Uesugi Kenshin was born on the 18th of February in the province of Echigo. He was the fourth son of Nagao Tamekage, and was named Nagao Kagetora. He was adopted into the Uesugi clan who then ruled Echigo Province; this was during the Sengoku period of Japan.
He was one of the most authoritative leaders of the period, and was mostly known for his excellence and prowess on the battlefield.
There was a rise in the standard of living in his province. This was all due to his aptitude as an extremely skillful administrator who promoted the growth of local industries and trade.
Kenshin, as he was fondly called, was a rival of another equally famous warlord named Takeda Shingen – a military expert and tactician.
He was also a man who considered it his mission to restore order in the Kanto region as Kanto Kanrei. Plus, Kenshin was also extremely faithful to the God of War, Bishamonten.
Uesugi Kenshin Parental Heritage
His father was a powerful warlord named Nagao Tamekage yet was considered as an enemy before submitting and becoming a vassal of Yamaouchi Uesugi. He belongs to the Nagao clan and comes from a generation of the retainers under the Yamanouchi branch of his clan.
Kenshin’s father was at odds in his later years upon learning that his neighboring province had issues with the Ikko Ikki of Hokuriku. During that period, it was the ruling political power in the region, and the sudden rise of Hongan-ji caused the deterioration of Echigo.
His father gathered an army then marched with his forces. They suddenly encountered a surprise attack by forces under the leadership of Enami Kazuyori. This was the battle where Nagao Tamekage was slain and caused his army to disperse.
Kenshin was taken to safety from this conflict and was relocated to the Rinsen-ji Temple. From the age of 7 to 14, he dedicated his life to studying the martial arts and Zen.
Uesugi Kenshin: A Prodigy
When he was only 14, Kenshin was immediately recruited by Usami Sadamitsu and other associates of his late father. He was encouraged to challenge his older brother’s rule.
Kenshin’s brother had poor health and was not an effective leader; at first, Kenshin was hesitant about being in a position of command. However, he was eventually convinced that he needed to lead in order for Echigo to survive and thrive.
A year after, Kenshin was placed in joint command of Tochio Castle which led him to gain a reputation for himself. He was able to successfully defend the castle against the rebels who were plotting against the Uesugi.
At some point, Kenshin needed to take control of the clan from Nagao Harukage, his older brother, yet after several years, Harukage eventually stepped down.
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The Dragon of Echigo
Kenshin’s fearsome skills in martial arts were clearly displayed when utilized on the battlefield. While he was known as the Dragon of Echigo, his rival Takeda Shingen was called the Tiger of Kai.
Both of these warriors studied the works of Sun Tzu. And although the Dragon and the Tiger may be bitter rivals, they are still equal in a lot of ways.
Neither one could defeat the other or gain an edge over the other. These two rivals fought at Kawanakajima, one of the popular battles during Japan’s feudal period.
His attempts at solidifying power in the region were still in its infancy stage; yet when Kenshin became the new Lord of Echigo, he needed to join forces and create an alliance with two other lords.
Kenshin was known for his military success which was related to his successful reform efforts on trade and other economic networks.
From these methods of financial reforms, he was able to take control over commerce and establish feudal ties with various warriors through land grants.
Kenshin established these statutes where tax breaks were given for war. These bills benefited the common folks, as well as those belonging to the elite of Japanese society.
His plan was to centralize the lands surrounding the capital. These were followed by reforms for the consolidation of the imperial lands; these covered a 2-year plan from 1560 to 1562 that was indicated in the Kanto Campaign.
Despite his attempts to improve economic and agricultural condition over the capital, Kenshin was unable to implement some of his plans such as cadastral surveys, military improvements.
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Clash with Takeda Shingen
Uesugi Kenshin was famous for his conflict between Takeda Shingen. Both of them were lords cautious of getting involved in minor rumbles yet they engaged in about five different skirmishes during their time.
Five of their conflicts occurred in Kawanakajima, and the fourth one was said to be the most serious since it involved an all-out battle between these two.
Uesugi Kenshin At The Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima
When Shingen and Kenshin fought their biggest battle, Kenshin was inventive enough to use an out of the box tactic. He let the soldiers follow a special formation where units in front would swap with the units on the rear.
This tactic allowed those who were tired and wounded to take a break. The other set of soldiers who were rested ventured out for the attack.
This technique nearly allowed Kenshin to beat Shingen. However, Kenshin failed to finish his nemesis when one of the enemy’s retainers drove him away.
Scholars are still divided when it comes to declaring who was the real victor of this war. The war was considered a draw while having the largest casualty battle in the Sengoku period.
There was about 72 percent of Kenshin’s army who died, while Shingen’s troops lost about 62 percent. However, the biggest loss that Shingen had were his generals who played an important role in the success of his battles.
Uesugi Kenshin: Respect towards His Competitors
Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen may have been great rivals, yet there were other collaborations between these two that did not have anything to do with war.
For instance, when Hojo boycotted salt supplies to the Province of Kai, Kenshin helped by sending salt to Shingen from his own province. Kenshin even sided with Shingen on this salt supply shortage issue.
In 1559, Uesugi Kenshin accompanied 5000 men, paying homage to the shogun in Kyoto. This homage made him a cultured leader since he was able to establish himself as being more than just a warlord.
Uesugi Norimasa took control of the Kanto region from the Hojo which ended the siege of Odawara Castle in the Province of Sagami.
He was able to break the defenses, burning the town in the process. However, the castle remained standing due to the threats received from Shingen.
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Uesugi Kenshin’s Collision with Oda Nobunaga
Uesugi Kenshin did notice how Nobunaga Oda‘s forces were growing to be a threat; he has even become the country’s most powerful warlord of that time.
Because two other warlords died, there was no one else to block off the realm of expansion; and since the lord who ruled Noto Province also died, Kenshin took advantage of the conflict and confusion to threaten Nobunaga and his followers. Kenshin was able to triumph and get a solid victory on the field by his tactical attacks.
The God of War’s Death
It was in 1577 when Uesugi Kenshin’s life ended. He arranged a grand army to proceed with his assaults into Nobunaga’s land. He was able to form an alliance against Nobunaga with Takeda Katsuyori, yet the plan was held off due to bad weather.
Unfortunately, Kenshin died in the spring, not because of battle wounds but because of esophageal cancer. Although this was declared as the cause of his death, a lot of people still questioned this.
Uesugi Kenshin: Other Theories of His Demise
Another theory though was that he died because of ninja assassination. The story states that a ninja was waiting close to the latrine in Kenshin’s camp with a spear in hand; however, some claim that it was a sword and not a spear.
It was speculated that if this form of death was true, then the person behind the assassination would have been Nobunaga. This was due to the death poem that he had written which was about the death of a wounded and dying man.
To acknowledge all of his efforts and offerings during his time, a Kenshin Festival that began in 1926 occurs during the month of August to commemorate his honor.
Image Source: Utagawa Kuniyoshi [Public domain]