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Benkei by Kikuchi Yōsai

Saitō Musashibō Benkei (西塔武蔵坊弁慶, 1155–1189), popularly known as simply Benkei, was a Japanese warrior monk (sōhei) who lived in the latter years of the Heian Period (794–1185)[1]. Benkei led a varied life, first becoming a monk, then a mountain ascetic, and then a rogue warrior. He later came to respect and serve the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune, also known as Ushiwakamaru. He is commonly depicted as a man of great strength and loyalty, and a popular subject of Japanese folklore, showcased in many ancient and modern literature and productions.

Early life[edit]

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Yoshitsune and Benkei defending themselves in their boat during a storm created by the ghosts of conquered Taira warriors
Benkei and Yoshitsune

Stories about Benkei's birth vary considerably. One tells how his father was the head of a temple shrine who had raped his mother, the daughter of a blacksmith.[citation needed] Another sees him as the offspring of a temple god.[citation needed] Many give him the attributes of a demon, a monster child with wild hair and long teeth. In his youth, Benkei may have been[vague] called Oniwaka (鬼若)—"demon/ogre child", and there are many famous ukiyo-e works themed on Oniwakamaru and his adventures.[citation needed] He is said[by whom?] to have defeated 200 men in each battle he was personally involved in.

Benkei chose to join the monastic establishment at an early age and traveled widely among the Buddhist monasteries of Japan. During this period, monasteries were not only important centers of administration and culture, but also military powers in their own right, similar to the Roman Legions[citation needed]. Like many other monks, Benkei was likely[citation needed] trained in the use of the naginata, the half-moon spear.

At the age of seventeen, Benkei was said to have been 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall. At this point, he left the monasteries, and became a yamabushi, a member of a sect of mountain ascetics. Benkei was commonly depicted wearing a black cap that was a signature theme of such mountain ascetics.[1]

Seven weapons[edit]

Benkei armed himself with seven weapons, and is often depicted carrying these on his back. In addition to his sword, he carried a broad axe (masakari), a rake (kumade), a sickle (nagigama), a wooden mallet (hizuchi), a saw (nokogiri), an iron staff (tetsubō), and a Japanese glaive (naginata).[2]


The moonlight fight between Yoshitsune and Benkei. Gojo Bridge, Kyoto

Benkei was said to have wandered around Kyoto every night on a personal quest to take 1000 swords from samurai warriors, who he believed were arrogant and unworthy. After collecting 999 swords through duels and looking for his final prize, he met a young man playing a flute at Gojotenjin Shrine in Kyoto. The much shorter man supposedly carried a gilded sword around his waist. Instead of dueling at the shrine itself, the two walked to Gojo Bridge in the city where the bigger Benkei ultimately lost to the smaller warrior, who happened to be Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo. Some sources claim that the fight took place not at the Gojo Bridge, but instead at Matsubara Bridge.[3] Not long after the duel, Benkei, frustrated and looking for revenge, waited for Yoshitsune at the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu, where he lost yet again.[4] Henceforth, he became Yoshitsune's retainer and fought with him in the Genpei War against the Taira clan.[5]

From 1185 until his death in 1189, Benkei accompanied Yoshitsune as an outlaw.[6]


In the end, Benkei and Yoshitsune were encircled in the castle of Koromogawa no tate. As Yoshitsune retired to the inner keep of the castle to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) on his own, Benkei stood guard on the bridge in front of the main gate to protect Yoshitsune. It is said that the soldiers were afraid to cross the bridge to confront him, and that all who did met a swift death at the hands of the gigantic man, who killed in excess of 300 trained soldiers.

Realizing that close combat would mean suicide, the warriors following Minamoto no Yoritomo decided to shoot and kill Benkei with arrows instead. Long after the battle should have been over, the soldiers noticed that the arrow-riddled, wound-covered Benkei was still standing. When the soldiers dared to cross the bridge and take a closer look, the giant man fell to the ground, having died standing upright.[7] This is known as the "Standing Death of Benkei" (弁慶の立往生, Benkei no Tachi Ōjō). Benkei died at the age of 34.

Atago-do, now called Benkei-do, features a statue of Benkei six feet two inches in height in the posture he stood in when he died at Koromogawa. It was built in the era of Shotoku (1711–1716), replacing an older monument. In olden times the Benkei-do was at the foot of Chusonji hill until it was demolished. The ruins and a single pine tree still remain.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

Tales of Benkei's loyalty and honour have made him a mainstay of Japanese folklore, as well as a popular subject for literature and entertainment.

One kabuki play places Benkei in a moral dilemma, caught between lying and protecting his lord in order to cross a bridge. The critical moment of the drama is its climax, where the monk realises his situation and vows to do what he must. In another play, Benkei slays his own child to save the daughter of a lord. In the Noh play Ataka, Benkei must beat his own master (disguised as a porter) in order to avoid breaking his disguise. Ataka was later adapted into the kabuki play Kanjinchō, which became one of the most popular and widely performed works in Japanese theatre.

Film and television[edit]

  • A silent, black and white film adaptation of Benkei's story, simply titled Benkei, was released in 1912.[9]
  • In the Getter Robo series, the characters of Musashi Tomoe and Benkei Kuruma are both modelled on Saitō Musashibō Benkei. Musashi is the toughest and most loyal member of the original team, and dies in a similar way to Benkei - fighting off an immense horde of enemies by himself while his teammates are incapacitated - after which Benkei Kuruma is recruited to take his place. The New Getter Robo anime condenses the roles of both characters into one, called simply Musashibō Benkei, who is a monk like his namesake.

Video games[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Yoshikawa, Eiji (1956). The Heike Story: A Modern Translation of the Classic Tale of Love and War. New York: New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-8048-1376-1.
  2. ^ Ashkenazi, Michael (2003). Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. pp. 124–125. ISBN 978-1576074671.
  3. ^ Matsumoto; Nasu, Kana; Satoku (June 29, 2012). "The Legend of Yoshitsune Minamoto". The Kyoto Project. The Kyoto university of Foreign Studies.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Matsumoto; Nasu, Kana; Satoko (June 29, 2012). "The Legend of Yoshitsune Minamoto". The Kyoto Project.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Kitagawa, Hiroshi et al. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, pp. 535, 540, 654, 656, 669.
  6. ^ Sansom, George (1958). A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford University Press. pp. 317, 326. ISBN 978-0804705233.
  7. ^ Turnbull, Stephen (1977). The Samurai, A Military History. MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 83. ISBN 978-0026205405.
  8. ^ De Benneville, James S (1910). Saito Musashi-bo Benkei : tales of the wars of the Gempei, being the story of the lives and adventures of Iyo-no-Kami Minamoto Kuro Yoshitsune and Saito Musashi-bo Benkei the warrior monk. Yokohama: Yokohama: J.S. De Benneville. p. 444.
  9. ^ Benkei, 1912, retrieved 2018-04-18
  10. ^ Kurosawa, Akira (1960-02-28), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, Denjirô Ôkôchi, Susumu Fujita, Ken'ichi Enomoto, retrieved 2018-04-18


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