.....and samurai who became a legend for doing nothing except dying. Really.



1294 - 1336

Kusunoki clan crest
Kusunoki family crest

Kusunoki Masashige
Kusunoki Masashige's official portrait


1330's were scary, ugly years, no matter how beautiful Kusunoki Masashige was, spiritually, at 27 or so when the churning politix reached its climax. But, like all heroes, he was born for that sort of mess, and owing it a contract with immortality -- even though he never had known that those days.

It all started with the Hojo clan (click here for a glimpse). They were not really lawful rulers, but they did rule, as a fact, from the spot that was once the famed Minamoto clan's seat, Kamakura. Between Hojos and Emperors there always existed some tension -- Emperors, those days, thought that their job description includes governing, while Shoguns never thought so, and the Hojos didn't, either. The clan rose to power from self-appointingly taking up the role as Imperial matchmakers; namely arranging weddings of Emperors and Shoguns to their own clanswomen. Now they intended to skip the tedious and actually rather unreliable way to claw to the top, and hence the subsequent wars, because in 1318 a 29 years-old Emperor named Go-Daigo ascended, and he began his reign by scheming against the Hojo clan. All of his life, Go-Daigo was practically breathing for this obsession.


Kusunoki Masashige bust Kusunoki Masashige classic painting
A bust of Kusunoki, made in 21st century (left)
and how he looks at his last battle
according to an 18th century painter (right).


The Hojos were ill-famed because they were cunning rather than wise. So an averagely clueless emperor was never their match. Every plan Go-Daigo hatched was crushed before anything materialized out of it. In 1331, after another scheme was unveiled by the Hojos, Emperor Go-Daigo raised up arms, and a sort of war ensued, and he, of course, lost everything. The Hojos packed him up and shipped him off to exile.

They enthroned someone else in Kyoto -- because, in Japan, no matter how actually powerful you are, you couldn't be without an Emperor's visual and written blessing. So the most practical thing to do was the Hojos' scenario: this Emperor was against them; find another Emperor who's 100% on their side.


Kusunoki Masashige classic painting
An unusually youthful portrait of Kusunoki in battle,
made by an artist in 19th century.


In 1333, Emperor Go-Daigo escaped from the place he was confined. He ordered every clan that was loyal to him to march to another battle. This included Kusunoki Masashige's. They might have repeated the last loss, but this time Go-Daigo was lucky -- the man who would be the patriarch of one dynasty of Shoguns, Ashikaga Takauji, was deployed by the Hojos to quell this imperial resurrection, but when he got there he changed his mind and turned coat. The Ashikaga clan was one hell of an army in itself; no wonder Emperor Go-Daigo won this war. Another warlord loyal to the Emperor, Nitta Yoshisada, whacked the Hojo clan so bad that they never rose again. The Nittas were not so strong, but they were, so said all historical records, noted for courage and gallantry and loyalty and such adjectives that would, in time, became attached to Kusunoki Masashige, too.

In 1335, after reigning according to his own idea of Emperor-ing the country, which included compelling people to observe obsolete rules and kicking out the warlords -- who helped them to get there in the first place -- from his Court; Emperor Go-Daigo woke up to find Ashikaga Takauji getting sick of him and wanting to reconstruct the empire with himself as Great General ('Shogun'). Both Ashikaga and Go-Daigo were stubborn, but Ashikaga had all the weapons. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. Except that there were, after all, Kusunoki Masashige and Nitta Yoshisada. Both were noncommital as about the Emperor's performance, and both didn't think of scooping up power. This battle was won by the Emperor's side. Ashikaga fled -- to mend the clan's wounds and prepare another shower of attacks.


Kusunoki Masashige statue
The most familiar image of Kusunoki Masashige is this statue, to which tourists have been routinely led without any knowledge of him but that he is "some guy who is a hero of Japan".

In 1336, the Ashikaga army was there again for all to see; and it had transformed itself into one killing machine that no one could stop. No one but those who kept their heads, that was. And Emperor Go-Daigo wasn't one.


Kusunoki Masashige shrine
The shrine built for Kusunoki Masashige in Kobe


Kusunoki Masashige kept on being calm in the middle of the Imperial Panic. He got a good plan that even historians in 2005 think of as one that would have worked perfectly. But he couldn't do it on his own; he needed the approval and cooperation of Emperor Go-Daigo. Those days, the warrior-monks of Mt. Hiei (click here for story and pictures) were loyalists as far as Go-Daigo was concerned; they have agreed to provide for a temporary sanctuary for the Emperor because there was no way to interrupt Ashikaga's march towards Kyoto. Then, after the Ashikagas occupied the emptied city, Kusunoki Masashige's little army and the warrior-monks would hit them from above -- I mean they would have gotten the better of the war, since the location of Kyoto on a lower ground. It was the soundest proposal that Go-Daigo could have expected to hear.


And the ultimate tribute to a mortal's image:
Kusunoki Masashige on a yen bill.


But Emperor Go-Daigo refused to leave his beloved Palace.

Instead, he ordered Kusunoki Masashige to march right towards the advance of the Ashikagas.

Kusunoki only had a few hundred soldiers with him. Fighting the better-equipped thousands of the Ashikaga clan's army was really insane. But the Emperor, clinging on his notion of divine power as the valid Emperor between the two that were reigning at the same time (official history of Japan agrees with him in this), would never wanted his orders being questioned, let alone challenged. So Kusunoki just bowed and said goodbye to this planet.

At Minato river, in today's Kobe, Kusunoki Masashige witnessed his men getting slaughtered until the place was literally crimsoned. He had known this would happen, but the obstinate Emperor didn't have what it takes to think better. So, Kusunoki and the remaining soldiers of his committed suicide.

According to tradition, his last words were typical: he wished he had seven lives to lose for the Emperor.

I'm glad he only had one -- unless he meant Shih Huang-Ti (click here if you have no idea what I'm rapping about).

Kusunoki Masashige died without being legendary at first. It was the strongest, longest, sternest shogunate that installed him on the Japanese Wall of Fame for the best of all samurai: the Tokugawa clan (click here for story and pictures).

Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the dynasty of hereditary Great Generals until 1868, left a rigid testament that was followed exactly by his successors. This includes reconstruction of Japanese Buddhism -- whose 'Mecca' was to be China.

Before Tokugawa's time to rule, Oda Nobunaga (click here for story and pictures) didn't care much about religions, and he was, in Japanese eyes, too friendly to the barbaric heathens (which was to say foreign Catholic priests).

Oda's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (click here for story and pictures) was a bit 'better' in that matter, but never took it up as a thing that needs special attention.

Tokugawa's much sinozed Buddhism was made to be the country's official faith. In it, Emperor Go-Daigo is the greatest of rulers, a divinity, and so forth. Whoever obeyed his orders -- like Kusunoki, against their own thoughts -- are equally divine. Hence the huge Kusunoki statue, and the fact that in 21st century we still have him here.

Kusunoki Masashige was the 'patron saint' for the Kamikaze pilots of World War II. Click here for the Kamikaze, whose aces are legends on their own rights.


Postscript about the extras:

The picture of Ashikaga Takauji is done
by a realist artist in 20th century.

The oh-so-divine looks of Emperor Go-Daigo was painted by
a Buddhist monk of the Tokugawa era in 18th century



Ashikaga Takauji
Shogun Ashikaga Takauji
Emperor Go-Daigo
Emperor Go-Daigo


The picture below is the battle array of Minato river, between Ashikaga Takauji's army (and all his Generals) and Kusunoki Masashige's little band of followers. The scary man charging forward on the white horse is Nitta Yoshisada (1301-1338) -- Kusunoki's best colleague and another paragon of everything good according to the Japanese system of merits. Click here for it.

Map of Kusunoki's battleNitta Yoshisada

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