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Ushiwakamaru

by Diane Skoss

Aiki News #95 (Spring/Summer 1993)

In Aikido Masters the character or story of Ushiwakamaru is mentioned in several of the interviews. The explanatory note, “A story where Yoshitsune, a famous general of the Kamakura period, is challenged by the naginata-wielding monk, Benkei,” does not really enlighten much. Who is this Ushiwakamaru, what is his story, and what significance does his tale have for practitioners of aikido?

Yoshitsune Minamoto, known in his youth as Ushiwakamaru, was the youngest son of Yoshitomo, head of the powerful Minamoto clan which was engaged in a struggle for supremacy with the Taira clan during the 12th century. Although Yoshitomo was defeated and his clan crushed by his rival Kiyomori Taira, several of his sons were allowed to live. Yoshitsune, the youngest, was sent to be raised by Buddhist priests at the temple of Mount Kurama, with the plan that he would one day take Buddhist vows. Instead, he snuck out into the wild, mountainous countryside where he encountered a Tengu, the mythical Japanese long-nosed goblin famed for their fighting skills. From the Tengu he learned “divine” techniques and became an extraordinarily skilled swordsman.

Musashibo Benkei was a famous warrior-monk, known for his enormous height and his fondness for and skill with the naginata. The story begins when Benkei vows to collect one thousand swords in order to help finance the rebuilding of a temple. Having collected nine hundred and ninety-nine swords by defeating their owners in duels, he decides to lie in wait at Gojo Bridge in Kyoto to collect the final sword.

A slender, womanish figure, who is playing a flute, strolls towards the bridge. At first Benkei does not even consider this mere boy as a possible opponent, but Ushiwakamaru perceives his disdain and baits him. When they begin to fight it becomes clear that the Tengu’s lessons have produced an extremely competent swordsman. The formidable monk swings his naginata in mighty arcs trying to catch the boy who parries lightly with his sword and dances out of reach. Over and over Benkei strikes at Ushiwakamaru, and over and over Ushiwakamaru easily evades and turns Benkei’s weapon aside. At last Benkei is too exhausted to continue and his naginata falls to the ground. He asks the boy for his name and is astonished to learn that he is the son of the vanquished general. He vows eternal fealty and becomes Yoshitsune’s most valued and trusted retainer.

In Japan, Benkei’s name conjures up notions of total and complete loyalty, who went even so far as to beat his master in order to preserve his disguise and safe his life, while Yoshitsune has become a classic tragic figure who was hounded to an early suicide by his jealous and power-hungry half-brother. In fact, little of the legend is historically accurate. Yoritomo, heir to the Minamoto clan, and Yoshitsune, after achieving the victories which restored their clan and defeated the Taira, did have a falling out, and Yoshitsune became a fugitive, was eventually cornered, and died a “noble” death at his own hand. Yoritomo, on the other hand, became a significant leader and innovator, establishing his military government at Kamakura, revamping the administration and legal system of Japan, and instituting a new discipline throughout the country.

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