Musashibo Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶)

Musashibo Benkei (birth date unknown; died on June 15, 1189) was a monk-soldier at the end of the Heian period. He was one of the retainers of MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune.

It is believed that he served MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune until the end of their lives after they met on the Gojo-Ohashi Bridge in Kyoto. He is known as a herculean warrior-priest who served Yoshitsune in the Kodan storytelling. It is said that he was a son of Kumanobetto (title of an official who administered the shrines at Kumano) Tanzo and born in Kii Province, but the details are unknown. According to the tourist literature of Tanabe city in Wakayama Prefecture, Benkei was born there.

He was originally a monk of Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei, loved martial arts and served Yoshitsune. "Azuma Kagami," a history book of the Kamakura period, writes 'and Benkei squired' in its description dated December 3, 1185 and 'Only four retainers squired Yoshitsune. They were Izu Uemon-no-jo, Yataro HORI, Musashibo Benkei and...' in its description dated December 6, 1185; almost no other facts other than these are known about his life. At one time his actual existence itself was suspected. But he is a great hero in fictional stories including "Gikeiki," a military epic about the life of Yoshitsune, and he is as popular as his master Yoshitsune as a leading role.


It is said that Kumanobetto Tanzo (or Bensho in "Gikeiki" and Benshin in "Benkei Monogatari," one of the stories in the Otogi Zoshi picture storybook) abducted a daughter of a noble having a rank of Nii Dainagon (Second Rank, chief councilor of state), and Benkei was the boy born to her and Tanzo. The stories say that Benkei stayed in the womb of his mother for 18 months (or three years according to "Benkei Monogatari"), and when he was born, he was already as large as a two- or three-year-old boy with his hair long down to the shoulders and all back teeth and front teeth fully grown. His father attempted to kill him because he thought his son was a changeling, but the baby was taken away by his aunt, named Oniwaka, and raised in Kyoto.

Oniwaka was then sent to Enryaku-ji Temple in Mt. Hiei, but was expelled because of his extremely wild behavior. He shaved his hair to become a priest and named himself Musashibo Benkei. Benkei went to Shikoku and then to the Harima Province, but he also acted wild and caused the temple building of Engyo-ji Temple to burn down.

Over the course of time, Benkei made an earnest wish to win through combat one thousand swords in Kyoto. He attacked passers-by, fought samurai with his swords and collected 999 swords. Benkei came across Yoshitsune, who was walking on the Gojo-Ohashi Bridge (or in the temple ground of Kiyomizu Kannon according to "Gikeiki") while playing a flute when there was only one sword left to get until his wish was to be made. As his eye was riveted to an excellent sword worn by Yoshitsune on the waist, he charged at the young noble. But the Yoshitsune was so light he hopped on the balustrade of the bridge; he overwhelmed Benkei with his swift movement, and Benkei was finally lost. It was after that point that he became a royal retainer of Yoshitsune. Their duel is a story that was created in later years, and in those days, there was no bridge known as Gojo-Ohashi yet.

The site of the encounter is also not on the Gojo-Ohashi Bridge, but somewhere between Horikawa-Koji street to Kiyomizu-dera Temple according to the Gikeiki. Another theory says that the present Matsubara-dori Street was the former 'Gojo-dori' Street; Gojoten-jinja Shrine was located at former Gojo-dori Nishino-toin, and a bridge was there for the fight to take place.

The venue of their fight at Gojo-Ohashi Bridge was first created in 'Nihon Mukashibanashi' (the Ancient Tales of Japan), authored by nursery tale writer Sazanami IWAYA in the Meiji period. The lyrics of a song 'Ushiwakamaru,' one of the "Jinjo Shogaku Shoka" songs, or songs collected for common elementary education, is also based on Iwaya's fictional setting.

Later, Benkei made a great performance as a royal retainer of Yoshitsune and made a name in the battle against the Taira clan. He accompanied Yoshitsune as they left Kyoto after he split from his own brother, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. Yoshitsune and his entourage were in disguise as mountain priests as they fled away from Kyoto, and Benkei helped them with his wisdom and herculean power.

Their identification was almost revealed by Saemon TOGASHI (or Togashi-no-suke according to "Gikeiki") at Ataka no Seki or Ataka Checking Station, Kaga Province. Benkei read a fake kanjincho, a statement to explain reasons to gather donations for Buddhist activities, and beat Yoshitsune, who was suspected as a fugitive, with his kongozue (a big walking stick used by a mountain priest in his training). Although Togashi knew Benkei was lying, he understood the sentiments of Benkei, pretended he didn't notice the fraud, and let them go through the Check Station. Thus, Yoshitsune's group safely passed through the Check Station.

They arrived at Oshu and found shelter under FUJIWARA no Hidehira. But when Hidehira died, his son FUJIWARA no Yasuhira violated the will of his father out of fear of the power of Yoritomo and attacked Yoshitsune and his entourage at Koromogawa no Tachi (residence of the Oshu-Fujiwara clan). According to the epic stories, although desperately outnumbered, Benkei valiantly defended his master in front of the compound swirling his naginata, a long-handled swordlike weapon, and was killed as he stood his ground against a barrage of the enemy's arrows. He died on his feet. He still kept defending Yoshitsune even after he died--this death is counted as one of the most memorable deaths in the Japanese history.

The description as above is based on the stories in later periods including "Gikeiki," and Benkei as his historical existence is only mentioned in the paragraph of the year 1185 of "Azuma Kagami" that has his name as one of the members of Yoshitsune and Yukiie's party as they left Kyoto.

According to historical materials such as "Azuma Kagami" and the "Gyokuyo," a journal of Kanezane KUJO, armed priests of Enryaku-ji Temple of Mt. Hiei sheltered Yoshitsune and his retainers, who escaped from Kyoto and stayed hidden around Mt. Hiei; one of those priests named Shunsho took them to Oshu. On February 7, 1189, another armed priest of Enryaku-ji Temple, Senkobo-Shichiro, was arrested by Tokisada HOJO and found holding a letter written by Yoshitsune with his intention to return to Kyoto. Senkobo was a priest wanted in August of the previous year for his wrong-doings, including his gathering of outlaw ronin (masterless samurai). The actions of those armed priests of Enryaku-ji Temple who protected Yoshitsune were recorded and exaggerated to become a legendary story about Musashibo Benkei.

There is a tomb believed to be that of Benkei in Hiraizumi-cho, Iwate Prefecture.

There are many other episodes about Benkei in the legend of the immortal MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune that relates the idea that Yoshitsune and his retainers did not die at Koromogawa-no-tachi but escaped to present-day Aomori Prefecture or Hokkaido.

Noh and Kabuki

Benkei is a leading role in "Ataka," a play of Sarugaku (comical mimicry and speech performance in Heian period) and Noh, and "Kanjincho," a Kabuki play based on that Ataka. Yoshitsune, who antagonized Yoritomo, and his retainers attempted to pass through the Ataka Check Station in disguise as mountain priests in order to reach the Oshu-Fujiwara clan for shelter. Togashi, a barrier keeper, questioned the party and told them to show a kanjincho note. The party didn't have such a document, but Benkei used his wits, opened one of the scrolls he had and read it resonantly using his experience as an ascetic monk. When his wits almost made them successfully pass the check station, one of Togashi's men remarked, 'One of the party members always covers his face with an umbrella and behaves in a strange way, and he resembles Yoshitsune,' which further fueled their doubts.
Then again Benkei used his wits; he repeatedly beat his master Yoshitsune with his stick, cussing 'We all are suspected out of nothing just because you look like Yoshitsune.'
Benkei's performance made the check station officials believe that no retainer would possibly beat his master with a stick, and Yoshitsune's party successfully passed through the check point. After leaving the check point, Benkei apologized to Yoshitsune while crying. This story is thus told in the Noh and Kabuki plays, Ataka or Kanjincho.

This story was also made into a play of Sarugaku and Noh titled "Funa Benkei," which tells the episode of their flight to Western Japan. Yoshitsune Senbonzakura' (Yoshitsune and One Thousand Cherry Trees), another title of a Kabuki play that has Yoshitsune in the leading role, also has Benkei as one of the characters.

Alleged inheritances

Benkei Stone (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)

It is a stone located beside a walkway Sanjo-dori Fuyacho-dori Higashi-iru, Nakagyo-ku (between Fuyacho-dori Street and Gokomachi-dori Street). The legend says when a boy touches the stone, he will become a powerful man. Other than this, there are seven other stones called Benkei Stones (eight in total in Japan). All those stones are located along a route taken by Benkei to Hiraizumi, and those stones have their own version of legend, such as "the stone Benkei carried," "the stone Benkei sat on," or "the stone cut by Benkei."

Mirror Pond of Benkei (Engyo-ji Temple, Hyogo Prefecture)

According to the legend surrounding this pond, Benkei showed his face on the water surface of the pond, realized there was graffiti on his face and saw red.

Beanbag Stone of Benkei (Engyo-ji Temple, Hyogo Prefecture)

It is a round stone, which is believed to have been thrown by Benkei as a beanbag.

Remains of Benkei's Sumo Stage (Suttsu-cho, Hokkaido)

The remains of a dohyo (sumo ring) that is believed to be where Benkei played sumo with a brawny Ainu man.

Benkei's Seven Retreats (Mt. Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture)

It is the place believed to be where even Benkei could not advance and retreated seven times out of fear.

Words and phrases connected with Benkei

Benkei has been used as a byword for a heroic figure, and there have been born various words and phrases attributable to such an impression.

Benkei's Standing Death

When Yoshitsune, wanted by his brother MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, was attacked by FUJIWARA no Yasuhira at Koromogawa-no-tachi, Benkei beat the enemy soldiers one after another, but was finally shot to death by an endless number of arrows; he is believed to have died on his feet. The phrase is used to mean the condition where someone is stymied. Various discussions have been made from medical viewpoints about his standing death. According to forensic medicine, it may be interpreted as an instantaneous cadaveric spasm caused by excessive physical fatigue or the shock of instantaneous death, but there are also comments that say it is impossible; the truth remains uncertain.

Benkei's death is very much similar to the death of Dian Wei in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in that the hero fought a great fight for his master and died on his feet as he was shot by so many arrows.

Benkei's Weak Point

Benkei's Weak Point is his shin, which feels acute pain as the nerves run immediately on the shin bone just under the skin, and however strong a man is like Benkei, he sheds tears when he is hit on the shin; hence the Japanese name of 'the place that makes Benkei cry'. It is a byword for one's weak point, with Achilles tendon being the other one. Another weak point of Benkei is the part of the middle finger above the first joint. When we bend the second joint of a finger with the first joint kept stretched, we cannot put the power to the first joint.
Hence, that part is referred to as Benkei's Weak Point as 'even that unprecedentedly powerful Benkei cannot tighten the muscle of that part.'

Benkei's Seven Tools

The seven tools mean the seven kinds of weapons Benkei is believed to have held. They include naginata (long-handled sword), iron rake, sledge and sasumata (two-pronged weapon) (See here).
This phrase is then taken to express indispensable tools that one needs for a specific action or profession, such as the 'seven tools of election' (scutcheon, arm band, etc. necessary for election campaigners) or the 'seven tools of a detective.'
Note that the inscription of Benkei's naginata is believed to have been "Iwatoshi." The maker of his naginata is unknown, but some theories state that it is Munechika SANJO.

Uchi-Benkei and Soto-Jizo (lit. Benkei when inside and Jizo when outside)

The phrase is often shortened to 'Uchi-Benkei.'
The phrase describes a person who is bullish and bossy inside the house but weak-kneed and subdued when outside the house. The phrase is often used to suggest negative aspects like the hikikomori syndrome or domestic violence. One of the derivatives is 'Internet Benkei' used to refer to a person who is energetic and high-spirited only on the Internet. On the contrary, a person who is generally low-key at home or at work but suddenly begins to act like a tyrant once he is in a position of a customer while sightseeing or shopping may be called 'Soto-Benkei' (Benkei when outside).

Benkei Ginata Shiki

It is also known as 'Ginatayomi.'
It is an expression to indicate that a Japanese sentence is read with wrong delimiters, such as 'Benkei ga naginata wo motte sashi koroshita' (Benkei stabbed... to death with a naginata) mistakenly read as 'Benkei ga na, ginata wo motte sa, shikoroshita.'
In other words, when a sentence is understood by placing commas and periods (or breath breaks) in a different way, the sentence can have a different meaning. Another example is 'Kokode hakimono wo nuide kudasai' (lit. Take off your shoes here) and 'Kokode ha kimono wo nuide kudasai' (lit. Undress here).

Names connected with Benkei

Benkei Crab

Benkei-Gani (Crab). Small crab inhabiting an estuary near the sea. The crab is presumably so named because the pattern of the shell reminds us of the stern face of Benkei. It is possible that the crab is named in contrast to another crab named Heike Crab that reminds us of the Taira clan people who sank in the sea after the loss in the battle.

Benkei Pattern

It is a design of fabric woven in a grid pattern with yarns of two colors like purple and brown or light yellow. Where two yarns cross, the colors are overlapped and darkened. The reason it came to be called "Benkei" is unknown.

Benkei Grass

Benkei-So (lit. Benkei grass). Also called Ikikusa. It is a perennial grass featuring thick leaves and small light red flowers blooming in a group. The reason it is so named is probably due to its hardiness--the grass can live for a long time even after it has been severed.

Benkei Go

This is the nickname of the second US-made machine tender steam locomotive used for the state-owned Horonai Railway in Hokkaido. The actual locomotive is on display as Japanese Class 7100 Steam Locomotive in the Railway Museum, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture.

Cape Benkei

Cape Benkei is located at the western part of Suttsu Bay, Suttsu Town, Hokkaido.

[Original Japanese]