Today on the blog, we're joined by Stephen Turnbull, Osprey author and guest host of Geek Nation's Feudal Japan Tour, who briefly recounts the 'romantic' rivalry between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. 

One of the strangest uses of language in military history is the description of certain battles and campaigns as ‘romantic’. How can an armed encounter that leaves thousands dead ever be described in these terms? Much, of course, depends on the participants; has history given the victors a heroic status? If so, it is more likely that the terrible deeds that led to their triumph or noble disaster will be painted in the same glorious colours as the men themselves.

Japan provides a particularly notable example in the persons of the rival daimyo (warlords) Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. Each was an individualist who led the sort of colourful life that lends itself to romantic exaggeration. Takeda Shingen (1521–73) was a solidly built, determined-looking man, portrayed in later life with elaborate side-whiskers, and received his baptism of fire at the early age of fifteen when his father Takeda Nobutora attacked the castle of Uminokuchi. Heavy snowfalls made the siege drag on for an entire miserable month. The humiliated Nobutora finally ordered a retreat and entrusted the vital role of rearguard commander to his young son, but Harunobu (the future Shingen) led his men back to Uminokuchi in a surprise raid and captured the castle. In 1541 Takeda Harunobu deposed his father and took total control of their territory. The Takeda retainers largely approved of their young lord taking over, and rallied round when rivals hurried to take advantage of what they expected to be chaos in the Takeda camp. 

Of all those rivals none was more formidable than Uesugi Kenshin (1530–78). Unlike Shingen, he was not a member of the family whose name he was to bear, but was the son of their retainer Nagao Tamekage and bore the original name of Kagetora. He too fought in battle at the age of fifteen when he was attacked by rebels, but soundly defeated them, earning young Kagetora a reputation. The Uesugi had been in serious decline for many years, and when they were defeated in 1551 by the Hojo clan, the disgraced Uesugi leader Norimasa was forced to seek refuge with Nagao Kagetora. The young man held all the cards, and insisted that in return for his aid, Norimasa must adopt him and give him all his lands and titles. Kagetora took the name of Uesugi Kenshin in the following year of 1552. 

The territories of the two rivals met in Shinano Province where two mighty rivers were separated by a wide flat plain called Kawanakajima: ‘the island between the rivers’. Shingen and Kenshin fought there five times between 1553 and 1564, and no conflict was more bitterly contested than the fourth battle, in 1561. Kenshin had set up camp on a hill called Saijoyama from where he threatened Shingen’s castle of Kaizu. Shingen’s general Yamamoto Kansuke, a master of strategy, suggested a surprise attack. Takeda Shingen should march his army out of the castle across the Chikuma River and take up a prepared position at a place called Hachimanbara. Another Takeda unit would then attack Kenshin’s camp from the rear and drive them down in panic right onto the waiting spears and guns of Shingen’s main body.



 It was a brilliant plan, but Kenshin got wind of it and arranged his own surprise for Shingen.  As dawn broke the detached Takeda unit arrived on Saijoyama to find that the Uesugi had already gone down the mountain and were now bearing down upon the Takeda lines in a surprise of their own. When the assault began, such confusion was caused that the Uesugi samurai even managed to penetrate as far as Shingen’s headquarters. Shingen’s younger brother Nobushige (1525–61) was blasted by gunfire and killed.




At this point the most ‘romantic’ moment of the battle occurred, because Uesugi Kenshin is supposed to have fought Takeda Shingen in single combat. Shingen was seated when the horseman broke in and had only his heavy iron signalling fan to defend himself against the sword strokes.  Shingen’s Horse Guards closed in and drove the assailants away, but even though order was restored Yamamoto Kansuke, the man who had devised the original plan, felt that he had failed and committed suicide to atone for his mistake.




Both sides would claim victory at Kawanakajima, a battle that has acquired a romantic allure because of the manoeuvres in the dark, an almost unique single combat between the opposing commanders and the dramatic suicide by the general who had failed his master. When Uesugi Kenshin wrote to one of his generals thanking him he referred to ‘an event that will give us satisfaction for many years to come, with much glory gained’,  but there was nothing romantic about the thousands who lay dead along the river banks, left behind when the two great heroes departed.



We will be visiting Kawanakajima as part of the Geek Nation tour – why not join us? Click here to go to our website to find out more.

Read more about Feudal Japan with Stephen Turnbull’s previous post: The Samurai’s Mountain Road.