Japan History: Minamoto no Yoshitsune

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.


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