Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源 義経 1159-June 15, 1189) was a general of the Minamoto clan of Japan who lived in the late Heian and early Kamakura periods.
He is one of the most prominent samurai in Japanese history, known for being one of the key members of the Minamoto clan that enabled the clan to recover from the military failures it had suffered in the previous three years and defeat and annihilate the previously dominant Taira clan in just one year during the Genpei Wars in 1185.
With this victory, the Minamoto consolidated their power as the dominant clan in Japan.
An older brother of Yoshitsune, Minamoto no Yoritomo, founded the Kamakura shogunate that same year, the first in the country, which marked the transition of power from the courtly to the warrior classes and became an alternate power that rivaled that of the emperor of Japan, who was relegated as ceremonial and religious leader for the next seven hundred years.
However, it was his own brother Yoritomo who persecuted Yoshitsune for the next four years and tragically ended his life at the age of 30.
Yoshitsune's story is very much framed between historical facts and some more associated with Japanese folklore, his life has been reviewed from classic and traditional works of the time such as the Heike Monogatari to more recent video games, movies and manga and anime series.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune Beginning
Yoshitsune belonged to the Minamoto clan, specifically to the Seiwa Genji branch, one of the most powerful and successful branches of samurai in Japanese history, whose founder, Minamoto no Tsunemoto, was the grandson of Emperor Seiwa (850-880);
of this branch Yoshitsune came from the Kawachi Genji line, one of the three lines derived from the Seiwa Genji and whose founder was Minamoto no Yorinobu, grandson of Tsunemoto and great-great-grandfather in second degree of Yoshitsune.
Yoshitsune was the ninth son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, who was head of the clan at the time of Yoshitsune's birth; and his mother was Tokiwa Gozen, Yoshitomo's concubine.
He was born shortly before the Heiji Rebellion of 1159, in which the Minamoto and Taira clans, bitter rivals since they had the same imperial origin, sought to gain influence at the Imperial Court in Kyoto, with the Minamoto backing the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa and the Taira the Emperor Nijō;
the rebellion, however, was quickly put down by the Taira. With this victory, this clan, led by Taira no Kiyomori, secured its growing influence in Japan's political environment, and laid what would be the foundation for the establishment of the power of the samurai warrior class within the country.
With this supremacy, the Taira clan murdered Yoshitomo and Yoshitsune's two older brothers, Minamoto no Yoshihira (aged 20) and Minamoto no Tomonaga (aged 16).
As an infant, Yoshitsune's life was spared and he was sent to Kurama Temple, established on Mount Kurama near Kyoto, and given the name Ushiwakamaru, while his brother Yoritomo (Yoshitomo's third son) was exiled to Izu Province and Minamoto no Noriyori,
another brother of Yoshitsune, was also separated and exiled, while his mother Tokiwa Gozen was spared her life, in exchange for forgetting her children and becoming Kiyomori's concubine.
Shortly thereafter Yoshitsune, on Kiyomori's orders, was sent to the town of Hiraizumi and placed under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira, chieftain of the powerful northern Fujiwara clan, which controlled the province of Mutsu, north of the island of Honshu.
Very little is known about Yoshitsune's childhood and youth; some historians of the time padded this period of his life with a series of fantastic adventures;
one of the most famous is the one in which Yoshitsune ran away as a young man for a time and was trained in Japanese swordplay and combat tactics by Sōjōbō, the mythical king of the tengu, a kind of minor deity within Japanese mythology who dwelt in the mountains.
He is said to have received the name Shanao during this time.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune Confrontation with the Taira
The reigns of Emperor Nijō (1158-1165), Emperor Rokujō (1165-1168) and Emperor Takakura (1168-1180) were unremarkable as all three emperors ruled as children and abdicated forced by the Taira clan;
royal power was divided between the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa and Taira no Kiyomori, now made Dajō Daijin (chancellor of the Kingdom, with power equivalent to the current prime minister) since 1167;
he was the first and only samurai to obtain this title since its creation in 702. The Taira clan was slowly settling its members within the Kyoto Imperial Court, so that little by little this warrior caste began to adopt qualities of the court class.
In 1180, after the forced abdication of Emperor Takakura, Emperor Antoku ascended to the throne at the age of one, who on his mother's side belonged to the Taira clan, and was the grandson of Kiyomori.
Prince Mochihito, son of the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, claimed the imperial title and made a national call to form an army to fight against the Taira clan, a force in which the Minamoto clan joined.
Shortly thereafter, the Genpei Wars began on May 6 of the same year. However, Prince Mochihito died in the First Battle of Uji on June 23 of that year, which turned the confrontation from that moment on into a fierce struggle between the two clans for power in the country.
The Minamoto clan's status was at stake at first because it failed to win any clashes during the war until the Battle of Kurikara on June 2, 1183, three years after the conflict began, a victory that gave it a considerable advantage over the Taira clan.
Also the death of Taira no Kiyomori in 1181 caused an acephaly3 in the Taira leadership that favored the Minamoto, as power was then shared among his sons, although Taira no Munemori later became the new head of the clan.
The battles of Yoshitsune
Yoshitsune, now in his twenties, learned that his long-lost brother Yoritomo, now become clan leader, was fighting in such battles. Yoshitsune immediately left the northern Fujiwara clan in 1180 and joined Yoritomo in the Kanto region west of Honshu along with his other estranged brother Noriyori.
Although it is uncertain what role Yoshitsune played in this conflict during 1180 and 1183, he must have played a prominent part as an army commander in the last three clashes between the Taira and Minamoto clans between 1184 and 1185.
During the Genpei Wars, Yoshitsune met Saitō Musashibō Benkei, a skilled and strong sōhei (Buddhist warrior monk) from Kyoto and whose name is an important cliché within Japanese folklore.
Tradition has it that Benkei challenged sword-wielders to a duel, took the swords of those he defeated, and collected 999 swords. In his thousandth duel, Yoshitsune defeated Benkei; Benkei then became Yoshitsune's vassal and good friend and fought by his side for the rest of his life.
Battles against Minamoto no Yoshinaka
In mid-1183, a faction emerged within the Minamoto clan rivaling the power of Yoritomo and Yoshitsune and led by their cousin, Minamoto no Yoshinaka, who entered the imperial capital of Kyoto in late 1183, where he attempted to kidnap Emperor Antoku and seize the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan during the Siege of Hōjūjidono in early 1184.
He expelled the members of the Taira clan, who moved together with Emperor Antoku and the Sacred Treasures to the town of Yashima on the island of Shikoku. Following this event, Emperor Go-Toba, only three years old and grandson of the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, assumed the throne; at the same time, Yoshinaka received the title of shōgun from the cloistered emperor.
Evidently Yoritomo did not want his cousin to seize power in the country, so Yoritomo sent Yoshitsune to Kyoto to control what Yoritomo considered a rebellion.
Thus, on February 19 of the same year, the Second Battle of Uji took place on the outskirts of Kyoto in which Yoshitsune, together with Noriyori and Kajiwara Kagetoki, an ally of the Minamoto, faced off against Yoshinaka's army.
Yoshitsune divided his army into two sectors, one commanded by himself and the other by Noriyori; they fought with Yoshinaka's forces and quickly defeated them. When Yoshinaka learned that his army had been defeated, he quickly fled Kyoto with his few remaining men.
This was Yoshitsune's first tactical victory in battle and succeeded in thwarting the new shōgun's aspirations.
Two days later, Yoshitsune's forces engaged in the battle of Awazu in Omi Province against Yoshinaka's men who had escaped. With a numerical advantage, Yoshitsune destroyed Yoshinaka's army, which fought to the death, including Yoshinaka himself, who performed seppuku.
Yoritomo then obtained the backing of the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa, and the reunification of both factions of the clan was consummated, which focused on the goal of defeating the Taira.
Battle of Ichi-no-Tani
Yoshitsune, Noriyori and Benkei clashed with the Taira clan; they were tasked to fight in the western provinces.
On March 13, 1184, they arrived in the vicinity of the Seto Inland Sea and where they staged the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani, a major coastal fortress dominated by the Taira in Harima province, west of present-day Kōbe; this place had been the refuge of the Taira clan when Yoshinaka drove them out of Kyoto the previous year.
The fortress of Ichi-no-Tani was reinforced with two small forts, Mikusuyama to the north and Ikuta no Mori to the west, and the rear of the fortress was protected by a rise; in order to attack Ichi-no-Tani, the surrounding forts had to be attacked first.
Yoshitsune initially divided his army into two groups: one led by himself, numbering ten thousand men, which would advance from the west; and another of fifty thousand under the command of Noriyori, which would advance from the east.
On the night of March 18, the western flank approached the Mikusuyama fort, succeeded in destroying it, and inflicted about five hundred dead on the Taira clan. The three grandsons of Taira no Kiyomori defending the fort fled to Shikoku Island, south of the Seto Inland Sea.
After this action Yoshitsune again divided his army into two parts: one of seven thousand men commanded by Doi Sanehira that would go west of Ichi-no-Tani and another led by Yoshitsune with three thousand men that would climb the steep mountains that protected the rear of the fortress.
Noriyori's forces and Sanehira's forces immediately attacked both the fortress of Ikuta no Mori and the lower part of the fortress.
Thus, Yoshitsune's group began to descend from the steep back of the fortress, having Benkei as their guide; the Taira, concentrated on fighting on the two fronts, could do nothing when they saw them enter directly into the fortress.
This battle was the most important of the war, especially because of the individual combats that were fought and because of the presence of the strongest men of the Taira clan.
Many of the passages of this combat are dramatized in the play Heike Monogatari, as well as in nō and kabuki plays. In the end, the Taira clan was defeated and many of its members fled in boats to Yashima, to the south.
Taira no Tadanori, one of the commanders of the fortress, was killed and Taira no Shigehira, another of them, was taken prisoner and later executed for not committing seppuku.
Return to Kyoto
After Ichi-no-Tani, Yoshitsune and Noriyori thought of pursuing the Taira on Yashima, the clan's main base on Shikoku Island, but Yoritomo ordered his brothers not to continue the offensive and to return to Kyoto with the heads of their opponents as battle trophies.
Thus, Yoshitsune stayed six months in Kyoto, from the end of 1184 to the beginning of 1185. Noriyori was sent in October 1184 to the western island of Kyushu to lead several battles against the Taira in that region.
During this period, Yoshitsune became Yoritomo's chief delegate and assumed the role of maintaining order in the territories controlled by the Minamoto clan, issuing edicts for the cessation of hostilities in those regions. He was also in charge of approving or vetoing any project or tax established without the clan's consent.
However, during this stage the relationship with his brother Yoritomo began to deteriorate. One of the reasons was the latter's refusal to grant Yoshitsune the noble titles he had awarded Noriyori for services rendered; the underlying reason was an attempt to keep Yoshitsune out of the court.
Battle of Yashima
With Noriyori's plans for the invasion of Kyushu prepared, he was again sent to war. On March 22, 1185 Yoshitsune commanded a few hundred men to make an assault on the city of Yashima (present-day Takamatsu) on the island of Shikoku.
Yashima was the new center of the Taira clan (which was suffering considerable defeats in the war) and held a fortress and palace for Emperor Antoku and the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, which he was holding.
Yoshitsune arranged a fleet of ships in the city of Watanabe, in the province of Settsu. In this battle, Kajiwara Kagetoki, an allied samurai argued intensely with Yoshitsune about what should be the strategy of combat and provoked an incident that discredited Yoshitsune in the future.
On the night of the 22nd, he decided that it was the best time to embark, even though the weather was terrible at the time. Even so, he ordered his men to embark.
However, his subordinates refused to obey him. Yoshitsune threatened death to anyone who disobeyed him, and so some decided to accompany him that night.
Yoshitsune arrived on the island of Shikoku at dawn and stationed himself five kilometers from Yashima; there he learned from a local samurai chief that the forces on Yashima were reduced, partly because a Taira expeditionary force had marched to Iyo province.
At that time Yashima was separated from the rest of the island by a narrow channel that could be crossed on horseback at low tide. The Taira castle was located on the beach facing the island, and the ships were in a shallow area in front of the castle.
Again, Yoshitsune applied a stratagem: he lit bonfires near the fortress in the sea to make the Taira think that a naval battle was being fought with a superior Minamoto force.
The Taira abandoned the fortress and took the emperor and the Treasures with them, not realizing that the bulk of Yoshitsune's forces were on land.
At that point the battle in the channel began and Taira no Munemori realized that Yoshitsune's forces at sea were smaller than they first believed. The fort at Yashima was going up in flames.
So the Taira, in order to belittle the enemy and make him waste his arrows, erected a fan on the top of one of their ships and challenged the Minamoto to test their aim on the fan.
Yoshitsune chose Nasu no Yoichi, a young and small archer, who, on his horse and in the middle of the channel, managed to hit the fan (if he missed he had to commit seppuku).
The next morning, the Taira were still sailing near the city of Shido, while Yoshitsune pursued them from the coast.
According to the Heike Monogatari, the Taira overestimated the number of troops the Minamoto had and preferred to flee from Shikoku Island.
Due to this confusion, the Minamoto won the second victory thanks to Yoshitsune; however, Emperor Antoku and the Three Treasures, along with most of the Taira clan members, fled again, to Dan-no-Ura, in the Shimonoseki Strait, between Kyushu and Honshu.
Battle of Dan-no-Ura
The troops of the Taira clan regrouped in Nagato Province (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture), in the far west of Honshu, while Yoshitsune crossed Shikoku to Suō Province, further east. With news of Yoshitsune's victories, some warriors began to arrive in the region, constituting a reinforcement of troops and ships.
On April 25, 1185, Yoshitsune's forces engaged the Taira in a naval battle off Dan-no-Ura. Yoshitsune had in his possession eight hundred and fifty ships.
Although the Taira possessed only five hundred, they were aware that they had to fight to the death, for they had no escape. The battle began around eight o'clock in the morning; the tides, naval tactics and knowledge of the battle zone were initially advantageous to the Taira clan.
The Taira had split into three squads, while the Minamoto were stationed in a single group, with archers at the ready.
At the beginning of the battle, there was an arrow attack, but the Taira took advantage of the tide to surround the Minamoto and several attacks with swords and daggers followed; as the hours passed, the tide turned and was taken advantage of by the Minamoto.
To the misfortune of the Taira, one of the generals in their command, Taguchi Shigeyoshi, approached Yoshitsune and revealed to him the ship where Emperor Antoku was.
Yoshitsune then focused the attack on that ship; many fighters of the Taira clan committed suicide before being defeated by the Minamoto.
In this suicidal action were Taira no Kiyomori's widow and his grandson, Emperor Antoku, who at the age of six died an abrupt death, throwing himself into the ocean.
With this battle, the Taira clan was almost entirely destroyed; the Minamoto had already secured victory in the Genpei Wars and, incidentally, absolute control of Japan. The few survivors of the Taira clan, among them Taira no Munemori, were captured and sent to Kyoto, where they were executed at the end of 1185.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune Final years
After the Genpei Wars, Yoshitsune allied with the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa to rebel against his brother Yoritomo.
Abandoning the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira for the second time, he was betrayed and killed in 1189 by Fujiwara no Yasuhira, Hidehira's son.
Yoshitsune's memory is honored at the Shirahata Jinja shinto temple in Fujisawa.