Articles

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 mostly known for his clashes with Takeda Shingen of Kai, meeting with his rival at Kawanakajima five times. Yet there has been a debate on Uesugi Kenshin in Japan and with scholars around the world that it is possible that one of Japan’s most fearsome warriors was a woman. A part of the Japanese academic population believes that Kenshin was a woman, despite being only a possibility. Could it be true, or could there me some other explanation?

The Female Uesugi Kenshin Theory

Tomeo Yagiri (1914-1987) was a Japanese novelist who put forth the idea that Uesugi Kenshin was a woman.(1) 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.(2) 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.(3) It is implied Kenshin went through menstruation 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 be 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(4)

The chances of having uterine cancer are rare, but it is most common in women aged fifty and older. Also, according to some sources, Kenshin died around the tenth of March, which would line up with the stomach cramps that landed around the tenth of every month.(5)

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.(6) 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 was 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.(7)

Last, but not least, Kenshin never married, never had a concubine, and never had any children of his own, although he did adopt.(8) While this is not the strongest case for the theory, it is thrown in with the other points, despite being common knowledge.

The Arguments Against the Female Kenshin 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 women 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.(9)

There is also the point that hiding his gender from birth would have been a problem. There is also the fact that Kenshin had three older brothers, so changing a son into a daughter would have been pointless, as 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?

It is in my opinion, after considering all the evidence, 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 was never told where his remains were located.(10) 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 (11)

The reason that liver is in bold is because this is, in my opinion, the thing that Kenshin would have suffered from. To put things bluntly: Uesugi Kenshin was a known drinker.(12) 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 for Kenshin listed in most sources states that he died from 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(13)

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.

Kenshin in Pop Culture

Today, Japan has contemplated the idea that one of their most powerful daimyo might have been a woman, but even when depicting the warlord, 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.(14) Yet, his portrayal seems more feminine at first glance.

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 each other, one would think that they would be similar. This is one instance where the two are polar opposites. BASARA’s version of Kenshin 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.(15) 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 of 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 forward 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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin (last visited 1/24/2021)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin (last visited 1/24/2021)
  3. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/blog/weird-history/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman (last visited 1/24/2021)
  4. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/understanding-endometrial-cancer-symptoms (last visited 1/24/2021)
  5. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/blog/weird-history/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman (last visited 1/24/2021)
  6. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/blog/weird-history/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman (last visited 1/24/2021)
  7. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/blog/weird-history/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman (last visited 1/24/2021)
  8. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/blog/weird-history/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman (last visited 1/24/2021)
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin (last visited 1/24/2021)
  10. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/blog/weird-history/japans-greatest-warlord-a-woman (last visited 1/24/2021)
  11. https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/recurrent-abdominal-pain#1-3 (last visited 1/24/2021)
  12. https://www.japanese-wiki-corpus.org/person/Kenshin%20UESUGI.html (last visited 1/24/2021)
  13. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/esophageal-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20356084 (last visited 1/24/2021)
  14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uesugi_Kenshin (last visited 1/24/2021) It is also interesting to note that Gackt also played Oda Nobunaga in the live action Sengoku BASARA Moonlight Party.
  15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romi_Park (last visited 1/24/2021) There is also a more in-depth character analysis done by YouTuber Kitsune Hawk “Uesugi Kenshin—Character Development” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9bEFsVCxE0 (last visited 1/24/2021)