Kusunoki Masashige was among the military leaders of forces supporting Emperor Go-Daigo's restoration of Imperial power in the 1330s. In the Meiji period, he became lauded as an exemplar of Imperial loyalty, and a national hero; a statue of him erected in 1900 in the main public plaza at the Tokyo Imperial Palace remains a major sight today.
Little is known, however, about Masashige prior to his involvement with Go-Daigo, or indeed about the Kusunoki or their roots. The Taiheiki records that Kusunoki was descended from Tachibana Moroye, an influential nobleman and scholar, but this, along with the Kusunoki's presumed Minamoto ties, has never been either proved nor disproved. What is certain is that in 1331 Kusunoki Masashige was a landowner of some modest standing in Kawachi province who responded to the Emperor Go-Daigo's plea for military support against the Hôjô. There were few other men of standing willing to cast in their lots with the imperial cause, making Kusunoki's pledge of support all the more noble. His first act was to fortify a hilltop position called Akasaka, which he garrisoned with a total of 500 men. There he accepted the company of Prince Morinaga, who had fled from the Enryaku-ji. This was in October, and by the end of that very same month the Imperial cause seemed lost. Emperor Go-Daigo had taken up at the Kasagi Temple following his flight from Kyoto on 27 September; on 28 October forces of the Kamakura shogunate captured Kasagi and forced Go-Daigo to flee. Within days Go-Daigo was apprehended and confined in Rokuhara. As for Kusunoki and Prince Morinaga, they had already cast their lots and had no choice but to continue on their rebellious course. In November bakufu troops arrived at Akasaka and laid siege with forces that greatly outnumbered those of the defenders. The battle lasted for about three weeks or so and in that time Masashige and his men fought gallantly, creating an inordinate number of bakufu casualties around the walls of Akasaka and forested hillsides of Mt. Kongô. The bakufu forces managed to cut Akasaka's aqueduct, and all but doomed the small garrison. Kusunoki, determined to carry on the fight elsewhere, succeeded in faking his own death: he ordered the castle torched and slipped out under cover of night, tricking the Hôjô into believing that he had committed suicide. Prince Morinaga parted ways with Kusunoki at this point and went into hiding at Yoshino.
Go-Daigo was exiled to Oki in April of 1332 but resistance to the Hôj^p continued in the Yamato region. Kusunoki assembled another band of men and began a campaign of harassment against bakufu forces in the Kinai region while Prince Morinaga appealed to other landowners and warriors to rally against Kamakura.
According to the Taiheki, Kusunoki won a number of minor victories during the course of the year. In one of these actions, a 2,000-man force under Kusunoki moved in the general direction of Kyoto, prompting the bakufu headquarters in the city to dispatch a contingent of 5,000 to face him. The two enemy commanders leading the expedition, Suda and Takahashi, were a bit over-zealous in their task and pressed straight on Kusunoki, who was waiting for them beyond the Yodo River. By employing deceptive maneuvers, Kusunoki convinced the bakufu warriors that they had plunged headlong into a trap and the attackers fled back across the Watanabe Bridge in some disorder. Kusunoki's actions no doubt gave some substance to the appeals to arms issued by Prince Morinaga. In early 1333 sizable bakufu forces had been deployed to the Kyoto region and these were divided and sent against three targets - Chihaya castle, another Mt. Kongo fort defended by Kusunoki; Yoshino, headquarters of Prince Morinaga; and Akasaka, now under the control of Hirano Shogen. Akasaka and Yoshino had both fallen by 1 March, leaving Chihaya, which promised to be a much more formidable redoubt. Unlike Akasaka, Kusunoki had had time to prepare Chihaya for a prolonged resistance and the presence of an internal well meant that the loss of this castle's aqueduct would not be fatal. The terrain was also more formidable then Akasaka, and practically sheer on two sides. This meant that Kusunoki could plan on where to meet any attacks and lay elaborate counter-measures accordingly.
In March the forces that had reduced Akasaka and Yoshino converged on Chihaya and the siege began in earnest. The early assaults were repulsed with the greatest bloodshed. Kusunoki employed every possible device to maximize the resistive capabilities of his men, to include rockslides, boiling water, and pitfalls. Logs were rolled down on attacking bakufu troops, bowling over entire ranks of men and eroding morale. The causality list literally grew exponentially, as the Taiheiki records, "Lieutenant of the Outer Palace Guards, Left Division, Nagasaki Shiro, being a marshal and required to make eyewitness records of casualties, had to keep twelve scribes plying their brushes without respite for three days and nights." Rather then continue to take losses of this magnitude, the bakufu commanders changed tactics and settled down for a siege. This tactic may have ultimately succeeded but for orders that arrived from Kamakura demanding that the campaign be brought to a speedy conclusion. Other warriors were responding to Prince Morinaga's call, encouraged by Masashige's heroic resistance. In addition, Go-Daigo had escaped Oki Island on a fishing ship and was on his way to rally the supporters of his cause.
The attackers ordered a large bridge hastily constructed and attempted to span a ravine that separated Chihaya from a height controlled by the bakufu forces, only to lose more men when Kusunoki set it ablaze. At this same time, events were transpiring that would make all of the Hôjô efforts at Chihaya wasted. To the east, two powerful Kamakura armies had been dispatched from the Kantô, under Ashikaga Takauji and Nagaoshi Takaie. The latter was killed en route to the Kinai, and his forces absorbed into Takauji's army. Now commanding the most powerful of the bakufu's field forces and noting that most of the bakufu's Kinai forces were engaged around Chihaya, Takauji revolted. To everyone's surprise, Takauji marched into Kyoto and occupied the city in the name of the emperor. Go-Daigo was able to return, and the siege of Chihaya came to an abrupt end. In the east, Nitta Yoshisada of Kôzuke province also declared against the Hôjô and led an army against Kamakura itself, forcing Hôjô Takatoki, the last of the Hôjô Regents, to commit suicide. Go-Daigo's Kemmu Restoration had been a success, in no small way thanks to Kusunoki Masashige's efforts.
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, peace was short-lived. Ashikaga Takauji was dispatched to defeat a son of the late Takatoki, Tokiyuki, and occupied Kamakura in 1335. Soon afterwards, he clashed with Nitta Yoshisada, an old rival, and by 1336 had openly broke with Go-Daigo. Takauji marched against Kyoto but suffering a defeat fled to the relative safety of Kyushu. Once there, he drew together an army of supporters and prepared for a return to the Kinai.
In May the Ashikaga army departed Kyushu and headed eastward, led by Takauji, Ashikaga Tadayoshi, Hosokawa Jozen, and Shôni Yorihisa. By this point, Nitta Yoshisada had become Go-Daigo's top commander and he dispatched a messenger calling for Kusunoki to join the loyalist army presently readying for battle. Kusunoki objected to the decision to confront Takauji in a straightforward battle. In fact, there are two versions of his protest. According to the Taiheki, Kusunoki suggested that Go-Daigo retreat from Kyoto to Mt. Hiei and allow the loyalist forces time to harass and tire Takauji's army until the time was right to do battle - the most popular scenario. The Baisho Ron, compiled only 13 or 14 years after the battle (albeit stilted in the Ashikaga's favor), records that Kusunoki actually suggested that Go-Daigo kill Nitta and make peace with Takauji, insinuating that Yoshisada was over-rated and bound to bring about the doom of the loyalist cause. What makes this latter account intriguing is that the Baisho Ron is not lacking in praise for Masashige, making no attempt to discredit Go-Daigo's champion. Also, Nitta Yoshisada in general comes off as a man determined more by personal ambitions or motivations than by fealty to the emperor. That he was a military incompetent, as many modern texts declare, is not as easy to determine, but the upcoming battle certainly reinforces that view. At any rate, there is an at least reasonable chance that Kusunoki's actual protest to Go-Daigo ran somewhere in between the two accounts, and that the Taiheki's somewhat more noble version was later embraced as it suited the near-godlike stature Kusunoki was raised to after the Meiji Restoration.
Go-Daigo seems to have vacillated on Kusunoki's suggestion initially but in the end went along with Nitta's aggressive strategy. Reluctantly, Masashige raised troops and prepared to join an army he believed was doomed to defeat. Before he left he visited with his eleven-year old son, a poignant moment celebrated in Japanese art. According to the Taiheki Masashige urged the boy, Masatsura, to remain brave and never forget his loyalty to the emperor, regardless of the outcome of the current conflict. With that, Masashige departed.
The battle would take place on a hot and humid 5th of July at the Minato River (or the Minatogawa) in Harima. The forces of Nitta Yoshisada, Nitta Yoshisuke, and Kusunoki found themselves confronted by a force that had divided itself into three parts. Ashikaga Tadayoshi and Shôni Yorihisa advanced by land while Takauji and Hosokawa Jozen made their way to the battleground via ship. A quick inspection of any map of the battle arrangements will reveal a fundamental flaw in the loyalist's dispositions. Kusunoki's forces were arrayed on the west bank of the Minatogawa, with his flank secured to the south by Nitta, deployed on the eastern side of the river. It is probable that the river was dry at this time, but any movement on Nitta's behalf eastward would still run the risk of leaving Kusunoki isolated, and in the course of the battle this was just what happened. When the fighting started, Shoni attacked Nita's front while Hosokawa sailed up and began landing to his rear. Nitta panicked and pulled back, leaving Kusunoki's 700 men to face the full brunt of Ashikaga Tadayoshi's army. Kusunoki and his men fought bravely but in the end were overwhelmed. After almost six hours of fighting Masashige and his brother Masasue committed suicide, joined by those Kusunoki retainers who had not already been killed. The loyalist cause was doomed, and Nitta Yoshisada, who escaped Minatogawa, was later killed.
The epilogue to the tragic story of Kusunoki Masashige comes in the form of that very same son he met with before he departed for his final battle - Masatsura. Twelve years after his father's death, Masatsura had an audience with the emperor of the Southern Court, Emperor Go-Murakami, who praised the Kusunoki's loyalty to his family. Soon afterwards, Masatsura was killed at the Battle of Shijô Nawate on 4 February 1348. A poem he etched on the door to the temple honoring Go-Daigo before he was killed survives to this day and reads:
I could not return, I presume
So I will keep my name
Among those who are dead with bows.
After the Meiji Restoration, when a new government was searching for a way to reconcile Japan's samurai past with her Imperial present, Kusunoki Masashige came to the fore. A samurai loyal to the emperor, even to his certain death, was a valuable symbol, and much exploited during the era of Japanese Imperialism. This ended up with ugly connotations, with young men hurling themselves futilely into American ships in World War II by aircraft or fast boat, inspired by the exploits of Masashige.
Pre-war propaganda aside, Kusunoki Masashige stands as a soldier of the first order, brave and unselfish, with honorable intentions and a steadfast determination. His defense of Chihaya stands as a masterpiece of Japanese defense work that was rarely repeated in the centuries to come.
Ivan Morris's The Nobility of Failure devotes a chapter to Kusunoki. According to Morris, adulation of Kusunoki was well-established during the Edo period. Those who admired him included eminent Confucianists like Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), as well as the coup-plotter Yui Shôsetu (d. 1651).
- Initial text from Samurai-Archives.com FWSeal & CEWest, 2005