by Andy Knowles
The question as to who was the greater samurai warlord - Takeda Shingen (1521-73) or Uesugi Kenshin (1530-78) - is a difficult one because of the complexities of how we define an ideal samurai warlord. As a result I will be looking at each man both as a samurai and as a warlord. The two men were considerably different in terms of character, aims and success; and these aspects should be considered crucial whilst attempting to answer such a question. I will begin with brief bios of the two men, followed by character and performance analysis, before finally concluding (within the realms of this study) with a pound-for-pound answer to the question stated above.
Takeda Shingen was born Katsuchiyo in 1521, the eldest son of Takeda Nobutora; his adult name becoming Harunobu. Takeda Nobutora was the lord of Kai province, and head of the particularly powerful Takeda clan in central Japan. The Takeda family were descendants of the Minamoto, the first Shoguns of Japan and victors over the Taira during the Gempei Wars (1180-85). Because of this prestigious lineage, the Takeda were a deep-rooted aristocratic family. More importantly however, they could legitimately claim the title of Shogun, and begin to unite Japan - if the capital Kyoto became theirs. Takeda Harunobu later adopted a monk’s habit and took the Buddhist name ‘Shingen’ in 1551; and it is by this name he is known best.
Uesugi Kenshin was born in Echigo in 1530, named Nagao Kagetora; the fourth son of Nagao Tamekage. The Nagao family were retainers of the more prestigious Uesugi family based in Echigo and Kozuke. The Nagao were first enemies of the Yamanouchi branch of Uesugi, and then their nominal vassals. It is unclear who the Nagao were descended from, but the Uesugi were of Fujiwara (a famous courtier family) descent. The Uesugi family were (by the time of Kenshin’s rise to power) in dire straits; both branches of which were in decline and increasingly losing ground to the Hôjô clan who controlled the Kanto (area around Kamakura). This culminated in the defeat of the Yamanouchi and Ogigayatsu branches of the Uesugi family at the hands of the Hôjô in 1545 at Kawagoe.
In 1536 however Kenshin’s (then named Nagao Kagetora) father was killed in battle against the Ikko-ikki, and a bitter power struggle ensued between Harukage (Kenshin’s eldest brother) and the other Nagao brothers - with the exception of Kenshin (Kagetora) who was taken in safety to a monastery (from ages 7-14). Harukage emerged triumphant but was an unpopular (if competent) leader, and at the age of 14 Kenshin was approached by a number of high ranking generals to challenge the leadership of the Nagao clan. It was perhaps Kenshin’s good fortune that he was too young to fight against Harukage during the power struggle, and spirited away to the Rizenji monastery, otherwise he may have been viewed as a threat and put to the sword by Harukage. Kenshin, after some encouragement, stood against his brother and defeated him in 1547 - becoming head of the increasingly powerful Nagao clan. Kenshin completed the conquest of Echigo in 1551, putting him in a powerful position of local expansion.
Takeda Shingen is best described as a colourful character, indulging freely in women, men (he was known to have a long-standing relationship with Kosaka Danjo Masanobu, one of his most trusted generals) and cruelty to criminals. However, he was extremely popular with both the people of Kai and the Takeda Clan army that existed from them. As a result, he felt safe enough from attack that he lived in his yashiki (mansion) in Kofu as opposed to a fortified castle. Shingen was both a skilled tactician and a talented administrator; the perfect combination for a successful Sengoku daimyo. He lowered taxes, and introduced a ‘rice or gold’ scheme of payment (Kai was well known for its goldmines); and removed corporal punishment for minor offences. These systems would later be augmented into Tokugawa Ieyasu’s own vision of government, clearly testament to Shingen’s ability and initiative.
Shingen had a darker side than the lovable ‘mountain monkey’ of Japanese theatrical fame. He usurped power from his father Nobutora and exiled him, he even ordered (somewhat dubiously) his own son and heir Yoshinobu to commit suicide. Shingen also seems to have treated civilians in conquered territories poorly (burning villages and the like) - in particular those of Shinano. Suwa Yorishige, a daimyo of Shinano Shingen defeated was also made to commit seppuku and his daughter Shingen married producing the one who would bring about the downfall of the Takeda clan - Katsuyori. However, despite the apparent ruthlessness within which Shingen had a tendency to operate, this darker side to Shingen may merely be a reflection of the harsh circumstances of survival in the Sengoku Era.
Uesugi Kenshin was always primarily a soldier rather than an administrator (Turnbull, 2003 p19), which stood in marked contrast with Shingen’s image as an able and innovative administrator. Whilst no doubt able to fulfil his duties as a lord of land and rice, Kenshin effected Echigo’s system of administration little and spent much time warring with neighbouring clans or raiding south-westerly, Shinano and the Kanto. He was a devout religious man, which will have undoubtedly arisen from spending seven years (1537-44) in a monastery, and also the trips he took to Mount Hiei and others in Kyoto. Kenshin was also a man of culture, with a passion for poetry and ascetics that matched, if not surpassed Shingen’s cultural lifestyle
Despite his heavy drinking Kenshin remained a strongly religious man, never married and evidence suggests that he remained celibate all his life, producing no offspring but instead adopting two sons - from his enemy Hôjô Ujiyasu (1515-71) and his brother Nagao Masakage (d. 1564). He also had a strong sense of honour, something distinctly lacking in a Japan where strength was now counted in guns and single combat was becoming increasingly redundant on the battlefield. This sense of honour is accentuated further still if the account of Kenshin’s personal assault on Shingen at the 4th Battle of Kawanakajima is to be believed.
Therefore, the respective characters of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin are markedly different - while both being skilled warriors and leaders, Shingen took far more interest in the administration of his territories, leaving Kenshin at a loss as regards the title question. The stain on Shingen’s character with regards to his ruthlessness and lack of mercy should also be taken into account; but this does not make him a weak or unable ruler Kenshin was however perhaps a little more faithful to the samurai idyll - that of honourable conduct and as much combat as possible. It is clear from his actions that Kenshin was far more concerned with making a name for himself on the battlefield than the administration of his territories. While putting him perhaps more on a par with the concept of bushido, it does reveal his lack of duty towards his people.
In 1551, Uesugi Norimasa (1522-79) came to Echigo (now the territory of Kenshin) to seek shelter and ask for an allied attack against the Hôjô; while shelter was forthcoming, Kenshin was in no position to bring war to the Hôjô immediately. Despite this, it is clear that Kenshin desired to restore the Kanto to the Uesugi (they controlled much of it during the Muromachi Period 1334-1447). He heeded Norimasa’s (Kenshin’s overlord on paper) call to arms and took Numata Castle in Kozuke from the Hôjô in 1560; after which he pushed further south into the Kanto and took a number of castles and towns, before retreating back north at the Hôjô stronghold of Odawara (1561).
However, this is no place for biographies of the two warlords and far more in-depth ones can be found elsewhere on this website. It is clear that both men were required by fate to use their guile and initiative to succeed, but it could be said that Shingen had the slight advantage of being born into a noble, powerful samurai clan - despite his father’s lack of faith in him. Shingen should be commended for his skill, initiative and resourcefulness in proving his father wrong during those crucial early years; for example in outwitting and defeating Hiraga Genshin in 1536 (while only 15 years old). Kenshin meanwhile was quite the consummate politician (and general) in securing first the leadership of his Nagao family, then control of the Uesugi clan. Therefore, neither man had greatness thrust upon them, and were both disadvantaged - Kenshin because of his subtle upbringing, and Shingen because of his father Nobutora’s lack of respect for him.
Takeda Shingen was renowned for the loyalty he held with both his generals and his men. So much so in fact, that he lived in Kofu (the capital of Kai) in a mansion (yashiki) as opposed to a castle; putting his faith in the loyalty of his people rather than the walls of a more defendable fortification. While this judgment may have been ill-conceived in the desperate and fickle times of the Sengoku period, Shingen was undoubtedly a popular ruler - the popularity of his financial policies (mentioned earlier) a case in point. The loyalty shown to Shingen was extended even to the impetuous Takeda Katsuyori (Shingen’s son by a daughter of Suwa Yorishige), which culminated in the disastrous battle of Nagashino (1575). This is similarly testament to the loyalty to the head of the Takeda clan that Shingen himself cultivated.
Uesugi Kenshin was shown loyalty among the generals of his clan from an early age - at fourteen he was encouraged to challenge his elder brother Harukage for leadership of the Nagao clan. The respect and loyalty Kenshin commanded among his troops is exemplified in the incredibly disciplined army he retained; the often successful battle tactics he employed demanded both a high level of discipline (i.e. the ‘winding wheel’ formation) and coordination from his warriors as well as his generals. However, those such as Turnbull himself dismiss the idea of such a highly ordered formation (Turnbull, 2003 p75). Similarly, Kenshin’s night manoeuvres during the 4th Battle of Kawanakajima would have required exceptional discipline from his eager warriors. This is all the more surprising in relation to notion of the samurai as an individual warrior as opposed to a disciplined, faceless, soldier.
As regards success, Shingen was arguably the more successful of the two, particularly in terms of territory gained. While Kenshin appeared to prefer raiding and fighting as opposed to conquering and governance; Shingen held the opposite preference. Shingen (after a long and arduous campaign lasting over 26 years) subjugated the entire Shinano province as far as the Echigo border. Kenshin on the other hand preferred bringing rival daimyo to battle - especially in the case of Shingen and the battles of Kawanakajima - but gained little territory during the campaigns he embarked upon. Similarities between Shingen and Kenshin can be drawn however from their ‘giant-killing’ abilities. For example, both men defeated a ‘great unifier of Japan’; in Kenshin’s case Oda Nobunaga’s forces at Tedorigawa (1577), and in Shingen’s the routing of Tokugawa Ieyasu at Mikata-ga-Hara (1573).
While Kenshin’s early campaigns to unite Echigo were impressive, in particular because of his tender years, his efforts in Shinano and against the Hôjô achieved little. It is clear from Kenshin’s actions that he favoured raiding and battle to forging an empire and governing it well. Therefore, in regards to success in battle, the two men were perhaps equally matched; as evidenced in the numerous battles of Kawanakajima. However, in terms of territorial expansion and skilled governance, Shingen comes out on top. This is emphasised by the very fact that Shingen could have well become the Shogun of Japan, despite his relative distance from the capital Kyoto.
When the two samurai conducted campaigns against each other - the battles of Kawanakajima - the outcome is perhaps a little less clear cut. For example, the first battle of Kawanakajima (1553) was more a series of skirmishes, but with Kenshin arguably gaining the upper hand. The second battle (1555) consisted of a relative stand-off between the two armies; containing little combat, let alone a clear victor. The third battle of Kawanakajima (1557) was similarly indecisive. As Uesugi Kenshin intervened in Shinano following a request for help from Shinano daimyo such as Murakami Yoshikiyo, he had little taste for conquest. Therefore both Kenshin and Shingen desired a final, decisive confrontation, but for different reasons; Kenshin because he wished to honourably defeat such a powerful and famous warlord, and Shingen because he wished to secure his Shinano territory from further Uesugi aggression.
The two samurai got their chance on 17th October 1561 at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima on the Hachimanbara plain. This is, however, no place for a lengthy description of the battle (see ‘Kawanakajima 1553-64’ by Turnbull); but it could be concluded that Takeda Shingen was the victor, from the figures that the Takeda lost 62% of their army, while the Uesugi lost 72%. Although this margin is small, it does indicate a Takeda victory. However, the figures here are published by the Kawanakajima battlefield museum, and disputed by Stephen Turnbull in claiming that a better indication of success can be gained from looking at the numbers of heads taken (Turnbull, 2003 p81). If this is to be believed, it drags the Uesugi death toll down to only 28%.
After the battles of Kawanakajima had subsided, the two warlords were preparing for war elsewhere, and do not appear to have been excessively weakened by their clashes in Shinano province. As a result, the battles between Shingen and Kenshin should not necessarily be regarded as a good indication of who the greater warlord and tactician was. In death, the two men were (supposedly) assassinated, Kenshin by (allegedly) a ninja in his toilet (!) in 1578 and Shingen by a sniper’s bullet at the siege of Noda (1573). Therefore, little can be drawn from the way in which they died - be it assassination, or most likely, illness.
In conclusion, regarding the difficulties that Kenshin and Shingen had during their early years, I would maintain that they are relatively equal - both achieved feats of brilliance on their own respective paths to power. Regarding the question of character and samurai spirit, Kenshin was perhaps more in tune with the samurai idyll, and failed to show the ruthless, cruel qualities that Shingen did. On the other hand, Shingen had far more success, both in his administrative abilities and territorial gains. Despite Kenshin’s campaigns to unite Echigo and conquer the Jinbo of Etchu; it could be said that he could not compare to Shingen in this respect. While Uesugi Kenshin was an exceptionally powerful warlord and skilled tactician, he failed to become the conqueror that Shingen was.
It should be noted that without personally knowing the two men one can never make an entirely accurate statement, mainly because of the gunkimono bias (i.e. Koyo Gunkan) from which we glean most of our information. However, I would have to conclude that while Kenshin was perhaps of better character and more faithful to the samurai ideal; Shingen was, in terms of empire and ability, the greater samurai warlord.
Turnbull, S. Kawanakajima 1553-64 - Samurai power struggle (2003) / Osprey Publishing. (Main text)
Turnbull, S. Samurai: World of the Warrior (2003) / Osprey Publishing.
Turnbull, S. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000) / Sterling Publications.