Posted by: B Gourley | July 10, 2008

The Virtuous Life of Kusunoki Masashige

I took the photo of the statue to the left in a park outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on a recent trip to Japan. The warrior that the statue honors is Kusunoki Masashige. The statue is not there because of any role that Kusunoki had in Edo (predecessor name for Tokyo), his exploits were carried out to the southwest in the area closer to Osaka and Kyoto. Rather, it is because he is considered such a paragon of virtue that his statue has such a prominent place in the nation’s capital.

It should be noted that the legend of Kusunoki Masashige has probably been inflated beyond reality. Kusunoki is a major character in the war tale called the “Taiheiki” that chronicles the war between the Northern and Southern courts in the 14th century, and this book serves as a major source of information about the man’s life. However, while there is almost certainly exaggeration, there seems to be a great deal of consensus about the gist the events of his life, and, even by a conservative reading, he is an estimable individual.

Kusunoki was not particularly noteworthy in terms of his position or his activities before he became involved in the war against the Hojo Shogunate. He was head of a small rural fief. Instead, he is remember as a brilliant strategist who was able to defeat forces that held overwhelming advantages, and, even more so, as an exemplar of epic loyalty.

As a strategist, he is most well known for his success at Chihaya, a crucial fortress that he took control of and then maintained against a ten week siege by a vastly larger force of the Hojo Shogunate army. He used guerrilla tactics to both defend, and, on occasion, to make swift attacks against the opposition. One method he used to defeat a large number of men with only a few was to lure the opposition forces into position to crush them with falling boulders. He had large boulders positioned so that his forces could roll them down on the opponent. He then used a deceit by setting up dummy warriors to draw the warriors into position. He was then able to use a small force to take the remaining prisoners. He is also known to have taken advantage of vanity by taunting opponents into unwise attacks.

However, what Kusunoki is most beloved for by the Japanese people is his supreme loyalty. He fought for Emperor Go-Daigo without wavering. His tragic tale ended when he followed an order that he knew would lead to his ultimate demise. He died by sepuku with his brother and, apparently, much of the remainder of his force after having fought a hard, but doomed, battle at the Minato River. His story stands in stark contrast to that of the man who defeated him. Ashikaga Takauji fought with Emperor Go-Daigo’s forces to oust the Hojo Shogunate, but later fought against Kusunoki on a course that would allow Ashikaga to eventually start his own Shogunate. While loyalty and honor are seen as core samurai values, it is none-the-less true that the more self-serving Ashikaga was likely more typical than the exemplary Kusunoki.


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