You’ve heard of Miyamoto Musashi, but what about Minamoto no Yoshitsune? A samurai who lived from 1159 to 1189, he is immortalized in kabuki plays, literature and even modern day video games. In his own time he was popular, revered as one of the greatest fighters alive and since his death has endured as one of the most famous samurai in Japanese history.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune was the born during the Heiji Rebellion to a general of the Minamoto clan. He was the ninth child born into his family. His father and two oldest brothers were killed in the uprising. Spared and alone, he was taken in by the Kurama Temple near Kyoto. He was eventually fostered by the leader of the powerful Northern Fujiaware clan, Fujiwara no Hidehira. Yoshitsune would later go on to fight for his brother, Yoritomo, when he raised an army of Minamoto clan warriors to aide in the fight against the Heike clan to restore power to the emperor. Their battles combined are collectively known as the Genpei War.
After the Genpei War concluded, Yoshitune sided with the Emperor Go-Shirakawa against his brother Yoritomo after Yoritomo had already repudiated his brother in fear that Yoshitsune would betray him. Unfortunately when Yoshitsune turned to his former protector Fujiawara no Hidehira for temporary safe haven, he was betrayed. Despite his triumphs during the Genpei War, he fell at the Battle of Koromo River. Fujiwara no Hidehira’s son, Yasuhira, forced Yoshitsune, his wife, his daughter and his loyal retainer Benkei to commit seppuku after his defeat.
Yoshitsune’s presence in the literary masterpieces such as Tale of the Heike and the Chronicle of Yoshitsune perpetuated his popularity, creating a solid source material for the plays that would keep him a household name. He is such a charismatic and heroic figure that a phrase was created based on the title Hougan that he was given by the Imperial court. Houganbiki, Hougan favor, means “sympathy for the tragic hero.”
Kabuki plays, drawn heavily from historical legends and events, boast many Yoshitsune plays. Many of them feature the friendship of Yoshitsune and Benkei, the monk warrior who becomes his retainer after his defeat at Yoshitsune’s hands. Theirs is a friendship as classic as Holmes and Watson.
The play Kanjinchou, The Subscription List, highlights that friendship. They must pass through a gate guarded by Yoritomo’s men. This is quite the challenge as they are ordered to kill Yoshitsune on sight. To get through the gate alive, they disguise themselves as priests. At the gate, Togashi Saemon, the gate watch’s leader demands they prove themselves as he’d heard rumors that his quarry were traveling in disguise. As Benkei is a monk and thus educated on Buddhist teachings, he takes the lead in speaking with Togashi while Yoshitsune plays his porter. Togashi is unconvinced and demands Benkei read from a list of those who’ve donated to them (a subscription list). In one of the most famous moments in kabuki history, Benkei takes out a blank scroll and pretends to read aloud. Though Togashi catches a glimpse of the blank sheet, he’s impressed with Benkei’s daring and drills him on Buddhism and priestly life.
Just as Togashi has decided to let them pass, another guard notices how much Benkei’s supposed porter resembles Yoshitsune. As he’s raising alarm, Benkei starts beating Yoshitsune and chastising him for causing trouble. This causes great pain to Benkei, striking at the master he’s sworn to give his life to. Togashi is so moved by Benkei’s devotion to Yoshitsune that he lets them pass despite knowing their identities. Once they’re clear, Benkei cries and begs Yoshitsune’s forgiveness, who immediately gives it. Kanjinchou and others like it such as Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura are treasured kabuki classics.
In modern culture, Yoshitsune pops up in everything from video games and manga to anime and even online card games. He is often slipped in under a play on his name from childhood, Ushiwakamaru. A popular story of Yoshitsune being able to cut leaves as they fall from trees is emulated in mangas One Piece by Zoro and in Hajime no Ippo by Ippo. In the animeLupin III, the legendary speculation of Yoshitsune surviving to become Ghengis Khan is referenced. Video games likeWarriors Orochi 2, Genji: Dawn of the Samurai and Age of Empires: The Age of Kings are just a few that feature a Yoshitsune character.