The daimyo of feudal Japan constantly vied for control over the country. Two warlords in particular maintained a legendary rivalry: Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin.
They fought several battles, viewing one another as the most worthy adversaries they could expect in such times. While ultimately neither clan survived into the Edo Period as a dominant force (although Uesugi Kagekatsu would later become one of the Five Regents), during their heyday in the Sengoku Period their clashes became the stuff of semi-historical legend. Today they have become part of modern pop culture.
Uesugi Kenshin: The Nagao Clan Fractured
Uesugi Kenshin, originally Nagao Kagetora, was not born into the Uesugi clan but the Nagao clan. When it came to inheritance in feudal Japan, it was just as valid for nobles to be adopted into a family as to be born into it.
Kenshin was the third son of Nagao Tamekage, a renowned warrior of the clan. He wasn’t in line to be the heir of the Nagao and was therefore seen as extraneous. At the time, Tamekage was also dealing with the rising threat of the Ikko-ikki, a religious peasant/monk sect that sought to undermine samurai rule. In December of 1536, Tamekage lost his life in a skirmish, leaving the clan in the hands of his eldest son Nagao Harukage.Harukage was, by all accounts, not the most capable of rulers. He was weak and constantly ill, unable to keep his subordinates in line.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Meanwhile, Kenshin had spent seven years at Rinsen-ji, a Buddhist monastery in the Echigo province while the region was on the verge of civil war. Buddhism and Confucianism played pivotal roles in Japanese culture. Many samurai received a portion of their upbringing from a Buddhist temple, because monks — like in Europe — were responsible for preserving knowledge and education.
They learned to read and write from the classics, such as Sun Tzu and Confucius, along with mathematics, art, and music. Their physical education included learning martial arts like swordplay, archery, and grappling. All samurai were expected to be cultured and educated in addition to being physically skilled in warfare.
Uesugi Kenshin took to his Buddhist education with gusto. He seemed particularly drawn to Bishamonten/Vaisravana, one of the Four Heavenly Rulers in Buddhist belief and a god of war.
Rise of the Dragon
At the age of 14, some daimyo in the area paid a visit to Kenshin at the temple. They all but begged him to take up arms and take over Echigo from his brother. At first he didn’t wish to do this out of a sense of familial affection, but for the overall good of the province he relented.
Along with Usami Sadamitsu, the warlord who had first asked him to come out of seclusion, he fought and defeated Harukage in 1547. The next six years were devoted to consolidating his influence.
In addition to military buildup, Uesugi Kenshin focused on enriching industry and trade in his province, particularly the cloth trade. The money went toward creating a strong military. It was at this point that an aspiring daimyo in the neighboring province Shinano would cross paths with the Uesugi ruler.
A Promising Heir
Takeda Shingen (birth name Harunobu, but we will refer to him as Shingen) was the first-born of Takeda Nobutora and in line to take over the clan in Kai province. Uesugi Kenshin was the fourth son and considered expendable. He involved himself in clan politics and military affairs. In 1536, he joined a campaign against Genshin Hiraga of Shinano, who withdrew to his castle and tried to wait out the winter.
In a Washington-crossing-the-Delaware-esque move, Shingen took the rearguard in retreat, then turned and launched a surprise attack. Being caught in a war during the winter was one thing, but making an intentional attack in that season was unthinkable. Consequently, the Hiraga were caught unawares and lost.
Shingen, like Kenshin, took an interest in ancient Chinese culture and Buddhist mythology, being brought up as a scholarly noble. He also seemed especially drawn to Sun Tzu’s teachings. On his war banners, he was known to include the motto Furinkazan (Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain). This was short for “Swift as the wind, silent as the forest, fierce as fire, immovable as the mountain.” The Takeda clan were also well-known for their skill and the fierceness of their cavalry.
Rebellion and Expansion
For some reason — there exists no record as to why — Takeda Nobutora planned to depose Shingen as his heir in favor of his second son Nobushige. As you might expect, he was incensed. With some suspected urging from the Imagawa clan, Shingen ousted his father and exiled him to Suruga, the Imagawa home province.
With Kai relatively stable at this point, Takeda Shingen turned his attention to subjugating the rest of Shinano, which was a much larger province. Its north-south length almost ran from coast to coast.
Two warlords in northern Shinano traveled northeast to Echigo, where they petitioned Uesugi Kenshin (who had taken control of the Uesugi clan) for help against Takeda’s forces. Already nervous about the aggressive expansion of his southern neighbor, Kenshin agreed to help and mustered a force to march against Takeda. The two armies met on the Kawanakajima plain in 1553. It was little more than a skirmish: neither warlord gained significant ground or committed to an assault.
The same thing happened twice more in four years. It was an almost biannual ritual for the two, but the fourth battle of Kawanakajima would go down in history and legend. There are, of course, conflicting accounts from both sides: Takeda’s side wrote the Koyo Gunkan (War Stories), and Uesugi’s the Essa-shiryo Kohon (Records of Echigo and Sado).
Battle of Kawanakajima
During October 1561, Uesugi Kenshin learned that Takeda Shingen was yet again trying to move into Echigo and broke off his assault on Hojo Ujiyasu, another daimyo with whom he was struggling. They had, as mentioned, “fought” three times previously. These battles boiled down mostly to the armies moving into position and skirmishing. Their fourth meeting was the only full-on battle.
Uesugi set up camp atop Saijoyama, a mountain southwest of Kaizu castle, where Takeda had garrisoned a small contingent. His main army, 20,000 strong, split in two. Around 8,000 men entrenched themselves to the north of the Chikumagawa, close to the riverbanks. The rest, intending to catch Uesugi Kenshin by surprise, slowly ascended Saijoyama from the east.
Kenshin knew to keep watch, because having gotten a nice look at Takeda’s forces, he knew what their camp looked like and knew that fewer campfires meant fewer troops.
Dragon Against Tiger
Kenshin’s army, in the dead of night, advanced down the mountainside and crossed the river. By dawn, they were ready to charge Takeda Shingen’s detachment, which was deployed in an outstretched formation called the Crane’s Wing. The plan was that the melee and cavalry would meet the main body of troops, while the left and right flanks would envelop them after they were tired from fighting.
This did not happen: Uesugi Kenshin used a personally-developed strategy called the Rolling Wheel. Warriors would move in to fight, inflict whatever casualties they could, then veer off to be replaced by a fresh unit. The coordination which this formation required can’t be overstated. Remember, this was before any communication faster than messenger birds existed. From the perspective of the enemy this formation would’ve looked like endless waves of troops, and created a demoralizing effect.
Takeda remained in his camp, showing no sign that he was afraid, which is likely what encouraged his soldiers to hold on as long as they did: other armies who faced this formation broke quickly. Kenshin himself, having either seen an opportunity or received intelligence that Shingen was waiting in camp, burst into the general’s tent on horseback, drew his sword, and attacked. Takeda had no time to arm himself or even move from a sitting position.
He used his tessen, or war fan, to block the sword and survive long enough for his retainers to arrive and spear Kenshin’s horse. The Uesugi leader was forced to flee and the battle ended soon after with no real victor. The casualty counts for both sides vary. Some estimates place them at 60 percent, others closer to 70. For a medieval battle, this would have been nothing short of devastating. Takeda lost his son and his top general.
Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen: An End to Their Rivalry
Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen saw in one another an equally skilled warrior and strategist, someone who respected the virtues of bushido. One story goes that Uesugi heard that Takeda’s supply of salt was cut off by the Hojo clan, and sent some as a gift along with the message, “I do not fight with salt, but with the sword.” This occurred after their legendary battle.
Were it not for the rise of Oda Nobunaga, the Kanto Three (Uesugi, Takeda, and Hojo) might have continued their struggles for supremacy in the region indefinitely. Both Kenshin and Shingen struck decisive blows against the new warlords: Kenshin at Tedorigawa in 1577 and Shingen at Mikatagahara in 1573. This would be Shingen’s last major field battle. In the spring of 1573, he died after a siege. Uesugi Kenshin publicly mourned the death of his longtime rival. Shingen’s son Katsuyori assumed leadership, but because he lacked his father’s patience caused the destruction of the Takeda clan through overly aggressive military expansion.
Uesugi Kenshin himself died in 1578. Some suspect assassination by a shinobi (the proper name for the figures known as the ninja), while others believe it was illness; this is more likely given that he was known to complain of severe stomach pains. This was after he formed an alliance with Takeda Katsuyori. They had intended to attack Oda Nobunaga in the winter but Uesugi Kenshin’s death largely put an end to the expansion of the clan. Although Kenshin’s son Kagekatsu was later appointed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as one of the Five Regents, never again would the Uesugi or Takeda clans have any real power.