Zen Stories of the Samurai



Uesugi Kenshin Armor

Uesugi Kenshin Battle Standard

Shingen Takeda


Uesugi Kenshin (originally known as Nagao Kagetora) was born in 1530 in Echigo province. His father was a successful warlord who eventually became aligned with the Uesugi family.   His early years were turbulent times for his family. As first his father and then his older brother struggled for power, young Nagao was sent away to spend age 7 through 14 in the relative safety of Rizen Temple. The teenager was then approached by factions within his family to take control of the province away from his brother. He was successful in gaining control and eventually came to be known as "The Dragon of Echigo".


Nagao changed his name several times in his life, finally taking the name Kenshin ("new sword") after taking the vows of a Buddhist monk. From that time Kenshin followed a life marked by celibacy and vegetarianism. He is often depicted wearing a monk’s turban.


Kenshin also developed a special devotion to and identification with Bishamonten, the Buddhist deity whom the Japanese considered to be a special patron or warriors and a punisher of evildoers. Some of Kenshin’s retainers even considered him to be a human manifestation (i.e. avatar) of Bishamonten himself.  Uesugi Kenshin's battle standard featured the character 'BI' in honor of Bishamonten.


Kenshin was a very competent civil administrator and did much to increase the economic power of Echigo. He pursued a number of initiatives designed to stimulate trade, including making encouraging Echigo’s lucrative hemp trade, building Kasugayama Castle, and revitalizing the seaport of Kashiwazaki. Like many of his contemporaries, Kenshin offered merchants special inducements, such as tax incentives, to entice them to do business in Echigo.


In an era of constant civil war, Kenshin’s military record was most notable. He successfully engaged some of the most capable generals of his time including both Takeda Shingen and Oda Nobunaga. Kenshin’s long-standing rivalry with Takeda Shingen, from the neighboring province of Kai, resulted in an epic series of battles between what turned out to be two evenly matched foes. Later on, Kenshin was able to beat the larger forces of Oda Nobunaga and stall his attempt to take over Japan.


In 1578 at the age of 48, Kenshin died four days after a seizure in his lavatory. Contemporary historians attribute his death to stomach cancer brought about by chronic heavy drinking. However, tradition holds that he was the victim of an assignation. According to the theory a ninja team infiltrated Kenshin's castle. One of the ninja was sacrificed as a diversion. He was discovered scaling the wall, an alarm was sounded, and the intruder was killed. Unfortunately, that first assassin was a decoy. A second ninja on the team, who was very small in stature, successfully snuck into the compound during the confusion and concealed himself in the pit under Kenshin's latrine. The ninja hid under the latrine until Kenshin came to relieve himself and squatted over the opening. At that point the assassin allegedly struck Kenshin a fatal blow from below.


In prophetic anticipation of his own death, Kenshin had earlier written:


The glory and prosperity of my life was as good as a single cup of sake.

My life of forty-nine years is passed like a dream.

I know not what life is; nor death.

Both Heaven and Hell are left behind.

I stand in the moonlit dawn; free from clouds of attachment.



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