The soul is a key to everything. Comprehend the spirit, master it, and you will understand that you possess something that is beyond life and death, something that won’t drown in water or burn in fire.
– Uesugi Kenshin
"During Japan’s “Age of Warring States” several outstanding warlords emerged. Among them, Takeda Shingen Harunobu (1521–1573), of Kai, and Uesugi Kenshin Terutora (1530–1578), of Echigo, are often cited together. They were neighbors who confronted each other five times at a place called Kawanakajima, and their characters contrasted distinctly. Shingen was a careful administrator who prompted a retainer to compile his words and deeds in many volumes, Kenshin a soldier pure and simple whose spirit of fair play was admired even by his enemies, Shingen among them.
Indeed, if, by happy coincidence, the best-known words on governance during this prolonged period of civil war come from Shingen, so does the best commendation of Kenshin. Shingen’s wisdom on how to run a country is summarized in the following homiletic verse:
Hito wa shiro hito wa ishigaki hito wa hori
nasake wa mikata ada wa teki nari
The people are the castle, the stone wall, and the moat;
compassion makes a friend, vengeance a foe.
It is a famous historical anecdote that the Confucian scholar Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728), visiting the place where Shingen’s residence used to be, was surprised by its small size:
Ah! Lord Kizan [Shingen], with his heroic military prowess, moved troops from the five provinces of Kai, Shinano, Suruga, Hida, and Kōzuke, and his impregnable way overwhelmed the lords of the Eastern provinces; in the end not one appeared who was able to oppose him. But, compared with his great achievements, his residence was so small, so simple!
Sorai may have been indulging in Chinese-style hyperbole, for it was Shingen himself who made a highly credible assessment of his worthy opponent, Kenshin. When he knew he was soon to die, he gathered his top commanders and gave instructions. One had to do with his heir, Shirō Katsuyori (1546–1582):
As for Katsuyori’s fighting, he must first make a truce with Terutora. Kenshin is such an honorable soldier that he won’t do anything petty to young Shirō. Especially, if he speaks to him and says, “May I count on you,” nothing should go wrong. I, Shingen, being childish, was never able to say to Terutora, “I count on you,” and in the end I wasn’t able to strike a truce with him. Katsuyori must go to Kenshin and say, “I count on you.” With Kenshin you can do that without embarrassment."(Sato Hiroaki, Legends of the Samurai (1995))
Takeda Shingen and his glorious adversary Uesugi Kenshin became symbols of daring and outstanding steadfastness. They fought five times at Kawanakajima in 1553, 1555, 1557 and 1564 to see who would win the honor of becoming Japan’s first strategist. Nobody managed to win even though Shingen had a slight advantage in most instances. This ten-year standoff resembled a battle between chess grandmasters. Like all samurai rivalries, theirs was also a kind of spiritual duel, a test of their will to fight. One night, the courageous and audacious Kenshin managed to sneak into the invincible Shingen’s tent while he was painting a landscape. Kenshin raised his sword over him and asked him what was his last thought before dying. But instead, the great Shingen parried Kenshin’s sword with a steel war fan. Shingen’s bodyguards arrived at once and forced Kenshin to leave without hurting him, as their master requested. As for the Invincible, inspiration came to him and he composed a lyric.
Paradoxical as it may be, both needed each other spiritually because capable adversaries offer the best opportunities for inner growth; a weak enemy would have let them off too easy. The history of Japan is full of great Sword Masters who spared each other for the sake of passing on their art to future generations. Shingen and Kenshin were also thinkers and poets. In times of peace they exchanged verses and courtesies samurai style, which, like handshakes between knights, meant, “I shake your hand as a mark of respect for our probable combat tomorrow.” In his death poem, Kenshin left us one of the most brilliant descriptions of Bushi-Do spirit:
Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.
The spiritual height of both knights was stunning. They were arch foes as well as brothers-in-spirit, and no one had more confidence in Kenshin than his principal adversary. On his deathbed, Shingen advised his sons to deliver themselves under Kenshin’s protection. But the Invincible’s heir did not obey and perished in the struggle against Nobunaga. When it was suggested to Kenshin to attack Shingen’s son, he responded that he had fought his father for a long time and he was a capable opponent, but to combat with an inexperienced adversary who is in dire straits is dishonorable.
Live judiciously, for you are born to be a human being!
Never do things for which you could feel ashamed later. Do only the deeds that you are ready to sacrifice your life for to assure that your actions will always be correct. Every deed of a free man should be intentional, and every effort deliberate.
There is a great difference between well-considered and ill-considered things, and one should understand it. Those who have acquired self-control and awareness are at a different level of existence. They have attained a balance of will and intelligence, of selfcontainment and, therefore, capability of development.
Self-containment is attainable within your spirit and then within its manifestations in the world of things.
If you are prepared for everything, there is very little chance that something will happen. A samurai should not be hasty or agitated at any time.
A samurai’s behavior should always be dignified without a hint of weakness or agitation. There is only inner firmness, equilibrium, and the invariable strength of character.
When the heart of a samurai is filled with wisdom and bravery such behavior becomes natural.
A samurai should respect both himself and other people.
It is not becoming for a samurai to speak ill of others or to praise them. A samurai should maintain full independence in everything; this is the type of behavior that may be called dignified.
–A. R. Basov, Spirit of the Warrior
This article is based on and contains quotes from the Samurai Series by A. R. Basov