Minamoto no Yoshitsune

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Minamoto no Yoshitsune.
  • Born: 1159
  • Died: 1189
  • Titles: 判官 (Hougan, Hangan)[1]
  • Japanese: 義経 (Minamoto no Yoshitsune)

Few samurai loom as largely in Japanese history and lore as Minamoto Yoshitsune, the brilliant general whose tactics won a string of victories for his brother Yoritomo that culminated in the demise of the Taira clan.

Life and career

Yoshitsune was a son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo (1123-1160), who had supported the Taira during the Hôgen Disturbance (1156). Yoshitomo’s own father was put to death as a result of the incident, as well as eleven other of his relatives. In 1159 Yoshitomo himself attempted to defy the Taira but failed. The following year he was assassinated; his wife and children were later found and brought to Taira no Kiyomori, who spared them. Yoritomo, the second eldest, was sent off to Izu while Yoshitsune was sent to a temple on Kuramayama, north of Kyoto. He was later either transferred or fled to Mutsu, where he was given shelter by the governor of that province, Fujiwara Hidehira (? –1187). Precious little else is know for certain about Yoshitsune's youth, although later storytellers filled in the gaps with a series of adventures, one of which had Yoshtisune slipping away from the monastery to be trained in the arts of swordsmanship by the mythical Tengu.

In May 1180 Prince Mochihito, the son of retired emperor Go-Shirakawa, issued a statement urging the Minamoto to rise against the Taira. While Mochihito would be killed in June and Minamoto no Yorimasa crushed at the Battle of Uji, a fire had been set and in September Yoritomo raised an army in the Kanto. At some point in 1180 Yoritomo and Yoshitsune were reunited, probably for the first time since their separation in 1160. His exact activities drift into the unknown again until 1184, at which time he led an army against Minamoto (Kiso) Yoshinaka. On 2 June 1183 Yoshinaka had won a great victory over the Taira at Kurikara and in late August occupied Kyoto. With the Taira on the defensive, Yoshinaka moved to assume overall control of the Minamoto, an aspiration Yoritomo could not abide by. Using the poor behavior of Yoshinaka’s troops in the capital as a pretext, Yoritomo sent Yoshitsune to oust him from the capital. In February 1184 Yoshitsune, who by now had been given the rank Sô-daisho (general of the army), led an army that included his brother Noriyori (1156-1193) and Kajiwara Kagetoki (? –1200) into the Kyoto area. Yoshinaka sent an army to take up position on the Uji River and cover the two main crossing sites - Uji and Seta bridges. The attacking army split into two parts, with Yoshitsune heading for the Uji Bridge while Noriyori made a crossing upriver at the Seta Bridge. Crossings were successful at both points and Yoshinaka’s men lost heart and fled. When Yoshinaka heard of the defeat he abandoned Kyoto and attempted to escape the area with a handful of retainers, including Japan’s only example of a true female samurai warrior – Tomoe Gozen. He was soon cornered at Awazu and committed suicide.

With Yoshinaka out of the way, Yoritomo secured the support of Go-Shirakawa and a mandate to press the war with the Taira. On 13 March Yoshitsune and Noriyori were given permission to set out for the Western provinces and moved into Settsu, the eastern doorway to the Setô Inland Sea. Yoshitsune’s first objective was the Taira outpost at Ichi no Tani, a well-positioned fortification that was covered from the rear by a steep incline. This was where the Taira had fled following their retreat from Kyoto and could be used as a staging area for any future attempts to return to the capital.

Ichi no tani was screened by a number of outposts that included Mikusuyama to the north and Ikuta no mori to the west. These would have to be reduced first before Ichi no tani itself could be attacked.

Yoshitsune was to lead a force of some 10,000 men around to the north of Ichi no tani and come out for an attack from the west while 50,000 or so (according to the war tales) under Noriyori would strike from the east. On 18 March Yoshitsune approached Mikusayama. Fearing that the Taira would hastily reinforce this important position, Yoshitsune launched an immediate night attack that brought the fort down. According to the Heike Monogatari the surviving defenders, including three of Taira no Kiyomori’s grandsons, fled to the coast and passed over to Shikoku, leaving 500 dead. Yoshitsune then sent 7,000 men under Doi Sanehira down to the western side of Ichi no tani while he led the remaining 3,000 men under his command to the top of the cliffs overlooking the fort. Meanwhile, Noriyori had begun an attack on the forward Taira positions at Ikuta no Mori. While Doi began to trade blows with the Taira below, Yoshitsune called for a man who might know a way down to the rear of the castle and the monk Benkei furnished a guide. With the Taira’s attentions fully diverted by Doi and Noriyori, Yoshitsune led his men in a hair-raising ride down the incline and into the rear of the fort. Stunned by the accomplishment of what they had assumed was impossible, the Taira were thrown into a panic, their morale was shattered by Yoshitsune’s feat. Taking the boy-emperor Antoku the Taira commanders made for their ships, which were anchored just off shore. The boats quickly reached capacity and set sail, leaving more then a few Taira warriors behind to fight and die in the surf (including the tragic Taira no Atsumori).

The Minamoto victory at Ichi no tani cleared the way for an assault on Yashima, the Taira headquarters on Shikoku. Yoritomo elected to adopt a cautious approach, however, and reined in his two hard-fighting younger brothers. The next six months were spent consolidating the gains already made and sorting out the many families who had thus far supported or opposed the Minamoto. In one small but famous episode during the battle of Yashima, Yoshitsune lost his bow into the sea, and then risked his life to recover it. Though known as a skilled strategist, leader, and warrior, Yoshitsune is said to have been a man of average size and strength; were his enemies to acquire his bow, and to discover that it was one which any man could pull, it would be a major blow to his reputation for greatness and strength.[2]

Immediately after Ichi no tani, Yoshitsune and Noriyori returned to Kyoto and paraded the notable Taira heads taken through the streets. In October Noriyori was dispatched to destroy Taira adherents on Kyushu, and began a long and tiring march through the western provinces. Yoshitsune stayed in Kyoto and essentially acted as Yoritomo’s deputy there into early 1185. Officially, Yoshitsune was responsible for issuing decrees ordering the termination of any violence within Minamoto territory. In practice his directives covered various other issues, including the forbidding of drafts and war taxes without the express consent of the Minamoto leadership.

During Yoshitsune’s time in Kyoto it may be that the first signs of the rift between he and Yoritomo became evident. Yoritomo is said to have denied Yoshitsune court titles granted Noriyori and to have become angry when the court went ahead and approved them anyway. It may be that this was simply a matter of Yoritomo wanting his deputy to stay outside any court influence but it seems likely that the stage was set for what would transpire after the end of the Gempei War.

In March 1185, with Noriyori preparing to invade Kyushu, Yoshitsune was authorized to return to the war. Intending to launch an assault on Yashima, he assembled a fleet of ships at Watanabe (Settsu province). During the preparations he argued with Kajiwara Kagetoki, one of his elder bother’s closest retainers, about strategy, an incident which may very well have come back to haunt Yoshitsune later. On the stormy night of 22 March Yoshitsune decided the time was right to sail, and ordered his men to board ship. Observing that the weather was extremely bad the sailors refused to put to sea, and did so only after Yoshitsune threatened to kill any man who disobeyed his orders. Even still, not all of the ships followed Yoshitsune into the night. Unperturbed, Yoshitsune landed on Shikoku at dawn and set out for Yashima, some thirty miles distant. He learned from a local warrior that despite the importance of the fort, the Taira’s garrison at Yashima was presently reduced owing to an expedition into Iyo, a welcome piece of news that prompted him onward.

At the time, Yashima was separated from the mainland by a narrow channel easily fordable by horse when the tide was low. The Taira base was situated on the beach facing the mainland, with their fleet moored within easy reach in the shallows directly in front. Alerted to Yoshitsune’s approach by fires set in nearby Takamatsu and fearing that a much larger force was inbound that Yoshitsune actually had, Taira no Munemori ordered an immediate evacuation of the fort and fled to the ships with the emperor Antoku. Yoshitsune led his men into a headlong charge into the channel and a fight ensued around the ships while a certain Minamoto worthy named Gotobyôe Sanemoto set the fort on fire. By the time Munemori realized how few men Yoshitsune had, the fort was in flames. The fighting thus continued in the shallows until the coming of dusk forced a lull, at which point the Taira moved out beyond the reach of the Minamoto’s arrows. In a celebrated incident, the Taira, hoping to make their enemy waste arrows, hoisted up a fan on one of their ships and challenged the Minamoto to test their archery skill on it. A certain Nasu no Yoichi, a young and diminutive warrior known for his skill with a bow, was summoned and Yoshitsune ordered him to make a try at the fan. Determined to hit the fan or commit suicide if he failed, Nasu rode out into the water and loosed a humming arrow, shattering the fan - much to the delight of Minamoto and Taira alike.

The following morning, the Taira set sail for nearby Shido harbor while Yoshitsune pursued on shore. According to the Heike Monogatari, the Taira grossly overestimated the number of troops the Minamoto had on Shikoku and ended up fleeing the island completely. They regrouped at Hikoshima in Nagato while Yoshitsune, after viewing the heads of those taken, crossed over to Suo province and prepared for what must certainly be the final battle of the war. Inspired by Yoshitsune’s victories, some last minute supporters arrived on the scene, strengthening Yoshitsune’s numbers in men and - more importantly - ships.

At dawn on 24 April 1185 the Minamoto put to sea and sailed against the waiting Taira at a place that became famous in Japanese history as Dan no ura. Yoshitsune outnumbered his quarry in ships by almost two to one (850-500) but the Taira promised to fight fiercely. They had no where else to run and were inspired by the leadership and bravery of Taira no Tomomori, a warrior far superior to the official lord of the clan, Munemori. By eight the battle had begun, with the tide flowing in the Taira’s favor. The Taira had divided into three groups, with a fine archer named Yamaga Hidetô commanding the van. His bowmen did bloody work against the Minamoto warriors crammed in their boats until the opposing flotillas joined and the fighting became one of sword and spear. The Taira fought well and the issue was very much in doubt until one of their commanders, Taguchi Shigeyoshi switched sides. Taguchi made his way to Yoshitsune’s boat and pointed out the ship that sheltered the emperor. Armed with this knowledge and a favorable shift in the tides against the Taira, Yoshitsune rallied his samurai and shouted for his archers to take aim at the enemy sailors. The tide of the battle paused, shook, and then turned against the Taira. The emperor and his mother, Taira no Kiyomori’s widow, stepped into the ocean and drowned, followed by Tomomori and hundreds of other Taira warriors. The hapless Munemori was captured and by early afternoon Yoshitsune’s triumph was complete. The Taira clan was all but eradicated as a threat to Minamoto power and in 1192 Yoritomo would be granted the title of Shogun.

By 1192, however, Yoshitsune was dead. The very year he had won the Battle of Dan no Ura, Yoritomo ordered his death and in 1189 he was trapped and forced to commit suicide in the far north. What had brought about this fall from glory?

At least in part, Yoritomo’s suspicious nature was to blame, combined with his obviously all-consuming ambition. His cousin Kiso Yoshinaka had already made the mistake of opposing him; now Yoshitsune, whose relationship with the future shogun had been growing worse by the month, was to suffer a similar fate.

It appears that after Dan no Ura Yoritomo neglected to award his brother with titles, much as he had after Ichi no Tani. According to both the Heike Monogatari and the Azuma Kagami, Yoshitsune’s rival Kajiwara Kagetoki took every opportunity to slander Yoshistune, evidently to good effect. Evidently Yoritomo even refused to let his brother enter Kamakura when he arrived with the prisoner Taira no Munemori. Nonplussed by his brother’s hostility, Yoshitsune dispatched a message to Ôe Hiromoto, one of Yoritomo’s chief councilors. In this famous ‘Koshigoe Letter’, Yoshitsune decried the slurs leveled at him and protested his loyalty to the Minamoto family and Yoritomo himself. When this brought no positive result and three weeks had passed in the village of Koshigoe, Yoshitsune returned to Kyoto. It may well be that Go-Shirakawa, by now an old hand at political intrigue, hoped to exploit the situation for his own advantage by widening the rift between the two brothers. The titles he gave Yoshitsune, which included a governorship of Iyo Yoritomo quickly had nullified, no doubt fostered suspicion in Kamakura. In fact, the events of the summer of 1185 are so shadowy as to defy any definitive explanation of the events that happened next. What is known for certain is that by late Yoritomo decided to get rid of Yoshitsune, whose behavior was thought to have become openly treasonous. Yoritomo ordered Noriyori to take command of the expedition; Noriyori protested on Yoshitsune’s behalf and finally refused outright, an act that earned him a trip into exile. In his place, a warrior known to us as Tosa no bô Masatoshi was sent; he later captured and killed by Yoshitsune’s men.

Yoshitsune had by now learned that his life was in jeopardy and in mid-November had secured imperial authorization from Go-Shirakawa to war with his elder brother. He was allied at this time with Minamoto no Yukiie, an uncle who had once served alongside Kiso Yoshinaka. When word came that a sizable army was approaching from Kamakura, they decided to flee to Kyushu, where Yoshitsune had been named jitô by Go-Shirakawa. Unfortunately, the two were attacked by Minamoto clansmen loyal to Yoritomo in Settsu and ultimately forced to give up their plans to escape to the western provinces. Most of the men who had initially supported Yoshitsune and his uncle faded away, and by December Yoshitsune was attended by a handful of retainers, reduced to hiding in the hills south of Kyoto like a simple bandit. By now he had been stripped of his titles and his mistress Shizuka was in custody; to top things off Yoritomo even had his name changed in his absence!

Somehow, amid many rumors of his doings and whereabouts, Yoshitsune made his way to Mutsu, where he found shelter with his old guardian, Fujiwara Hidehira. Hidehira died in November 1187 and left a will stating that Yoshitsune was to act as governor to Mutsu, a wish Hidehira's son Yasuhira ignored. A conflict broke out within the Fujiwara and inevitably the Kamakura authorities learned of Yoshitsune’s location.

On 13 June 1189 Yoshitsune and his old companion Benkei were holed up in Fujiwara Motonari’s mansion at Koromogawa when Fujiwara Yasuhira attacked at Yoritomo’s insistence. Benkei managed to hold off their assailants long enough for Yoshitsune to kill his young wife and commit suicide. The head of Minamoto no Yoshitsune was transported down to Kamakura, where it provoked an emotional response from those who viewed it. Years later, when Yoritomo was thrown from his horse (and suffered ultimately fatal injuries), the story circulated that the shôgun had been startled by the ghost of the betrayed Yoshitsune.

A remarkable soldier and a classically tragic figure, Yoshitsune was a legend even before his passing. Kujô Kanezane, a supporter of Yoritomo, wrote in his diary in 1185:

Yoshitsune has left great achievements; about this there is nothing to argue. In bravery, benevolence, and justice, he is bound to leave a great name to posterity. In this he can only be admired and praised. The only thing is that he decided to rebel against Yoritomo. This is a great traitorous crime.

The manner in which Yoshitsune died assured him an honorable place in posterity, while the memory of Yoritomo will forever bear a black mark as a result. Just what transpired in those summer months of 1185 will always be a mystery, but Yoshitsune’s achievements in the Gempei War changed the course of Japanese history and earned him a place among the greatest of the samurai.


  1. The title of hangan, or hôgan specifically when referring to Yoshitsune, was one given to a secondary officer in the capital (Kyoto) office of police and justice, charged with maintaining order in the city. (Japanese Noh Drama: Plays Selected and Translated from the Japanese, vol. 3, Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkôkai (1960), 151n2.)
  2. Royall Tyler, Japanese Nô Dramas, Penguin Classics (1992), 331.