The Battle of Kawanakajima in Yonezawa City– or How I Spent my GW

The battle of Kawanakajima, Shingen on the left and Kenshin on the right. Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige.
The battle of Kawanakajima, Shingen on the left and Kenshin on the right. Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Japan is a country rich with a storied history. One of the most famous periods of Japanese history is the Sengoku period (戦国時代) or the Warring States Period. The Sengoku Period lasted from 1467 until 1603, when Japan’s political powers were unified under the Tokugawa Shogunate.

This is a period of Japan’s history that paints romantic pictures of noble samurai lords, fighting under the code of bushido, trying to unify and bring about a better Japan. The demon king Oda Nobunaga, the one-eyed dragon Date Masamune, god of war Uesugi Kenshin… this era has only been further romanticised thanks to the wildly popular game and anime series ‘Sengoku Basara’. Looking beyond the lore and the colourful modern adaptations, the Sengoku period produced one of the most famous rivalries in Japanese history—that of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin.

Takeda Shingen hailed from the Kai province (modern day Yamanashi prefecture) and called ‘The Tiger of Kai’ due to his military prowess. Shingen’s demon-faced and furred helmet is an enduring piece of Sengoku imagery. Uesugi Kenshin came from the Echigo province (modern day Niigata prefecture) and was as famous for his administrative skills as he was for his honour and military expertise.

Shingen and Kenshin’s most famous battle was the Battle of Kawanakajima, fought along the Kawanakijima plains, located in what is now Nagano prefecture. However, the battle of Kawanakajima is actually five different battles fought in 1553, 1555, 1557, 1561 and 1564. The most famous of the battles (which is often used as the climax for many Japanese samurai films and games) was fought in September 1961. It is this battle that is reenacted every spring in Yonezawa City in Yamagata prefecture as part of their Uesugi Kenshin Festival. It was this reenactment that I was lucky enough to participate in.

While many folks use their time off in the Golden Week holiday to travel to distant parts of Japan or even other countries, I started my Golden Week holiday by waking up at 5.30 in the morning to make my way to our neighbouring prefecture of Yamagata to don some armour and fight the good fight. Borrowing an 8-seater van from a friend, five other Aizu-ites and myself started the trek to Yonezawa.

Armour Readied for Wear

We arrived at a local gym a little before 8 and were greeted by volunteers from a local international group YFoot, in addition to fellow FuJET compatriots from the coast. The volunteers helped us dress in many layers of our armour (from straw sandles to metal headbands). The armour fit some folks better than others (I don’t think it was really designed with our current FuJET president, the Yama that Rides, in mind) but everyone looked undoubtedly cool. The armour was really comfortable to move around in and the only real nuisance was our division flags that were strapped to our backs (many people took a flag to the face or got their pole stuck on one thing or another). A little over thirty foreigners were participating in the day’s reenactment.

Our FuJET president, the Yama that Rides

After everyone was dressed, the not so fun part started—the waiting. It wasn’t quite nine yet and the reenactment wasn’t scheduled to start until after two. During that time, our time was spent in equal measures practicing standing in formation and practicing running in formation, with shouting and bowing practice thrown in for good measure. As the hours passed, crowds began to pack the seats of the field and excitement was beginning to grow. After a lunch break of famous Yonezawa beef bowls, our troop stood in formation for the final practice.

Now, you might be wondering if Uesugi Kenshin hailed from Niigata and the battle of Kawanakajima took place in Nagano, why is this festival and reenactment happening in Yonezawa City? While Uesugi Kenshin himself did not live in Yonezawa (Yonezawa Castle was part of the Date Clan’s holdings), Kenshin’s adopted son and heir, Uesugi Kagekatsu, and the rest of the Uesugi clan were relocated to Yonezawa in 1601. Uesugi Kagekatsu. Kagekatsu helped plan the city and was an exceptionally effective administrator. In the following years, an Uesugi Shrine and museum were built to honour and remember the members of the Uesugi clan. The Uesugi Kenshin festival is equal parts remembrance for the first head of the Uesugi clan and tourist grab drawing many people to the town to watch the spectacle of the Kawanakajima battle reenactment.

Takeda Shingen
Uesugi Kenshin

The time for the reenactment finally rolls around. Unfortunately, we are unable to see much of what happens in the battle prior to our part. Both commanders ride out and give inspiring speeches to their respective armies. Then, one of the most famous single combats in Japanese history takes place. Takeda Shingen sits in his tent finalising tactics for the upcoming battle. Uesugi Kenshin himself manages to ride into the camp and directly into Takeda’s tent. Kenshin draws his blade and strikes at Takeda, who parries his blows with nothing but his war fan until Kenshin is driven off.

Now, it’s our turn. We are called before our commander, Takeda Shingen, kneel before him and shout our allegiance. We then jog up and away from the battlefield, across a bridge and sit on the other side of the local river. Our job is to wait for signal fires, and then ford the river and flank our enemies. Waiting with baiting breath for our chance to participate in the battle, we chat with the locals and their children, watching the battle from the opposite side of the river. We of course stay in character and don’t make faces or take pictures with people…nope, absolutely not.

The signal fires are lit and we head to the river, a few folks being handed burning flares to carry across the chilly thigh-high waters. Everyone manages to cross with the only casualty sustained was a burn from the spark of a flare, we draw our steel… well, wood swords, and join into the fray…. where we instantly become targets for all of the local high school boys. Everyone was shouting joyfully and laughing as we crossed swords with various adversaries before finally succumbing to our wounds and fell to the bloodied ground. The whistle blows and everyone returns to their respective formations. The entire battle took place over a span of only twenty minutes. Closing words are spoken and formations are dismissed. It is now time for posing and taking lots of cheesy and clichéd pictures before finally trudging back to the gym and changing back into mufti.

Group Photo after the Day's Battle
Group Photo after the Day’s Battle

There is not a single person who didn’t enjoy themselves and isn’t absolutely exhausted in the gym where we disrobed. But while getting changed, I took that time to stop and think about the battle that we were remembering. I am an avid fan of Japanese history and have visited the actual Kawanakajima battle grounds in Nagano. This fourth battle of Kawankajima resulted in Uesugi suffering 3,000 losses and the Takeda 4,000. It was during these battles that the Uesugi Kenshin coined the famous Japanese saying ‘敵に塩を送る’, ‘Give Salt to One’s Enemies’ or quite simply—‘play fair’. During their battles, Uesugi never shut off the supply rout of salt to Takeda. Kenshin believed the war should be won on the battle field by soldiers, not with salt and food and with common people. What am I trying to say by telling you this? What I want to relay is my gratitude at having been able to take part in something so purely Japanese, to be a part of a storied and often complicated history, and remember that there is so much we can take away from the past today.