Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経, 1159-1189) was a nobleman and military commander famous for leading the Minamoto clan against the Taira in numerous battles of the Genpei War (源平合戦, 1180-1185). His prowess in battle, his relationship with his brother, and the circumstances of his death, among other factors, have resulted in him being seen as a sympathetic hero, and a frequent subject of Japanese writers of all eras, often with romanticised and exaggerated accounts of his exploits. He has captured the imagination of the Japanese, and today remains a quite popular historical figure.
The Minamoto clan were one of the four major clans in Japanese history, along with the Taira, Fujiwara, and Tachibana clans (referred to collectively as 源平藤橘, ゲンペイトウキツ). Both the Minamoto and Taira clans were formed when members of certain branches of the extended imperial family were “demoted” from the imperial line; after being split off, these families were no longer considered royalty but were given status as nobility. Often, the members of these noble families vied for power, trying to obtain powerful positions within government and to arrange intermarriages between their clan members and the imperial line. In Yoshitsune’s time, the Taira (Ise branch) and Minamoto (Seiwa-Kawara branch) had become strong rivals, each trying to exert control over imperial matters, such as trying to help their favoured candidates succeed to the imperial throne. In those days, Emperors did not serve lifetime appointments, so turnover was more common than today, providing more opportunities for political machinations.
Yoshitsune came from a large family, the youngest of nine sons born to several different mothers. Shortly after he was born, his father and two oldest brothers were killed following the events of a short conflict known as the Heiji Rebellion (平治の乱), the outcome of which solidified Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛)’s hold on power. Yoshitsune and his older brothers, including half-brothers Yoritomo (源頼朝) and Noriyori (源範頼), all still children, survived this episode either by fleeing the capital or being sent into exile. With his mother, the young Yoshitsune first fled to Yamato province (modern-day Nara prefecture). At age 10, he was placed into the custody of the monks of Kurama Temple (鞍馬寺) in the Hiei mountains near Kyoto. Not wanting to become a monk, he left at age 15, moving to Hiraizumi in Mutsu province to live under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira (藤原秀衡). Even in his teens, Yoshitsune showed an impressive fighting ability. He is said to have defeated the bandit leader Kumasaka Chohan while only fifteen years old.
In 1180, Prince Mochihito (以仁王), dissatisfied with the suffering he witnessed under Taira leadership, issued a call to the Minamoto leaders to rebel against the Taira. Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo, who had assumed Minamoto clan leadership at the time, answered the call, and raised an army to attack the Taira, thus precipitating the Genpei War. Yoshitsune learned his brother was raising an army, and left Mutsu, rushing to Yoritomo’s side to request to join in the fighting. This may have marked the first time that Yoritomo and Yoshitsune had met face-to-face.
Around this time, Yoshitsune befriended the warrior monk Musashibō Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶), esteemed as a great swordsman. According to legend, Benkei had set a goal to win 1000 duels, collecting the sword from each of his vanquished opponents. Having collected 999 swords, he by chance encountered Yoshitsune and targeted him for his 1000th. Instead, the crafty Yoshitsune won the duel, earning Benkei’s lifetime loyalty and service as a retainer.
In 1183, Yoshitsune finally began fighting in the battles of the Genpei War, with Benkei at his side. He was remarkably successful, and led several key battles which forced the Taira to flee, first to Shikoku, and then into the Chugoku region. Finally, under Yoshitsune’s leadership, the Taira were utterly demolished in the naval Battle of Dannoura (壇ノ浦の戦い), off the southern coast of Yamaguchi prefecture. During that battle, the Taira-backed child emperor, Antoku (安徳天皇), was drowned.
Yoritomo was now firmly in charge. Within a few years, he would become the de facto leader of Japan via the bakufu (幕府) government he established in Kamakura. Yoritomo, however, had grown increasingly distrustful and resentful of Yoshitsune, due to his conduct both during and after the war, including ignoring the battlefield advice of his advisers, being too boastful of his successes in battle, and accepting an official rank and other titles without Yoritomo’s consent. Yoritomo refused to let Yoshitsune enter Kamakura to receive a hero’s welcome following the war, and stripped him of his rank, titles, and land. A feud between the brothers quickly escalated, and Yoshitsune made the fateful decision to align with his uncle against Yoritomo. In response, Yoritomo sent a small band of soldiers to assassinate Yoshitsune, but the attempt failed. The brothers were now in an all-out war with each other. Another attack drove Yoshitsune from the capital. He first hid nearby, but then fled to Mutsu, returning with Benkei to once again live under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira. His favourite mistress, Shizuka, who was pregnant at the time with Yoshitsune’s child, fled with him at first but did not make it all the way to Mutsu. She was captured by forces loyal to Yoritomo, but accounts differ as to her fate, and the fate of her newborn son.
Following the death of Fujiwara no Hidehira in 1187, his son Fujiwara no Yasuhira (藤原泰衡) replaced him as clan leader. Per his father’s wishes, Yasuhira vowed to continue to provide shelter for Yoshitsune, but soon gave in to the pressure of repeated demands from Yoritomo, and betrayed Yoshitsune. Yasuhira sent a large army to attack the Koromogawa-no-tachi (衣川の館) estate, where Yoshitsune and his retainers were staying. Yoshitsune’s men fought back but were greatly outnumbered. Benkei fought valiantly to defend his lord but was overwhelmed and killed. It is said that he was found dead while still standing, with many arrows piercing his body, a testament to his sheer strength. Before the battle was over, Yoshitsune had committed seppuku. His severed head was preserved in sake, placed in a black-lacquered chest, and brought to Yoritomo. He was only thirty years old at the time of his death.
Yoshitsune lived on after death, though, as a popular figure whose exploits were related in many stories. Often these stories included Benkei, as well as Yoshitsune’s mistress Shizuka. He became a kind of romantic figure and even inspired some fanciful theories that he had managed to survive the Siege of Koromogawa and moved to Hokkaido, where he became a leader of the Ainu people.
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