Minamoto no Yoshitsune: A Famous Samurai in Japanese History

It is a well-known fact that the idea of samurai hails from the land of Japan. A nation with a rich history and culture, among the many fascinations of tourists in Japan is the samurai. Known to be honorable and exemplary in combat, the samurai were highly regarded back in the day. Many samurais are quite well-known throughout the history of Japan for having fought long, strenuous battles for the love of family and country. One of the most famous samurais in the history of Japan would be none other than Minamoto no Yoshitsune. His life story is quite well-known among the people of Japan who love to read about the samurai during the olden times. 

The Early Life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born in the year 1159, Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a nobleman as well as a military commander of the Minamoto clan from the late Heian period to the early Kamakura periods. He was the ninth son of the great Minamoto Yoshitomo, who lived from the year 1123 to the year 1160. Yoshitomo was a supporter of the Taira clan during the Hogen Disturbance in the year 1156. Due to this incident, Yoshitomo’s father, Yoshitsune’s grandfather, was put to death, along with eleven other relatives.

Three years later, Yoshitomo tried to go against the Taira clan but failed to do so. A year after that, he was assassinated while his wife and children were brought to Taira Kiyomori. Instead of killing them as per the custom at the time, Kiyomori decided to spare their lives. The third eldest son of Yoshitomo, Yoritomo, was sent off to Izu. On the other hand, the third son with Tokiwa Gozen, Yoshitsune, was sent to a temple in Kuramayama, located on the northern portion of Kyoto, to be trained as a trainee monk.

Later on, Yoshitsune was moved to Hiraizumi, Mutsu when he was about 11 years old, where the governor of the province, Fujiwara Hidehira, provided him with shelter. Not many tales were confirmed as to the early childhood or youth of Yoshitsune. However, it was said that the childhood name of Yoshitsune was Ushiwakamaru. Born just prior to the beginning of the Heiji Rebellion of early 1160, it was during that time that his father, as well as his two oldest brothers, were put to death. Yoshitsune grew up to be a great man who was good with swords.

The Battle Between Yoshitsune and Yoshinaka

It was on the month of May in the year 1180 when the son of retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, Prince Mochihito, urged the Minamoto clan to go against the Taira clan. He even went as far as to issue this statement to encourage the Minamoto clan to take action. The prince was killed in the month of June while Minamoto Yorimasa perished in the Battle of the Uji. However, in the month of September, Yoritomo took action and raised an army in the Kanto region.

The two brothers Yoritomo and Yoshitsune eventually reunited that year after having been separated in the year 1160. On the 2nd of June in the year 1183, Minamoto Yoshinaka won't he battle against the Taira clan at Kurikara. Two months later, Yoshinaka was able to occupy Kyoto. With the Taira clan being on the defense, Yoshinaka made a move to take control of the Minamoto clan. However, Yoritomo could not accept this.

Basing on the pretext of poor behavior from the troops of Yoshinaka, Yoshitsune was sent by Yoritomo to the capital to oust Yoshinaka. On the month of February in the year 1184, serving as a So-daisho, or general of the army, Yoshitsune led an army into the area of Kyoto to oust Yoshinaka. The army consisted of his brother Noriyori as well as Kajiwara Kagetoki. On the opposition, Yoshinaka placed an army on the Uji River so it could cover the two primary crossing sites in the area, namely, the Uji and Seta bridges.

Yoshitsune’s army was divided into two parts. The first group headed by Yoshitsune himself went for the Uji Bridge while the second group headed by Noriyori went for the Seta Bridge. Both groups were successful at crossing, which in turn made the army of Yoshinaka flee the scene. Upon hearing of the defeat, Yoshinaka made an attempt to leave Kyoto and to escape along with a number of retainers. These retainers included the only example of a true female samurai warrior known as Tomoe Gozen. However, his attempt proved to be futile as he was cornered at Azawu where he committed suicide.

The Brothers Yoritomo and Yoshitsune Against the Taira Clan 

By Yanagawa Shigenobu I (Honolulu Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the demise of Yoshinaka, Yoritomo was able to gain the support of Go-Shirakawa, which also enabled him to obtain a mandate to pursue the war against the Taira clan. On the 13th of March, both Yoshitsune and Noriyori were tasked to go to the Western provinces and to move into Settsu. Settsu served as the eastern doorway to enter the Seto Inland Sea.

The first objective of Yoshitsune at this time was to claim the outpost of the Taira clan located at Ichi no Tani. This outpost served as a fortification with a good position, as it was covered from the back by a steep incline. It was also the same outpost where the Taira clan had retreated from Kyoto. The outpost was seen as a probable staging area for any future attempts of the Taira clan to go back to the capital.

Yoshitsune led an army of about 10,000 men to the northern portion of Ichi no Tani and instructed them to attack from the west. On the other hand, Noriyori led about 50,000 men to strike from the east. On the 18th of March, Mikusayama was approached by Yoshitsune and the latter made a night attack while the Taira clan’s guards were down. This proved to be successful.

Various strategies were planned by Yoshitsune and Noriyori for their attacks on the Taira clan. All of these proved to be successful in Ichi no Tani. Both men were able to return to Kyoto victorious, along with the Taira heads being paraded through the streets. While Noriyori was sent to Kyushu to bring down adherents of the Taira clan, Yoshitsune was made to stay in Kyoto and act as the deputy of Yoritomo until the year 1185.

Unfortunately, it was also during his time in Kyoto that a rift between him and his brother Yoritomo begin to arise. Court titles were granted to both Yoshitsune and Noriyori because of their wins from the wars they partook in. While Yoritomo accepted the titles for Noriyori, he denied the titles for Yoshitsune. Nonetheless, the court proceeded and approved the titles anyway.

On the month of March in the year 1185, Yoshitsune was granted to return to war. Planning to attack Yashima, he gathered a fleet of ships at Watanabe. While preparing for the attack, he and Kajiwara Kagetoki, a close retainer of Yoritomo, struck an argument about strategies. On the night of the 22nd of March, despite the heavy storm, Yoshitsune ordered his men to board the ship and sail to attack Yashima.

Many more events occurred during this battle that led to Yoshitsune being able to reach the Taira clan and defeat them. Eventually, the emperor, as well as his mother, the widow of Taira Kiyomori, were forced to step into the ocean and drown. This action was followed by Tomomori and hundreds of warriors loyal to the Taira clan. Munemori was captured and by early afternoon of that day, the victory of Yoshitsune was complete. As the Taira clan had been all but eradicated, there is no more threat to the power of the Minamoto clan. In the year 1192, the title of Shogun was granted to Yoritomo.

The Final Years of Yoshitsune

Yoshitoshi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the high aspirations and ambitions of Yoritomo, he was bound to be suspicious in nature. In a culture where people killed for power, Yoritomo was suspicious not just of outsiders but of families as well. With his cousin Yoshinaka having opposed him and vied for power over the Minamoto clan, Yoritomo did not think it was a far fetched idea for Yoshitsune to do the same. Their relationship worsened as time went by.

Kajiwara Kagetoki, one of the closest retainers of Yoritomo, took every chance he got to slander the name and reputation of Yoshitsune in the eyes of Yoritomo. Being the rival of Yoshitsune, Kagetoki made sure that Yoritomo would hear nothing but bad things about Yoshitsune. The effects of this were evident as Yoritomo denied Yoshitsune entrance to Kamakura despite the younger brother arriving with the prisoner Taira Munemori.

Becoming aware of Yoritomo’s hostility towards his younger brother, Yoshitsune sent a message to Oe Hiromoto, who was among the chief councilors of Yoritomo. Yoshitsune defended himself of the slanders that other people may have been saying about him. He also protested against the accusation of his disloyalty not just to the Minamoto clan and to Yoritomo himself. The intent of the letter remained futile and after weeks, Yoshitsune decided to return to Kyoto.

Many believe that Go-Shirakawa, by then already an expert in manipulating political intrigue, wanted to make this rift worse so as to further his own agenda. The titles that he had granted Yoshitsune, including a governorship of Iyo Yoritomo, were nullified, which gave birth to suspicion in Kamakura. Events following this incident were unclear but one thing was for certain: Yoritomo wanted to oust Yoshitsune, who was thought to have become treasonous.

By Lepidlizard (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Noriyori was ordered by Yoritomo to attack Yoshitsune. Having fought with Yoshitsune side by side in so many battles, Noriyori protested against the order on the behalf of Yoshitsune. When he finally refused to order the command of Yoritomo, he was exiled. A warrior known as Tosa no bo Masatoshi took Noriyori’s place but was captured and, later on, killed by men of Yoshitsune.

Having learned of the threat to his life, Yoshitsune applied for and was granted imperial authorization from Go-Shirakawa to start a war against Yoritomo. Yoshitsune’s ally was Minamoto Yukiie, an uncle who used to serve on the side of Yoshinaka. When news arrived that a large army was headed from Kamakura, the duo fled to the region of Kyushu, where he was renamed as jito by Go-Shirakawa.

Sadly, the duo was attacked by men from the Minamoto clan who were loyal to Yoritomo in Settsu. Yoshitsune’s army diminished and he was forced to live in hiding in the hills of south Kyoto. He was able to move to Mutsu where he found his old guardian. Fujiwara Hidehira provided Yoshitsune shelter and food. On the month of November in the year 1187, Hidehira passed away. He left a will that stated Yoshitsune to act as governor of the province. However, this will was ignored by his son, Yasuhira.

A conflict arose within the Fujiwara family. Eventually, authorities from Kamakura found out the location of Yoshitsune. On the 13th of June in the year 1189, Yoshitsune, along with his old companion Benkei, was staying in the mansion of Fujiwara Motonari located at Koromogawa. Under the instructions of Yoritomo, Yasuhira attacked the mansion. Benkei attempted to hold off their attackers. Before the assailants got to them, Yoshitsune was able to kill his young wife and to commit suicide. He found this to be better than to be killed by the men of Yoritomo.

Sadly, Yoshitsune did not have a proper burial. His head was sent down to Kamakura. The public witnessed the head being transported and gave a strong emotional response to the unfortunate event. A number of years later, Yoritomo suffered fatal injuries after being thrown off from his horse. Many speculate that the reason that the shogun suffered this misfortune was that he was startled by the ghost of Yoshitsune.

Truly, this betrayal between brothers was painful and sad. Despite having fought so many wars for Yoritomo and his ambitions, Yoshitsune still had an untimely demise at the hands of his older brother. Nonetheless, the public still recognizes Yoshitsune’s honor, courage, and bravery as he fought these battles for his family. He was among the main characters of Heike Monogatari, a Japanese literary classic. Moreover, characters were also based on Yoshitsune such as those seen in the Genji Series and Warriors Orochi 2 in Koei.