Uesugi Kenshin


Kanji: 上杉 謙信
Date(s): February 18, 1530-April 19, 1578
Other Known Names: Nagao Kagetora, Uesugi Masatora, Uesugi Terutora, Dragon of Echigo, God of War, Tiger of Echigo, Guardian of the North


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Uesugi Kenshin was one of the most powerful daimyo during the Sengoku Jidai. He was the rival of Takeda Shingen, fighting against him at Kawanajima in total of five times during their lifetime, each time ending in stalemates. He was a devout follower of Zen Buddhism and followed Bishamonten, the God of War, and many of his followers believed that he was the Avatar of Bishamonten. In recent years, questions have been raised about Kenshin’s gender, which will be covered in a separate article, but for this article and for the Sengoku Archives, Kenshin will still be referred to as a man.

Uesugi Kenshin was born Nagao Kagetora, the third or fourth son of Nagao Tamekage, who was a retainer of the Yamanouchi branch of the Uesugi clan. His father won many military battles for the Uesugi, but problems began to arise when Tamekage began having problems with the neighboring Ikkō-Ikki. Tamekage fought against the Ikkō-Ikki in Echigo in 1536 but was killed at Sendanno in December.

With Nagao Tamekage’s death, the Nagao family began to fall apart with succession disputes. Nagao Haurkage, the eldest son, immediately began trying to take control of the clan, a dispute that resulted in the death of Kenshin’s elder brothers. Kenshin was taken away to Rinsen-ji and spent seven years there, studying martial arts and Zen.

When Kenshin was fourteen years of age, many of his father’s retainers came to him asking Kenshin to overthrow his brother. While he was a bit reluctant to do so, he understood it was for the survival of Echigo. After taking up at Tochio Castle and defending it from rebels plotting against the Uesugi, Kenshin was finally able to remove his elder brother from power in 1548. Kenshin became head of the clan at nineteen years of age and took up residence at Kasugayama Castle but remained a retainer of the Uesugi clan.

In 1551, Kenshin came to blows with the Hōjō clan, when his lord came to him needing help with the Hōjō clan’s expansion in the Kantō region. Kenshin did under specific conditions: being adopted in the Uesugi clan as an heir and he changed his name from Nagao Kagetora, to Uesugi Kagetora, then to Uesugi Terutora (in honor of the current shogun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshiteru), then finally Uesugi Kenshin. Once the preparations were complete, Kenshin went to war against the Hōjō in 1552.

After he became lord of Echigo, Kenshin began his famous clashes with Takeda Shingen. While the two were rivals, the two generals had great respect for one another. The most famous incident was the famous salt boycott by the Hōjō clan from Kai. After Kenshin heard that Kai Province was not receiving salt from the Takeda’s on again, off again allies, Kenshin sent salt from his own province to Kai stating that “I do not fight with salt, but with the sword”. When Shingen passed away in 1573, Kenshin wept and said; “I have lost my good rival. We won’t have a hero like that again!”. (Kenshin and Shingen’s relationship will be covered more in the article on the five battles of Kawanajima).

By 1564, Uesugi Kenshin not only had control of Echigo but also had control of Etchū and Kōzuke Provinces. Going into the 1570s, Oda Nobunaga became more prominent of enemy, especially after the death of Takeda Shingen in 1573 and their utter defeat at Nagashino in 1575. The leader of the Hōjō had also passed on, leaving Kenshin the most power warlord in the Kantō region. When the leader of Noto Province, Kenshin seized the opportunity to take the land for himself, which was directly threatening Nobunaga’s lands. In response, Nobunaga sent Shibata Katsuie and Maeda Keiji to the recently besieged Nanao Castle at Tedorigawa in Kaga. Kenshin was victorious over the Oda army at the Battle of Tedorigawa in 1577, the last battle that Kenshin would fight.

In October 1577, Kenshin rallied a large army to continue his efforts against Oda Nobunaga. Kenshin entered and alliance with Shingen’s son, Takeda Katsuyori the following year but before they could launch an assault, they were held up by bad weather and Uesugi Kenshin passed away. His death poem was written before his death and the English translation goes along these lines:

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.”

It is a bit of a mystery that surround the cause of Uesugi Kenshin’s death. The most accepted version is that he died of esophageal cancer. There is also another theory that a ninja hid in the latrine and Kenshin was fatally wounded while using it. This theory is not very likely because of Kenshin’s death poem. It was written before his death, which makes the idea of an assassination less likely. There is another theory on Kenshin’s death, but it deals more with the theory that was Kenshin was a woman, and this theory is covered in another article.

Uesugi Kenshin is buried at the Rinsen-ji Temple in Joetsu, Japan.