The Battle of the Sengoku Jidai: Uesugi Kenshin vs. Takeda Shingen


The revered military commander during Japan’s feudal era Uesugi Kenshin was faced with adversity after adversity during his lifespan in what is known as the most tumultuous time in Japanese history. Having moved time after time after time to seek refuge and build up a commanding force, Kenshin’s time to shine came as two Shinano lords named Ogasawara Nagatoki and Murakami Yoshikiyo sought his help to stop Takeda Shingen who was a powerful lord from expanding his territories onto their land. Since Shingen’s advances had brought him very close to Echigo where Kenshin was lord, he agreed to help in order to protect his own land. His entry into this battle was the start of a legendary rivalry which led Shingen and Kenshin to face each other several times on the battlefield with the most serious confrontation taking place in Kawanakajima.

In this battle which was fought in 1561, Kenshin used an ingenious military technique where the troops in the frontline would change positions with those in the back to allow treatment of the wounded as well as to rest those who were on the front line. This proved to be highly effective and Shingen was almost defeated as a result. However, Kenshin was unable to defeat Takeda and his army retreated where many drowned in a river which was nearby while others were cut down by Shingen.

The battle which has been studied by scholars has shown no clear winners as each lord suffered serious loses with Kenshin loosing 3000 men and Shingen 4000 men as well as two of his closest generals who included his youngest brother Takeda Nobushige and Yamamoto Kansuke who was a close advisor. Though the two leaders were rivals, they exchanged gifts with the most popular being when Shingen presented to Kenshin a sword which he greatly valued. On the death of Takeda Shingen, Kenshin is said to have wept loudly at the death of a worthy adversary. On his deathbed, Shingen praised Kenshin as an honorable warrior and bid his son to rely on Kenshin’s help when faced with the need.

The two warring sides became allies after 3 long hard fought years. Another incident between the two was when merchants hoarded salt which was an important commodity as it was used to store food and refused to deliver it to Shingen’s territories. Kenshin who could have cut off the lifeline of Shingen at that time but refused to do so as it was dishonorable and ordered his merchants to deliver salt to Shingen’s domains at the price in which they were being sold in Echigo. He made a statement saying that battles in sengoku Japan were to be won with spears and swords and not with salt and rice.

In 1551, Kenshin was called upon by Uesugi Norimasa to provide refuge to him as he fled the expansion of the Hojo clan in Kanto. He provided refuge for Norimasa but was not in a position to attack the Hojo at the time. In 1559, he paid homage to Shogun in the Kyoto region and used this time to visit historical and religious sites that abounded in the region. This heightened his reputation as a cultured leader. He then returned home and a move against the Hojo was successful except that he was not able to capture Odawara Castle.

Uesugi Kenshin died in the winter of 1577-1578 after a seizure. The cause of death is not clear as some sources claim he was assassinated by a ninja while others say that heavy drinking as well as stomach cancer may have caused his death. In his life though Kenshin loved battles, he also worked hard to increase the economic strength of Echigo. He introduced incentives designed to increase trade and gave merchants special privileges to entice them to do business in his region during the sengoku period.

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