Although Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189) is credited with the important Minamoto
land victories at Mikusayama
(1184) and Yajima
(1185) as well as the sea victory at Dannoura
(1185) in the Genpei war
, he is not remembered solely for his military accomplishments.
Neither is he remembered for contributions to the political structure of Japan like his brother, Minamoto Yoritomo. He is a folk hero in the Japanese culture because of the drama and tragedy of his own life. The extreme scale of this drama and tragedy seems somehow characteristic of the particular time in which Yoshitsune lived. The many reversals of fortune Yoshitsune experienced were engendered by the shifting power dynamics of an era of transition from the peace of the Heian era to the feudalism and warfare of the Kamakura era and the middle ages.
The romance of tragedy of his life and exploits have been the basis for countless legends, stories, and Kabuki plays celebrating the adventures of Yoshitsune and his faithful follower Benkei. Many Western-style novels and films have also been based on his life.
Yoshitsune was the son of Minamoto Yoshitomo (1123-60), who was killed while seeking refuge after his defeat by Taira Kiyomori in the Heiji Disturbance (1159). Kiyomori spared the infant Yoshitsune, who was placed in a monastery near the capital at Kyoto, where he trained to become a Buddhist monk. According to legend, on a bridge near the monastery, Yoshitsune encountered Benkei, who challenged him to a sword match. Easily defeated by Yoshitsune, Benkei became a trusted retainer.
At 15 Yoshitsune ran away from the monastery to join his older brother, Minamoto Yoritomo, in the Honshu region of northern Japan. Despite his youth, Yoshitsune proved to be a military genius in the revolt Yoritomo had raised against Taira Kiyomori. Provided with an army by Yoritomo, he was ordered to advance against the forces of his cousin Minamoto Yoshinaka, who threatened Yoritomo's plans for domination of Japan. Victorious over Yoshinaka, Yoshitsune occupied Kyoto. He then attacked the remaining Taira forces along the Inland Sea, annihilating them in a famous naval battle during the final stages of the Genpei war,
While in Kyoto, Yoshitsune became a favourite of the emperor and his court, arousing his brother Yoritomo's jealousy. Yoshitsune's attempt to visit his brother in the northern city of Kamakura was rebuffed with a letter charging the younger man with having taken arbitrary actions during his campaigns. Yoshitsune then attempted to raise a rebellion against him with the aid of his uncle Minamoto Yukiie, but, failing, he was forced to flee.
Hunted by his brother's soldiers, Yoshitsune wandered Japan for several years, often in the guise of a monk, before taking refuge with Fujiwara Hidehira, a powerful independent lord in northern Japan. When Hidehira died in 1187, after exacting a promise from his son to protect Yoshitsune, the son, fearful of Yoritomo, sent soldiers to surround Yoshitsune and force his suicide after killing his wife and daughter. His faithful side-kick Benkei died during this battle.
His head was then sent to Yoritomo preserved in saké , but Yoritomo, who was seeking to consolidate and complete his conquests, instead destroyed the Fujiwara headquarters, thus bringing all Japan under his sway.
The scale of such a life spared by the arch rival Yoshitsune helped defeat in a series of monumental battles that swept the whole country, only to be driven to death by his own brother who had attained supreme power in the country certainly could not have occurred in the peaceful Heian period. Heroes of the Heian era, like Hikaru Genji, in The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu were court figures, existing in a society without major turbulence or wars.
Later, during the medieval period, when the country was divided into autonomous fiefs at war with each other, such tales of sweeping battles between groups that swept the country could not occur. At the end of the middle ages, with Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, uniting the country in series of major wars, such tales were once again possible, and there are numberless tales about Nobunaga and Hideyoshi . However, the magnitude of turning tides of power in the military sense and personal sense in Yoshitsune's life are unmatched.
The Heike Monogatari, The Tale of Heike, which captures Yoshitsune's personal life, embellishing the turn of tides in his life by elaborating on the contrast between Yoshitsune and Yoritomo, and Yoshitsune's military victories and prowess with the sword, is thought to have started out as three volumes, eventually expanding to twelve.
Storytellers over the centuries have portrayed Yoshitsune's life story, with Noh plays based on The Tales of Heike. Even today, Yoshitsune's story, although following closer to The Tales of Heike version of character descriptions, was popularized in a recent manga, Shura no Toki.