fujiwara Hidehira lived. But Hidehira died in November 1187, leaving a will stating that Yoshitsune was to act as governor of Mutsu. It was a wish that Hidehira’s son, Yasuhira, completely ignored. A conflict broke out with the Fujiwara and inevitably the Kamakura authorities learned of Yoshitsune’s location. Benkei, Yoshitsune’s retainer and loyal companion, managed to hold off their assailants long enough for Yoshitsune to kill his young wife and commit suicide. The head of Yoshitsune was transported to Kamakura, where it provoked an emotional response from those who viewed it.

He was buried in the Shintoist temple of Shirahata Jinja, in Fujisawa, where his remains are still guarded.

Myths and legends

In spite of everything, details regarding Yoshitsune’s death have always been a bit elusive. According to the Ainu historical accounts, he did not commit seppuku, but fled to Koromogawa taking the name of Okikurumi/Oinakamui.

In Hokkaido, the temple of Yoshitsune was erected in his honour in the town of Biratori. Some theories say that he ran away to Hokkaido and resurrected as Genghis Khan. But of cour,se these are just legends.

Photo credits: samurai-archives.com

A remarkable soldier and a classical tragic figure, Yoshitsune was a legend even before his passing. Kujô Kanezane, a supporter of Yoritomo, wrote in his diary in 1185:

“Yoshitsune has left great achievements; about this, there is nothing to argue. In bravery, benevolence, and justice, he is bound to leave a great name to posterity. In this, he can only be admired and praised. The only thing is that he decided to rebel against Yoritomo. This is a great traitorous crime.”

The manner in which Yoshitsune died assured him an honorable place in posterity, while the memory of Yoritomo will forever bear a black mark. What happened in those summer months of 1185 will always be a mystery. But it is certain that Yoshitsune’s achievements in the Gempei War changed the course of Japanese history and earned him a place among the greatest samurais.

Yoshitsune’s life in literature and in the modern era

In spite of his military abilities, Yoshutsune’s life met his end in a bloody way that inspires sympathetic response among many people. In Japanese, the expression Hougan’biiki (判官贔屓), that means ‘sympathy and benevolence for the underdog’, includes Yoshitsune’s posthumous name, Hougan (判官). This name was given to him thanks to the position that Emperor Go-shirakawa had granted him, in fact, another way to pronounce the word is Hangan, that means ‘magistrate’.

Furthermore, Yoshitsune’s life is considered to be heroic to the point of being narrated. Legends and tales with this theme grew in number as time passed, and so Yoshitsune’s fame took a shape that was far away from its original historical self. Among the many legends, well-known is the one about his encounter in Oobashi with the strong Musashi. Or the one in which, thanks to shaman Kiichi Hogen’s daughter’s help, he was able to steal 2 legendary volumes of military strategies, Rikuto e Sanryaku, and study them. Or even more, the one about the sudden death of Benkei, a warrior monk, loyal servant and friend, that died still standing on his feet in the Battle of River Koromogawa. These legends grew in popularity among a wide audience in the Muromachi period, about 200 years after his death, thanks to ‘Yoshitsune’s Chronicle’.

In fact, Yoshitsune appears as the protagonist of the third section of the Heike Mongatari, the classic tale that narrates the Genpei War events and that inspired many later works, especially in No and Kabuki tradition. In particular, it is said that his victory in the Sunaga battle had been due to his studies on the Tiger Book, contained in the Rikuto scroll, and that since that moment, that same book became essential for future victories. In later periods, Yoshitsune’s name was used to legitimize the glory of a lineage. For example, there is a martial arts school that is supposed to have inherited its technique from Yoshitsune himself or from the one that is considered his mentor, Kiichi Hogen.

MOON SAGA and MOON SAGA 2

Yoshitsune’s figure was also portrayed by Japanese singer and actor GACKT in the theatrical plays MOON SAGA and MOON SAGA 2. He himself interprets Yoshitsune describing him as a mononofu, a half-human and half-demon being. GACKT, with his exceptional interpretative skills, was able to portray this duality perfectly, giving life, in the first part, to an ironic, funny and somewhat awkward character that in the second part becomes demonic and scary. The adventures of Yoshitsune are, in this case, fictionalized and mixed with a bit of supernatural elements, but they still tell his story, because Yoshitsune was like that. A duality, a character full of contrasts in which benevolence alternated with cruelty. Probably, Yoshitsune used to lose control completely when facing danger and for that reason, he’d unleash his “demon” side.

MOON SAGA 2 was also the first theatrical representation in the world to use the projection mapping.

Photo credits: gackt.com

Photo credits: gackt.com

[:ja]

Minamoto no Yoshitsune

Photo credits: wikipedia.org

Yoshitsune was the ninth son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, and the third child he had with Tokiwa Gozen. Yoshitsune’s childhood name was Ushiwakamaru (牛若丸). Shortly after his birth, Heiji’s rebellion broke out, and his father and his two older brothers lost their lives. While his older brother Yoritomo, now the designated heir of the clan, was exiled to the province of Izu, Yoshitsune was entrusted to Kurama temple, in the mountains of Hiei near Kyoto. He was then put under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira (藤原秀衡), head of the powerful branch of the Fujiwara clan in the North (Northern Fujiwara), and brought to Hiraizumi, in the Province of Mutsu.

Photo credits: wikimedia.org

In May 1180, the son of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, that was supported by the Minamoto clan, issued a statement urging the Minamoto to rise against the Taira. The context is that of the Genpei War (1180-1185) which saw the clans Taira and Minamoto fight for the choice of the rightful Emperor to be put on the throne and thus secure control over the Country. The Battle of Uji was the beginning of a 5-year war during which Yoshitsune and Yoritomo met again after their separation in 1160.

In 1184 Yoshitsune went against his cousin Yoshinaka. Yoshinaka had taken control of the Minamoto clan after defeating the Taira in June of 1183. At that point, Yoritomo sent his brother Yoshitsune against Yoshinaka, who had obtained in the same year the position of Sô-daisho (general of the army). Yoshinaka’s troops were defeated and, as soon as he learned that, he abandoned Kyoto along with Tomoe Gozen, the only example of female samurai warrior. He was soon cornered at Awazu and committed suicide. With Yoshinaka out of the way, Yoritomo secured the support of Go-Shirakawa to continue the war with the Taira. On March 13 Yoshitsune moved to Settsu, and his first objective was a Taira fortification, Ichi no tani.

Yoshitsune led in battle 10,000 men attacking from the West, while 50,000 men led by Noriyori, Yoshitomo’s brother, attacked from the East. On March 18 Yoshitsune arrived in Mikusayama, attacking at night. According to the Heike Monogatari, the surviving defenders fled to the coast and passed over to Shikoku, leaving 500 dead. Yoshitsune then sent 7,000 men under Doi Sanehira down to the western side of Ichi no tani while he led the remaining 3,000 men down the top of the cliffs. The Minamoto won over the Taira, and their victory cleared the way for an assault on Yashima, the Taira headquarters on Shikoku.Yoritomo opted for a cautious approach. The next six months were spent consolidating the gains already made and sorting out the families who had thus far supported the Minamoto.

After Ichi no tani, Yoshitsune and Noriyori returned to Kyoto and paraded the Taira heads taken through the streets. In the following October Noriyori was dispatched to destroy Taira adherents on Kyushu, and began a long and tiring march through the western provinces. Yoshitsune stayed in Kyoto acting as Yoritomo’s deputy there into early 1185. Officially, he was responsible for issuing decrees ordering the termination of any violence within Minamoto territory. In practice, his directives covered various other issues, including the forbidding of war taxes without the express consent of the Minamoto leadership.

During Yoshitsune’s time in Kyoto the rift between him and Yoritomo became evident. It seems that Yoritomo had denied him the titles that the imperial court had granted Yoshitsune, and that he became furious when the court proceeded and approved the titles anyway.

In March 1185, with Noriyori preparing to invade Kyushu, Yoshitsune was authorized to return to the war. Intending to launch an assault on Yashima, he assembled a fleet of ships at Watanabe. During the preparations he argued with Kajiwara Kagetoki, one of his elder brother’s closest retainers, about strategy, but in the night of March 22 Yoshitsune ordered to his men to set sail. Since the weather was extremely bad many sailors refused to go to sea, and departed only after Yoshitsune threatened to kill any man who disobeyed his orders. Even still, not all of the ships followed him.

Yoshitsune landed on Shikoku at dawn and set out for Yashima. The Taira base was situated on the beach and Taira Munemori, alerted by fires set nearby by Yoshitsune’s men, ordered an immediate evacuation of the fort. He himself fled to the ships with Antoku, the child Emperor protected by the Taira. Nonetheless, the Taira clan was completely eradicated in what is remembered as the battle of Dan-no-ura, one of the greatest battles of Japanese History.

After this victory, in 1192 Yoritomo was granted the title of Shogun. However, by that time, Yoshitsune was already dead because Dan-no-ura marked not only the ultimate recognition of his ability and fame, but also his tragic end. In fact, for a long time the relationship with his brother had been turbulent. And probably, the jealousy for the skills demonstrated so far by Yoshitsune played a role in Yoritomo’s choice to declare his brother a threat to the Minamoto clan and the Empire itself.

Photo credits: wikimedia.org

After attempting to oppose Yoritomo, Yoshitsune was forced to find shelter at Mutsu, where there was his old guardian Fujiwara Hidehira. But Hidehira died in November 1187 leaving a will stating that Yoshitsune was to act as governor of Mutsu. A wish Hidehira’s son, Yasuhira, ignored completely. A conflict broke out with the Fujiwara and inevitably the Kamakura authorities learned of Yoshitsune’s location. Benkei, Yoshitsune’s retainer and loyal companion, managed to hold off their assailants long enough for Yoshitsune to kill his young wife and commit suicide. The head of Yoshitsune was transported to Kamakura, where it provoked an emotional response from those who viewed it.

He was buried in the shintoist temple of Shirahata Jinja, in Fujisawa, where his remains are still guarded.

Myths and legends

In spite of all, information about Yoshitsune’s death have always been a bit elusive. According to the Ainu historical accounts, he did not commit seppuku, but fled to Koromogawa taking the name of Okikurumi/Oinakamui.

In Hokkaido, the temple of Yoshitsune was erected in his honor in the town of Biratori. Some theories see him run away to Hokkaido and resurrect as Genghis Khan. But of course these are just legends.

Photo credits: samurai-archives.com

A remarkable soldier and a classical tragic figure, Yoshitsune was a legend even before his passing. Kujô Kanezane, a supporter of Yoritomo, wrote in his diary in 1185:

“Yoshitsune has left great achievements; about this there is nothing to argue. In bravery, benevolence, and justice, he is bound to leave a great name to posterity. In this he can only be admired and praised. The only thing is that he decided to rebel against Yoritomo. This is a great traitorous crime.”

The manner in which Yoshitsune died assured him an honorable place in posterity, while the memory of Yoritomo will forever bear a black mark. What happened in those summer months of 1185 will always be a mystery. But it is certain that Yoshitsune’s achievements in the Gempei War changed the course of Japanese history and earned him a place among the greatest samurais.

Yoshitsune’s life in literature and in modern era

In spite of his military abilities, Yoshutsune’s life met his end in a bloody way that inspires sympathetic response among many people. In Japanese, the expression Hougan’biiki (判官贔屓), that means ‘sympathy and benevolence for the underdog’, includes Yoshitsune’s posthumous name, Hougan (判官). This name was given to him thanks to the position that Emperor Go-shirakawa had granted him, in fact, another way to pronounce the word is Hangan, that means ‘magistrate’.

Furthermore, Yoshitsune’s life is considered to be heroic to the point of being narrated. Legends and tales with this theme grew in number as time passed, and so Yoshitsune’s fame took a shape that was far away from its original historical self. Among the many legends, well-known is the one about his encounter in Oobashi with the strong Musashi. Or the one in which, thanks to shaman Kiichi Hogen’s daughter’s help, he was able to steal 2 legendary volumes of military strategies, Rikuto e Sanryaku, and study them. Or even more, the one about the sudden death of Benkei, warrior monk, loyal servant and friend, that died still standing on his feet in the Battle of River Koromogawa. These legends grew in popularity among a wide audience in the Muromachi period, about 200 years after his death, thanks to ‘Yoshitsune’s Chronicle’.

In fact, Yoshitsune appears as the protagonist of the third section of the Heike Mongatari, the classic tale that narrates the Genpei War events and that inspired many later works, especially in No and Kabuki tradition. In particular, it is said that his victory in the Sunaga battle had been due to his studies on the Tiger Book, contained in the Rikuto scroll, and that since that moment, that same book became essential for future victories. In later periods, Yoshitsune’s name was used to legitimize the glory of a lineage. For example, there is a martial arts school that is supposed to have inherited its technique from Yoshitsune himself or from the one that is considered his mentor, Kiichi Hogen.

MOON SAGA and MOON SAGA 2

Yoshitsune’s figure was also portrayed by Japanese singer and actor GACKT in the theatrical plays MOON SAGA and MOON SAGA 2. He himself interprets Yoshitsune describing him as a mononofu, a half-human and half-demon being. GACKT, with his exceptional interpretative skills, was able to portray this duality perfectly, giving life, in the first part, to an ironic, funny and somewhat awkward character that in the second part becomes demonic and scary. The adventures of Yoshitsune are, in this case, fictionalized and mixed with a bit of supernatural elements, but they still tell his story, because Yoshitsune was like that. A duality, a character full of contrasts in which benevolence alternated with cruelty. Probably, Yoshitsune used to lose control completely when facing danger and for that reason he’d unleash his “demon” side.

MOON SAGA 2 was also the first theatrical representation in the world to use the projection mapping.

Photo credits: gackt.com

Photo credits: gackt.com

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