Uesugi Kenshin

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The Dragon of Echigo

Uesugi Kenshin was born in February 1530 at Kasugayama in Echigo Province, the 4th son of Nagao Tamekage, a powerful warlord who was first an enemy and then a nominal vassal of the Yamaouchi-Uesugi. A leader of some note, Tamekage had in his youth defeated Uesugi Sadanori in 1509 at the Battle of Ichiburi. He had then been besieged at Nishihama (Etchu Province) by Uesugi Funayoshi and emerged victorious, killing Funayoshi in the process. In later years, Tamekage found himself confronted both with rebellious kokujin within Echigo and the growing power of the Ikko-Ikki in the Hokuriku. In 1530-31 a power struggle took place within the so-called ‘Peasant’s province’ of Kaga that saw the nominal Shugo family, the Togashi, expelled once and for all and the Honganji assume the dominant political position. From this point on the Ikko became more aggressive in their relations with neighboring daimyo, and those who opposed the Honganji were liable to suffer internal difficulties in the form of riots or even armed attacks. This was nowhere more the case then in Echigo, prompting Nagao Tamekage in 1536 to raise an army and march westward, possibly in the hopes of reaching Kaga. A fierce battle took place at Sendanno in Etchu that left Tamekage dead and his army defeated.1 It was one of the Kaga Ikko’s greatest triumphs and disastrous to the stability of Echigo. Leadership of the Nagao fell to Tamekage’s eldest son, Harukage, whose cause was forwarded by a number of important Nagao retainers. A power struggle ensued, in the course of which another of Tamekage’s sons, Kageyasu, was killed. The youngest son was spirited away to the Rizen-ji, where he studied from the age of 7 to 14.

When the boy reached 14, he was approached by Usami Sadamitsu2 and others, who urged him to make a claim for leadership of the Nagao family. Evidently, Harukage was an unpopular figure who had failed to garner the loyalty of the province’s various and powerful kokujin families. Internal strife soon threatened to tear the province apart.

Kagetora, we are told, at first hesitated to war on his brother, but in the end was convinced to fight for the good of Echigo. Kagetora and Usami went on to win a series of engagements against Harukage’s supporters that led to Kagetora’s victory in 1547. Harukage’s fate is not certain, though he likely committed suicide.3

Now the head of the Nagao family, Kagetora turned to the difficult business of cementing his control over Echigo, a time-consuming process given that Echigo was noted for the fiercely-independent nature of it’s people. In fact, his efforts were only beginning to bear fruit when word came of Takeda (Shingen) Harunobu’s advances in northern Shinano. Two defeated Shinano warlords, Ogasawara Nagatoki (1519-1583) and Murakami Yoshikiyo (1510-1573), came to Echigo around 1553 and asked for assistance against the encroaching Takeda clan, which in the space of ten years had absorbed much of Shinano. Kagetora was probably alarmed by the bellicose Takeda’s proximity to the borders of Echigo, and agreed to assist the two refugees.4

He got his first chance in 1553. In June Takeda marched up and onto the Kawanakajima, a stretch of flat land that was so-named as it was lapped on three sides by the waters of the Sai and Chikuma rivers. Kagetora responded by leading an army down from Echigo and the two warlords fought a brief skirmish, though as each man already had a reputation for cunning, caution won out. Takeda pulled back but returned in November.5 This time, a sharper engagement was fought that left a number of Takeda’s generals dead.6 Kenshin and Shingen would face one another at Kawanakajima in five ‘official’ confrontations (1553, 1555, 1557, 1561, and 1564), while putting in an appearance on at least five other years (according to one theory).

Some time prior to these first tentative struggles, in 1551, Kagetora had received Uesugi Norimasa (1522?-1579), his nominal overlord. Norimasa, head of the Yamanouchi branch of the Uesugi, had suffered as a result of the Hojo family's advances in the Kanto Province. Losing Hirai Castle in Kozuke, he had been forced to seek refuge in Echigo. Kagetora readily agreed to shelter Norimasa but was not immediately able to attempt to restore him in Kozuke. In 1559 Kenshin made a trip to Kyoto to pay tribute to the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru, an act that greatly enhanced his reputation. While in Kyoto, he also visited the Imperial Palace and Mt. Hiei, as well as a number of other famous religious and historical sites. He returned to Echigo in November. In recognition of his loyalty, the shogun later allowed Kagetora the right to use the character ‘Teru’ in his name. He shortly thereafter took Buddhist vows and the name Kenshin (just when is unclear), by which he will be known from here in this description.

Also in 1559, Uesugi Norimasa again urged Kenshin to campaign against the Hojo, a call for action that was seconded by Satomi Yoshitaka. Kenshin was able to oblige the following year with the capture of Numata Castle in Kozuke. In 1561 Kenshin pushed further into the Hojo domain with the capture of Musashi-Matsuyama. He followed this up with a push on Odawara Castle itself in Sagami Province. Kenshin was able to break through the Hojo's defenses and burn Odawara Town but was unable to make any impression on the castle. For want of supplies he had to break camp within a few days and return to the north. But in the course of this campaign he had taken Kamakura and marked the occasion by a visit to the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, where he announced the adoption of both the name 'Uesugi' and the title of Kanto Kanrei.

For some time Kenshin had involved himself in the goings-on in neighboring Etchu Province, where the Jinbo and Shiina clans had been feuding since around 1550. Kenshin had at first acted as a mediator between the two but in 1560 he entered the fight on the side of the Shiina and took Toyama Castle from the Jinbo in 3rd month of 1560. Later, Kenshin would turn on the Shiina when it seemed as if they were becoming too friendly with the Takeda; the Shiina's Matsukura castle was taken in 1575 and Kenshin at that point became the effective ruler of Etchu Province. The Jinbo and Shiina were both reduced to vassal houses.

The Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima

After returning from the Siege of Odawara Castle, Kenshin, the newly-minted Kanto Kanrei, immediately began planning another campaign, this one aimed at Shinano Province. Takeda Shingen’s northernmost fort was Kaizu, presently garrisoned by Kosaka Masanobu and a token force of cavalry. Kenshin set out with some 13,00 men under his command, intending apparently to provoke a major battle with Shingen. Here one must pause to consider that our only real source for the course of the following campaign is the Koyo Gunkan, a rambling and at times disjointed record of the Takeda family under Shingen. This was composed by Takeda partisans (Kosaka Masanobu himself is sometimes given as the composer but the actual author appears to have been Obata Kagenori, 1570-1644) and its accuracy is often dubious. But that having been said, the battle the Koyo Gunkan describes is the one imprinted in the minds of generations of Japanese.

Kenshin might easily have captured Kaizu; instead, he sat down to wait. Kosaka sent off a smoke signal that triggered a chain reaction all the way south to Kai Province. When word reached Shingen of Kenshin’s intrusion, he mustered an army of perhaps 20,000 men and force-marched north. He arrived to find the Uesugi army camped on the top of Saijoyama, a height somewhat west of Kaizu (there is actually a number of Saijoyamas in the Kawanakajima area, prompting some to question whether or not even the traditional setting for these opening moves is accurate). Shingen camped at the Amenomiya Ford for a period of about a week before making his way to Kaizu. Kenshin had made no movement as yet and continued to remain inactive, apparently determined to let Shingen make the first move. The Takeda decided after another week of idleness that a battle would have to be forced, as it was unlikely that Kenshin would leave Kaizu alone if Shingen withdrew without bloodying him.

It was decided that the Takeda army, now numbering some 20,000 men, would be split into two parts. 8,000 men would go to the Hachiman Plain under cover of darkness while the other 12,000 (under Kosaka and Baba Nobufusa) would attack Saijoyama. Whether or not Kosaka and Baba succeded, Kenshin was likely to withdraw north - and right into the trap Shingen would have set for him. Accordingly, the two forces departed at night - although not in the secrecy the plan required. Kenshin had learned of the scheme somehow, and resolved to turn Shingen’s planning against him. Kenshin marched his own army off Saijo and crossed the Chikuma as quietly as humanly possible.7

Once on the other side of the river, he dispatched 1,000 men under Naoe Kanetsugu north with the supply train while leaving 2,000 more under Amakasu Kagemochi at the Amenomiya Ford to stall the Takeda’s attack force once they discovered Saijo was empty. The other 10,000 Kenshin put into formation and waited for the dawn. At first light, Kenshin’s army smashed into the Takeda ranks, which quickly buckled under the force of the attack. Kenshin’s vanguard was headed by Kakizaki Kageie, whose cavalry struck the center of Shingen’s formation and killed Takeda Nobushige, Shingen’s brother. According to the Koyo Gunkan Kenshin employed a ‘Rolling wheel’ formation, which allowed him to withdraw weary or damaged units from the fight without reducing the pressure on the enemy. Very soon Shingen had suffered the wounding of his son Yoshinobu, and the suicide of his veteran commander Yamamoto Kansuke. At this point, Kenshin led a charge himself that carried the Uesugi banners into the heart of the Takeda formation. According to legend, Shingen and Kenshin himself traded blows, with the former fending off the latter’s sword cuts with his iron war fan before a retainer drove Kenshin back. Actually, neither men may have been thus at jeopardy. Shingen's role in the duel is thought to have been played by one of his doubles, or kagemusha, possibly his younger brother, Takeda Nobukada. Kenshin may also have not been the one to trade blows, that honor instead going to a certain Ayukawa (Ayukawa Kiyonaga or Morinaga?)

By now Baba and Kosaka had discovered that Saijo was empty and rushed down to Amenomiya. After defeating Amakasu in a fiercely contested crossing, the Takeda force moved on to fall on the Uesugi army from behind. Though Kenshin had come very close to decisively defeating Shingen, he had missed his chance and was forced to retreat. Baba and Kosaka’s horsemen made cruel work of any stragglers they came across, and it is assumed that quite a few Uesugi men drowned in the Saigawa in the retreat. The Koyo Gunkan states that 3,117 of Kenshin’s men had been killed, and the Takeda certainly suffered comparably if not much worse.8

Here is where we may begin to make some educated assumptions about the course of the actual battle. Given the Takeda's losses in generals, the first part of the battle may well have gone as the Koyo Gunkan describes. However, despite supposedly receiving over 3,000 dead, the fact that no major Uesugi general was killed is interesting. Also, unlike Kenshin, Shingen did not issue any battle citations following the engagement, which he most certainly would have in the aftermath of such a great battle. Finally, Kenshin was campaigning in faraway Shimosa Province only a month after the supposedly bloody 'stalemate' of Kawanakajima. Postulating a clear Uesugi victory does not seem at all unreasonable; the best the author of the Koyo Gunkan could say for the Takeda was that a draw had been achieved, despite mentioning that Shingen led a victory cheer after the battle.

Kenshin and Shingen would face each other again, at Kawanakajima (1564) and in a number of stand-offs in Kozuke as the latter moved to scarf up castles there in the early 1560’s. Yet the enemy who most absorbed Kenshin’s attention for the rest of his life was the Hojo clan. Kenshin evidently took his Kanto-Kanrei title seriously, and resolved to restore the Kanto to the Uesugi. In almost every year of the 1560’s (starting, as mentioned, almost immediately after the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima), he raided the Hojo’s lands and fought for various castles in Kozuke, Musashi, and Shimosa - although without lasting effect. At the same time, the Uesugi came into conflict with the Ashina of Mutsu.

It should be mentioned here that as much as Kenshin may have liked to fight, he also worked hard to increase the economic strength of Echigo. He pursued a number of initiatives designed to stimulate trade, including making the most of Echigo’s lucrative hemp trade, building Kasugayama Castle (which acted as his headquarters and a prosperous castle town) and in 1564 revitalizing the seaport of Kashiwazaki. Like many daimyo, Kenshin offered merchants special privileges, including tax reductions, to entice them to do business in his domain.

By 1576 Kenshin had finally begun to look westward. In 1565 Ashikaga Yoshiaki had asked him to come to Kyoto and drive out Shogun Yoshiteru’s murderers, a request Kenshin had been in no position to fulfill in those days. Now, with both Takeda Shingen and Hojo Ujiyasu dead, Kenshin could consider an expansion in the direction of the capital. At this time, the capital and all the land around it was controlled by Oda Nobunaga, the rising ‘super-daimyo’ who had been the one to install Ashikaga Yoshiaki into the shogunate in 1568. Afterwards, Nobunaga had courted Kenshin’s favor with a series of gifts and letters that resulted in a pact against Takeda Shingen. Among the gifts Nobunaga sent to Kenshin were a pair of screens depicting life in Kyoto, known as the Rakuchu rakugai zu, which would later assist historians in gathering a sense of life in the capital at the time.

Once Shingen was dead, Kenshin’s interest in any further cooperation with the Oda waned. Perhaps goaded on by the news that Nobunaga was constructing a great castle in Omi (to be known as Azuchi), Kenshin finished his subjugation of Etchu in the spring of 1576 by killing Shiina Yasutane. Earlier, more tentative moves westward on Kenshin’s part had been frustrated by the activities of the Ikko-Ikki; by 1576 the attentions of the Ikko were squarely centered on Nobunaga and a peace of sorts was struck up with the Uesugi.9

In 1577 one of the lords of Noto, Hatakeyama Yoshinori, was overthrown and killed by one of his retainers, Cho Shigetsura, apparently after the latter had come into some sort of agreement with Oda Nobunaga. Feuding broke out among the former members of the Hatakeyama and Kenshin was quick to take advantage of the situation. He invaded Noto, captured the home of the new head of the Hatakeyama (Yoshitaka), Nanao, and besieged Cho in Anamizu Castle. Shigetsura was killed, and after securing the loyalty of the other Noto warriors, Kenshin moved into Kaga. Nobunaga responded to this activity by leading reinforcements up to Echizen, where he joined forces with his generals Shibata Katsuie and Maeda Toshiie. All told, Nobunaga may have had as many as 50,000 men on hand to oppose Kenshin, whose own army counted about 30,000 warriors.10 Kenshin and Nobunaga met at the Tedorigawa in Kaga, with the lord of Echigo demonstrating just how much he had learned from all those fights with Shingen. Kenshin based his army at Matsuo Castle, across from which Nobunaga massed his forces. Suspecting that Nobunaga was itching for a fight and probably meant to attack at dawn, Kenshin dispatched a small force to move further up the river (while making a show if it). Nobunaga took note of the movements and believed that Kenshin was splitting his forces-a perfect opportunity for an attack; in the moonlight Nobunaga threw his forces across the river and against Matsuo. Kenshin’s forward units absorbed the charge, and in the end Nobunaga’s army was defeated. Nobunaga pulled his army back and took the bulk of it back to Omi, while Kenshin, after building a few forts in Kaga, returned to Echigo.

During the winter of 1577-78, Kenshin declared his intentions to continue fighting Nobunaga again and organized for an impressive army to assemble in the spring. Even as he readied for a great campaign (whether against Oda or Hojo), however, he was in poor health, reportedly barely able to eat solid food and walking with a pronounced limp. On 9 April he had a seizure of some sort while using his lavatory and died four days later, at the age of 48.

The timeliness of Kenshin’s death for the Oda gave rise to rumors of assassination. One popular albeit unlikely story has Kenshin being stabbed from below by an assassin who had hid himself in Kenshin’s lavatory some days before. In fact, many Japanese scholars believe that Kenshin died of illness - perhaps stomach cancer, combined with a lifetime of heavy drinking.11

Regardless of the manner of Kenshin’s death, the event spelled disaster for the Uesugi house. Some years prior to his death, Kenshin had adopted two sons, Kagetora (1552-1579, a son of Hojo Ujiyasu) and Kagekatsu (1555-1623, the son of Nagao Masakage, Kenshin’s elder brother). Perhaps naively, Kenshin had hoped that upon his death, the two would divide up the Uesugi holdings and rule in cooperation. Needless to say, this ended up being hardly the case. Kagekatsu, while not an exceptionally skilled general, was extremely ambitious and a gifted political schemer. He ultimately succeeded in forcing Kagetora to commit suicide in 1579, but not before the struggle had cost the Uesugi precious time and manpower, allowing Oda Nobunaga to take Kaga and march as far as Etchu’s borders.

Uesugi Kenshin was one of the most renowned warlords of the 16th Century, a colorful figure who combined a love of campaigning with a thirst for learning and a genuine sense of honor. A devout religious man, Kenshin would never marry nor produce off-spring. Buddhist vows did not, however, prevent him from acquiring a taste for drink, which he consumed in copious amounts during his lifetime and may well have contributed to his early demise.

Both Shingen and Hojo Ujiyasu are said to have spoken highly of their rival in Echigo and he is certainly one of the most beloved figures to emerge from the Sengoku period, a sort of Japanese Robert E. Lee. In fact, and like Lee, Kenshin's personal image probably exceeded his actual talent for war. His seemingly endless raids and invasions did not materially enhance the position of his clan in any great way and, in a general sense, he seems to have been destined to play the role of would-be spoiler to other great clans.

A man of learning, Kenshin enjoyed poetry and wrote the following piece in anticipation of his own death in 1578…

Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;

A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream; 
I know not what life is, nor death. 
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind; 
I stand in the moonlit dawn, 
Free from clouds of attachment.12

Notes to the Text

1 The victorious enemy commander was a certain Enami Kazuyori.

2 Also known as Usami Sadayuki and sometimes as Usa Sadayuki.

3 Another version of the event has it that Harukage surrendered to his brother and was treated reasonably well-a somewhat unlikely but not impossible outcome.

4 Ogasawara in fact retired from active life, content to teach archery-which his clan was well known for. Murakami went on to serve in many of Uesugi's campaigns, and was counted among his top retainers.

5 Most of our knowledge of the Battles of Kawanakajima comes from the Koyo Gunkan, a not always accurate chronicle prepared by a number of Takeda retainers in the 1570's. However, surviving documents from the Uesugi side seem to confirm at least in substance the general elements of the events portrayed in the Koyo Gunkan.

6 Most notably Itagaki Nobutaka.

7 Anyone who has ever served in the infantry and been involved in a night maneuver will probably realize just how impressive Kenshin's movement was.

8 Certain western sources state that Kenshin lost 72 percent of his army in this battle, while Shingen lost 62 percent. These figures are quite speculative, and no effort has as yet been made to justify them.

9 He had some years before defeated Jinbo Nagamoto and forced the submission of the Jinbo clan, Lords of castle.

10 If these figures are accurate, then the following battle would be one of the largest in the Sengoku period up to this time, with a total of 80,000 men involved.

11 See Turnbull's Ninja pg. 54-58 for a detailed discussion of the events surrounding Kenshin's death, which mentions the death of Kakizaki Kageie, the spearhead at Kawanakajima, whom Kenshin had put to death in 1576 on the suspicion of treason.

12 Suzuki Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 82.


Hall, John Whitney, Nagahara Keiji and Kozo Yamamura, eds. Japan Before Tokugawa. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981

Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai. Woodstock: Overlook 1995

Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, 1993

Rekishi Gunzô Shirizu. #8, Uesugi Kenshin. Japan: Gakken, 1999

Rekishi Gunzô Shirizu. #51, Sengoku no Kassen Taizen. Japan: Gakken, 1997