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Uesugi Kenshin (上杉 謙信 February 8, 1530 - April 19, 1578) was a Japanese daimyō who ruled Echigo Province during the Sengoku period of Japanese history.
He was one of the most powerful warriors of his time and is famous for his prowess on the battlefield, his legendary rivalry with Takeda Shingen, his military and strategic expertise, and his devotion to the god of war Bishamonten; in fact many of his followers believed that he was the avatar of this deity, so they called him "The God of War".
His original name was Nagao Kagetora (長尾景虎). He changed his name later to Uesugi Masatora (上杉政虎) when he inherited the name of the Uesugi clan. He later changed his name back to Uesugi Terutora (上杉輝虎) in honor of the shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru and finally to Kenshin (上杉謙信) after becoming a Buddhist monk.
He continually refers to Kenshin as the "Dragon of Echigo" due to his martial arts skills demonstrated on the battlefield. His rival, Takeda Shingen, was known as "The Tiger of Kai".
In some versions of Chinese mythology (Shingen and Kenshin always had an interest in the culture of China, especially in the works of Sun Tzu), the dragon and the tiger had always been rivals and always tried to defeat each other, but were never able to win definitively.
Kenshin was the fourth son of the warrior Nagao Tamekage (長尾為景), who had gained fame as a warrior through his military victories over Uesugi Sadanori and Uesugi Funayoshi. As the years passed, Tamakage had a series of disagreements with the Ikkō-ikki of Hokuriku as political power in the region began to favor them.
The problem came to a head in 1536, when Tamakage gathered his army and marched westward. After arriving at Sendanno, in Etchu Province, his troops were suddenly attacked by Enami Kazuyori, where he was killed.
The impact on Echigo was immediate. Nagao Harukage, the eldest son of Tamekage immediately sought to assume leadership, to which he acceded after a series of internal disputes in which his brother Nagao Kageyasu was killed. Kenshin was removed from the conflict and sent to the Rizen temple, where he remained from the age of 7 to 14 dedicated to study.
At the age of fourteen, Kenshin was contacted by Usami Sadamitsu and a group of his father's acquaintances, who asked him to go to Echigo and fight for the domain that was in the hands of his older brother, as Harukage had failed to establish power over the domain, so the province was about to be divided.
It is said that at first Kenshin did not want to face his own brother in the military field, but was convinced because it was necessary for Echigo's province to survive. Through a series of clashes led by Kenshin and Sadamitsu they succeeded in establishing control in 1547.
Although his leadership over the Nagao clan was now unquestioned, most of the province's territory was independent of the young daimyō's rule. Kenshin laid the foundations of his power in the region. Ogasawara Nagatoki and Murakami Yoshikiyo, two daimyō of Shinano Province, requested audience in front of Kenshin to ask for his support in stopping Takeda Shingen's advance.
During the time when Kenshin became daimyō of Echigo, Shingen had already won the great battles in Shinano Province. Because the Takeda clan's conquests were so close to his borders, Kenshin agreed to participate.
This was the beginning of a legendary rivalry. During the first conflict between the two factions, both Kenshin and Shingen were extremely cautious, engaging in indecisive skirmishes.
For some years they would sustain a series of clashes known as the Battles of Kawanakajima, although only the fourth of these was a major conflict between the two sides.
In 1561, Kenshin and Shingen fought their biggest battle, the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima. Kenshin used an ingenious tactic for the time: a special formation where the soldiers in front would switch places with those in the rear when they were tired or injured.
This tactic was extremely effective and almost gave them victory. During this battle it is documented that Kenshin was able to pass between enemy lines and reached the main camp of Shingen, who evaded the attacks with his iron war fan or tessen.
However, Kenshin was unable to finish Shingen off; for a servant of the Takeda clan managed to push him back and Shingen was able to counterattack. The Uesugi army began the retreat, during which many soldiers drowned and many others were killed by the Takeda generals.
The outcome of the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima is still uncertain. General scholarly opinion is divided as to who was victorious. Although Kenshin lost 72% of the elements to Shingen's 62%, Takeda also lost two of his most important generals: his advisor Yamamoto Kansuke and his brother Takeda Nobushige.
Although Shingen and Kenshin were rivals for over fourteen years, they exchanged gifts on numerous occasions, the most famous being a sword given by Shingen to Kenshin, which he held in great esteem.
Shingen died in 1573 and it is said that Kenshin bitterly mourned the loss of such an important adversary and vowed never to attack the Takeda lands again, and the two sides became allies for 3 years.
Additionally, it is said that during an incident in which other daimyō, including that of the late Hōjō clan, boycotted Shingen's salt supply, Kenshin secretly sent him salt and wrote to his enemy that, in his opinion, the daimyō of the Hōjō clan had committed a hostile act.
Although Kenshin was able to take advantage of this situation and cut off his enemy's supply lines, Kenshin asserted "Wars are to be won with swords and spears, not rice and salt." This statement is a modern reference to peace advocations, which in recognition of Kenshin asserts: "Peace must be achieved with rice and salt, not with swords and spears".
Although his rivalry with Takeda Shingen is legendary, Kenshin had a number of conflicts during this era. In 1551, Kenshin was asked to provide refuge for his nominal master Uesugi Norimasa, who had been forced to flee due to the expansion into the Kantō region of the late Hōjō clan.
Kenshin agreed to give him refuge but was in no position to move an army against the Hōjō. In 1559 he made a trip to Kyoto to pay tribute to the shōgun, so he took the opportunity to visit local religious and historical sites.
This enhanced his reputation considerably and gave him the image of a cultured leader. This same year, Uesugi Norimasa pressured him to move into the Kantō region against the Hōjō clan and the following year he led the campaign, with which they were able to take several castles.
That campaign concluded at Odawara Castle in Sagami Province. During the siege he was able to break through the defenses and burned the village, but the castle remained unconquered and a shortage of resources forced him to retreat. It was during this time that he visited the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Temple and took the name Kenshin.
Another area that interested Kenshin was Etchu Province, which was in dispute between the Jinbo clan and the Shiina clan. Kenshin established himself as a mediator for some time, but later sided with the Shiina and fought the Jinbo clan.
Years later, he took the territory by arms and, taking possession of his main castle in 1575, dominated the province of Etchu.
By early 1576, Kenshin began to consider Oda Nobunaga a problem as he had become the most powerful daimyō in all of Japan. With both Takeda Shingen and Hōjō Ujiyasu dead, there was no longer anyone to oppose his expansion plans.
When the leader of the Noto clan died, confusion and succession conflicts ensued, so Kenshin seized the opportunity and seized dominance of the weakened clan. In response, Nobunaga organized his forces and together with two of his top generals appeared at the Battle of Tedorigawa.
Nobunaga first sent to the front Shibata Katsuie, one of his best generals who had served Nobunaga from the beginning. According to accounts of the battle, Katsuie led 18,000 men during the first encounter and Nobunaga later led another 20,000 reinforcements. According to these figures, this battle would be one of the two largest of the Sengoku period.
Even with the great numerical superiority of Nobunaga's troops, Kenshin managed to have a solid victory on the battlefield and Nobunaga was forced to retreat back to Ōmi Province while Kenshin was satisfied by building a few forts in Kaga Province before returning to Echigo Province.
During the winter of 1577 - 1578, Kenshin summoned a large army to continue the assaults against Nobunaga's lands, but his health declined and by April 9 he had a stroke while bathing. He died four days later.
His death poem was 「四十九年一睡の夢 一期の栄華一盃の酒」 "Forty-nine years; A night's dream. A life of prosperity; A cup of sake."
The causes of Kenshin's death are unknown to this day. The most widely accepted theory among Japanese scholars is that a life of excessive drinking and perhaps stomach cancer ended the life of this great warrior. Some other sources claim that he was in fact murdered, that a ninja who was hiding in the area stabbed him while he was in the bath.
Uesugi Kenshin's death was disastrous for the clan. He never had children, although he adopted two who could have been his heirs and successors. They, after Uesugi Kenshin's death, immediately began a power struggle that ended with Uesugi Kagekatsu as the new ruler of the clan; however, the struggle cost him a lot of time and energy, so Oda Nobunaga had no problem in taking most of his lands quickly and even reaching the border with Echigo.