The Battle of Kawanakajima

The present day city of Nagano stands on the site of the five battles of Kawanakajima: 1553, 1555, 1557, 1561 and 1564 – at each of which up to 33,000 men fought in pitched battle.

bringing light – the key

only found deep within

secret buddha

The Zenkoji Buddha-image is rumored to be the first Buddha statue to be brought to Japan.  Having caused dispute between two clans it was dumped into a canal but later rescued and reinstated. The temple was then named after the Chinese transliteration of the rescuer’s name. The statue is now a Secret Buddha (hibutsu), probibited to be shown to anyone except at 6-year celebrations – even the chief priest!

From an inner chamber, a narrow staircase leads down a completely dark corridor where worshippers try to touch a metal key hanging on the wall, in order to gain enlightenment. The key represents the Key to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha.

10,000 men lie

at Nagano’s bloody dawn

going forth – the sun

After successfully rebelling against his father, young warlord, Takeda Shingen, eyed Shinano Province for expansion. After an early attempt to neutralise him failed at the  Battle of Sazewa, he seized the initiative and made gains in Shinano Province. He expelled two daimyo (feudal lords), who turned to Uesugi Kenshin for help.


keep to yourself the surprise

of ignorance

Uesugi Kenshin set out from his fortress with 18,000 warriors, determined to destroy Takeda. Leaving some of his force at Zenkoji, Uesugi took up position on Saijo Mountain (Saijoyama), west of, and looking down upon, Takeda’s castle at Kaizu. However, ignorant of the fact he had taken Takeda completely by surprise – and there were no more than 150 samurai in the castle – he refrained from attacking.

wings outspread

cranes dance across the river


Informed by signal fires, that Uesugi’s army was now poised at Kaizu castle, Takeda set out; with an army of 20,000. He approached along the west bank of the Chikuma River (Chikumagawa)keeping the river between his army and Takeda’s position at Saijoyama. Neither army made a move, knowing that victory would require the essential element of surprise.

before the crane’s wing

darkness sweeps away

even horse’s hooves

Takeda’s Commissioner, Yamamoto Kansuke, planned to surprise Uesugi: under the cover of night. General Kosaku advanced up Saijo Mountain (Saijoyama) intending to drive Uesugi onto the plain where another force of 8,000 Takeda would be waiting in Crane’s Wing formation to destroy them.

with the rising sun

a tide of light comes screaming

breaking in waves

Anticipating this move – or possibly forwarned – Uesugi’s men crept down the mountain, during the night, using bits of cloth to deaden the noise of the horse’s hooves.

At dawn, Takeda’s men were surprised: instead of fleeing from the mountain, as they expected,  they found the Uesugi force was ready to charge them. Without hesitation Uesugi attacked in a wave formation (Kuruma Gakari) where every unit was replaced by another as it became weary or was destroyed.

the crane alone

circles thehill

its wing broken

Uesugi routed Takeda.

Yamamoto, whose plan it was, charged, alone, into a mass of Uesugi samurai. He suffered upwards of 80 bullet wounds before he retired to a nearby hill and committing honor-suicide (seppuku).

wit against wit

the furnace sharper than blades

parrying snowflakes

The Uesugi forces battled on to reach the Takeda command post where the lord, Takeda Shingen, was stationed. Uesugi Kenshin caught Takeda by surprise: ‘a single warrior mounted on a huge charger riding swiftly as a sweeping wind’, burst into his headquarters.  Takeda, completely unprepared, parried with his signalling fan as best as he could:

‘down came a blow of the heavy sword aimed at Shingen’s forehead, with a question expressed in the terms of Zen: “What shall you do in such a state at such a moment?”

Having no time to draw his sword, Shingen parried it with his war fan, answering simultaneously in Zen words: “A flake of snow on the red hot furnace!”

Using his signalling fan, Takeda held Uesugi off long enough for one of his retainers to spear Takeda’s mount and drive him off.’

the crane – the harrier

with a change of wind

the harrier – the crane

Despite fierce rotating attacks by the Uesugi, the Takeda main body held firm and forced Uesugi back to the Chikumigawa.

A 2,000 strong Takeda force had issued forth from Kaizu Castle. They followed the path they expected the Uesugi to take in retreat, but instead found 3,000 Uesugi warriors were left to defend the ford below Saijoyama. Despite being outnumbered, the Takeda samurai punched-through and pressed on to assist the main force. The retreating Uesugi were harried from the rear.

across blood-grass plains

silence the only victor

as winds blow cold

The Uesugi army suffered losses of around 3,000, while the Takeda took about 4,000 casualties. Takeda made no effort to stop the Uesugi from retreating after the battle and their forces were to meet again three years later when skirmishes took place over a 2-month period. Again, there was no decisive winner.

shall we meet again

if not today – tomorrow?

the dance-eternal’s spin

will you be making your mark

or just leaving things empty?

The fourth battle of Kawanakajima, September 1561

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2 thoughts on “The Battle of Kawanakajima

  1. Pingback: Uncurrent Events 10/18 « YouViewed/Editorial

  2. The fourth battle is widely viewed as the climax of the war due to the scale of the battle, but there was a fifth and final battle, in 1564. Their forces skirmished again for ~60 days, and then both sides withdrew.

    The fourth battle between Takeda and Uesugi is frequently viewed as having no clear winner. The feudal etiquette was to establish a tactical advantage and once this was established both sides’ armies would withdraw. Kenshin is said to have won the first half of the battle and Shingen to have won the last half. There is no clear consensus as to the winner, with what little historical evidence there is of the battle coming mainly from letters written by Shingen and Kenshin themselves. Shingen is often considered to have been the winner, but importantly, Shingen was to lose many of his important samurai that day, including his brother, Nobushige, Yamamoto Kansuke, Morozumi Toramitsu and many more great generals.

    As a consequence of losses sustained to the family hierarchy, mainly during the fourth battle, the Takeda Clan was critically destabilised and ultimately doomed to fail.

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