Warrior Ethics in Japanese War Tales

Today I get to talk about one of my favorite literary genres: the Japanese war tale!

War tales (gunki monogatari) are books of Japanese prose fiction about wars and other military conflicts, primarily written in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (though some of those I’ll discuss are even older). Usually written by anonymous authors or compiled from oral tradition, war tales depict actual historical events and characters in a fictionalized way. Although they’re not always completely historically accurate, war tales are valuable resources for medieval Japanese ideas about specific historical events, the overall meaning of those events, and values about warfare and the people involved in warfare.

Here’s a list of the war tales I specifically studied for this discussion:

  • Shōmonki (Chronicle of Masakado): Written around 940, concerning the revolt of Taira no Masakado in 939-940.
  • Mutsu Waki (Tale of Mutsu): Written in the late 1000s, concerning the Zenkunen (Former Nine Years) War in 1051-1063.
  • Twelve short stories from Section 4, Book 25 of Konjaku Monogatari (Tales of Long Ago): Compiled in the early 1100s. Includes retellings of Shōmonki and Mutsu Waki, plus stories concerning the suppression of the pirate Fujiwara no Sumitomo and the rebel Taira no Tadatsune, among others.
  • Ōshū Gosannen Ki (Chronicle of the Later Three Years War in Mutsu Province): Written around 1347, based on a picture scroll from 1171. Concerning the Gosannen (Later Three Years) War in 1083-1089.
  • Hōgen Monogatari (Tale of Hōgen): Written beginning in the early 1200s, concerning the Hōgen Rebellion of 1156.
  • Heiji Monogatari (Tale of Heiji): Written beginning in the early 1200s, concerning the Heiji Rebellion of 1160.
  • Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike): Written beginning in the early 1200s, concerning the Genpei War in 1180-1185. Certainly the most famous and important of the war tales.
  • Taiheiki (Chronicle of Great Peace): Written beginning in the early 1300s, concerning the Nanboku-chō (Northern Southern Courts) Period from 1334-1392.
  • Gikeiki (Chronicle of Yoshitsune): Written beginning in the early 1300s, concerning the life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) before and after the events of Heike Monogatari.

Notice that the latest of these was composed in the 14th century. If you are familiar with the philosophy of bushidō or have studied samurai culture in the Azuchi-Momoyama or Edo Period, some of the values and techniques espoused in the war tales (especially the early ones) may surprise you.

“Everything about war tales!” is too much for one blog post, so I’m going to focus specifically on the idealized traits of the warriors in this genre: in other words, what a warrior “should” and “shouldn’t” do or be, according to the war tales.

War tales usually do not have “good guys” and “bad guys” in the same way that works in the Western tradition often do. That is to say, a war tale is not about a group of basically good people with a basically good cause defeating a group of basically bad people with a basically bad cause. However, authors of war tales do not hesitate to moralize about their subjects and are typically quite clear about which behaviors are admirable or contemptible. Each side in a conflict typically has a number of warriors who are worthy of emulation and some who aren’t, and of course most individual characters have both positive and negative characteristics.

Warfare in the War Tales

Before we get into the details of who is and isn’t admirable, we need to know a few basics about medieval Japanese warfare (at least insofar as it is portrayed in the war tales).

There were several different “jobs” in a typical army. These developed over time, and may not apply equally to the earliest and the latest of the war tales, but by learning about them we can get the general idea of how an army worked.

  • Lord: A person with vassals. His vassals fight under his command, and he rewards them with loot after the battle. Unlike in European feudalism, Japanese vassals owed their loyalty only to their immediate overlord, not to his superior(s). And despite the war tales’ insistence on the importance of loyalty, in reality, vassals often sought out new lords if their current lords were being unfair or if they disliked them for some other reason. Therefore, a major part of a lord’s job was personally motivating his own vassals (read: paying them well).
  • Warrior: A trained soldier, male or female (but usually male), who fights on horseback with a bow. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of mounted archery; in fact, warriors are very often judged in the war tales by the size of their horses and the strength of their bows. Later in Japanese history, the sword became more important, but although early Japanese warriors used swords as secondary weapons, they were judged more by their skills with the bow and horse. Most warriors in any given battle are fighting in order to earn enough money to support themselves and their families. However, the most important war tale characters are either personally involved in the conflict or are fighting because they are intimately attached to feudal lords, either by kinship or vassalage (or both). Also, remember that just because a warrior is a retainer of a lord doesn’t mean that he isn’t also a lord to retainers of his own.
  • Warrior’s attendant: Follows the warrior onto the field of battle and collects trophies, the heads of enemies, etc. Heads were used after the battle to determine whom the warrior killed and therefore what kind of rewards he or she deserved. Attendants were generally considered non-combatants. One exception is Eight Block Jirō in Heiji Monogatari, who chases down men on horseback and pulls them off with a rake-like weapon called a kumade.
  • Peasant foot soldiers: Important to the course of the battle but usually ignored as literary characters.

Battles had a traditional format. This order of activities was followed more closely in earlier tales than later ones, as technology and strategy evolved. The “ideal” battle had six steps:

  1. Commanders arranged the day and time for the battle.
  2. The armies exchanged envoys as they faced each other in the field.
  3. Each side fired humming bulb arrows (a type of arrow that makes a loud noise) to announce the commencement of the fighting.
  4. General exchange of arrows.
  5. Arrows continued to be fired as the armies moved toward each other.
  6. Warriors paired off to fight one-on-one with swords. Since killing someone above your station was a huge boost to your honor, choosing a suitable opponent was very important. This involved loudly introducing yourself and telling intimidating stories about yourself and your ancestors before challenging your opponent. (You’ll even see this done in modern martial arts anime and movies.) After that, warriors used their swords to knock their opponents to the ground before dismounting to stab them and cut off their heads.

Commonly used tactics by later, more innovative commanders included surprise attacks and arson. And beginning in the 14th century, sieges became an important part of warfare. However, certain holdovers from the traditional order of battle remained, such as an admiration for strong bowmen and the attention paid to finding a suitable opponent for one-on-one combat.

The Admirable Warrior

The authors of the war tales express admiration for a number of behaviors. Admirable traits include:


Honor means avoiding shame; i.e., knowing that no one is ridiculing you. Military defeat and weak behavior create shame. An honorable warrior seeks out worthy foes (those of higher status than himself), proudly announces his name and his genealogy, and protects his face (the symbol of his honor). We can see this, for example, in the story of Kamakura no Kagemasa in Ōshū Gosannen Ki. Kagemasa, who is only 16 years old, continues to fight even though he has been shot through the eye. When he is finally brought back to camp, another warrior tries to pull the arrow out by bracing his foot on Kagemasa’s face. Kagemasa attacks him, saying, “It is the warrior’s wish to die facing bow and arrows! But so long as he lives he will allow no one to place a foot on his face!”

The only way shame can be taken away is by revenge, so an honorable warrior does his best to avenge the deaths of his family members or lord.  The need to accomplish and/or prevent vendettas is a major motivator in the war tales. Take the case of Abe no Chiyo Dōshi in Mutsu Waki. After Minamoto no Yoriyoshi defeats Abe no Sadatō, Yoriyoshi is moved by the valor of Sadatō’s 13-year-old son, Abe no Chiyo Dōshi, and decides to pardon him. However, his advisor Takenori reminds him that since the young man is an honorable warrior, he will definitely grow up and lead a vendetta against Yoriyoshi. So Yoriyoshi decides to behead Chiyo Dōshi instead.

An honorable warrior takes measures to prevent himself from being shamefully killed by someone else. The main thing to avoid is allowing someone to cut off one’s head and take it home as a trophy, which means killing oneself first, if necessary. Modern readers might think immediately of seppuku, but while in the later war tales we do occasionally see examples of suicide committed in that way, dying in this way is actually rather inconvenient on the battlefield – it takes a long time and would almost certainly give your enemies enough time to take your head before you died. More often, we see characters falling on their swords (as does Imai no Kanehira in Heike Monogatari) or committing double-suicide (where you find a friend and stab each other, like Kusunoki Masashige and his brother Masasue in Taiheiki). We also occasionally see warriors cutting off their own heads, but this is rare and probably didn’t happen very often in reality.

Because it is kind of difficult to cut off your own head. :/


While we don’t typically see warriors in the war tales refusing to engage with physical luxuries, romance, or family concerns – they’re not ascetics – admirable warriors never allow these things to distract them. Characters who put their families, romances, or businesses ahead of their loyalties are considered ineffective, and they’re often punished by circumstances.

In Konjaku Monogatari, when Minamoto no Yorinobu‘s retainer Fujiwara no Chikataka comes to him in tears because his son has been kidnapped, Yorinobu lectures him, “Isn’t that ridiculous. You should think, ‘Let him be killed if need be. He’s only a little boy.’ If that’s how you can feel, you will fulfill your duty as a warrior. If you worry about your own safety, if you worry about your wife and child, you’ll be beaten at every turn. Fearlessness means to have no thought for yourself or your family.'”

Of course, Yorinobu then goes and rescues the child, so we can all feel okay about it. ♥

Another example is the attitude of Saitō no Sanemori in Heike Monogatari. When Sanemori, from the eastern provinces, is asked whether other warriors from the east are as strong with the bow as he is, he answers in a way that gives a very clear picture of what was valued in a warrior.

“Do you think I use long arrows? They barely measure thirteen fists. Any number of warriors in the east can equal that: nobody is called a long-arrow man there unless he draws a fifteen-fist shaft. A strong bow is held to be one that requires six stout men for the stringing. One of those powerful archers can easily penetrate two or three suits of armor when he shoots.

“Every big landholder commands at least five hundred horsemen. Once a rider mounts, he never loses his seat; however rugged the terrain he gallops over, his horse never falls. If he sees his father or son cut down in battle, he rides over the dead body and keeps on fighting. In west-country battles, a man who loses a father leaves the field and is seen no more until he has made offerings and completed a mourning period; someone who loses a son is too overwhelmed with grief to resume the fight at all. When westerners run out of commissariat rice, they stop fighting until after the fields are planted and harvested. They think summertime is too hot for battle, and wintertime too cold. Easterners are entirely different.”

(Remember that the accuracy of Sanemori’s “facts” is less important to our study than the values he is confirming. ^____^ )

It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean warriors are brutes utterly lacking in human feeling. Japanese culture has historically valued sincere emotionality in men, and in fact, men in the war tales who are especially compassionate or sensitive are praised. But they must be able to set their feelings aside in the service of duty, or the war tales show them no respect.

The choice between compassion and duty is a very common internal struggle for war tale heroes. The best example is the interaction between Kumagae no Naozane and Taira no Atsumori in Heike Monogatari. In what is possibly the most famously beautiful scene in the entire war tale genre, Naozane, a low-level career warrior, challenges an enemy warrior who is fleeing on horseback. The man returns bravely to fight him. Naozane defeats him easily and is surprised to find, when he removes his helmet to behead him, that his opponent is a 15-year-old courtier from the Taira clan, a well known flautist named Atsumori. Naozane is shocked see someone who is both so beautiful and so high above him in rank, and he speaks to him very respectfully, well aware that this is a person with whom he would ordinarily never even have the opportunity to look upon. He is also reminded of his own son, who is about the same age, and he hesitates to take the young man’s head. But when he realizes that if he doesn’t, someone else will, he beheads the young man even though it’s incredibly emotionally painful for him. Later Japanese literature portrays Naozane becoming a monk and returning to the scene of the battle to spend the rest of his life praying for Atsumori’s soul.

Here’s a beautiful recording of Ueda Junko singing the scene:


Because of the style of battle (one-on-one combat), warriors had to be aggressive when seeking opponents, or they would not kill as many enemies, and therefore not receive as many rewards. They might also be seen as slackers. Men competed with each other to attack first, and those who succeeded in doing so added their deeds to their name announcement. We can see this kind of competition in a scene from Heike Monogatari. The Minamoto army is about to cross the Uji River on their way to attack the Taira,  and Sasaki no Takatsuna and Kajiwara no Kagesue are competing to cross it first. They both have large, powerful horses. Takatsuna, whose horse is slightly better than Kagesue’s, manages to cross first and announces that this deed will be permanently added to his name announcement and that of all his descendants.

In addition to creating initial momentum in a fight, warriors must be willing to undergo the serious consequences of war, including personal injury or death. In the war tales, beautiful and dignified deaths are celebrated, even those that don’t occur during combat. Take, for example, Minamoto no Yoshitomo’s young brothers in Hōgen Monogatari. After his side wins the battle, Yoshitomo is forced to punish enemy combatants by killing their relatives, which unfortunately includes his father and nine of his brothers. The youngest four, ages 7 to 13, die bravely after the 13-year-old gives a beautiful speech to rally their spirits and curse Yoshitomo for what he’s about to do.

Another especially touching death scene is that of Emperor Antoku in Heike Monogatari. When the Taira are ultimately defeated in a sea battle, the six-year-old emperor is drowned by his grandmother, who tells him that she’s taking him to the Pure Land. His obedient prayers to Amida Buddha are incredibly heartbreaking. (Note here that although drowning a child may seem to modern audiences to be a shocking crime, the attitude of the war tales is that such acts are a tragic necessity of war.)

Because a beautiful death is valued, running away is extremely dishonorable. To reinforce this idea, we sometimes see examples of brave and cowardly warriors contrasted. Take, for example, Minamoto no Tametomo, Taira no Kiyomori, and Taira no Shigemori in Hōgen Monogatari. When the palace is attacked, Tametomo holds off the entire army almost single-handedly, using his powerful skills with the bow. (He even shoots through three armed men with one shot.) When Kiyomori hears about this, he opts to attack somewhere else, a move depicted as self-interested and callous. On the other hand, his son, the morally impeccable Shigemori, is eager to take up the challenge. The contrast between Kiyomori and Shigemori continues throughout later war tales, and I’ll have more to say about the two of them later.

At times, disregard for death goes beyond what is practical – and this is still exalted by the war tales. Some of the most admirable warriors are extremely reckless and show a remarkable lack of concern for the safety of themselves and others. This is not presented as a character flaw, just a character trait that ultimately leads to personal tragedy. One reckless, noble character is Minamoto no Yoshihira. There is a scene in Heiji Monogatari where he leads his troops against those of Taira no Shigemori. (Yes, the same Shigemori.) Yoshihira and Shigemori are the oldest sons of the two main combatants, so pairing them in a fight seems especially appropriate. In a street battle, Shigemori is leading five hundred men, and Yoshihira, with only seventeen men, decides to capture him. Yoshihira repeatedly attacks him at great cost to himself. Shigemori gradually falls back, leading Yoshihira to the Taira residence, where Yoshihira is defeated. Rather than being considered an act of stupidity, Yoshihira’s fruitless attack is admired.

This is not to say that risky behavior never pays off. We have only to look at the battle tactics of Minamoto no Yoshitsune in Heike Monogatari to see thisYoshitsune is famous for his reckless (borderline insane) decisions. At one point, he directs his boats into a typhoon, reasoning that the strong wind will make them arrive at the battle faster – and he’s right. Later, he leads an army of men down a cliff ending in “a vertical drop of a hundred and forty or fifty feet”. Since of course no one expected him to attack from this side, he surprises the enemy and enables the Minamoto to win the battle.


Loyalty is the most important trait of an ideal warrior. In the war tales, traitors are even worse than cowards. It doesn’t matter whether your overlord is wise or even ethical; loyalty is more important than anything else.

Let’s talk about Taira no Shigemori again. He’s an especially good person to study because he and his father, Kiyomori, are major characters in three war tales: Hōgen Monogatari, Heiji Monogatari, and Heike Monogatari. Their relationship is a loving but troubled one. Although Shigemori’s father, Kiyomori, has committed and continues to commit terrible sins that are ruining the country and their family (rape, kidnapping, murder, political assassinations, nepotism, etc.), Shigemori refuses to openly oppose him. Instead, he attempts to moderate his father’s behavior from within the family, with middling success. Shigemori’s struggle as he tries to navigate between loyalty to his father and loyalty to the people they’re in charge of ruling is presented as especially tragic and impossible.

Perhaps the strong value that literature placed on loyalty is related to the difficulty real-life warlords had in competing with each other for the same pools of mercenaries. Despite the reality that people changed sides all the time, in the war tales, again and again we see disloyalty discussed with a scorn that’s almost like horror. It is often presented as a direct cause of failures, as in Heike Monogatari, when the Taira lose battle after battle because their army is made up almost entirely of kari-musha (temporarily hired mercenaries) who don’t care enough to stick around when the battle turns against them.

Loyalty is most emphasized in the relationship between a lord and his most important follower, the archetype often called the Ever-Faithful Follower or the Loyal Retainer, which we will talk about in more detail later.

The Admirable Lord

In addition to all of the values above, the war tales have even higher expectations for warlords. In addition to the traits of an admirable warrior, a warlord ought to:

Distribute rewards fairly.

This means giving praise, benefices, and loot to those who deserve them (in other words, those who fought recklessly, remained steadfastly loyal, and killed worthy enemies). Leaders who don’t do this end up making trouble for themselves. Remember the reckless-but-successful Minamoto no Yoshitsune? He is the younger brother of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the leader of the Minamoto army and later, the first shogun. In Heike Monogatari, when Yoritomo fails to reward Yoshitsune with titles and lands that Yoshitsune thinks he deserves, Yoshitsune begins to accept analogous honors from Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa, whom Yoritomo does not consider a legitimate ruler. Somewhat predictably, this results in a rift between the brothers that leads to Yoshitsune’s death.

Be flexible and creative.

People who are familiar with the strict behavioral codes of later, Neo-Confucian samurai culture may be surprised at the amount of sneakiness, deception, and seduction displayed by the war tales’ most admirable lords. In the war tales – while disloyalty, cowardice, indecision, and shamelessness are of course derided – a certain amount of rule-breaking is expected and even admired, if it leads to victory.

The best warlords achieve success by thinking creatively and taking advantage of their opponents’ unwillingness to take risks. Remember the “order of battle” we talked about earlier? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the warlords who are able to win battles (and thus better reward their followers) are willing to disregard tradition and, say, attack at night. One excellent and clever warlord is Kusunoki Masashige. Masashige is portrayed in Taiheiki as a flawless, almost godlike figure. Yet, unlike modern stereotypes of the “honorable samurai”, Masashige avoids decisive encounters and fights guerilla-style. At one point, he makes “soldiers” out of armor stuffed with garbage and sets them outside the castle. When the enemy gets close enough to attack, he drops boulders on them.

(Yes, at times this indirectness seems to conflict with the aggression/bravery that is also highly valued in the war tales. What can I say? Japanese literature is complicated like that.)

A clever warlord also realizes that his opponents may be breaking the rules as well, like Minamoto no Yoshiie in Ōshū Gosannen Ki. Because Yoshiie realizes that his enemy might be trying to trick him, he is aware enough to notice a disturbed flock of geese and deduces that the opposing army is hidden in a nearby field of grass. This leads to victory in the upcoming battle.

The downside of this disregard for the rules is that great military leaders in the war tales are often inept at politics, which can have disastrous consequences for them. I already mentioned Minamoto no Yoshitsune in Heike Monogatari (the reckless one, remember?); he figured he could ignore his brother Yoritomo’s commands about whom to accept honors from, which turned Yoritomo against him and led to his death. In the same story, we also see Minamoto no Yoshinaka, whose decision to disobey Yoritomo and take the capital for himself similarly has poor results. In Yoshinaka’s case, his crude manners alienate him from potential allies.

Another inept politician is Minamoto no Yoshitomo (Yoshitsune and Yoritomo’s father) in Heiji Monogatari. Although he bears the bulk of the responsibility for Emperor Go-Shirakawa‘s victory, Yoshitomo’s inability to play politics results in greater rewards for his cowardly but manipulative rival, Taira no Kiyomori. Yoshitomo reacts by joining the side of the incredibly inept Fujiwara no Nobuyori in an attempt to remove Kiyomori from power. His failure in this attempt effectively destroys the Minamoto clan and places Kiyomori in an even higher political position, thus setting things up for the Genpei War 20 years later.

Maintain a close personal relationship with his followers.

A great warlord listens to the advice of his followers, treats them fairly, and honors their deaths. An exceptional warlord shares his last pieces of food with his followers, sleeps next to them at night, takes care of them when they’re sick, jokes with them, and looks after their families. In the war tales, this kind of relationship creates an immense sense of obligation in his warriors, who are humbled by the enormity of their lord’s condescension, and are thus motivated to acts of extreme bravery and self-sacrifice for his sake.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune (yes, him again), whose life we read about in Heike Monogatari and Gikeiki, is an outstanding example of this behavior. Yoshitsune continually asks his warriors for their opinions and advice, always to their mutual benefit. When he’s running low on supplies, he shares food with them. He is a close personal friend of many of them. When his retainer Satō no Tsugunobu is dying, he leaves the battle temporarily to sit with him. In tears, he pays a monk with a very valuable horse to copy sutras for Tsugunobu’s soul. Actions like this make him the most beloved warlord in the war tales, as evidenced by his followers’ affection for him. They even follow him to their deaths, dying one by one as they help him escape his angry brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo. Some even undergo great personal tragedies as a consequence of their association with him, such as his girlfriend Shizuka, whose child is killed.

Another warlord who lives closely with his warriors is Minamoto no Yoshiie in Mutsu Waki and Ōshū Gosannen Ki. Yoshiie motivates his followers by designating a “bravery seat” and a “cowardice seat” in camp for the best and worst fighters after every battle. Yikes. D:

Probably the purest example of this principle, however, is Minamoto no Yoriyoshi in Mutsu Waki. After battles, Yoriyoshi feeds his men and helps put their equipment in order. He personally tends the wounded. He impresses the warriors of his province so much that most of them became his vassals and declare that they considered losing their lives for him nothing compared to what they owe him for his generosity.

(Yes, all those examples are from the Minamoto clan. There is a reason that family became successful in the business of war.)

The Ever-Faithful Follower

Speaking of “close personal relationships”…

A recurring character type in the war tales is the “loyal retainer”. This is a specific individual, a vassal or relative, who is intimately attached to a warlord. Many, though not all, of the major warlords in the war tales have such a follower

In general, loyal retainers are extremely idealized. These men and women are some of the most compelling characters in the war tales, and these lord/retainer relationships drive the emotional content of the stories.

The most important and well developed lord/retainer pairs in the war tales include:

A loyal retainer:

Is a person of exceptional talents, military and otherwise.

The loyal retainer is unquestionably capable, and might be described in quasi-supernatural terms. He might even have a connection with the gods. Look at Musashibō Benkei in Gikeiki: Not only is Benkei an exceptional fighter – second only to his lord, Yoshitsune, of course – he’s also incredibly intelligent and skilled at improvising, extemporizing satirical poetry and fast-talking their way out of numerous difficult situations (like when Yoshitsune’s wife is disguised as a boy, and their host decides he wants to sleep with “him”). And Kusunoki Masashige in Taiheiki is literally a gift from Heaven to Emperor Go-Daigo, who searches for him after being visited by gods in a dream.

Has an exceptionally close relationship with his lord.

Although these lords have personal friendships with many of their followers, the loyal retainer is special. He is allowed liberties that other warriors would never dream of taking. When his lord becomes hesitant and overemotional (as lords often do in the war tales, once the war is over and their complete failure at politics comes into play), the loyal retainer takes over, makes decisions confidently, and saves his lord from dishonor and death. Musashibō Benkei, in Gikeiki, is the best example of this. Although Yoshitsune is highly sensitive to criticism, Benkei teases him about his looks and his luck in battle – and Yoshitsune laughs along. Benkei grumbles about having to put up with Yoshitsune’s whims, openly mocks Yoshitsune’s favorite wife, and commandeers Yoshitsune’s favorite horse with no repercussions except some gentle teasing in return. Toward the end of Yoshitsune’s life, Benkei essentially makes all of the important decisions about their movements, directs the other retainers in battle, and even delivers Yoshitsune’s son after Yoshitsune faints at the sight.

Joins his lord in death.

The ever-faithful follower aspires to die protecting his lord, and if his lord dies first, he kills himself in order to follow him.

This action is not limited to the ever-faithful follower. (Taiheiki gives an extreme example where six thousand people commit mass suicide when the emperor dies.) The difference is that when another warrior follows his lord in death, it is often for practical reasons, such as the desire to avoid the dishonor of dying at enemy hands. A loyal retainer has no mixed motives; he dies in order to be with his lord.

All loyal retainers have this kind of death.

  • Minamoto no Yoshitomo and Kamada no Masakiyo in Hōgen Monogatari and Heiji Monogatari: While Masakiyo is distracted by an offer of wine, Yoshitomo is murdered in his bath. When Masakiyo hears what’s going on, he rushes to defend Yoshitomo but is killed by an Osada henchman, who is expecting him to come to the rescue and hides behind a door. As the two of them bleed out, Masakiyo reassures Yoshitomo by reminding him that they are still together.
  • Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Musashibō Benkei in Gikeiki: Yoshitsune and his last few men are in a house surrounded by a large army. While his men fight, Yoshitsune reads scripture and prepares for death. When Benkei comes inside to report how badly the battle is going, saying he couldn’t die without seeing Yoshitsune again, the two of them recite scripture together and make plans to meet at a specific landmark in the afterlife. Benkei then goes out to fight, holding off an entire army even after he dies because of his corpse is so intimidating. This gives Yoshitsune enough time to cut open his belly and set a fire to burn his corpse so his enemies cannot have the honor of killing him.
  • Emperor Go-Daigo and Kusunoki Masashige in Taiheiki: Masashige advises the emperor to abandon the capital and work to cut off the enemy’s supply lines instead. The emperor refuses. Masashige goes to what he knows will be his death without complaint. After a six-hour battle that reduces his forces by 90%, he refuses to retreat and eventually must kill himself along with the rest of his men. He and his brother stab each other, swearing that instead of being reincarnated in new lives, they will return over and over again to this one in order to fight the emperor’s enemies.
  • Minamoto no Yoshinaka and Imai no Kanehira in Heike Monogatari: In this beautiful scene, Yoshinaka, who is usually treated with scorn by the narrator because of his lack of education, is described in elevated language. It is as if his noble death makes him worthy of respect. So that you can fully experience the beautiful shared death of Yoshinaka and Kanehira (and also see examples of many of the other things I’ve discussed in this post), here’s an extended quote from Heike Monogatari, translated by Helen Craig McCullough:

There were rumors that Yoshinaka was making for the Tanba Road by way of Nagasaka, and also that he was heading north through the Ryūge Pass. In actuality, he was fleeing toward Seta in the hope of finding Imagi no Shirō Kanehira. Kanehira himself had started back toward the capital with furled banner, worried about his master, after having lost all but fifty of his eight hundred defenders at Seta. The two arrived simultaneously at Uchide-no-hama in the vicinity of Ōtsu, recognized one another from about three hundred and fifty feet away, and galloped together.

Lord Kiso took Kanehira by the hand. “I meant to die at the Rokujō riverbed, but I broke through a swarm of enemies and came away here because I wanted to find you.”

“Your words to me great honor,” Kanehira said. “I meant to die at Seta, but I have come this far because I was worried about you.”

“I see that our karma tie is still intact. My warriors scattered into the mountains and woods after the enemy broke our formations; some of them must still be nearby. Have that furled banner of yours raised!”

More than three hundred riders responded to the unfurling of Imai’s banner – men who had fled from the capital or Seta, or who had come from some other place. Yoshinaka was overjoyed. “Why can’t we fight one last battle, now that we have a force of this size? Whose is the band I see massed over there?”

“They say the commander is Ichijō no Jirō Tadayori from Kai.”

“What is his strength?”

“He is supposed to have six thousand riders.”

“Then we are well matched! If we must meet death, let it be by galloping against a worthy foe and falling outnumbered.” Yoshinaka rode forward in the lead.

[Yoshinaka’s men are gradually killed, until only Yoshinaka and Kanehira are left.]

“I have never noticed it before, but my armor seems heavy today,” Lord Kiso said.

“You are not tired yet, and your horse is still strong. Why should you find a suit of armor heavy? You are discouraged because there is nobody left to fight on our side. But you should think of me as a man worth a thousand ordinary warriors. I will hold off the enemy awhile with my last seven or eight arrows. That place over there is the Awazu Pine Woods: kill yourself among the trees.”

As the two rode, whipping their horses, a new band of fifty warriors appeared. “Get into the pine woods. I will hold these enemies at bay,” Kanehira said.

“I ought to have perished in the capital. My only reason for fleeing here was that I wanted to die with you. Let’s not be killed in different places; let’s go down together.” Lord Kiso brought his mount alongside Kanehira’s, ready to gallop forward.

Kanehira leaped down and took his master’s horse by the mouth. “No matter how glorious a warrior’s earlier reputation may have been, an ignoble death means eternal disgrace. You are tired; there are no forces following you. If you are isolated by the enemy and dragged down to your death by some fellow’s insignificant retainer, people will say, ‘So-and-So’s retainer killed the famous Lord Kiso, the man known throughout Japan.’ I would hate to see that happen. Please, please, go into the pine woods.”

“Well, then…” Lord Kiso galloped toward the Awazu Pine Woods.

Kanehira dashed into the fifty riders alone, stood in his stirrups, and announced his name in a mighty voice. “You must have heard of me long ago; see me now with your own eyes! I am Imai no Shirō Kanehira, aged thirty-three, foster brother to Lord Kiso. The Kamakura Lord Yoritomo himself must know that such a person exists. Kill me and show him my head!” He fired off his remaining eight arrows in a fast and furious barrage that felled eight men on the spot. (It is impossible to say whether or not they were killed.) Then he drew his sword and galloped slashing from palce to place, without meeting a man willing to face him. Many were the trophies he amassed! The easterners surrounded him and let fly a hail of arrows, hoping to shoot him down, but none of their shafts found a chink in his armor or penetrated its stout plates, and he remained uninjured.

Lord Kiso galloped toward the Awazu Pine Woods, a lone rider. The shadows were gathering on the Twenty-First of the First Month, and a thin film of ice had formed. Unaware that a deep paddy field lay in front of him, he sent his horse plunging into the mire. The animal sank below its head and stayed there, motionless, despite furious flogging with stirrups and whip. Lord Kiso glanced backward, worried about Kanehira, and Ishida no Jirō Tamehisa, who was hard on his heels, drew his bow to the full and sent an arrow thudding into his face. Mortally wounded, he sagged forward with the bowl of his helmet against the horse’s neck.

Two of Tamehisa’s retainers went up and took Lord Kiso’s head. Tamehisa impaled it on the tip of his sword, raised it aloft, and announced in a mighty voice, “Miura no Ishida no Jirō Tamehisa has killed Lord Kiso, the man known throughout Japan!”

Kanehira heard the shout as he battled. “I don’t need to fight to protect anyone now. Take a look, easterners! This is how the bravest man in Japan commits suicide!” He put the tip of his sword in his mouth, jumped headlong from his horse, and perished, run through. Thus, it turned out that there was no combat worthy of the name at Awazu.


Let’s end with an adorable video that I stumbled across about this story. So cute~ O___O




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