The historic battlefield of Kawanakajima, the site of some of Japan’s most legendary and ferocious samurai conflicts, lies just south of the renowned Zenkō-ji Temple in Nagano Prefecture. For over a decade, the warlords Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen contested this territory in a series of bloody clashes, grinding down each other’s armies in battle after battle, each seeking an elusive, unobtainable victory.
(The name Kawanakajima “川中島” is far less intimidating in Japanese than it looks in English. To break it down: Kawa (川 “River”) – Naka (中 “Middle”) – Jima (島 “Island”). That is, “Island Between Rivers,” Kawa-Naka-Jima. The battlefield is not a literal island, but it lies at the point where two rivers converge.)
Though the Shōgun in the capital supposedly governed the land, true power in 16th Century Japan lay fractured among scores of feuding warlords, each controlling his own territory and armies, and each seeking to outwit, outlast, and outfight his rivals. Kenshin and Shingen were among the greatest of these lords. Shingen (a.k.a. “The Tiger of Kai”) had already conquered most of Shinano Province, and he saw the plain of Kawanakajima as the vital key to expanding his territory northward. Kenshin (a.k.a. “The Dragon of Echigo”), who ruled in the north, was determined to repel him. And so here they clashed, time and time again. At the cost of untold gallons of blood, Kenshin, the Dragon, prevented his rival from continuing his northward conquest; yet at the same time Shingen, the Tiger, tenaciously held his ground and refused to let Kenshin drive him back.
The Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima (out of five total) stands out in particular as among the most famous battles of its era, leaving large percentages of each army dead, along with many generals. Notably, at the dramatic height of this battle, Kenshin himself breached Shingen’s command post on horseback. As their vast armies clashed around them, the two warlords fought each other in single combat, Kenshin attacking with his sword and Shingen defending himself with his war fan until a bodyguard, rushing to his master’s aid, managed to drive Kenshin away with a spear.
The rivalry between these two warlords—locked in stalemate, evenly matched, neither able to finish the other—is one of the most famous warrior feuds of the medieval era, giving inspiration to myriad paintings, works of literature, and (in the modern era) films and TV dramas. The battles of Kawanakajima, in all their heroism and savagery, embody the very essence of the violence, tragedy, and romance of the high medieval era.
I first read about Kenshin, Shingen, and this battlefield when I was in high school, and so Kawanakajima has been on my list of places to visit for many years. Still, it wasn’t until this fall that I finally managed to stop and see it during my trip through Nagano Prefecture. Though most of the plain has been subsumed by Nagano City, a portion of the east side of the battlefield, where Shingen’s army was stationed, has been converted into a historical park. There, within the precincts of a shrine dedicated to the warrior god Hachiman, an impressive monument features statues of the two great warlords at the moment of their epic one-on-one confrontation: Kenshin, on horseback, bears down upon his rival, snarling as he brandishes his sword; Shingen reels back in his command seat, taken by surprise, war fan raised to defend himself.
Considering all the men who fought here so desperately, all the many thousands who left their blood and bones in this soil, I could not shake a sense of profound futility as I strolled through that beautiful park, looking out at those same surrounding, eternal mountains that thousands of samurai and foot soldiers must have beheld as they lay dying on the field. For in the end, these battles were inconclusive; neither side achieved its ultimate goals, and in the coming decades, the prominence of both clans would decline as the balance of power tilted elsewhere. Shingen’s clan would be annihilated by other enemies twenty years after Kawanakajima; Kenshin’s clan, meanwhile, would go on to fight for the losing side at Sekigahara, the final great battle of the age, and thus find itself relegated to lesser, tozama status by the new rulers of Japan. Though the battles of Kawanakajima are dramatic and fascinating subjects of study, in the end, Japan’s fate would be decided by other lords and other clans. Paintings and poems notwithstanding, little lasting benefit seems to have actually been gained by either clan who fought on this bloody field.
I walked around the shrine grounds and the wider park for about an hour, mulling over such thoughts. I couldn’t help but think that, if one's fate is to die in battle, then how much better it would be to give one’s life in a place like Okehazama, or Shizugatake, or Sekigahara—some battle of unquestionable lasting consequence, which at least moves the wheels of history forward, instead of in a hopeless, ambiguous meat grinder like Kawanakajima, which left thousands dead but did little to advance the long-term fortunes of either side.
Yet a soldier cannot choose such things, and to even entertain such thoughts is a luxury few samurai could have afforded. Surely, to many of them, such considerations would likely sound like entitlement and vanity. They knew the senselessness and fickleness of fate as well as anyone, and they trained themselves to regard their lives as cherry blossoms or autumn leaves—beautiful, fleeting, fragile, and ever ready to fall.
(A special thank you to illustrator Akihiro Fukuda, who allowed me to use his beautiful artwork for this post.)