Maeda Keiji (前田 慶次), or Maeda Keijirō (前田 慶次郎), whose real name was Maeda Toshimasu (前田 利益), was a samurai of the Sengoku period. His birth is estimated to be around 1530-1535. The date of his death is known to be in 1612.
Born in the Takigawa clan, he was quickly adopted by Maeda Toshihisa, the elder brother of Maeda Toshiie, the future leader of the Maeda clan. He served with his uncle Toshiie under the Oda clan during the reign of Oda Nobunaga.
He distinguished himself in this period for his exceptional martial skills, being noticed by Lord Nobunaga during his quest for the unification of Japan. However, when Toshihisa died, while he was the heir of the clan, Oda Nobunaga appointed his uncle, Toshiie, as the head of the clan.
This decision caused a rift between Maeda Keiji and the Oda clan as well as against the Maeda clan itself, as he could not get along with his uncle, and so he gradually distanced himself from the clan.
He then met the Uesugi clan, to whom he already had great admiration, through the exceptional reputation as a warlord of its lord, Uesugi Kenshin. It was during a stay in Kyoto that he met Naoe Kanetsugu, servant of the Uesugi clan, with whom he became friends. It is on this occasion that Keiji left the Oda clan to join the Uesugi.
Within this new clan, he showed once again his predisposition for the art of war. When the Uesugi clan fled after a failed battle to conquer Aizu province, the Uesugi were overtaken in Hasedo by the Date clan and the Mogami clan.
Commanding the weak Uesugi rearguard, Maeda Keiji routed the armies of the Date and Mogami clans, an act with many consequences: it allowed the Uesugi to escape with minimal losses, it increased his fame and reputation of invincibility, and it turned the resentment of Date Masamune, lord of the Date clan, ridiculed by Keiji's formidable prowess, towards him.
Keiji returned to the capital after these events, put aside from his conquests by the lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, second great unifier of Japan after Nobunaga Oda, finding his behavior too violent.
Thus, during the conquest of Kyushu, Keiji Maeda remained in Kyoto. This time, he did not distinguish himself for his martial qualities, but for his artistic gifts, proving to be an excellent poet and painter.
When Hideyoshi Toyotomi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to take power and become the new lord and unifier of Japan. He was confronted by the lord Mitsunari Ishida, former vassal of Toyotomi, and determined to give the power to Hideyoshi's son, Toyotomi Hideyori.
The Uesugi took the side of Mitsunari Ishida, and Keiji marched to the battle with them. He participated in many victories, and had a more than decisive role during the battle which made confront once again the Uesugi and the Mogami clan.
With neither army able to gain the upper hand, Keiji took only eight horsemen with him, and managed to break the Mogami ranks, allowing the rest of the Uesugi army to rout their opponents. But while Keiji was leading support troops, as ordered by his friend and commander Kanetsugu, the Uesugi army was attacked by the Date clan and routed.
Shortly after, Mitsunari Ishida was defeated by Ieyasu Tokugawa in the famous battle of Sekigahara, and executed. The Uesugi clan had to submit to the Tokugawa in 1601, and Keiji could not oppose this decision.
Afterwards, the Uesugi clan, dispossessed of its former domain by the Date clan, was granted the domain of Yonezawa by Ieyasu Tokugawa. Keiji retired there with Kanetsugu, abandoning the weapons to devote himself to his second passion: the arts. It is there, probably, that he died of old age, never defeated in battle.
Keiji is described as a colossus, exceeding in size and stature all his allies and enemies. A warrior reputed to be invincible, he had the reputation of a hedonistic man, jovial, bon vivant, even sometimes casual.
Violence, even savagery, and an aggressive temper are also part of his attributes (this is what caused him to be removed from the Kyushu campaign by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who feared that his impulsiveness would jeopardize this delicate conquest).
Beyond his strength and his bloody character, Keiji Maeda was remembered for his prints and his poems, of which he was a great author and a great lover, counterbalancing his violence with a certain sensitivity.
He was also known to be a loyal man, first to his principles, then to his lords, but above all to justice. It was the disappointment of this consideration that made him leave the Oda when Nobunaga Oda spoliated him of his right on his clan.
Matsukaze, which could be translated as "the wind in the trees", was the famous mount of Keiji. Two versions exist about this animal and its link with Keiji. The first one is that it was the result of numerous crosses between the best horses, its creators having the desire to obtain a beast without equal.
They would have succeeded so well that the animal, exceptional, was not allowed to be ridden by anyone. Keiji, having heard about it, would have succeeded in making the animal bend to his will, proving to be as wild as he was.
The second version, more like a legend, described Matzukaze as a wild horse, inhabited by a spirit making it dangerous and aggressive, but also much stronger, going as far as attacking travelers.
Keiji would have succeeded in freeing the animal from the spirit, and this one, in thanks, would have accepted to follow him.
The whole thing was finally that Keiji tamed the animal which only let itself be ridden by him. High and wide enough to support his imposing master, he would have been so strong that he could carry him for days.
Keiji and Matsukaze never left each other again. Legend has it that when Keiji died, the horse ran away and was never seen again.
Keiji is a playable character from the Samurai Warriors series (present in the current three installments of the game, as well as in derivative or related games), developed by Koei.
A manga comic book has been created about him, with the same simple title, Keiji. A TV series called Toshiie to Matsu, broadcast by NHK, features Keiji Maeda.
Keiji also appears in the capcom series Sengoku Basara, as well as in the anime of the same name, where he is described as the "wanderer of the Maeda family", very jovial and particularly against violence, always solving problems with words.