The thousand spears of the Kikuchi

We are in the turmoils of war of the Nanbokuchō period, this time on Kyūshū. The death of Emperor Godaigo in 1339 does not mean automatically the end of the dispute between the Northern and Southern Dynasties and also the shōgun Ashikaga Takauji – who just recently came to power – was confronted with a confusing constellation of rivalling families. Kyūshū and the northeastern provinces have always been hard to bring under a central power like the Yamato court of the bakufu, and the policy was so far as to leave the local hegemons as far as possible “independent” and install a kind of superordinated controlling body. One such a controlling body which existed since the Nara period was the office of Dazaifu (大宰府) in Chikuzen province which controlled the foreign trade and the relationship ti the mainland.

When the Minamoto came to power in 1185, the Dazaifu office was replaced by the so-called “Defense Commissioner of the West” (Chinzei-bugyō, 鎮西奉行). When about hundred years later to Mongols invaded Kyūshū the bakufu felt constrained to extend this office and thus the office of the “General Governor of the Western Garrisons” (Chinzei-tandai, 鎮西探題) was installed. Such offices were the key for a supremacy on Kyūshū and each imperial dynasty tried to appoint one their men to this post. But in addition to Dazaifu, there was another force active in this region, namely the “Supreme Commander of the Conquering of the West” (seisei-taishōgun, 征西大将軍), enacted by the imperial court during the Heian period. Emperor Godaigo appointed in 1336 one of his sons, Prince Kanenaga (懐良親王, 1329-1383), to the post of seisei-taishōgun, with the mission to keep under control the Kyūshū-based supporters, followers, and relatives of the Southern Dynasty to which Godaigo belonged. In this task he was supported by the local emperor-loyal military governors of the Kikuchi (菊池) and the Aso (阿蘇) clan.

The next two decates were a constant back and forth between the Northern and Southern Dynasty. In the fourth year of Enbun (延文, 1359),*1 Prince Kanenaga faced an upcoming attack of the Ashikaga, represented by Shōni Yorinao (少弐頼尚, 1293-1371) who switched to the side of the bakufu some years earlier. Kikuchi Takemitsu (菊池武光, 1319-1373) and other generals were mobilized and an army of about 40.000 men took position on the northern coast of River Chikugo (筑後川), faced with an alliance of about 60,000 warriors. The fightings were very brutal and records say that altogether 26,000 men were killed on both sides.

Kikuchi Takemitsu and his allies were vitctorious and this secured the supremacy of the Southern Dynasty on Kyūshū for about ten years. A vidid insight into the fierceness of this conflict gives us some 500 years later the historian and poet Rai San´yō (頼山陽, 1780-1832):

Uma kizu-tsuki, kabuto yaburete ki-masumasu furuu. (馬傷冑破気益奮)

Teki o kiri, kabuto o tori, uma o ubatte-noru. (斬敵取冑奪馬騎)

Ya o kōmuru koto, harinezumi no gotoku, mokushi saku. (被箭如蝟目眥裂)

[…] Kirai kasui ni waratte, katana o araeba, (歸來河水笑洗刀)

Chi wa hontan ni hotobatte, kōsetsu o haku. (血迸奔湍噴紅雪)

“On wounded horses, the armour broken, but not more than ever! The enemey is killed, his helmet is taken off, and his horse is taken. Pierced by arrows they look like hedgehogs, the skin around the corners of the eyes is torn open and bleeding. […] The river sounds like roaring laughter when they were cleaning their swords in it on the way back home. The blood ran down in streams so that the glacier turned red later this year.”

This river where they had cleaned their swords was later nicknamed Tachiarai-gawa (太刀洗川, “Swordcleaning/Swordcleaner River”) the the near village was also called Tachiarai (太刀洗).*2 With one of the last strophes of this long poem – it contains altogether 36 – I want to turn to the legend of the thousand spears. In this line, the poet San´yō refers to Takemitsu´s father Kikuchi Taketoki (菊池武時, 1272-1333):

Junkoku no ken wa daifu yori tsutou. (殉國劍傳自乃)

“So he receives the sword of his father with which the latter already gave his life for his land.”

In the third year of Genkō (元弘, 1333), Taketoki attacked on secret orders from Godaigo the then acting Chinzei-tandai Hōjō Hidetoki (北条英時, ?-1333) in Hakata. However, the plan became known before and Taketoki and one of his sons died in the arousing fightings. But before his death he assigned Takeshige (武重, 1307-1338) as his successor and detached him from the front line to their home lands so that he was able to pull the strings of the Kikuchi family. Theoretically, a retreat would have been possible by Taketoki but he decided to fight for the emperor and this loyalty is indicated in San´yō´s line.

Two years later there was another turning point in Godaigo´s tries to restore the power of the imperial court when suddenly Ashikaga Takauji turned against him. Godaigo ordered straight away that this “issue” should be approached by Nitta Yoshisada directly in Kamakura. Kikuchi Takeshige belonged to the army of Yoshisada, having the prestigious post of the vanguard. With his 1,000 men he encountered on the Tōkaidō close to the Hakone Pass (箱根峠, about 50 km west of Kamakura) Takauji´s younger brother Tadayoshi (直義, 1306-1352) who commanded an army of about 3,000. One year earlier Takeshige was posted in the 64-men command of the musha-dokoro (武者所) which had the supervision of the troops protecting the Imperial Palance in Kyōto. This means he and his men were not armed with heavy equipment like ōdachi (大太刀) or naginata.

But Takeshige was not frightened because the Kikuchi family was renowned for their unconventional methods in the warding-off of the Mongols. Thus he ordered his men to mount their tantō blades on two metres measuring bamboo poles to attack with the “ersatz spears” from within the bamboo thicket. Tadayoshi´s warriors were highly perplexed of this so-far unknown tactics and had to retreat with great difficulties. This is the origin of the term Kikuchi-senbon-yari (菊池千本槍, “The Thousand Spears of the Kikuchi”). But it has to be mentioned that the spear (yari, 槍) was at that time not the common weapon for a warrior which would be decisive for the outcome of a battle. Thus some consider Takeshige´s tactics at Hakone decisive or rather important for the later introduction of the yari as the common weapon of the infantry.

However, in the end Ashikaga Takauji came off the winner of the subsequent battle at Minatogawa which we were talking about in chapter 9. Back in his home province of Higo and basing on the mentioned experiences in battle, Takeshige invited based swordsmiths from the Enju school (延寿) from Yamato province to his lands to forge him short (about 15 to 20 cm blade length) and robust yari in the form of tantō blades with an elongated tang (see picture below). Much later in the history of Japan, the Kikuchi-senbon-yari had been rediscovered as a symbol for a loyalty to the emperor and the imperial court. Namely during the resistance movement against the bakufu around the periods of Kaei (嘉永, 1848-1854) and Ansei (安政, 1854-1860), royalists started with cutting off the tang of old handed-down kikuchi-yari from about the time of Takeshige and to mount them symbolically as tantō. And that is a factor why unshortened spears of that kind with an ubu-nakago are so hard to find nowadays.



Also the blades of the later daggers of the naval officers go back to the shape of the kikuchi-yari. For example commander Matsuo Keio (松尾敬宇, 1917-1942) – who participated in the submarine attacks on the port of Sydney in May 1942 – noted that he faced his enemies with a kikuchi-yari which was handed-down in his family since generations. An interesting sidenote, the propaganda film Kikuchi-senbon-yari Sydney-tokubetsu-tokkōdai (菊池千本槍シドニー特別特攻隊, “The Thousand Spears of the Kikuchi and the Suicide Attack Unit Sydney”) towards the end of World War II was produced under the leadership of the author Kikuchi Kan (菊池寛, 1888-1948), a namesake of Takeshige.


*1 This is the 14th year of Shōhei (正平) according to the counting of the Southern Dynasty.

*2 The present-day community Tachiarai-machi (大刀洗町) uses another character at the beginning but the name goes nevertheless back to this village and the nickname of the river.


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