When did the samurai first appear?

Samurai in Japan: the 12 most famous warriors | Part 1

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Tomoe Gozen (ca.1157-1247) was one onna bugeisha (female martial artist) who served under Minamoto no Yoshinaka during the Gempei War. Before the samurai were elevated to a recognized social class in the Edo period (1603-1868), women were used to fight with naginata (Polearm) and kaiken (Dagger) trains to protect communities with few male warriors. In fact, the legendary Empress Jingu is said to have invaded Korea in 200 after her husband, the emperor, fell in battle. However, whether that really happened is still debated today.

The Gempei War was fought between the powerful Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans, both offspring of the imperial line. Tomoe achieved some successes in war: she led a 1,000-strong cavalry, survived a battle of 300 against 6,000 warriors, and collected the heads of her opponents like postage stamps. In the story of Heike, an epic poem about war (compiled until 1309), Tomoe's beauty is also praised for her martial ability: “She was a remarkable archer and as a swordsman she was worth more than 1,000, ready at any time, a demon or to face a god - mounted or on foot. "

When the Gempei War came to an end, she competed with Yoshinaka for power over the entire Minamoto clan. While Yoshinaka was defeated by his cousin Yoritomo (founder of the Kamakura shogunate), records tell of Tomoe who knocked Yoritomo's strongest warrior off his horse at the Battle of Awazu in 1184, nailed him down and cut his head off. What happened to her afterwards is unclear and the meaning of the onna bugeisha faded by the Edo period. But Tomoe has reappeared as a popular motif in ukioyo-e prints and in kabuki pieces.

11. Kusunoki Masashige (楠木 正 成)

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Kusonoki Masashige (c. 1294-1336) is known for his military strategies as well as his tireless loyalty. In 1331 he joined Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339) to wrest power from the Kamakura shogunate. Under this the role of the emperor had become a mere symbol. Kusonoki's greatest triumph came in 1332 when he defended Chihaya Castle (south of Osaka) with only 2,000 men against the 100,000 strong army of the Shogunate.

Kusonoki was given control of numerous areas in Kansai after the war. But the so-called Kemmu restoration was short-lived, because Kusunoki was betrayed by the Ashikaga clan when they marched their armies twice against the imperial court in Kyoto in 1336. During the second deployment, Kusonoki advised the emperor to let the Ashikaga army take the capital, while the emperor and his supporters sought refuge with the monks on Mount Hiei. Then the imperial armed forces were to capture the enemy in the city down from the mountain. Go-Daigo, however, ordered Kusonoki to advance. The experienced strategist recognized this as his death sentence and nevertheless obeyed the order. When his troops were finally overwhelmed at the Battle of Minatogawa (near today's Kobe), Kusunoki committed suicide instead of being captured. To this day he is a symbol of courage and imperial love and a statue of him was erected in front of the imperial palace in Tōkyō.

10. Sanada Yukimura (真 田 幸 村)

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In his day, Sanada Yukimura (1567-1615) was celebrated as the greatest war hero in Japan, who at the beginning valiantly challenged the tumultuous Tokugawa government over the country. His ingenious defense of Ueda Castle (Nagano) prevented Tokugawa Hidetada's 40,000-man army from reaching the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 in time to support his father Ieyasu. Ieyasu won the battle anyway, and although he soon took control of all of Japan, Sanada led the final resistance against the Tokugawa at the siege of Osaka in 1614-1615. His troops fought so fiercely that Tokugawa was forced to accept a truce after the winter campaign. A few months later, Ieyasu returned with 150,000 men and ultimately defeated the exhausted 60,000 men of Sanada, who was killed.

9. Yasuke (弥 助)

Yasuke was an African slave whom the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano brought to Japan in 1579. Nobody in Japan had ever seen a dark-skinned person before, so his presence became a sensation. He was called to an audience with the most powerful warlord of the time, Oda Nobunaga, who was amazed at whether Yasuke was outwardly. He ordered him to undress his torso and scrub his skin to prove that it wasn't inked.

Nobunaga was so impressed by Yasuke's strength and stature - he was recorded to be around 188 cm - that he added him to his personal bodyguard. In 1581 Yasuke was raised to the class of samurai and stationed at Azuchi Castle. As the coronation of Nobunaga's followers, he dined there with the warlord himself and acted as his personal sword-bearer.

When Nobunaga was betrayed by Akechi Mitsuhide in 1582 and forced to commit suicide at the Honno-ji Temple, Yasuke fought Akechi's forces. He fled to Azuchi Castle, where he briefly served under Nobunaga's son, until Akechi attacked him and committed suicide.

Yasuke then laid down his sword in front of Akechi, who was not used to the fact that a samurai prefers submission to suicide. He sent Yasuke back to the Jesuit mission in Kyoto. Whether this was done out of disdain for the "beast," as Akechi called him, or to cover up an act of kindness, remains debated. Nothing further is known about the subsequent fate of Yasuke, although it is possible that his presence in Kyushu was recorded in 1584.

There are no reliable sources as to the birthplace of Yasuke, but it may be from Mozambique, Angola, or Ethiopia, or perhaps a European-born slave from Portugal. His real name is also unknown. However, it is believed that Yasuke is the equivalent of this in Japanese.

8.Uesugi Kenshin (上杉 謙信)

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Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578) was the fourth son of a powerful warlord. He emerged from a follow-up dispute and internal conflicts with peasants and monk warriors in Echigo Province (today's Niigata Prefecture) during the Sengoku period.

His nickname is the Dragon of Echigo and he was known not only for his military skill but also for his competition with Takeda Shingen. While Uesugi secured the province of Echigo, Takeda penetrated directly across the border in northern Shinano (present-day Nagano Prefecture).

Between 1553 and 1564, the two samurai faced each other five times in battles in Kawanakajima (now the southern part of Nagano city). Most of these were minor clashes, but in the fourth battle in October 1561 Uesugi was not missing much until the victory over Takeda, when he personally advanced to his command center. Completely unprepared, Takeda was able to keep Uesugi away with an iron fan until one of his followers pierced Uesugi's horse with a spear and Uesugi himself was driven to flight.

When the Hōjō clan from Kantō Takeda's fortress in Kai Province (today's Yamanashi Prefecture) cut off supplies to the salt trade, Uesugi sent salt from Echigo on the alleged reason that he did not fight with salt, but with the sword. He is said to have even cried when he heard of Takeda's death in 1573 and said: “I have lost my good rival. We won't see a hero like him anymore! "

Uesugi later fought against the growing power of Oda Nobunaga, and even gave him a major defeat at the Battle of Tedorigawa (today's Ishikawa Prefecture) in 1577. He rallied troops - now even in alliance with the Takedas - to continue his attacks on Nobunaga's territory in 1577 and 1578. However, he succumbed to poor health before the attack could take place. His tombstone is at the Rinsen-ji Temple in Jōetsu (Niigata), where he learned Zen and martial arts as a young man.

7. Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源 義 経)

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Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) was one of the leaders in the Gempei War between the Minamoto and the Taira. As a child, much of his immediate family was killed in the Heiji Rebellion in 1160. His half-brother Yoritomo was exiled to the Izu Peninsula and Yohitsune was placed in the care of the monks at the Kurama Temple in the mountains north of Kyoto. In 1174 he moved to Hiraizumi in the province of Mutsu (today's eastern part of the Tōhoku region), where he was under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehara, the head of the powerful Fujiwara clan in the north, for years.

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Yoshitsune teamed up with Yoritomo when he was building an army in 1180 to fight the Taira. Yoshitsune led his clan to a series of victories that culminated in the Battle of Dan-no-ura (now Yamanashi Prefecture). After the successful end of the war and the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate by Yoritomo, these doubts crept into his half-brother. He canceled all of Yoshitsune's titles and forced him back into exile in Hiraizumi in 1185. After Hidehara died in 1187, Yoshitsune was betrayed, surrounded and forced to commit suicide by Hidehara's son on behalf of Yoritomo.

The incident is best known for the standing death of Benkei, a fearsome monk warrior who has been part of Yoshitsune's retinue since he defeated him on a bridge in Kyoto. He is said to have killed 300 opponents on his last day all alone while defending the bridge to Yoshitsune's residence. He was then attacked from a distance with arrows and ground, but did not go down. After he hadn't moved for a while and his opponents approached him, it turned out that he had died standing up.

In Japan, Yoshitsune is symbolic of tragic heroes. He is a popular character in Kabuki theater and a central character in the third part of the epic poem The story of Heike.


This article was originally published in English by All About Japan and was translated and edited by JAPANDIGEST. Part 2 will follow soon.

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