Died At Age: 30
Born Country: Japan
Born in: Kyōto
Famous as: Military Leader
Spouse/Ex-: Sato Gozen (m. 1184)
father: Minamoto no Yoshitomo
mother: Tokiwa Gozen
siblings: Ano Zenjō, Gien, Minamoto no Mareyoshi, Minamoto no Noriyori, Minamoto no Tomonaga, Minamoto no Yoritomo, Minamoto no Yoshihira, Minamoto no Yoshikado
children: Shizuka Gozen
Died on: June 15, 1189
place of death: Mutsu Province
Cause of Death: Suicide
Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a military leader who lived in the later years of the Heian Period (794–1185) and early years of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). A commander of the Minamoto clan, he is one of the greatest and most prolific warriors in the history of Japan, as well as one of the most popular samurai fighters. Serving under his half-brother Yoritomo, he orchestrated a number of victories for their clan, helping Yoritomo establish control over Japan. The ninth son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, Yoshitsune grew up in the years following the Heiji Rebellion, in which his father and two oldest brothers perished. When he was about ten years old, he was given into the care of the monks of Kurama Temple where he spent some time. As he had no intention of becoming a monk, he left and ultimately joined Yoritomo. Yoshitsune played a crucial role in his half-brother’s rise to become the first shōgun of the Kamakura shogunate of Japan. However, the relationship later soured, and Yoshitsune sided with his uncle Minamoto no Yukiie against Yoritomo. According to some sources, he was forced to perform seppuku in June 1189, but others disagree, stating that he managed to escape his captors.
Childhood & Early Life
Minamoto no Yoshitsune was born in 1159 in Kyōto. His parents were Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Tokiwa Gozen. He had two older full brothers and six older half-brothers through his father. Minamoto no Yoritomo was the third son of Yoshitomo and older than Yoshitsune. In later years, Yoritomo would establish the Kamakura shogunate and become its first shōgun.
As a child, Yoshitsune had the name Ushiwakamaru. His birth occurred in the months leading up to the Heiji Rebellion of early 1160. His father and two oldest brothers perished during the conflict. Yoshitsune escaped from the capital with his mother, whereas Yoritomo was sent to exile in Izu Province.
When Yoshitsune was about ten years old, he was brought to the monks of Kurama Temple, located in Hiei Mountains near Kyōto. He had no desire to live a life as a monk. As a result, he made his departure from the temple with the help of a gold merchant who had been one of his father’s acquaintances.
In 1174, he made his way to Hiraizumi, Mutsu Province, where he resided under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira, the leader of the regional Northern Fujiwara clan.
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Life as a Military Commander
Minamoto no Yoshitsune is widely considered to be one of the greatest swordsmen in Japan’s history.
In 1174, when he was only 15 years old, he had a famous duel with the notorious bandit leader Kumasaka Chohan. At the time, he was still known as Ushiwakamaru. Kumasaka Chohan was trying to rob an inn when he encountered Ushiwakamaru, who was lodging there at the time. The two fought, and Yoshitsune ultimately emerged as the victor. This incident was later adapted in a famous Noh play.
Saitō Musashibō Benkei, more famous simply as Benkei, was a warrior monk who had developed a disdain for the samurai fighters who he thought were arrogant and unworthy.
According to legends, Benkei would go out every night on a personal quest to gather 1000 swords from them. After taking 999 swords through duels, he encountered Yoshitsune, who was both younger and shorter than him. Their first duel was fought on Gojo Bridge, and Yoshitsune won, leaving Benkei humiliated. Some sources state that the fight happened on Matsubara Bridge, and not on Gojo Bridge.
Benkei wanted revenge and sought Yoshitsune out. However, he was defeated once again at the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu. He subsequently became one of the most trusted retainers of Yoshitsune
In 1180, Minamoto no Yoshitsune came to know that Yoritomo had risen to become the leader of the Minamoto clan, and on the request of Prince Mochihito, had assembled an army to wage war against the Taira clan, which had taken control of the Imperial power. This led to the Genpei War between the rival clans.
Yoshitsune came to Yoritomo and entered his service. Minamoto no Noriyori, one of their half-brothers, did the same. This was the first time that the brothers met each other.
Aided by Noriyori, Yoshitsune registered successive victories against the Taira. In early 1184, on the instructions of Yoritomo, they defeated and executed their cousin Minamoto no Yoshinaka at the Battle of Awazu in Ōmi Province. Yoshinaka was a powerful opponent of Yoritomo for the control of the Minamoto clan.
Having been appointed a general, Yoshitsune won against the Taira at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani in present-day Kobe in March 1184, and once more at the Battle of Yashima in Shikoku in March 1185. Eventually, he demolished their ability to mount up any future resistance at the Battle of Dan-no-ura in modern-day Yamaguchi Prefecture.
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Later Life & Death
After the Genpei War, Minamoto no Yoshitsune was made governor of Iyo and received other titles from cloistered emperor Go-Shirakawa. However, Yoritomo began doubting Yoshitsune and invalidated all these titles.
Yoshitsune then acquired the imperial authorization to support his uncle Minamoto no Yukiie against Yoritomo. This angered Yoritomo, prompting Yoshitsune to escape from Kyōto in 1185.
According to some sources, his mistress, Shizuka Gozen, who was pregnant with Yoshitsune’s child at the time, was with him in the beginning, but he deserted her in Mount Yoshino.
This account is contradicted by other sources. They claim that she was sent back from some other place. Regardless, Shizuka was taken captive by Hōjō Tokimasa and forces that had sworn allegiance to Yoritomo.
After she was brought before Yoritomo, he announced that if she gave birth to a daughter, the child would be allowed to live, but if it was a son, the infant would be executed. She was 19 years old when her son was born. Some sources say that both the child and Shizuka were later executed on Yoritomo’s orders.
After deserting Shizuka, Yoshitsune eventually reached Hiraizumi, Mutsu, and sought and was granted the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira. For a period, he found relative peace there, serving as Hidehira’s general.
Hidehira died in 1187, and prior to his death, he made his son, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, swear that he would continue giving Yoshitsune asylum. However, after Yoritomo threatened him, Yasuhira agreed to the shōgun’s demands.
On June 15, 1189, Yasuhira’s men encircled Yoshitsune’s Koromogawa-no-tachi residence. The ensuing scrimmage came to be known as the Battle of Koromo River. Yasuhira had about 500 soldiers with him, while Yoshitsune had 80 to 90 retainers on his side. Likely all members of Yoshitsune’s entourage were killed.
Throughout the battle, Benkei guarded his master and ostensibly died standing up. Yoshitsune was captured and was compelled to perform seppuku. Yasuhira then took Yoshitsune’s head, placed it in sake to preserve it, put it inside a black-lacquered chest, and dispatched it to Yoritomo to prove to him that his half-brother was indeed dead.
The Shirahata Jinja, a Shinto shrine in the city of Fujisawa, is dedicated to Yoshitsune and Samukawahiko-no-Mikoto, another important Japanese historical figure from the late Heian period.
The Ainu historical accounts dispute the notion that Yoshitsune committed ritualistic suicide after the battle. According to these accounts, he managed to flee from the siege at Koromogawa and went to Hokkaido, taking up the name Okikurumi/Oinakamui. The Yoshitsune Shrine has been constructed in the Biratori, Hokkaido, to commemorate him.
Appearances in Literature
Yoshitsune has long been a major figure of literature and pop culture in Japan. He is the primary protagonist in the third section of the Japanese literary classic ‘Heike Monogatari’. One of his personal letters to Yoritomo, known as the ‘Koshigoe Letter’ (written on June 23, 1185), has survived to present day.