Uesugi Kenshin

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Uesugi Kenshin
February 18, 1530-April 19, 1578
200px-Uesugi Kenshin2.jpg
Nickname Dragon of Echigo
Place of birth Echigo Province, Japan
Place of death Echigo Province, Japan
Allegiance Uesugi family
Rank Lord (Daimyō)
Battles/wars Battles of Kawanakajima, Siege of Odawara (1561), Battle of Tedorigawa, many others

Uesugi Kenshin (上杉 謙信) (February 18, 1530 — April 19, 1578), a warlord who ruled Echigo province during the Sengoku Period of Japanese history and nearly brought down Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of Japan. He was famous for his prowess on the battlefield, his military expertise, and for his legendary rivalry with Takeda Shingen; his legendary fame may have exceeded his actual accomplishments. As a boy he devoted himself to study, and was devoutly religious, taking Buddhist vows and never marrying. He believed in the god of war, Bishamonten; many of his followers believed him to be the avatar of Bishamonten, and called Kenshin “god of war.”

At the age of fourteen, Kenshin was urged by Usami Sadamitsu and a number of his late father's supporters to contest his older brother's rule, in order to preserve the integrity of Echigo province, located along the Sea of Japan, in the northern part of the main island of Japan. After wresting control of the clan from his brother, Kenshin engaged in a legendary rivalry with Takeda Shingen, confronting him at least five times in the Battles of Kawanakajima. At the Battle of Tedorigawa in 1577, Kenshin routed Oda Nobunaga’s forces. In the winter of 1577-1578, he amassed a great army to continue his assaults into Nobunaga's territory, but died of a stroke before he could launch his attack. Kenshin is sometimes referred to as "The Dragon of Echigo" because of the fearsome skill in the martial arts which he displayed on the battlefield.


Uesugi’s original name was Nagao Kagetora (長尾景虎). He changed his name to Uesugi Masatora (上杉政虎) when he inherited the Uesugi family name in order to accept the official title of Kantou Kanrei (関東管領). Later he changed his name again to Uesugi Terutora (上杉輝虎) to honor the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshi teru (足利義輝), and finally to Kenshin (上杉謙信) after he became a Buddhist monk; in particular, he would become renowned for being a devotee of Bishamonten, the god of war. For the majority of this description, the name of Kenshin will be used.

Kenshin is sometimes referred to as "The Dragon of Echigo" because of his fearsome skills in the martial arts, displayed on the battlefield. His rival Takeda Shingen was called "The Tiger of Kai." In some versions of Chinese mythology (Shingen and Kenshin had always been interested in Chinese culture, especially the works of Sun Tzu), the Dragon and Tiger have always been bitter rivals who try to defeat one another, but neither is ever able to gain the upper hand. In other interpretations, the dragon is superior to the tiger.


Uesugi Kenshin statue, Uesugi Shrine, Japan

Uesugi Kenshin (Nagao Kagetora) was born in February of 1530 at Kasugayama in Echigo province, the fourth son of the noted warrior Nagao Tamekage (長尾為景), who had been first an enemy and then a retainer of the Yamaouchi-Uesugi clan. Kenshin's father had gained some renown as a warlord through his military victories over Uesugi Sadanori (1509, the Battle of Ichiburi) and Uesugi Funayoshi. In later years, however, Tamekage found himself at odds with the neighboring Ikkō-ikki (一向一揆 ), rebellious mobs of peasant farmers, monks, Shinto priests and local nobles who followed the beliefs of the Jōdo Shinshu (True Pure Land) sect of Buddhism ) of Hokuriku, and as the political power in the region started to shift in favor of this rival clan (due largely to the sudden rise in power of the Honganji temple), the situation in Echigo quickly deteriorated. It came to a climax in 1536, when Kenshin's father gathered up an army and marched westward, his aim uncertain. Upon arriving at Sendanno in Etchu province, his forces were suddenly attacked by Enami Kazuyori, and in the resulting battle Tamekage himself was slain, and his army put to flight.

The impact in Echigo was immediate. Nagao Harukage, Tamekage's eldest son, immediately made a bid for control of the Nagao clan, and succeeded after a power struggle in which one of his brothers, Nagao Kageyasu, was killed. Kagetora {Kenshin) was removed from the conflict and relocated to Rizen-ji, where from the ages of seven until fourteen, he spent his life dedicated to the study of Buddhism, administration, and martial arts.

Quest for Power

At the age of fourteen, Kenshin was suddenly contacted by Usami Sadamitsu and a number of other acquaintances of his late father, who urged the young Nagao to go to Echigo and contest his older brother's rule. Nakao Harukage was proving an ineffectual leader, and his inability to exert control over the powerful kokujin families had resulted in a situation which was nearly breaking the province apart. It is said that Kenshin was at first reluctant to take the field against his own brother, but was eventually convinced that it was necessary for the survival of Echigo. In a series of engagements led by himself and Usami Sadamitsu, Kenshin succeeded in wresting control of the clan from Harukage in 1547. Harukage's own fate is uncertain; according to some sources he was allowed to live, but others claim that he was forced to commit seppuku.

Early Rule

Though his rule over the Nagao clan was now uncontested, much of Echigo province was still independent. Kenshin immediately set out to consolidate his power in the region, but before long, a far more pressing concern appeared. Ogasawara Nagatoki and Murakami Yoshikiyo, two Shinano lords, both appealed to Kenshin for assistance in halting the advances of the powerful warlord Takeda Shingen. Around the time that Kenshin became the new lord of Echigo, Shingen had won major victories in Shinano Province. Since Takeda's conquests had brought him close to the borders of Echigo, Kenshin agreed to take the field.

Uesugi and Takeda

The Battle of Kawanakajima - Takeda Shingen on the left and Uesugi Kenshin on the right, by Hiroshige, 1845

What followed was the beginning of a legendary rivalry. In their first confrontation, both Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen were very cautious, only committing themselves to indecisive skirmishes. Over the years, there would be a total of five such engagements at the famous site, the Battles of Kawanakajima, though only the fourth would prove to be a serious, all-out battle between the two.

The first skirmish took place in June of 1553, when Takeda marched onto the Kawanakajima, a stretch of flat land bordered 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, but as each man already had a reputation for cunning, caution won out. Takeda pulled back but returned in November for another engagement in which he lost several of his generals. Kenshin and Shingen faced one another at Kawanakajima in 1553, 1555, 1557, 1561 and 1564, and one theory claims that they confronted each other at least five other times.

In 1561, Kenshin and Shingen fought their greatest battle, the fourth Battle of Kawanakajima. Kenshin employed a special formation, the “rolling wheel,” in which the soldiers in the front would switch with their comrades in the rear, as they became tired or wounded. This allowed the tired soldiers to rest, while soldiers who had not yet seen action would fight on the front lines. This tactic was extremely effective and, because of it, Kenshin nearly defeated Shingen. According to legend, Kenshin rode up to Shingen, slashing at him with his sword, and Shingen fended off the blows with his iron war fan or tessen. Kenshin was driven off by a Takeda retainer, and Shingen made a counter-attack. The Uesugi army retreated; many drowned in a nearby river, and others were cut down by Takeda's generals.

The outcome of the fourth battle of Kawanakajima is still uncertain. Scholars are divided as to who was the actual victor, or whether the battle was even decisive enough to declare one side victorious. Although Kenshin lost 72 percent of his army, compared to Shingen’s loss of 62 percent of his forces, Shingen lost two of his most important generals during the battle, his advisor Yamamoto Kansuke and younger brother Takeda Nobushige.

Although Shingen and Kenshin were rivals, they are known to have exchanged gifts a number of times, including a famous occasion when Shingen gave a precious sword, which he valued highly, to Kenshin. Shingen died in 1573, and Kenshin was said to have wept at the loss of so worthy an adversary, and reportedly vowed to never attack Takeda lands. Three years later, the two sides became allies. On one occasion, when other daimyo boycotted salt supplies to Kai province, Kenshin secretly sent salt to the Takeda (salt was a precious commodity used in preserving food). Although he could have cut off Shingen's "lifeline" of supplies, Kenshin decided not to do so in the manner that it would be dishonorable. In reflection, Kenshin stated, "Wars are to be won with swords and spears, not with rice and salt."


Though his rivalry with Takeda Shingen was legendary, Uesugi Kenshin participated in a number of other ventures around the times of these famous battles (1553, 1555, 1557, 1561, 1564). In the year 1551, Kenshin was called upon to provide refuge for his nominal lord, Uesugi Norimasa, who had been forced to flee by the expansion of the Hōjō clan into the Kantō plain. Kenshin agreed to give the warlord shelter, but was not then in a position at the time to move against the Hōjō. In the year 1559, he made a trip to pay homage to the shogun in Kyoto, and visited many religious and historical sites in the area. This long journey heightened his reputation considerably, and added to his image as a cultured leader as well as a warlord. The same year, Uesugi Norimasa again urged him to take control of the Kantō back from the Hōjō, and in 1560 he was able to comply. Kenshin was successful in taking a number of castles from the Hōjō in a campaign against the clan, ending with a strike against the Odawara Castle in Sagami Province. He managed to break through the defenses and burn the town, but the castle itself remained unconquered, and a lack of supplies soon forced his retreat. During this time he visited the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine and took the name Uesugi and the official title of Kantou Kanrei (関東管領).

The other main area that interested Uesugi Kenshin was Etchu Province, which was inhabited by two feuding clans, the Jinbo and the Shiina. At first, Kenshin entered the dispute as a mediator, but he later sided with the Shiina and took over the Jinbo clan. A number of years later, he took the field against the Shiina (who seemed too friendly with the Takeda), and when he took their main castle in 1575, Etchu Province was effectively under his control.

Final Years

Starting in the year 1576, Kenshin began to concern himself with Oda Nobunaga, who had since grown to be Japan's most powerful warlord of the time. With both Takeda Shingen and Hōjō Ujiyasu dead, Kenshin was no longer blocked from expansion. When the death of a Noto lord in the area sparked confusion and conflict, Kenshin quickly seized the opportunity and took land from the weakened clan putting himself in a position to threaten Nobunaga and his allies. In response, Nobunaga pulled together his own forces and those of two of his generals to meet Kenshin at Tedorigawa. Nobunaga sent Shibata Katsuie (柴田勝家), one of his best generals, who had served Nobunaga since the beginning. According to some accounts, Shibata led 18,000 men into battle first, and Nobunaga himself followed up with 20,000 reinforcements. If this information is accurate, it would make the battle between the two one of the largest fought in the Sengoku period.

Despite Nobunaga's overwhelming numbers, Kenshin managed to score a solid victory on the field, and Nobunaga pulled back to Omi province, while Kenshin contented himself with building a few forts in Kaga province before returning to Echigo. During the winter of 1577-1578, Uesugi Kenshin arranged to send a great army to continue his assaults into Nobunaga's territory. However, his health was declining, and on April 9, he suffered some kind of seizure while using the lavatory, possibly a stroke, and died four days later.

The cause of Kenshin's death has been disputed throughout the years. Most Japanese scholars accept the theory that a lifetime of heavy drinking and perhaps stomach cancer caused the early death of the great warlord. Other sources hold that he was assassinated by a ninja who hid inside the lavatory and stabbed him. It is said that upon hearing of Kenshin's death, Oda Nobunaga remarked, "Now the empire is mine," but this does not necessarily implicate him in Kenshin’s death. Kenshin wrote the following poem in anticipation of his own death in 1578:

Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of saké;
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.
(Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture)

After Uesugi Kenshin’s Death

Uesugi Kenshin's death was disastrous for the clan. He never married nor had any sons of his own, but adopted two sons: Kagetora (1552-1579, a son of Hôjô Ujiyasu) and Kagekatsu (1555-1623, the son of Nagao Masakage, Kenshin’s elder brother) as his heirs. Upon the death of their adopted father, the two immediately entered into a power struggle, which ended with Uesugi Kagekatsu becoming the clan's new ruler and Kategora committing seppuku. However, the internal struggle had cost them much time and energy, and Oda Nobunaga easily took over the majority of their lands, going right up to the border of Echigo.

Kasugayamajo Castle, remembered as the place where Uesugi Kenshin lived, still stands and is designated as an important historical site today.

Kenshin in popular culture

  • Kenshin, as Kagetora, is the main character in the movie Heaven & Earth (the title is a reference to Takeda Shingen's famous quote: "In heaven and earth, I alone am to be revered").
  • Kenshin, as Nagao Kagetora, is a central character in the 1979 Japanese science fiction film Sengoku Jietai.
  • Kenshin will be portrayed by Japanese pop culture icon Gackt in Japanese television drama "Fūrinkazan" (風林火山).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Elison, George, and Bardwell L. Smith. Warlords, Artists, & Commoners: Japan in the Sixteenth Century. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981. ISBN 9780824806927
  • Hall, John Whitney, Nagahara Keiji and Kozo Yamamura, eds. Japan Before Tokugawa. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981. ISBN 0691053081
  • Inoue, Yasushi, and Yoko Riley. The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan. Tokyo: Tuttle Pub, 2005. ISBN 0804837015 ISBN 9780804837019
  • Kure, Mitsuo. Samurai: An Illustrated History. Boston: Tuttle Pub, 2002. ISBN 0804832870
  • Rekishi Gunzô Shirizu #51, Sengoku no Kassen Taizen. (in Japanese), Japan: Gakken, 1997.
  • __________. #8, Uesugi Kenshin (in Japanese), Japan: Gakken, 1999.
  • Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai. Woodstock: Overlook 1995. ISBN 0879516194 *Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture, revised and enlarged. (First published as Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture. Kyoto, 1938) Princeton University Press, 1970. ISBN 0691017700, 92
  • Turnbull, Stephen R. Kawanakajima 1553-64: Samurai Power Struggle. (Praeger illustrated military history series.) Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2005. ISBN 0275988686
  • Turnbull, Stephen R. War in Japan 1467-1615. Oxford: Osprey, 2002. ISBN 1841764809


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