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Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159- June 15, 1189)
Minamoto No Yoshitsune was a Minamoto Clan general, a skilled swordsman and considered one
of the finest samurai in Japanese history. He is recognized as one of Japan’s most admired heroes.
The ninth and youngest son of Minamoto no Yoritomo, Yoshitsune was born during the Heiji Rebellion
of 1159, a short civil war fought between the Taira and the Minamoto clans in a dispute regarding
Imperial succession. His father, Yoritomo would be assassinated at Noma (see Japan World’s
“Temple of the Death Bath” ) and his two eldest brothers, Yoshihira and Tomonaga would also be killed
during the war. Yoshitsune was spared, and was sent to the Kurama Temple on the holy Mt. Heie, north
west of Kyoto, where legend has it that he was taught swordsmanship as a child by the mythical winged
goblins known as Tengu.
Yoshitsune’s skill with the Japanese sword is also legendary.
He was 15 years old when he fought and defeated the notorious bandit chief, Kumasake Chohan
in 1174. More famously, it is the duel fought on Kyoto’s Gojo Bridge that is most remembered.
While in Kyoto, he came across the warrior monk, Musashibo Benkei. The giant monk, said to have
stood over two meters tall, would stand on Kyoto’s famed Gojo Bridge, challenging all warriors who
wished to pass to a duel, and in defeating them, disarm them. He had collected 999 swords before
losing to the young Yoshitsune. The monk was so impressed by the youth’s skill, he became his loyal
Together they fought in the Gempei war between the Minamoto and the Taira, where Yoshitsune was
joined by his brothers Yoritomo and Noriyori, both of whom he had met for the first time. In the first
month of 1184, he fought in the Battle of Awazu in Omi (Shiga Prefeceture) defeating and killing his rival
cousin, Minamoto no Yoshinaka, and a month later at Ichi-no-tani near modern day Kobe where he again
beat the Taira. He claimed further victory in the Battle of Yashima, fought in Shikoku in 1185, and later
that year in the decisive sea battle, Dan-no-ura, where the Taira were finally destroyed.
With the Gempei war over, Yoshitsune sided against his brother, Yoritomo, who would later become
the First Kamakura Shogun, joining the cloistered Emperor, Go-Shirakawa, before fleeing to asylum
at the home of Fujiwara no Hidehira at Hiraizumi, in Mutsu Province (Iwate Prefecture). There the
nobleman’s son, Fujiwara no Yasuhira betrayed them, leading to Yoshitsune’s death at the Battle of
Koromogawa On June 15, 1189,
With 500 samurai warriors loyal to his brother bearing down on them, Yoshitsune retreated to the
confines of the Koromogawanotachi, a small fortified residence. The loyal Benkei had remained on
the bridge to the main gate of the castle to protect Yoshitsune. Any enemy samurai approaching
the giant warrior monk were soon dispatched, and according to the legend, Benkei single handedly
killed some 300 troops alone. Badly wounded by multiple arrow fire, Benkei remained standing guard
long after the battle had ended. When opposing samurai finally approached, they found the arrow
riddled Benkei had died standing up. Yoshitsune committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in the
Koromogawanotachi residence along with his wife and daughter. He was 30 years old.
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