Benkei: The Warrior Monk Who Died Standing

Benkei: The Warrior Monk Who Died Standing

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Benkei
Picture: legao / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Benkei was a Warrior Monk whose life was filled with rich history and folklore. Or at least, that's how the tale is told...

A hulking figure stood before the gate. His massive frame blocked all who dared attempt to pass. All around lay the slumped bodies of the Northern Fujiawa warriors, laid low by the glistening blade of the guardian’s naginata.

The remaining Fujiwara soldiers gazed on in fright, their drawn swords quaking with fear; despite the monastic robes peeking out from his samurai armor, the warrior who stood before them appeared a demon. Unbelievably, it appeared the rumors about the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei were true. He was a divine monster in human form.

Deep in the interior beyond the gate where Benkei stood was the Fujiwara samurai’s quarry: Minamoto no Yoshitsune, rebel brother to the newly proclaimed shogun, Yoritomo. Even now, Yoshitsune was preparing to commit seppuku, engaging in an honorable suicide that would steal from Yoritomo the prestige of capturing his brother.

Benkei, in his last moments, was ensuring that his liege, Yoshitsune, would escape such shame.

The Legend is Born

The amassed Fujiwara warriors, unnerved and restless, ceased sending samurai to their slaughter at the hands of the smiling monk. Instead, their archers took aim; a hail of arrows flew towards Benkei. The monk stood tall, not even flinching as the bolts impacted his armor and flesh. The volley ceased, but impossibly, Benkei still stood, grinning at his opponents like some supernatural pin-cushion. The fearful samurai again took aim; again the arrows found home. Still, Benkei stood.

Benkei continued to stand guard, his body riddled with arrows. Finally, a Fujiwara warrior crept near. As he approached the warrior monk, he recoiled in shock. Close up, it was clear: Benkei was already dead. His soul having departed, his body still carried out its duty.

By the time the Fujiwara rushed past the upright cadaver, it was too late. They found Yoshitsune already dead by his own hand. Yoritomo’s prize had been denied him.

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Thus did Yoshitsune and Benkei escape far beyond where their enemies could harm them. They’d fled into legend.

Stand Tall Tale

The tale of Benkei’s inhumanly brave (literal) last stand to assure his master’s honor serves as the epilogue to the greatest war story in Japanese history.

Yoshitsune and Benkei, the archetypal master-loyal retainer of the past thousand years of Japanese folk history, have become the principal heroes of the Genpei War (1180–1185). In a historical war that spelled the end of imperial rule for near a millennium and the rise of samurai military leadership, it is these two more than anyone who have come down to popular memory. Benkei’s loyalty to the bitter end and beyond is one of the strongest images to emerge from Japanese history. Storytellers in various media have told and retold aspects of the warrior monk’s personal story for centuries.

There’s only one problem: in all likelihood, it never happened.

Benkei: The Warrior Monk Who Died Standing

Musashibo Benkei, the archetypal warrior monk and ultimate example of loyalty to the bitter end, is many things. In legends, he is a principal player in the …

Watch our video essay version of this article on our YouTube channel.

Growing in the Telling

To be sure, there was a Yoshitsune. In fact, there seems to have been a Benkei (although the closest documents we have to contemporary sources only ever mention him as one among many companions to Yoshitsune.) But the vision of Benkei as warrior monk (the warrior monk in Japanese folklore, really); of a moonlit duel with Yoshitsune that cemented their relationship; tales of daring-do in their northern escape from Yoritomo’s grasp; of Benkei’s final show of undying loyalty; all this seems to be the creation of ever-evolving folklore produced over the course of 900 years.

There's only one problem with the Benkei story: In all likelihood, it never happened. Share on X

Yet when legends become so ingrained in the popular consciousness, their so-called reality ceases to be of that much importance. Benkei is such a legend. Imagine Friar Tuck combined with Little John to make a monstrously, near-supernaturally powerful warrior, and with at least something more of a historical basis. Yoshitsune is something like the Robin Hood in this situation, and together the two loom large over Japanese myth-making.

Legend Vs. Fact

The difference, of course, is the clear connection to real history. Benkei supposedly lived during the years 1155–1189. These decades encompass the final years of the Heian era, where the Japanese imperial court became increasingly secluded and art and poetry flourished, and the very beginning of the Kamakura era, when Yoritomo founded the first shogunate and temporal power fell into the hands of the samurai. In other words, Benkei comes from a time in Japanese history distant enough as to be almost on the cusp of mythic, where the stories that have developed around his personage have had a near-millennia to become ingrained and likely completely divorced from whatever reality he may have once had.

His legend stands in stark comparison to, say, Saigo Takamori (1828 – 1877). Saigo, architect of the Meiji Restoration and famed “last samurai,” was already a legend in his own time; even before his death, popular imagination saw him as more than human and destined for deification. However, despite the multitude of myths that surround Saigo (including, like Benkei, an apocryphal tale of a heroic last stand involving seppuku), his history lays close enough that we can fairly easily parse the legends from the reality. Benkei comes from a much murkier period. The late Heian and early Kamakura eras are just close enough that we can generally perceive the historical events surrounding Benkei; the historical Benkei himself, however, lies in shadow.

An Era in Flux

The reality is, however, that the legends themselves are what mostly matter now. The varied and self-perpetuating versions of the Benkei legend have spawned innumerable plays (both Noh and Kabuki), oral folklore, artworks, and in the modern era, manga, anime, and movies. Benkei is such a familiar character that parodies and references to him abound in all manner of media not in any way focused on the Genpei War. So, whether historical or no, the tale of Benkei is one worth knowing.

As we’ve seen, the legend of Musashibo Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶) comes out of the real historical setting of the Genpei War. The conflict in question emerged in the waning days of imperial domination over what then constituted Japan. While the imperial family of Japan was already hundreds of years old, its grip on the archipelago was already patchy and fractured. This was in part because of the nature of ancient Japanese demographics.

The vast majority of the population of 6 million lived in tiny rural settlements; most “Japanese” of the time resided in dugout thatch homes in small villages which hosted a few families. From the capital in Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto), the imperial court attempted to wrest enough taxation from these scattered villages to support their lavish lifestyles and the apparatus of the state. With agriculture unpredictable and difficult, however, most of the population didn’t create enough surplus rice to bear the burden of taxation. When a bad harvest came, many families would slip into the ether of the mountains or move far afield, evading imperial tax collectors. The small population and uncooperative tax base meant that the imperial family of the era was poorer and weaker than they had been in past centuries.

The Coming of the Samurai

This lack of income led to an increasingly frugal central government. Construction of palaces and temples came to a standstill. The imperial family even felt the need to downsize: the government gave descendants of former emperors surnames, essentially demoting them out of the royal bloodline. Two such groups of former royals became the Taira (平) and the Minamoto (源), their new warrior lifestyles leading them to be the two most influential samurai families of the era.

A weakened imperial government paved the way for two rising classes. One was the samurai, government-hired warriors who collected taxes and ruled the vast countryside. The other was the Buddhist clergy and their powerful temples. Much like the evolution of the samurai via demoted royals and nobles, the strength of the temples grew as cash-strapped nobility sent extraneous sons to take the tonsure, ensuring them some level of temporal power. The temples even had a military wing capable of checking the samurai. These were the Sohei (僧兵): warrior monks. Between the militant actions of such supposed pacifistic Buddhist priests and the power-jockeying by former nobles inserted into their ranks, there became a widespread stereotype of the “evil monk.”

This is the age into which Benkei was supposedly born. It also demonstrates the political realities his legend represents. Benkei is both saint and sinner, religious devotee and killer. His story comes at the end of an era and the beginning of a new one; but as his legend spread, it began to appeal more and more to the people of the samurai era he supposedly helped create.

A Birth Divine and Demonic

Amazon.com: JAPANESE TV DRAMA Musashibo Benkei Complete Edition Vol.1 [DVD]  (JAPANESE AUDIO , NO ENGLISH SUB.): Movies & TV
Benkei has been depicted in numerous tales, paintings, and recreations, including a 1986 NHK drama.

The many tales of Benkei’s birth represent the strange dichotomy of his place in Japanese legend. How Benkei came into the world differs, from his first major appearance in the Gikeiki (義経記), “The Chronicle of Yoshitsune”, written in the 1300s, to later medieval stories and legends. All, however, tend to reflect some supernatural origin.

Benkei is usually the son of the administrator of the Kumano Shrine in modern Wakayama. His mother, often a women kidnapped by his father, experiences an unnaturally long gestation: 18 months. Benkei’s origins often resemble the story of the Buddha: a spirit enters his mother’s side, he grows inside of her for many months, and emerges unnaturally old. At birth, he’s already an active child with holy – or demonic – qualities.

Young Benkei is strong, his eyes “catlike,” and his skin appears strangely dark to the Japanese of the day. (Some legends say his mother was impregnated by a block of iron.) His fearsome appearance terrifies his religious father, who believes the inhuman boy an enemy of Buddhism. Benkei’s father attempts to kill him but his mother spirits the boy away. The newborn youth ends up in the mountains (or, in one version, on a wild island on the large Nakaumi Lake of Shimane Prefecture, now called “Benkei Island”). In the wilderness, animals protect him. His father or another personage then decides to consign him to the care of monks, his guardians hoping that Buddhist teachings will tame his wild nature.

A Man Not Yet a Monk

Young Benkei now finds himself a youthful acolyte of the temples of Mount Hiei, overlooking Lake Biwa, largest body of water in Japan. Mt. Hiei is home to Enryaku-ji, a sprawling complex of temples and monasteries that held great political power during the Heian era and which remains one of the most historically significant centers of Buddhism in Japanese history. The warrior monks of Enryaku-ji provided Mt. Hiei with great temporal power; they even marched on Kyoto to enforce their will. In 1571, hundreds of years after the time of Benkei, the great warlord Oda Nobunaga still considered Enryaku-ji enough of a threat that he raized the complex to the ground.

In other words, there could be no better location to place young Benkei for him to fulfill his legendary destiny as the most famed of warrior monks. At Enryaku-ji, the youth continued to exemplify his oppositional qualities. He excelled at sutra memorization and Buddhist learning; yet still the monks could not quell his rambunctious, violent side. After he terrorizes other acolytes, the order eventually expels Benkei. The pig-headed Benkei, however, refuses to allow his Buddhist journey to end there. Famously, he tonsures himself – haphazardly taking vows and performing ceremonies that by all rights necessitate observing monks to perform. The end result is that Benkei declares himself to have become a full-fledged monk.

Leaving the monestary, Benkei decides he needs the proper dark vestments commensurate with his self-declared rank. Spotting an old monk with clothing of the proper size and make, he asks they be given him; when the monk refuses, Benkei takes the clothing by force, handing over his colorful acolytes robes in exchange. Despite having broken the precept against theft only moments after having taken the tonsure, he justifies this as an “exchange.”

Benkei, Agent of Chaos

Benkei's loyalty to the bitter end and beyond is one of the strongest images to emerge from Japanese history. Aspects of the monk's personal story have been told and retold for centuries. Share on X

From this point on, Benkei engages in similarly immoral actions that conflict with his status as a monk; he tricks artisans into crafting his armor and trademark naginata (a long staff with a curved blade at the end), then runs off without paying; he then uses his religious knowledge to pressure a merchant into donating reams of silk that he might repay the artisans. Benkei also injures or kills those monks who criticize his actions and accidentally burns down the Shoshazan temple in Himeji. He also amasses a collection of seven deadly weapons, all of which he keeps slung off his back at any given time.

Benkei’s nature in many versions of his story as something akin to a god of chaos, something exemplified in the following passage which starts the Musashibo E-Engi, a 16th-century art scroll that relates a humorous version of the Benkei legend:

When the dragon screams, the clouds rise. This is not something the crane could ever achieve. When the tiger roars, the winds rise. This is not something the earthworm could ever achieve. In this world where things are momentary like lightning, morning dew, and the spark of a flint, many are the unfortunate and amazing things, but none of them are as unbelievable as [the very idea of] Musashibo Benkei of the Western Pagoda dwelling in a place without provoking some kind of disturbance.

Translation as featured in Strippoli, R. (2015).

Throughout this all, Benkei vacillates between joyous chaos and guilt-ridden piety. Like many great figures of myth, his powerful instincts and moral center make for an intriguing inner conflict. Benkei is still battling his urge to fight when, in Heian-kyo, he meets another legend with whom his fate intertwines.

Moonlight Duel

Here occurs what is perhaps the most iconic episode of the Benkei legend. The story usually goes that Benkei has been prowling Heian-kyo, looking for warriors to duel. Inhumanly strong, Benkei bests samurai after samurai. His goal is to collect 1000 swords off his defeated foes. (Much of the popular Benkei story has to do with him humiliating those in power, be they monks or samurai.)

Dusk has fallen in the capital. The form of Benkei looms over the Gojo Bridge. Night after night, the warrior monk has guarded the passage. He has challenged each samurai who has dared try to cross, adding their swords to his collection one after another. Benkei has now amassed 999 blades. His goal is almost complete.

Then, on the wind, he hears the subtle notes of a flute. Standing before him is a slender, feminine form, draped in silks. Benkei almost lets the flute-playing interloper pass…until he notices the sword at their side.

Benkei’s Victory

Benkei yells out a challenge and readies his naginata. But the small figure in front of him simply leaps out of the way of his blade. The self-declarative monk presses his attack, but to no avail – the swordsman easily avoids each blow, gracefully vaulting over Benkei’s slashes. Finally, the swordsman unsheathes his blade, which ought to have been Benkei’s 1000th trophy. Striking the much larger man’s arm, he sends the naginata spinning to the ground. Musashibo Benkei, seemingly invincible, has been easily bested. The lithe warrior laughingly tells Benkei that he would like him for a retainer, and then disappears from sight.

For the first time, a foe has utterly embarrassed Benkei. Thoughts of revenge boil up inside him. Yet another part of Benkei desires to pledge himself to this man – who he at first assumes must be some sort of Bodhisattva, attempting to guide him back towards the Middle Way. He decides to try his strength one more time. Searching high and low, he finally hears the same winsome sound of the flute emanating from Kiyomizu-dera Temple. A second duel follows – and Benkei falls even more swiftly.

Overawed, Benkei pledges his life in service of this wondrous warrior, a young man known as Ushiwakamaru – and, more formally, as Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

Child of Strife

The duel at Gojo Bridge is the meeting point between two of the most famous figures of Japanese folklore. It is here that hulking, brutish Benkei and refined, feminine Yoshitsune become inseparable. Both are at least nominally historical figures, and both figure in innumerable legends, their iconography persisting to this day.

The historical Yoshitsune was born the ninth son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, head of the powerful Minamoto clan and a reknowned samurai general. Yoshitsune’s father had fought alongside the Taira clan during the Hogen Rebellion of 1156, helping Emperor Go-Shirakawa maintain power against a pretender. Their victory established the Taira and Minamoto clans as the two great samurai powers of their day; however, in 1160, Yoshitomo overplayed his hand.

While Taira no Kiyomori, wealthy leader of the Taira, was away from the capital on a pilgrimage, Yoshitomo took cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa hostage. He was still attempting to set up a new government when Kiyomori returned to Heian-kyo and put the imperial palace to seige. In the battles that followed, Kiyomori’s forces crushed Minamoto and Yoshitomo fled in disgrace. During his attempted flight, he was betrayed and killed while taking a bath; his eldest sons were also casualties of the fighting and later executions.

The Taira now reigned supreme as the most powerful samurai family in Japan, with Kiyomori becoming something akin to the first Shogun in Japanese history. In a surprising show of largess, Kiyomori spared his deceased rival’s younger sons, Yoritomo, Yoshitsune, and Noriyori, sending them into exile. A famous image from this narrative shows Yoshitsune’s mother, Tokiwa Gozen, fleeing across a snowy plain, her young child bundled up in her robes.

The Boy who Fought with Crow Demons

Yoshitsune, still known as Ushiwakamaru, thus grew up an exile. At the age of seven, his guardians left him in the care of the monks of Mt. Kurama, not far from the Enryaku-ji of Benkei’s childhood.

Here, history and myth again intertwine; in popular storytelling, Ushiwakamaru encounters Sojobu, king of the monstrous crow-demon tengu, while exploring Mt. Kurama. Approaching an abandoned temple on a plain near the hills, a flock of long-nosed tengu sweep up Ushiwakamaru. He is, in a sense, “spirited away” – experiencing kamikakushi (神隠し, kidnap by a yokai or god). The Tengu King, however, is impressed by young Ushiwakamaru. He decides that his supernatural subjects will train the young lad in their secret martial arts, so that he may avenge his father.

(Interesting is how similar tengu iconography is to that of Benkei himself. The crow demons have an intrinsic connection to the real-life yamabushi (山伏), ascetics who trained deep in the mountains and supposedly gained supernatural abilities as a result. Artists often portray the tengu and Benkei wearing yamabushi attire, and Benkei in general often looks quite tengu-esque.)

It is supposedly thanks to the tengu training that Ushiwakamaru can so effortlessly leap over Benkei’s attacks during their duel. With these new abilities under his belt, Ushiwakamaru leaves Mt. Kurama. His destination is far beyond the reach of the Taira clan, in the distant north. He finds refuge in the capital of the Northern Fujiwara. At the time, the northeast region now called Tohoku was essentially a separate country from the Japanese south. Here, in the lands once ruled by the indigenous Emishi people, the Northern Fujiwara clan had built a capital to rival even Kyoto in its grandeur: Hiraizumi. It is also here that, much later, Ushiwakamaru and Benkei will both meet their untimely ends.

Yoshitsune and Benkei, Avenging Warriors

Benkei Island in Shimane Prefecture
“Benkei Island” (also known as Turtle Island; kamejima) in Shimane Prefecture. (Picture: Yama / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Following their duels, Ushiwakamaru and Benkei, allied now and forever, join forces in the former’s war of vengeance against the Taira. Over the following years, they engage in a series of legendary attacks on Taira; many medieval tales of the two center around this period of their victorious exploits. Benkei, having found a master and a cause, is now a great hero rather than a chaotic menace. Together they form the perfect folkloric duo – handsome, honorable, and feminine Yoshitsune alongside hulking, powerful, masculine Benkei.

Historically, Yoshitsune received word that his half-brother, Yoritomo, had raised up an army to challenge Taira control of the central government. He and his other surviving brother, Minamoto no Noriyori, rushed to join the fray. Both became generals, and in the battles that followed they proved themselves more effective at defeating their Taira foes than their elder brother and liege, Yoritomo. The Genpei War (1180-1185) had begun.

Beyond Yoshitsune’s historical victories, legends speak of his and Benkei’s shrewd escapes from the clutches of the Taira. In such tales, Benkei and Yoshitsune often act as one – various tales of their lives concentrate on this period of triumphant heroism, eschewing any discussion of their tragic fates. In real life, the Minamoto forces faced initial defeats and setbacks, such as their retreat at the Battle of Ishibashiyama.

Yoritomo used lulls in the fighting – often caused by widespread famine – to establish his own power base in Kamakura. The illness-related death of Taira no Kiyomori in 1181 also tipped the odds in Minamoto favor. The tide of the war officially changed following the Battle of Kurikara in 1183; a rival for Minamoto leadership, Yoshinaka, used a series of demoralizing tactics to set the Taira forces to flight. Soon, these forces compelled the Taira to abandon Kyoto, which Yoshinaka gladly occupied without a fight.

Yoshinaka re-installed cloistered emperor Go-Shirakawa as ruler, but began in secret to establish himself as the real power behind the throne. Sending a force west to pursue the Taira, he plotted a simultaneous assault on his cousin Yoritomo in Kamakura. Someone betrayed his plans, however, and Yoshitsune and Noriyori advanced on Kyoto with a massive host. Yoshinaka retreated, taking the emperor as a hostage; Yoshitsune, Benkei, and Noriyori soon caught up to him. Yoshitsune led his cavalry across the Uji River, defeating his traitorous cousin’s forces. Their final clash came at the Battle of Awazu, where legends say the famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen fought valiantly at Yoshinaka’s side. Yoshinaka was felled by an arrow while his mount was mired in the mud; Yoshitsune reigned victorious, marking his brother’s ascendancy as uncontested lord of the Minamoto.

The End of the Taira

The unified Minamoto, led by Yoshitsune, now marched west from Kyoto, hoping the deal the Taira a final blow. The Taira, meanwhile, dug into fortifications on islands throughout the Inland Sea; Kiyomori had overseen the Taira transformation into a clan of wealthy maritime merchants; they had the advantage of their experience on the sea. Benkei took part in one of the most famous engagements during these latter stages of the war, the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani. According to the Tale of the Heike, Benkei found an aged hunter who showed Yoshitsune a small deer path they could use to ambush the Taira forces. When the old man said deer used the path to forage in the winter, Yoshitsune replied “if deer can use this path, then we shall ensure that horses can do the same.”

The last stand of the Taira occurred on the Straits of Shimonoseki, the narrow body of water separating the main Japanese islands of Kyushu and Honshu. One of the most famous naval battles in Japanese history, the maritime Taira should have had an advantage; however, betrayal by one of their generals shifted the initiative to the Minamoto. Arrows flew across the water, finding armor, wood, and flesh; finally, as the boats of the two forces neared each other, boarding parties fought in hand-to-hand combat. The young emperor Antoku, a claimant supported by the Taira, drowned. Seeing that all was lost, the Taira attempted to consign the imperial regalia (a holy sword, mirror, and jewel, symbols of the imperial family) to the depths of Shimonoseki, but were stopped before they could finish the job. Only the jewel was recovered.

(In a wondrously creepy coincidence, the crabs which inhabit Shimonoseki bare a carapace that greatly rembles the grimacing face of a samurai. Many believed that these heikegani were the reincarnated souls of the Taira who perished during the Battle of Dan-no-Ura.)

Yoshitsune’s victory cemented Minamoto supremacy in Japan. His brother, Yoritomo, was now the most powerful man in the land; soon, his power base in Kamakura would morph into the capital of Japan’s first military government, the Shogunate. Yoshitsune emerged as the most notable general in the country, with Benkei by his side. Their moment of glory, sadly, would be fleeting. Treachery was in the offing.

Benkei Betrayed

Yoritomo was a suspicious man; his sense of familial paranoia was only enhanced by his betrayal at the hands of his cousin Yoshinaka. With his brother Yoshitsune now the most renowned warrior in the land, Yoritomo began to experience pangs of jealousy and anxiety. In the imperial capital, Emperor Go-Shirakawa issued great honors to Yoshitsune; this only increased Yoritomo’s unease. Yoshitsune, despite all he had done for the Minamoto clan, now appeared as a threat. Yoritomo had his brother’s honors and recent appointment as governor of Iyo Province revoked. Yoshitsune wrote his brother a tearful letter, hoping to repair their relationship, but it was too late.

Yoritomo ordered their other brother, Noriyori, to assassinate their third sibling. Noriyori refused, instead going into exile; he would eventually be executed himself on Yoritomo’s orders. Meanwhile, Yoshitsune made his escape to the north, back towards the domain of the Northern Fujiwara.

The treacherous journey to the north features one of the most famous folktales regarding Benkei. From this point onwards, most narratives portray the once-martial Yoshitsune as increasingly passive. Benkei, instead, becomes the more active of the two, rescuing his master and attempting to ensure his safety. This is partly demonstrated in the famed border crossing incident during their journey to the north.

Benkei at the Border

The story goes that Benkei, Yoshitsune, and their retinue had disguised themselves as monks in order to sneak through hostile lands towards the north. On the way to Fujiwara lands and safety, they’re stopped by guards at a final checkpoint at Ataka. The guards are suspicious, having been told to keep an eye out for the famed warriors in disguise. The master of the guardpost asks what these so-called monks are doing in these lands; Benkei responds that they are collecting alms in order to restore the mighty Todai-ji temple in Nara. If so, the sly commander replies, surely they have with them a kanjincho – a roster of those who have donated to the cause, and the purpose therein.

Benkei produces a blank piece of paper. Having spent his youth in the temple complexes, he’s well-versed in their inner workings; amazingly, he is able to conjure up a convincing improvised recitation of a non-existent roster ex nihilo. The ruse appears to have worked. Just as the party is leaving, however, one of the guards recognizes Yoshitsune; in order to maintain their disguise, Benkei does the unthinkable. He begins to violently beat his master with his walking stick, punishing his would-be page for delaying their exit. Their deception is again believed, and they manage to escape. When Yoshitsune turns to Benkei to thank him for his quick-wittedness, the warrior monk breaks down in tears – perhaps for the only time in his life.

This tale forms the basis for two of the most famous Noh and Kabuki plays, respectively. The first is the Noh Ataka, and the second is the kabuki Kanjincho. Both feature Benkei as their protagonist, and both are among the most-performed plays of their artform; it is said that it is an insult to ask any great kabuki actor to practice for Kanjincho, as it is assumed they would already have performed the play so much as to know it by heart.

Farewell, Benkei

Thanks to Benkei’s efforts, Yoshitsune and their party arrive to the Northern Fujiwara domain. For a time, they find safety there; the lord, Fujiwara no Hidehira, pledges to protect Yoshitsune from his murderous brother. Secure behind the Fujiawara border, they spend some years in peace, plotting Yoshitsune’s return to Kyoto. However, with Hidehira’s death, everything changes. His son, Yasuhira, feels threatened by the ever-increasing power of Yoritomo’s shogunate to the south. He decides to break his father’s vow to Yoshitsune, and sends an army to capture him. This leads to Benkei’s immortalized last stand; surrounded by the Fujiwara army at their residence in Hiraiizumi, he uses his superhuman strength to fend off the enemy samurai just long enough for his master to escape into honorable suicide.

Here the tale of Benkei ends. (Yoshitsune, however, is sometimes resurrected in far-fetched stories of escape to Emishi lands, Hokkaido, or even under a new name in Mongolia: Genghis Khan.) But where this myth-making ends (and myth it seems to be, as this version of Benkei is likely an exaggerated version of the Enryaku-ji warrior monks who protected Yoshitsune in his initial flight from Kyoto), the cultural reinventions of Benkei go on seemingly forever.

A Monk for All Seasons

Through the innumerable plays, stories, and art pieces that center on Benkei from the medieval period on, the image of the warrior monk has become irrevocably affixed in the Japanese imagination. The imposing image of burly Benkei in his monk’s robes, naginata in his hand, is so ubiquitous that nearly any image of a warrior monk can somehow invoke Benkei. In modern Japan, the direct references, adaptations, and allusions to his story are so numerous that at least some of them bear mention.

Many of the most famous creators of modern Japan have taken on the Benkei story; “God of Manga” Tezuka Osamu wrote a manga series focusing on the warrior monk, which was recently adapted into a short anime; Kurosawa Akira, the most famous Japanese film director of all time, adapted the Ataka Guard Post story into one of his earliest movies, the wartime film The Men Who Tread the Tiger’s Tail. (虎の尾を踏む男達, 1945.)

In this film, Kurosawa regular Denjiro Okochi stars as Benkei, while the director’s first star, Susumu Fujita, portrays the master of the guard post. Yoshitsune is played by Iwai Hanshirō X, a famous kabuki actor. The movie was unable to be released before war’s end, whereupon the American occupation censors found its themes too “feudal” in nature, being about Benkei’s unflinching loyalty to his lord. They delayed Tiger’s Tail‘s release until 1952 – by which point Kurosawa had experienced much greater success with his films Stray Dog, Rashomon and Ikiru.

Animated Acolyte

In addition to various other films, Benkei appears in any number of anime and manga. The first time I ever encountered Benkei was in an early episode of Takahashi Rumiko’s hyper-popular gag anime, Urusei Yatsura. In the episode, lecherous main character Ataru is transported to Heian Japan to meet the person his potential love interest, Kurama, believes to be the ideal man: Yoshitsune. After watching Yoshitsune training with the tengu, he takes the warrior on a wild ride to Kyoto, hoping to find some beautiful women – only to encounter a woman-hating Benkei guarding the bridge.

Benkei also makes appearances in Yatterman, the Samurai Deeper Kyo manga, and Kamen Rider Ghost; the list goes on. He’s also made direct reference to in an episode of the ultra-popular kid’s whodunnit Detective Conan; more than that, he serves as visual reference to any number of characters in other anime, from Edward Newgate and Gyuukimaru in One Piece, to Azan in Berserk, to the pilots in the mecha anime Getter Robo. He also appears in video games as diverse as the artful Okami, popular children’s game Yo-Kai Watch, the Fate/Stay franchise, and battlers Nioh, Genji, and Onimusha.

Benkei is even the inspiration for the most re-occurrent character in Final Fantasy history: Gilgamesh. Despite his Sumerian namesake, Gilgamesh is rife with reference to Benkei, as the Final Fantasy Wiki well establishes:

From the story of Benkei, Gilgamesh takes his preference for the naginata (Benkei’s traditional weapon as a monk), his penchant for fighting on bridges, his collecting of weapons from enemies he defeats, and his friendship with the player’s characters who defeat him. Benkei’s devotion to Yoshitsune is the basis for Gilgamesh’s association with Genji equipment—the Minamoto Clan is also called the Genji Clan, using the alternate pronunciation for the Chinese characters for mina and motogen and uji, respectively. Gilgamesh’s face paint is based on traditional kabuki actors, for which Benkei is a popular character to portray.

Requested by None: Sexy Benkei

No Japanese cultural touchstone, alas, is complete without its rightful moe-fication. Various media have taken the famously ugly and oversized Benkei and, somehow, turned him into a sexed-up woman or a preternaturally beautiful man. These include the visual novel H-game Majikoi! Love Me Seriously!, wherein he’s a busty spear-bearing brunette; the brawling ecchii anime Ikkitousen, where like many a historical warrior he’s reborn as (once again) a busty high-schooler; in the trapped-in-another-world otome game Harukanaru Toki no Naka de as an attractive companion and potential love interest for the female protagonist; and as a hunky NPC in the dating sim Shall We Date? Ninja Destiny.

(Considering the popularity of anthropomorphizing WWII-era battleships into kawaii girls ala Kancolle, maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising.)

Benkei to the Future

When it comes to folkloric figures as ubiquitous as Benkei, the mythic tales, adaptations, and cultural references are too extensive to properly list in any given format. His image is simply too well-known; the individual and local legends pertaining to him too diverse in nature. He exists in an ever-extending variety of frameworks and formats which are only assured to increase in number as time goes on.

The legend of Benkei comes from a time of upheaval and transition in Japan; with Yoritomo’s ascent, the power structure that existed in Japan for centuries was upended. Benkei emerges as a character who both enforces that change by aiding in the defeat of the Taira, but who also fights against the perceived corruption that comes with Yoritomo (and the samurai’s) new rule. He is both an agent of chaos, revolution, and constancy – embodying the old image of the dangerous warrior monk and that of the loyalty-concerned new samurai class.

All of his conflicting elements result in one of Japanese folklore’s most potent characterizations, replete with unforgettable feats and incidents. When combined with his visual opposite, the heroic and tragic Yoshitsune, Benkei emerges as among the most long-lasting and indelible pieces of Japanese popular memory. A person that in many ways likely never was, Benkei will surely continue to wield his naginata for long centuries to come.

Saigo Takamori: Birth of a Legend

Sources

Strippoli, R. (2015). Warrior/Monk, Demon/Saint: Humor and Parody in the Late Medieval Tale of Benkei. Monumenta Nipponica 70(1), 39-81.

Farris, W. (2009). Japan to 1600: A Social and Economic History. University of Hawai’i Press.

Musashibo Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶). Japanese Wiki Corpus.

武蔵坊弁慶. フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. Accessed March 23rd, 2021.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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