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Takeda Shingen: The Tiger of Kai

Knowledge is not power, it is only potential.
Applying that knowledge is power.

Understanding why and when to apply that knowledge is wisdom!

– Takeda Shingen

Art by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Takeda Shingen (originally known as Takeda Harunobu) was born in 1521. He was the eldest son of Takeda Nobutora (1493–1573), the ruler of Kai, a strategic province in the center of Japan’s main island. A competent if not especially well-liked leader, Nobutora had secured the position of the Takeda in Kai and established his headquarters in Fuchu in 1519, building a castle called Yogai-jo on Maruyama, an 820-meter height north of the town. In the course of his career Nobutora fended off attacks against her borders by the Imagawa (1521) and the Hôjô (1526). During the campaign in 1521, Nobutora defeated an Imagawa general named Fukushima Ujikatsu at the Battle of Iidagawara and soon afterwards learned of the birth of his first son, whom he named Katsuchiyo.

When Katsuchiyo turned 13, Nobutora arranged for him to marry a the daughter of Ogigayatsu-Uesugi Tomooki, who still held considerable lands in the Kanto. This unfortunate young woman would die the following year, terminating what would, in time, come to seem a highly ironic union. Katsuchiyo's coming of age ceremony (around 1535) was something of an affair, and a number of court notables were in attendance, including a certain Sanjô Kinyori, a retired Dainogon, whose daughter Katsuchiyo would soon marry. The Shôgun, Ashikaga Yoshiharu, sent permission for Katsuchiyo to incorporate 'Haru' in his adult name, and Katsuchiyo thus became known as Harunobu. He was also given the honorific title Shinano no Kami (an appropriate moniker, as it would turn out). Despite this memorable coming of age ceremony, it would seem that Nobutora took a disliking to his eldest son. The reasons for this (however embellished this part of Shingen's life may have become over the centuries) are not clear, but were not eased by Harunobu's valuable role in the defeat of Hiraga Genshin in 1536. The events between 1536 and 1540 are entirely murky, with the Imagawa figuring into the controversy, possibly as agitators. It would appear that Nobutora planned to name his second son Nobushige heir, and perhaps ship Harunobu off to the Imagawa clan in Suruga (for adoption?). For years, Harunobu had been unde the guardianship of Obu Toramasa, a tough warrior who may well have been at the center of what transpired next. In 1541 Harunobu suddenly rebelled, supported by a great many of his father's retainers. Nobutora submitted with little bloodshed and Harunobu exiled his father to Suruga. In this act he had the aid of the top Takeda retainers, many of whom held personal grudges against Nobutora or at least saw some gain in assisting the young usurper to power. Nobushige, for his part, seems to have borne his brother no ill will, and became a valued retainer. Sources conflict on what the exact events where which led to the replacement of Nobuhide with Harunobu. One version of events is that in the 5th month of 1541, Nobutora and Harunobu went on a campaign together to attack Unno Munetsuna in Shinano province. Unno Munetsuna lost and fled the province, and by the 4th day of the 6th month, they were on thier way back to Kai. However, on the 10th day of thier trip back to Kai province, Harunobu suddenly rebelled in a coup supported by his ashigaru and retainers, forcing Nobutora to flee to Suruga Province, and in to the care of his daughter's husband, Imagawa Yoshimoto. This generally follows the Koyogunkan, which essentialy states that Harunobu uncovered a plot by Nobutora to dispose of him and eventually give control of the Takeda clan to his younger brother, Nobushige. According to the Koyogunkan, Harunobu and loyal vassals drove Nobutora out of Kai province into Suruga. Another version of events states that during the 6th month of 1541, Harunobu and Nobutora travelled to Suruga province to visit upon Nobutora's son in law, Imagawa Yoshimoto. Little did Nobutora know, Shingen and Yoshimoto had a secret agreement, and upon arrival, Nobutora was forcibly retired to Suruga castle, and his son Harunobu was given control of the Takeda clan. Although what really happened is not clear, historians seem to be in agreement that Imagawa Yoshimoto had a hand in the removal of Nobutora. Regardless , Harunobu took control of the clan in what is often specifically cited as a 'bloodless coup'.

One who was born in the house of a warrior, regardless of his rank or class, first acquaints himself with a man of military feats and achievements in loyalty... Everyone knows that if a man doesn't hold filial piety toward his own parents he would also neglect his duties toward his lord. Such a neglect means a disloyalty toward humanity. Therefore such a man doesn't deserve to be called 'samurai'.
– Takeda Shingen

Harunobu's chief ambition was the subjugation of Shinano but resistance in that quarter would prove fierce. A number of Shinano warlords, including Murakami Yoshikiyo (1510–1573), Ogasawara Nagatoki (1519–1583), Suwa Yorishige (?–1542), and Kiso Yoshiyasu, made a move designed to hopefully nip any further Takeda aggression in the bud. In April 1542 the four daimyo combined forces and marched to the border of Kai, encouraged by news that Harunobu was strengthening his defenses and preparing to make a stand in Fuchu. In fact, Harunobu's activities had been a ruse – far from waiting passively in Kai, Harunobu led his men out and caught the Shinano warriors by surprise, defeating them at Sezawa. Emboldened by the results of Sezawa, Harunobu made a drive into Shinano later that same year, focusing on the territory of the Suwa clan. He first took Uehara in a surprise attack and then moved on to the Suwa headquarters at Kuwahara, located 2 kilometers to the east. Caught completely off-balance, Suwa Yorishige had little choice but to surrender when Harunobu made a promise of safe conduct. Yorishige and his brother were taken to Kai where the Takeda general Itagaki Nobutaka arranged for their deaths; both Suwa were either made to commit suicide or were murdered outright.
Harunobu, with the aid of Yamamoto Kansuke's strategies, further expanded his territory through the defeat of both Tozawa Yorichika (1542) and Takato Yoritsugu of central Shinano (1544–1545). The acquisition of Takato Castle was of particular value, as it provided a secure staging area into southern Shinano, as well as a buffer against any southern aggression. In 1544 the Takeda marched into Suruga in support of the Imagawa and faced Hôjô Ujiyasu. No actual fighting occured as a result of this confrontation, and later Harunobu was compelled to arrange for a peace treaty between the Hôjô, Imagawa, and himself due to his wars in Shinano. Over the next decade Harunobu kept up a relentless pressure on the Shinano warlords. Only at Uehara would he be checked, if only briefly. In 1548 Murakami Yoshikiyo, perhaps the most formidable of Harunobu's Shinano enemies, moved on Ueda and defeated the Takeda in a bitter clash which saw the use (on the part of the Murakami) of a number of Chinese arquebuses, the first such weapons ever deployed in a Japanese battle. While the defeat at Uehara left two of his best generals dead, Harunobu rebounded quickly, and by 1552 the Murakami and Ogasawara clans had fled Shinano outright to Echigo.

In 1551, Harunobu had adopted the name Shingen and a monk's habit, adding even more color to this up-and-coming Sengoku warlord, who was already known for his taste for women, penetrating judgment, skill at calligraphy, and wise government. Perhaps all that was now required was a great rival. This came, too, in the form of Uesugi Terutora of Echigo – the famed Kenshin.

According to tradition, the defeated Murakami and Ogasawara presented themselves before Terutora and protested Shingen's aggressions. Terutora, uneasy at Shingen's northern expansion and obligated to the two refugees, took the field. That Murakami figures into the Uesugi's roll even many years later gives some substance to this belief, and, certainly, Terutora had reason to worry about Echigo's borders. In June and October 1553 The Takeda and Uesugi armies clashed near the Kawanakajima plain in northern Shinano, and while the two sides withdrew after a few rounds of inconclusive skirmishing, a legend was born. In total, the Takeda and Uesugi would face each other at the Kawanakajima five times (1554, 1555, 1557, 1561, 1564) and while not exactly the nearly annual staring matches as they are sometimes portrayed, only the 4th (1561) resulted in an all-out contest. In that engagement, both sides suffered heavy losses and while not individually decisive, those losses no doubt slowed both warlords down for some years. In particular, Shingen must have felt the loss of Nobushige and Yamamoto Kansuke, both killed in action at the battle.

Internally, the Takeda suffered two grim moments within the span of five years. In 1560 Shingen had uncovered a plot against him led by his cousin Katanuma Nobumoto, whom he ordered put to death. In 1565, another plot came to light – this one headed by his own son Yoshinobu and Obu Toramasa. Tormasa was made to commit suicide, while Yoshinobu was confined to the Tokoji. Two years later Yoshinbou died, either from illness or, as many believe, because Shingen had forced him to commit suicide. The event left Shingen heirless for the time being and the Takeda retainers uneasy.

By 1564, Shingen had subdued all of Shinano and shifted his attention to Kôzuke, where he took a number of castles from the Uesugi. For the next five years, he limited himself to raids and local conquests (including land grabs in mountainous Hida Province), concentrating on internal affairs. In the 1560's, Shingen's greatest achievement was the Fuji River damming project, the largest and most ambitious of his many innovative domestic endeavors. The benefit of the Fuji River project far-outlived its mastermind, and is ranked as one of the greatest domestic initiatives of the 16th Century.

Art by Suwahara Hiroyuki

Not for a moment must a genuine samurai part with his sword, not even when he is
with his beloved woman.
– Takeda Shingen

By 1568, the Takeda army was on the move again, this time to the south against the faltering Imagawa. The daimyô of that clan was Ujizane, the incompetent son of the late Imagawa Yoshimoto (killed in 1560 by Oda Nobunaga), whose political ineptness had already cost the Imagawa their Matsudaira (Tokugawa) vassals and Mikawa province. Years before, Shingen's son Yoshinobu had married Ujizane's sister but after the suicide of the former in 1567, relations between the families had grown sour. It would appear that Shingen and Tokugawa Ieyasu struck up a deal whereby the two would split up the Imagawa's remaining lands (Tôtômi and Suruga), an agreement that in the event quickly fell through. In addition, the Hôjô of Sagami took a dim view to this shift in the balance of power, and sent troops to defy Shingen, which they did with varying degrees of success for a year or so. In 1569 Shingen responded by invading Sagami and besieging Odawara (the Hôjô's capital). While this effort was quite short-lived (lasting around a week), the Takeda army did manage to crush an attempt at an ambush by the Hôjô at Mimasetoge on their way back to Kai.

Thus, in 1570, the Takeda's lands now included Kai, Shinano, Suruga, and pieces of Kozuke, Tôtômi, and Hida. Shingen, at 49, was something more than a regional power – he was the most important warlord east of Mino, and the one who was in a position to derail Oda Nobunaga's march to national hegemony. Shingen alone possessed the strategic position, the generalship, and the solid retainer band necessary. In 1570, the formidable Hôjô Ujiyasu died and his heir, Ujimasa, quickly made peace with Shingen, an act that might have all but assured the ultimate destruction of Tokugawa Ieyasu had not Shingen died in 1573. In the meantime, the Takeda and Oda, after an abortive diplomatic courtship designed to check the Uesugi, initiated a war of words, possibly with the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, at the center of the storm. Shingen stepped up the pressure against Tokugawa, and in 1572 launched an attack into Tôtômi that resulted in the capture of Futamata. The following January, Shingen returned to the province and enticed Tokugawa Ieyasu to come out and fight. The Battle of Mikatagahara, conducted on 6 January to the north of Hamamatsu, ended in a near-complete defeat for Ieyasu (and the allied Oda troops present). Though often presented as the opening moves in a march on Kyôto, Shingen's intentions were no doubt more conservative. He probably aimed to test the responses of both Ieyasu and Nobunaga and deal the two a defeat if possible. Either way, within days of winning the battle, he recieved news that Asakura Yoshikage had elected not to take the field against Nobunaga at this time. Shingen is reported to have been displeased, and might have counted on Yoshikage – and Asai Nagamasa – to keep Nobunaga preoccupied. This may have played a role in his decision to strike camp and return to Kai – thus granting the bloodied Tokugawa a reprieve.

A man with deep far-sightedness will survey both the beginning and the end of a situation and continually consider its every facet as important.
– Takeda Shingen

Unfortunately, time ran out on the man who had come to epitomize the best and, in some ways, the worst qualities of the Sengoku warlord. In 1573, while laying siege to Noda Castle in Mikawa, Shingen was either wounded by a sniper or fell sick (possibly with TB); a point modern scholars are divided on. He died at Kobama in Shinano in May of 1573, to be succeded by his fourth son, Takeda Katsuyori.

Takeda Katsuyori became the daimyō of the Takeda clan. Katsuyori was ambitious and desired to continue the legacy of his father. He moved on to take Tokugawa forts. However an allied force of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga dealt a crushing blow to the Takeda in the Battle of Nagashino. Here Oda Nobunaga's matchlock-armed infantry destroyed the Takeda cavalry. Ieyasu seized the opportunity and defeated the weak Takeda led by Takeda Katsuyori in the battle of Tenmokuzan. Katsuyori committed suicide after the battle, and the Takeda clan never recovered.

Upon Shingen's death, Kenshin reportedly cried at the loss of one of his strongest and most deeply respected rivals. One of the most lasting tributes to Shingen's prowess was that of Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, who is known to have borrowed heavily from the old Takeda leader's governmental and military innovations after he had taken leadership of Kai during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's rise to power. Many of these designs were put to use in the Tokugawa shogunate.

While the Takeda were for the most part destroyed by the loss of Shingen's heir, Katsuyori, Shingen had a profound effect on the period in Japan. He influenced many lords with his law, tax, and administration systems, and many tales were told about him. Although aggressive towards military enemies he was probably not as cruel as other warlords.

One characteristic that set Shingen Takeda apart from his rivals was that he was a master of branding. He chose Shingen, meaning compassionate eye, for his formal name in 1551 when he took Buddhist vows. His name choice, proclaimed Shingen’s ability to see all sides of an issue and to act fairly in the interest of all parties. While the formal name captured the domestic side of his persona, Shingen was also known by the unofficial nickname “The Tiger of Kai”. This branding was more appropriate for the image he wished to convey to his adversaries in neighboring provinces.

The Takeda logo, known as the “Takeda Bishi” consisted of four diamonds combined into one large diamond. It was a simple and powerful design which stands up well even by modern notions of graphic design.

His war banner contained the famous phrase Fū-Rin-Ka-Zan (風林火山 "Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain"), taken from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. This phrase refers to the idea of Swift as the Wind, Silent as a Forest, Fierce as Fire and Immovable as a Mountain. The motto applied to Shingen's policies and his military strategy.

A slogan was paired with the logo. It was used to represent both the Takeda military as a whole and also to personify Shingen himself.

When applying the slogan to himself, Shingen would append a paraphrase of the legendary quote from Buddha, by adding:
Under heaven and earth, I alone am feared.

As a politician, Shingen realized the dangers presented when religious sects gained political power and then vied for dominance over other sects or civil authority. Conversely, he understood the value of religion as a moral force that assisted in keeping his subjects’ behavior within social norms. These concepts are depicted in some of Shingen’s laws:

 The Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhist sects are forbidden to engage in religious controversy within Takeda territory. If anyone encourages in religious controversies, both the priests and their parishioners involved will be punished.

First, pay due reverence to the Shinto gods and the Buddha. When your thoughts are in accord with the Buddha's, you will gain more power. If your leadership over others issues from your self-serving thoughts, this will become evident and your efforts will be doomed. Next, devote yourselves to the study of Zen. Zen has no hidden teaching. It simply calls people to think seriously about birth-and-death.

Shingen had been a warlord of great domestic skill and competent military leadership. He was a complicated figure, at times utterly cruel. Earlier in his life, he had forced Suwa Yorishige to commit suicide (or had him murdered) after the two warlords had signed a peace treaty, and then proceeded to take Suwa's daughter as a mistress, ignoring the fact that she was techincally his own niece. In 1565, as mentioned above, he ordered his own son, Yoshinobu, confined to a temple and evidently made him commit suicide for treasonous activity, as well as the man who had once been his guardian, Obu Toramasa. His domestic policies demonstrate the duality of Takeda Shingen. On one hand, he kept two iron cauldrons on hand to boil alive certain criminals (a practice considered sufficiently cruel enough to provoke Tokugawa Ieyasu to have the cauldrons destroyed years later). On the other, he did away with corporal punishment for most minor offences, instituting in it's place a system of fines – an act that earned him considerable praise from the peasants and townspeople of Kai. Shingen's law was not considered overly harsh, and his was one of the few Sengoku Period administrations prior to 1582 to tax most of his subjects evenly (most exempted powerful samurai families and/or religious establishments) and with the option of payment in either gold or rice (a forerunner, in some ways, to the later Kandaka system).

Perhaps the greatest praise paid Shingen was by Tokugawa Ieyasu himself. Following the defeat of Katsuyori in 1582 and the death of Oda Nobunaga, Ieyasu assumed control of Kai, and borrowed freely from Shingen's style and techniques of governance, which he later included in his model for the Tokugawa Shôgunate.

Just prior to his death, Shingen had called from his bed for Yamagata Masakage, one of ablest men, to raise his flags at Seta Bridge (the traditional eastern gate to Kyôto). He then collapsed back into his bed and died soon afterwards. In lieu of a death poem, he left the following words, borrowed from Zen literature, "It is largely left to her own natural bodily perfection, and she has no special need to resort to artificial coloring and powdering to look beautiful."

Photo by Jackson Boyle

Takeda Shingen's motto was:

Swift as the Wind,
Silent as a Forest,
Fierce as Fire,
Immovable as a Mountain.
– Sun Tzu

But did you know that his well-known opponent, Uesugi Kenshin, was also a great admirer of Sun Tzu?




Read more about Takeda Shingen in
the book "Samurai. Spirit of the Warrior" by A. R. Basov

avaliable as an eBook (for Windows, Android, iOS) and a hardcover book (pre-order only).


I will not get lost...
The North Star is shining in the darkness...
The road to Valhalla, straight like a sword, is always in front of me!

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