Yoshitsune: The Silk Clad Warrior With a Noble Quest for Revenge
Apart from a very rich mythology, Japan also has numerous histories about heroes. One of these is the story of Yoshitsune. Walking around in fine silk and playing the flute, at first glance he seemed innocent enough. He was extremely loyal, but Yoshitsune was also a dangerous man for any who dared to cross him.
A Desire for Revenge
When he was just a child, Ushiwaka (later Yoshitsune) resided at a temple on Mount Kurama. There, he lived happily and was a good boy. Ushiwaka studied the sacred teachings at the temple and he was happy there; he even considered becoming a priest one day. But destiny intervened, and at the age of 15 there was a monumental change in Ushiwaka’s life.
At the age of 11, another boy managed to escape his pursuers and hid for a while at a temple. He had no peace of mind because his master had been killed by the Heike clan and he wanted revenge. The young man went on a tiresome journey which led him to Kyoto, where he stayed in hiding for a while. He desperately wanted to get revenge on the Heike clan, so, when he found out that the son of his former master was at Kurama temple, he immediately set off in that direction. His master’s son was Ushiwaka.
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A close-up of the main gate of Kurama Temple. (Public Domain)
The young man arrived at the temple and told Ushiwaka about his noble origins and that his father had been killed by Kiyomori. He declared it was Ushiwaka’s duty to avenge his father’s death, as a son was not allowed to live under the same sky as his father’s killer. Ushiwaka listened to the entire story in shock because no one at the temple had told him of his father’s fate. He had not heard about the tragic death of Yoritomo, nor the hardships of madam Tokiwa or the deplorable state of his true family, the Genji clan - which was now being harassed by its mortal enemy.
Ushiwaka became angry and he too began to crave revenge. The young man who had visited him was pleased and he had also brought him weapons. Ushiwaka left the sacred teachings and hid his weapons in the forest behind the temple. At night he would go there to practice. Before grabbing the sword in his hand, he would pray to the gods to give him strength to get vengeance on the Heike clan and gain peace for his father’s spirit. The young man would practice on a tree, which he imagined was Kiyomori and the Heike clan. He soon became very skilled at wielding the sword.
Statue of Yoshitsune in Mimosusogawa Park, Shimonoseki, near the site of the Battle of Dannoura. (Public Domain)
A New Path and Name
His nightly excursions did not go unnoticed. People began to believe that the handsome young man had found himself a girl to visit at night. So, one of his comrades from the temple wanted to find out his secret and followed him one night. He was shocked when he saw Ushiwaka learning how to wield the sword from a tengu (a Shinto god, possibly a disruptive demon). This was bad news for the head priest as he had promised Kiyomori that the young man would never find out about his real past. If any such news had leaked, the head priest would have had to pay with his head. Thus, the head priest told the young man the next day that he had to shave his head and dedicate his life to Buddha. Ushiwaka refused and, as a result, he was sent to another temple nearby.
There, Ushiwaka got lucky. He met a merchant who supported the Genji clan. With his help, the young man escaped the temple. He looked for one last time upon the mountains which he had loved and where he had spent the last eight years of his life, then he left with the merchant for Oshu province. Fujiwara Hidehira was governor there and he had supported the Genji clan before its downfall. This was the time Ushiwaka took on the name of Yoshitsune.
The general promised Yoshitsune that he would offer help when he would have to fight. Still, the young man got impatient and, without the general’s permission, he left for Kyoto to see how things were going. He had numerous adventures as he liked art and music and he went around dressed in fine silk and playing the flute. In this way, nobody suspected the danger behind the silks and his adventurous spirit. He met his best friend, Benkei, during these adventures. The two would not be separated until death.
Picture of Yoshitsune drawn by Kikuchi Yosai. (Public Domain)
Yoshitsune’s Loyal Friend
One night, Yoshitsune was crossing over Gojo Bridge to go to a temple to pray. There, he met the giant Benkei who wanted to challenge him at a duel. If he managed to disarm Yoshitsune, the giant would have taken his sword as his one thousandth trophy. But, Yoshitsune who had been trained by a tengu easily managed to slip by the giant and disarm him instead. As Benkei had been defeated by disarming, he offered to become the servant of Yoshitsune and help him fight against the Taira clan. The two men became comrades and loyal friends.
Yoshitsune’s older brother, Yoritomo, also had escaped from the temple and had begun the fight to avenge their father’s death. This is how the campaign against the Heike clan began. With the help of various daimyo (powerful Japanese feudal lords), all the remnants of the former clan were gathered and Yoshitsune’s brother became a good leader, but he could not obtain the necessary advantage in battle.
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Alleged ‘Portrait of Yoritomo’, Hanging scroll; color on silk. Owned by Jingo-ji temple in Kyoto. (Public Domain)
A Head in Sake
Thus, Yoshitsune and Benkei came to his aid and, after the battle of Dan-no-ura, the enemy was crushed. The Genji clan extended its power and Yoritomo gathered all of Japan’s provinces and founded the Kamakura Government under his rule.
Still, Yoritomo never showed gratitude for Yoshitsune’s help. Yoshitsune was banished and, to escape death, he and Benkei sought refuge somewhere far away. According to legend, Yoshitsune was eventually found by Yoritomo’s men and was murdered. His head was preserved in sake and was sent to Kamakura. As for Benkei, he died while trying to protect his friend.
1885 Woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi of Yoshitsune and Musashibō Benkei under a cherry tree. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Fight between Ushiwaka Maru (Minamoto no Yoshitsune) and Kumasaka Chôhan at the inn; bales and a torch on the ground, and Kisanda in the distance. (circa 1840-1843) By Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Source: Public Domain
By Valda Roric