The Mysterious Case of Uesugi Kenshin

Gackt as Kenshin
Gackt as Uesugi Kenshin at the Kenshin Festival in Jōetsu, Niigata in 2008

Uesugi Kenshin was one of the greatest warlords in Japanese history. He is mainly known for his clashes against Takeda Shingen, facing him five separate times at the battle of Kawanakajima. He is known for defeating Oda Nobunaga’s army at the Battle of Tedorigawa in 1577. Yet, recently, Japanese historians have entertained the idea that one of Japan’s most fearsome warriors, who many claimed to be the Avatar of the War God Bishamonten, was actually a woman. A small minority believe this claim despite this only being a possibility. Could it be true or is there some other explanation? In this article, we are going to take a look at the life of Uesugi Kenshin, explain the reasoning behind the theory and look at the arguments for each side.

The Life of Uesugi Kenshin

Portrait of Uesugi Kenshin

Uesugi Kenshin (February 8, 1530-April 19, 1578), was actually born Nagao Kagetora, being either the third or fourth son to Nagao Tamekage, a retainer of the Yamanouchi branch of the Uesugi clan.(1) His father had won many military battles for the Uesugi, but problems arose when Tamekage began having problems with the neighboring Ikkō-ikki in Kaga. Tamekage met the Ikkō-ikki at Sendanno in December 1536, but he was defeated and killed.(2)

With Nagao Tamekage’s death, the Nagao family began to fall apart with succession disputes. Nagao Harukage, the eldest son, immediately began trying to take control of the clan, which would lead to the deaths of Kagetora’s elder brothers. Kagetora was removed from the conflict and taken to Rinsen-ji and remained there until 1544.(3) While there, Kagetora studied martial arts and Zen.(4)

When Kagetora was fifteen years of age, many of his father’s retainers came to him asking him to overthrow his brother, Harukage. While he was a bit reluctant to do so, Kagetora understood that it needed to be done for the survival of Echigo. After taking up a position at Tochio Castle and defending it from rebels plotting against the Uesugi, Kagetora was finally able to remove Harukage from power in 1548.(5) Kagetora became the head of the Nagao clan at nineteen and took up residence at Kasugayama Castle but he remained a retainer to the Uesugi clan.

By 1551, the Uesugi clan had faced a number of defeats by the Hōjō clan. The Uesugi ended up having to retreat to Kasugayama where the leader of the clan asked for refuge. Kagetora accepted but on certain conditions. Kagetora would only do so if the clan leader, Uesugi Norimasa, adopted him and made him the heir to the Uesugi and give him the titles of Echigo-no-kami (Lord of Echigo) and Kantō Kanrei (shōgun’s deputy for the Kantō area). Norimasa accepted and the renamed Uesugi Kagetora would begin his preparations for war against the Hōjō.(6) In 1552, Kagetora shaved his head and became a Buddhist monk, taking the name of Kenshin.(7)

After he became lord of Echigo, Kenshin began his famous clashes with Takeda Shingen. They fought at Kawanakajima five times: 1553, 1555, 1557, 1561 (the most famous of the five), and lastly in 1564. It was during the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima that the two generals met face to face. Kenshin charged the Takeda main camp on horseback and took Shingen by surprise. All Shingen had to defend himself with was a tessen (war fan). A statue of this legendary encounter now stands in Hachimanbara Park in Nagao.

Even though the men were rivals, they had great respect for one another. Kenshin would even help Shingen out when the Imagawa and Hōjō clans boycotted salt trade with the landlocked Kai Province while being at war with them. Kenshin sent salt and various other supplies stating that “wars are to be fought with spears, not with rice and salt”.(8) It has been said that when Takeda Shingen lay dying in Noda Castle, he told his son, Katsuyori, that the only daimyo who could be trusted in Japan was Uesugi Kenshin.(9) Takeda Shingen passed away in 1573:

In the end all of his neighbors heard about Shingen’s death. Hōjō Ujimasa rushed a messenger to tell Kenshin of the news. Kenshin happened to be having his meal. He put down the chopsticks and lamented, “I have lost my good rival. We won’t have a hero like that again!” For a long time after he privately wept for him.”(10)

By 1564, Uesugi Kenshin not only had control of Echigo but also had control of Etchū and Kōzuke Provinces.(11) Going into the 1570s, Oda Nobunaga became a more prominent enemy, especially after the death of Takeda Shingen in 1573 and their extreme defeat at Nagashino in 1575. After Hōjō Ujiyasu passed away in 1571 and Shingen’s passing, Kenshin became the most powerful daimyō in the Kantō region.(12) After Kenshin captured Nanao Castle, a castle that was held by an Oda ally, Nobunaga moved to take on Kenshin. In response, Nobunaga sent about 50,000 men with most of his famous generals to take on Kenshin at Tedorigawa, who only had about 30,000. Kenshin anticipated Nobunaga’s every move and the Oda army suffered defeat by the Uesugi army in 1577.(13) Unfortunately, this would be the last battle Uesugi Kenshin would fight.

Kenshin began to rally his forces for the continued fight against Nobunaga, but poor weather and the winter months kept Kenshin from launching the attack. On April 19, 1578, Uesugi Kenshin passed away before he could launch the attack on the Oda. We do have records (and a translation) of his death poem, which goes as follows:

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.”(14)

There is a bit of mystery surrounding his death. We will be diving into them below but we need to eliminate one cause of death before we continue. There is a theory that a ninja hid in the latrine and Kenshin was fatally wounded while using it.(15) 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.(16) The cause of death has been disputed for many years and many illnesses have been listed as possible causes. Yet, the cause of death is not the only reason why Uesugi Kenshin’s gender has been called into question.

The Female Uesugi Kenshin Theory

Tomeo Yagiri (1914-1987) was a Japanese novelist who put forth the idea that Uesugi Kenshin was a woman (17). While Tomeo has brought up other extreme and controversial theories before, all which had been discredited, this one has people thinking. His evidence comes from different sources. One source was a report from the 16th century on Japan, kept in a monastery in Toledo, Spain. It was written by someone known as Gonzalez to King Philip II.(18) In Gonzalez’s report, Kenshin is referred to as the “tia”, meaning “aunt” in Spanish, of Uesugi Kagekatsu, who was the biological son of Kenshin’s sister, Aya.

Kenshin also suffered from stomach cramps around the tenth of every month and would even plan military campaigns around it.(19) It is implied that Kenshin went through menstruation and avoided the battlefield during that time. Yet, that is not the only thing that stands out with the tenth of every month and stomach cramps. According to one source called the Tōdaiki, the doctor described Kenshin’s cause of death as what could possibly diagnosed as uterine cancer, or also known as endometrial cancer, in today’s medical terminology. Symptoms of uterine cancer include:

  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Pain in the pelvis
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Abnormal, heavy or irregular menstruation
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Weight loss
  • Abnormal, watery or blood-tinged vaginal discharge(20)

The chances of having uterine cancer are rare, but it is most common in women aged fifty and older. Continuing with the tenth of the month, according to some sources, Kenshin dies around the tenth of March, which would line up with the stomach cramps that landed around the tenth of every month.(21)

Kenshin’s appearance has also been called into question. Sources of the day and even portraits from the Sengoku Jidai depict him more feminine looking than masculine. Looking back to the report that Gonzalez wrote, Kenshin is referred to as an aunt and not an uncle to Uesugi Kagekatsu, which given how subtle the Japanese language is, this is a bigger deal than it may seem.(22) As for his appearance, it has been altered since the Sengoku Jidai. Interestingly, Kenshin’s portraits, especially those from the Edo Period (1603-1868), depict him as extremely masculine.

He also liked what is considered to be extremely feminine interests, such as historical novels, poetry and calligraphy. There is also the fact that Kenshin was the only man to enter the woman’s quarters of the Kyōto Imperial Palace, which was at the time, the house of the shōgun.(23)

Last, but not least, Kenshin never married, never had a concubine, and never had any children of his own, although he did adopt.(24) While this is not the strongest case for the theory, it is thrown in with the other points, despite being common knowledge.

Arguments Against this Theory

While some believe that the theory that Uesugi Kenshin was a woman, there are others that defend that Kenshin was a man. The main argument though, is not well supported, and is downright sexist. The main point that has been brought up is that a woman could not succeed leadership of a samurai clan. This point completely ignores the prominent women of the Sengoku Jidai, such as Tachibana Ginchiyo and Ii Naotora, who successfully led their clans.(25)

There is also the point that hiding his gender from birth would have been a problem. Kenshin did have three older brothers, so changing a son into a daughter would have been pointless considering that sons were favored more than daughters.

Given his appearance, it is possible that Kenshin just happened to look more feminine than masculine, which is a high probability. It is unclear why there was a shift in appearance in his later portraits.

So, who is right?

Was Kenshin a Woman?

In my personal opinion, after considering all the evidence, I believe that Uesugi Kenshin was a man. We will never know otherwise due to the unknown location of his remains, which moved with the Uesugi clan from domain to domain, and even the shōgun (most likely the Tokugawa) was never told where his remains were located.(26) This rules out DNA testing, at least until Kenshin’s remains are located, but that is a very slim chance.

I will not be able to give a counter argument for the source referring to Uesugi Kenshin as “tia” or “aunt”. Since I do not have the primary source in hand, it will be impossible to prove or disprove. Given Kenshin’s feminine appearance, it could have been a nickname or a mistranslation of the Japanese language.

The monthly stomach cramps are not just a sign of menstruation. There are other things that can be linked to chronic stomach cramps or recurrent abdominal pain (RAP). The long list includes:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Heartburn
  • Constipation
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Abdominal migraines (stomach pain that comes back a lot without a known cause)
  • Indigestion
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Liver or gallbladder problems
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Infection from a parasite
  • Cancer (27)

The reason that liver is in bold is because this is, my opinion, the thing that Kenshin would have suffered from. To put things bluntly: Uesugi Kenshin was a known drinker.(28) With the amount of alcohol consumed in his life, it is possible that he suffered from liver problems because of it. There is also the fact that the cause of death listed in most sources is esophageal cancer (at least according to the symptoms given). These symptoms include:

  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Chest pain
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Coughing
  • Hoarse voice(29)

Chest pain was a symptom that was recorded in sources talking about Kenshin’s final days, and it seems possible for his cause of death to be esophageal cancer, but then again, this is without today’s medical examinations and diagnosis (also, this is just going off what has been recorded, and I’m just a researcher, not a doctor).

Kenshin in Pop Culture

Today, Japan has contemplated the idea that one of their most powerful daimyō might have been a woman, but even when depicting the warlord, Uesugi Kenshin is still masculine. The Japanese musician, Gackt, played Uesugi Kenshin in the NHK Taiga drama, Fūrin Kazan in 2007, and he recalled that Kenshin was always portrayed as a very tough man.(30) Yet, his portrayal seems more feminine at first glance. He matches more of how Kenshin was painted in portraits during the Sengoku Jidai. This clean shaven, long-haired, feminine looking Kenshin received much criticism but a small number did approve of this depiction.

Gackt in Furan Kazan
Gackt, as Uesugi Kenshin in Fūrin Kazan (2007)

Gackt portrays Kenshin very close to his description in the Sengoku Jidai. This clean shaven, long-haired, feminine looking Kenshin received much criticism but a small number did approve of this depiction.

Uesugi Kenshin SW4 artwork
Uesugi Kenshin’s official game art for Sengoku Musou 4

Samurai Warriors (or Sengoku Musou) takes on the Edo Period’s description of Uesugi Kenshin and takes on an extremely masculine portrayal of him. He looks downright terrifying in the Samurai Warriors series and one can definitely tell that they focused on him being the Avatar for the God of War, Bishamonten. This version of Kenshin lines up well with how most people view him: strong, intelligent, and extremely masculine. And then there is Sengoku BASARA.

Uesugi Kenshin SB
Uesugi Kenshin’s official character render in Sengoku Basara Yukimura-den

Despite Samurai Warriors and Sengoku BASARA both being released a year apart from one another, the games sometimes take different approaches to the same character. While the Samurai Warriors version of Kenshin is masculine, the same cannot be said for Sengoku BASARA’s version. BASARA’s version is definitely more feminine, even going so far as using hiragana (a simplified version of kanji, usually used by women in ancient times due to lack of education) for his speech text in the video games and being voiced by a woman, Romi Park.(31) While this version of Kenshin is more gender neutral, this is not necessarily a bad thing. This allows players to make their own assumptions about Kenshin’s gender based on their stance on the theory.

Conclusion

I believe that the debate about whether or not Uesugi Kenshin was a woman or a man will continue for many generations. Without any way to prove it with a DNA test, all we have to go on are the sources from the past and portraits from the era. There is no right or wrong belief here. This is another way to get people to talk about one of the greatest individuals in Japanese history. What I put forth was only my opinion of the facts as they are presented. Many others support the theory, and that is okay. Theories are meant to be debated and they strengthen the historical minds by allowing room for some historical detective work to help give us a better idea on what could be the truth. The case of Uesugi Kenshin’s gender may never be solved, but it is something that we can debate for years to come.

Sources

  1. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021). While the article says either he was the third or fourth son, other sources I have found on Kenshin state that he was the fourth.
  2. Turnbull, Stephen. Kawanakajima 1553-64: Samurai Power Struggle (4th impression, 2008), p. 16
  3. Sharpe, Michael. Samurai Leaders from the Tenth Century to the Nineteenth Century (2008), p. 179
  4. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021)
  5. Turnbull, Stephen. Kawanakajima 1553-64: Samurai Power Struggle (4th impression, 2008), p. 17
  6. Turnbull, Stephen. Kawanakajima 1553-64: Samurai Power Struggle (4th impression, 2008), p. 17
  7. Turnbull, Stephen. Kawanakajima 1553-64: Samurai Power Struggle (4th impression, 2008), pp. 17, 19
  8. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 236
  9. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 236
  10. Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai (1995), p. 225
  11. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021)
  12. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 13
  13. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 228
  14. Chaplin, Danny. Sengoku Jidai Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu: Three Unifiers of Japan (2018), p. 238
  15. Yoda, Hiroko & Matt Alt. Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws (2012), p. 72
  16. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021)
  17. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021)
  18. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021)
  19. “Japan’s Greatest Warlord a Woman?”, https://rejectedprincesses.tumblr.com/post/107325423285/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  20. “What Are the Symptoms of Endometrial Cancer?”, https://www.webmd.com/cancer/understanding-endometrial-cancer-symptoms, (las visited 6/1/2021)
  21. “Japan’s Greatest Warlord a Woman?”, https://rejectedprincesses.tumblr.com/post/107325423285/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  22. “Japan’s Greatest Warlord a Woman?”, https://rejectedprincesses.tumblr.com/post/107325423285/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  23. “Japan’s Greatest Warlord a Woman?”, https://rejectedprincesses.tumblr.com/post/107325423285/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  24. “Japan’s Greatest Warlord a Woman?”, https://rejectedprincesses.tumblr.com/post/107325423285/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  25. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021)
  26. “Japan’s Greatest Warlord a Woman?”, https://rejectedprincesses.tumblr.com/post/107325423285/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  27. “What is Recurrent Abdominal Pain (RAP)?”, https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/recurrent-abdominal-pain#1-3, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  28. “Uesugi Kenshin—Japanese Wiki Corpus”, https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Kenshin%20UESUGI.html, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  29. “Esophageal Cancer, Symptoms & Causes”, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/esophageal-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20356084, (last visited 6/1/2021)
  30. “Uesugi Kenshin”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin, (last visited 5/31/2021). It is interesting to note that Gackt also played Oda Nobunaga in the live action Sengoku BASARA Moonlight Party.
  31. “Romi Park”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romi_Park, (last visited 6/1/2021). There is also a more in-depth analysis done by YouTuber Kitsune Hawk “Uesugi Kenshin—Character Development”,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9bEFsVCxE0, (last viewed 6/1/2021)