Minamoto no Yoshitsune
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Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源 義経?, 1159 – June 15, 1189) was a general of the Minamoto clan of Japan in the late Heian and early Kamakura period. Yoshitsune was the ninth son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, and the third and final son and child that Yoshitomo would father with Tokiwa Gozen. Yoshitsune's older brother Minamoto no Yoritomo (the third son of Yoshitomo) founded the Kamakura shogunate. Yoshitsune's name in childhood was Ushiwakamaru (牛若丸). He is considered one of the greatest and the most popular warriors of his era, and one of the most famous samurai fighters in the history of Japan.
Yoshitsune was born during the Heiji Rebellion of 1159 in which his father and oldest two brothers were killed. His life was spared and he was put under the care of Kurama Temple (鞍馬寺), nestled in the Hiei Mountains near the capital of Kyoto, while Yoritomo was banished to Izu Province. Eventually, Yoshitsune was put under the protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira, head of the powerful regional Northern Fujiwara clan in Hiraizumi, Mutsu Province.
In 1180, Yoshitsune heard that Yoritomo, now head of the Minamoto clan, had raised an army at the request of Prince Mochihito to fight against the Taira clan (also known as the Heike) which had usurped the power of the emperor. Yoshitsune shortly thereafter joined Yoritomo, along with Minamoto no Noriyori, all brothers who had never before met, in the last of three conflicts between the rival Minamoto and Taira samurai clans, known as the Genpei War.
Yoshitsune defeated and killed his rival cousin Minamoto no Yoshinaka at the Battle of Awazu in Ōmi Province in the first month of 1184 and in the next month defeated the Taira at the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani in present day Kobe. In 1185, Yoshitsune defeated the Taira again at the Battle of Yashima in Shikoku and destroyed them at the Battle of Dan-no-ura in present day Yamaguchi Prefecture.
After the Genpei War, Yoshitsune joined the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa against his brother Yoritomo. Fleeing to the temporary protection of Fujiwara no Hidehira in Mutsu again, Yoshitsune was betrayed, defeated at the Battle of Koromo River, and forced to commit seppuku along with his wife and daughter, by Hidehira's son Fujiwara no Yasuhira. Yoshitsune is enshrined in the Shirahata Jinja, a Shinto shrine in the city of Fujisawa.
Yoshitsune has long been a popular figure in Japanese literature and culture due to his appearance as the main character in the third section of the Japanese literary classic Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike). The Japanese term for "sympathy for a tragic hero", Hōgan-biiki (判官贔屓 lit. Hōgan favor?), comes from Yoshitsune's title Hōgan, which he received from the Imperial Court.
Many of the literary pieces that Yoshitsune appears in are legend rather than historical fact. Legends pertaining to Yoshitsune first began to appear in the fourteenth century. In early works at that time, Yoshitsune was described as a sharp-witted military leader. Then, romantic stories about his early childhood and last years of his life appeared as people began to know more about him. A variety of stories about different stages of his life was widely spread and well known to people in different ages.
The legends that deal with his public career show Yoshitsune as a great, virtuous warrior. He was often shown as kind to those around him and honorable, but he was also shown as short-tempered, tactless, blunt, and naive.
A second type of legend that deals with Yoshitsune’s childhood show young Yoshitsune (or Ushiwaka) with heroic qualities. He is portrayed as a brave and skilled swordsman, despite being a young boy. He was also skilled in music and his studies, and was also said to be able to easily sway the hearts of young women. These legends also delve into fantasy more so than the legends about his later life.
Legends which pertain to his time when his brother, Yoritomo, has turned against him, take away some of Yoshitsune’s heroic qualities. He is no longer portrayed as a great warrior, but he retains his knowledge and skills that are valuable in the emperor’s court.
In addition to The Tale of the Heike and Chronicle of Yoshitsune (Gikeiki), which relates events of Yoshitsune's life after the defeat of the Heike, a great many other works of literature and drama feature him, and together form the sekai ("world") of Yoshitsune, a concept akin to the notion of the literary cycle.
In the visual arts, Yoshitsune is commonly depicted as a bishōnen, though this is at odds with contemporary descriptions of his appearance.
In popular culture
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- Encyclopædia Britannica - Minamoto no Yoshitsune
- McCullough, Helen. Yoshitsune: A Fifteenth-Century Japanese Chronicle. California: Stanford University Press, 1966.
- Morris, Ivan. The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.