In Japanese, the word ‘Samurai’ derives from the verb, sabarau, “to wait on, serve” and in Japan, as in most countries there have been warriors since society began. However, in Japan 960 a.d. a ‘Warrior Class’ started exert considerable control over all state, regional and district matters. The Emperor, who had by now been relegated to a figurehead of divinity, constantly fell under the influence of the dominant warlords, whose general aim was to become ‘Shogun’, (Commander in Chief).
Kusunoki Masashinge it seems was from humble origin, perhaps with wealth from a commercial guild. In 1331 the Emperor Godaigo, began an attempt to overthrow the Kamakura Bakufu and establish himself on the throne. He set himself up in the town of Kasagi and waited for support to appear. Very few dared to come, and the Emperor faced disaster.
While dozing one day he dreamt of a warrior named Kusunoki, whom none within the court had heard of. Eventually a monk came forward and messengers were despatched to summon him to Kasagi.
Masashinge recognised the folly of direct action, and recommended that he should conduct a long-term guerrilla war designed to wear down the ‘Eastern’ enemy, preparing them for internal division and eventual defeat. The plan was agreed and Kusunoki took to the hills. Within a few days, Kasagi was under siege, and within days, the Emperor captured.
Later that month Kusunoki Masashinge, with 500 men, revolted and entrenched himself in a small fort on Mt Akasaka. The attack force, estimated at about 300,000 men, encircled the small fort and attempted to storm it. Due to its position, small size and the bravery and cunning of Masashinge’s force, the attackers were regularly beaten off. Indeed Masashinge mounted raids by day and night, used decoys and fire to thoroughly demoralise his enemy. When eventually he could hold out no longer, he pretended to commit ‘seppuku’, and slipped away with his tiny force through the enemy lines.
Over the next 12 months Masashinge continued the struggle gaining control of the provinces of Izumi and Kawachi, almost up to the gates of Kyoto. In late 1332 Kamakura, now severely angered at being made a fool of, again despatched large armies to destroy his guerrilla enemy.
Kusunoki Masashinge was by now defending the fortress of Chihaya and came under attack from about 1,000,000 men. Amazingly, with brilliant leadership the fort held out. Kusunoki beat off attack after attack, until in desperation Kamakura’s force simply sat down to wait out the siege. Day after day of stalemate and boredom followed. During this time, Ashikaga Takauji, one of Kamakura’s chief commanders revolted, and Emperor Godaigo, now exiled to the Island of Oki was persuaded to return to Kyoto.
The Emperor soon soured his reign, and fell out with Takauji, creating Civil War once more. Kusunoki Masashinge, now the Emperor’s principal general was tasked with the defence of the realm. His proposal was to retire and conduct another guerrilla war from established strongholds. This was rejected and he resolved that he was to be “the first to die” at the front.
During the Battle of the Minato River Kusunoki distinguished himself greatly. His particular command of his chosen 700 horsemen was masterful. Much to his disgust he survived the hopeless battle. The emperor’s forces were simply overwhelmed and Kusunoki was forced to take refuge with his brother, clan and personal retainers in a small village on the north side of the Minato River.
As is right in Samurai tradition, following the taking of oaths, the two brothers, eleven clan members and their sixty retainers committed suicide, with honour, all at once.
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