Sequel to the Story of Yoshitsune
Those who have read the story of the great warrior Yoshitsune will certainly remember that his retainer Benkei was a gigantic bonze as remarkable for his physical strength as he was for his original character. In the story of Yoshitsune very little was said about Benkei; you may therefore like to hear something more about the famous man who is so favourite a hero with Japanese children and so greatly respected in Japan for his faithfulness to his master.
Benkei was the son of a Buddhist priest named Bensho, High Steward of the Temple of Gongen at Kumano, a famous shrine from ancient times, and his mother was the daughter of a high Court official of the second rank.
Benkei was no ordinary mortal. Most children come into the world within ten months, but Benkei kept his mother waiting one year and six months for him; and when he was born he already had teeth and a luxuriant growth of hair, and was so strong and big that he could walk from the first as well as most children of two or three years of age.
Seeing how extraordinarily big and strong he was, the family were lost in amazement; but their wonder quickly changed to dismay, for the mother died soon after giving birth to her son. The father, Bensho, was very angry at this, and took an aversion to the child who had brought, he said, so great a misfortune upon him. He even wished to abandon the boy altogether, believing that, as Benkei’s birth had cost his mother’s life, he would in after years only prove a curse to the family.
Now the boy’s aunt (who was married to a man named Yama-no-i), hearing this, pitied her little nephew Benkei, and going to her brother said: “If you are going to treat the child so cruelly as to cast him away, please give him to me. I have no children and will bring him up as my own child. He is not responsible for his mother’s death. It is fate, and there is no help for it!”
Bensho consented to her taking the child, saying that he did not care what happened to him so long as he was kept out of his sight, for he could no longer bear to see him. So Benkei was adopted by his aunt, who took him away to the capital of Kyoto.
The child rewarded her care and grew to be a fine boy beyond all expectation. He was exceedingly strong and healthy; at five or six years of age he was equal in size and strength to boys of ten or twelve, and gave promise of unusual intelligence and cleverness.
Unfortunately his face was as fierce as that of a demon and he looked so truly savage and ugly that he gradually earned for himself the nickname of Oni-Waka, or Demon Youth.
In a few years his uncle thought that it was time to send the boy to school, and he accordingly sent Benkei to the monastery of Eizan and placed him under the tutorship of the famous priest Kwankei. In Japan as in England in those times all learning was in the hands of the priests, and the temples were the only schools.
When Benkei arrived at Kwankei’s temple he was taught the reading and writing of Chinese characters, and as he was at first docile and diligent, and obedient to all set over him, he made rapid progress, and not only satisfied but pleased his teacher, who commended his industry; but after a time he chafed at the restraint of his new surroundings and began to give trouble. Not content with being unruly himself, he would lead the other novices away from their studies into the mountains and play all kinds of rough games with them, and, of course, being by nature much stronger and bigger than any of them, none of his companions could stand against him. It therefore happened that in every contest he invariably gained the victory, and this elated him so much that he thought of nothing but his sports and his triumphs, and, neglecting his lessons entirely, practised athletic games day after day, quite forgetting everything else.
Oni-Waka’s teacher, Kwankei, hearing about the youth’s wild doings, and considering them as unseemly, sent for him and told him that such behaviour not only grieved his guardians but brought disgrace upon the holy temple; but his rebuke fell upon deaf ears and did no good at all. While he was being scolded, Benkei listened respectfully enough; but as soon as the reverend teacher turned his back he would forthwith be as wild, if not wilder, than ever. His conduct grew worse and worse, till at last, losing all patience, the master priest forbade him to go out of the house, and then enforced his order by shutting him up in a monastery.
This punishment Oni-Waka deeply resented, and one night, eluding the vigilance of his gaolers, he stole out quietly, and picking up a great log of wood began to destroy everything he could. First he smashed the gateway; then the fences all round the temple; then he broke the shutters and the sliding screens inside; indeed everything he could reach, he wrecked. The bonzes, roused from their slumbers by the unexpected noise, which sounded as if a troop of robbers were at work, were all so frightened that they could do nothing to stop the whirlwind of destruction. When Oni-Waka had done all the mischief he could he felt that, after this last mad prank, the Temple of Eizan was no place for him, so he fled from the spot forever. He was now just seventeen years of age, and he called himself Musashi Bo Benkei.
Oni-Waka showed a sense of humour when he called himself Musashi Bo Benkei. In olden times there lived in Eizan a man named Musashi, who was turbulent and wild in his youth, and yet became a famous bonze and lived until the ripe age of sixty-one. Oni-Waka, having heard about this famous man, made up his mind to be like him, and therefore called himself Musashi Bo, or Musashi the Bonze. The first syllable—”Ben”—of Benkei was taken from the first character of his father’s name (Bensho), and the second—”kei”—was the last syllable of his teacher’s name (Kwankei). The name Benkei was therefore a combination of the names of his father and teacher.
Ashamed to return home to his uncle and aunt after his behaviour at the monastery, Benkei made up his mind to travel. This he did much after the fashion of German apprentices at about the same period in Europe. Leaving Kyoto, he came to Osaka; from Osaka he went to the province of Awa in the island of Shikoku; he then travelled all through that island, and thence wandered back to the mainland, where in the province of Harima he came at last to a monastery called Shosa. This monastery was as large as that of Eizan, and Benkei thought that he would like to stay there for a time as a student. With the consent of the abbot, Benkei was enrolled as an acolyte of this temple.
Among the numerous novices in the temple there was one named Kaien, who was nearly as fond of mischief as Benkei himself, and he was known in the neighbourhood for a troublesome fellow, no one young or old being safe from his foolish pranks. One day soon after Benkei’s arrival, Kaien found the newcomer taking a nap, so for fun he wrote on Benkei’s cheek the Chinese character for geta, or “clog.”
When Benkei woke up and went into the courtyard he noticed that everybody he came near seemed to be laughing at him, though nobody would say why.
Thinking that there must be something strange in his appearance he glanced into a bowl of water and at once discovered the cause of the merriment. Angry at the trick played on him, he seized a thick stick and rushing into the midst of his fellow novices shouted: “You rogues! I suppose you thought that you were doing something clever when you scribbled on my face. Now just come here, one by one, and kneel down and beg my pardon. If you do not you will soon be sorry for yourselves.”
Benkei looked so angry and spoke so fiercely that most of the acolytes were frightened. Four or five of the boldest, however, answered him back, saying: “What do you mean, you lazy fellow, by complaining about a trick played upon you while you were asleep in the middle of the day? If we hear any more of your grumbling, we will throw you out of the monastery.”
In this way they tried to frighten Benkei, but he did not budge an inch, and his only reply was to lift his stick and knock down the four or five who had spoken.
Seeing this, Kaien, the author of all this trouble, rushed up, saying: “You are a coward to attack fellows half your size. Suppose for a change you fight with me!”
Then looking round for a weapon, and seeing a large log of wood on a fire close by, he picked it up and faced the enraged Benkei, adding: “It was I who scribbled on your face. If you are angry, come on and let us fight it out!”
The two closed at once and fought for some time; then Benkei grew impatient, and seizing Kaien by his collar and belt lifted him off his feet. The other novices, seeing this, cried out in alarm: “Kaien has been lifted off his feet. He can’t fight now. He is helpless!”
Then they shouted to Kaien to apologize and save himself.
“Pardon! Pardon! Benkei! Mercy!” screamed the youth, now bitterly repenting his folly.
Benkei, however, did not hear Kaien’s cry for mercy, for he was like a madman now. He hardly knew what he did or said, for his blood was fired by the taunts of the young men and by the fight.
“You shall die,” screamed Benkei, “mannerless coward that you are; you shall die, I say, and your carcass shall be eaten by crows!” With these words he shook Kaien as mercilessly as a dog does a rat, and then flung him upon the tiled roof of the chapel, a height of some fourteen or fifteen feet. Kaien fell on the roof, rolled down the tiles, and at last, striking a rock in the garden, was killed on the spot. When the foolish and unfortunate lad was flung up on the roof by Benkei, he still held the smoking brand which he had all to no purpose used against his antagonist and this, falling on the building, flared up and set fire to the temple. Just then a breeze sprang up and fanned the flames into a fierce blaze; sparks from the roof dropped upon the curving tiers of the five-storied pagoda, and the main gateway, and the school and the houses of the bonzes, till the whole of the monastery was in a blaze. Seeing the conflagration, all the inmates were lost in consternation. Shouting “Fire! Fire!” some of them ran to draw water from the well, while others threw sand on the flames, and in the excitement and general confusion which followed, Benkei, the cause of the calamity, was forgotten.
In the midst of the tremendous tumult and disturbance Benkei laughed quietly to himself.
“Ha! ha!” he laughed; “look at the fire and the stir I have made! I have never seen the lazy bonzes know what it is to hurry before. It will do them good for once in a way!”
Then he slipped away from the temple and made his way back to Kyoto.
Benkei, wild and unruly as he was, cannot be judged by the standard of conduct of to-day. Those times were very different from these days of peace and order. Young men were encouraged to do rough violent deeds to show their strength and courage, and if they killed their antagonists in the fight, so much the more did this redound to their credit. It was the custom for a young samurai on obtaining a sword to go out into the highways to try the mettle of his blade. Woe to those who passed by; their blood must baptize the knight’s sword. This training bred a martial spirit in the youth of Japan, and produced brave men of dauntless courage and resolution like Benkei, who became such a hero in after-life.
Benkei was, however, by this time tired of study and of living the dull life of a bonze, and he now made up his mind to rove about in search of adventures, determining that, should he find a stronger man than himself, he would become that man’s vassal, turn from his wild ways and lead the life of a good samurai, faithful to his lord and a good patriot to his country. But first of all he must find the man stronger than he to whom he would bow his proud strong neck. He longed now to find a master worthy of respect, whom he could reverence as his superior. How was this to be done? At last an idea struck him. He had determined to be a soldier and enter the service of a samurai; he must therefore get a good sword. Violent and impetuous as ever, to this end he now vowed to take a thousand swords from the citizens of Kyoto. To carry out his wild scheme he went nightly to the Gojo Bridge, and when men passed along bearing swords in their girdles he would rush suddenly out, attack them furiously, and snatch away their swords. He never pursued those who ran away, for he deemed them cowards and would not waste his time or strength on such creatures; but those who opposed him he would mow down with a single sweep of his great halberd. In this way he had attacked nine hundred and ninety-nine men and taken away nine hundred and ninety-nine swords; each time he had hoped to meet his match in the numerous contests, but not one among the whole number proved a serious foe.
Accordingly the swords Benkei had thus collected were all poor weapons, for weak men have like swords; they were blunt and badly tempered and of not the slightest use to him. He was heartily disappointed, and began to think that perhaps he had better abandon the enterprise as a vain one. In desperation, however, he determined to get one more sword and thus complete the total of one thousand blades, the number he had first of all set his mind upon. In spite of discouragement, he told himself that it would be stupid to give up at this point.
As soon as he had decided to do this, his spirits revived, and for some unaccountable reason he felt that this time he would be lucky, and able to secure once for all a good weapon. He waited impatiently for the evening, and as soon as the twilight fell he made his preparations and went as usual to the Gojo Bridge. It happened to be the night of the fifteenth day of August, and the beautiful harvest moon sailed up into the serene heaven, above the hills and the tall dark velvety pines and cryptomerias, and the sleeping world was bathed in her soft silvery brilliance. For a long time Benkei stood leaning against the parapet of the bridge, entranced by the fair scene spread out before him in the moonlight and apparently quite forgetful for the time being of his purpose. Suddenly the stillness of the beautiful night was broken by the sound of a flute. Benkei started from his reverie. The music drew nearer and nearer, and then he saw a slight figure approaching from the other end of the bridge. The newcomer wore a kind of white veil and high black-lacquered clogs, and was playing on his flute as he strolled along. Benkei watched the approaching stranger and saw at once that this was no ordinary passer-by.
At first he thought that this must be a woman, for the moonlight revealed a slender grace in walking and then on nearer view a face of extreme youth and aristocratic beauty. He could not find the heart to attack the mysterious and gentle unknown, and decided to let him or her pass unmolested; but while he was wondering who the person, so unlike all the others he had met on the bridge, could be, the supposed lady all of a sudden stepped up to Benkei and kicked the latter’s halberd out of his hand.
“What are you doing?” shouted Benkei, in a rage when he had recovered from his astonishment; and recovering his halberd he pulled off what he supposed to be the lady’s veil. To his surprise he found that the adventurous stranger was a handsome youth who might easily be mistaken for a girl, and then Benkei’s eyes fell upon a splendid gold-mounted sword which the lad carried in his girdle. He said to himself that he had not waited so long in vain, that he was verily in luck this night to have such a bird come into net. While these thoughts flashed through his mind, Benkei clutched at the sword, but the youth was far stronger than he looked, and the instant Benkei put forth his hand the young fellow flung a heavy fan in his face, saying: “How brave you think yourself, don’t you?” and darted out of his reach.
This made Benkei more angry than ever, and with threatening exclamations he lifted his halberd to deal a smashing blow on the young knight. But the lad was far too quick for Benkei and sprang about with the nimbleness of a monkey, and no matter how Benkei aimed his blows, they never reached the mark. Never had Benkei seen such agility and adroitness. Sometimes the youth appeared in front and sometimes behind, now on one side and again on the other, and as often as Benkei turned he would find that his opponent had shifted his position like lightning. At length Benkei grew tired and a sense of awe began to take hold of his mind, for he now felt that the youth must be a supernatural being, or a tengu, and no common mortal, and this feeling grew upon him so strongly that he began to lose heart. He knew now that he was no longer invincible as he had hitherto been. Then the lad, who had hitherto acted on the defensive, began to push his advantage, and, attacking Benkei in good earnest, beat down the latter’s guard and disarmed him.
When the redoubtable Benkei, who had never yet been beaten by any one in his whole life, found himself thus ignominiously defeated, he was astonished beyond words, and there and then, kneeling down on the bridge, bowed low before the young man and humbly said: “Will you condescend to tell me whose son you are, and your name? Something tells me that you are no common man!”
The handsome youth laughed and replied: “I am the eighth and youngest son of Minamoto Yoshitomo, and my name is Minamoto Ushiwaka,” and with these words he allowed Benkei to rise.
“What do I hear?” exclaimed Benkei; “are you indeed the young knight Minamoto Ushiwaka of whom I have heard so much? I felt from the first that you were a person of distinction. As for myself, I am simply Musashi Bo Benkei. For a long time I have been looking for a man stronger than myself, to whom I could look up as my master. I have led a wild life for a long time, but if you will take me into your service I will be a good and faithful vassal.”
Ushiwaka, who had heard of Benkei’s remarkable strength, and who had come out that night to the Gojo Bridge for the purpose of meeting the notorious man with the hope of winning him to his side, was delighted at the turn events had taken and promised to take Benkei into his service, and in this way the brave youth and the giant priest became associated as lord and vassal.
From this hour Benkei was a completely changed character. He gave up his wild ways and became obedient to his young master, who was the only one he had found a match for his imposing strength and will. He served his new lord with the utmost devotion, and fought bravely in every battle which Yoshitsune (Ushiwaka’s name when he came of age) waged against the Taira clan at the famous battles of Ichi-no-tani and Dan-no-Ura, of which you will have read in the story of Yoshitsune.
Yoshitsune won victory after victory, driving his Taira enemies to the sea, where they miserably perished at Dan-no-Ura, and it seemed to the wondering people that he must be the impersonation of Hachiman, the God of War. So handsome and brave was he that they had never seen or heard of his like before, and throughout Japan every one praised and loved him. Now Yoritomo, when he saw his brother’s popularity, became jealous, and Kajiwara, one of his generals, who hated Yoshitsune because the young knight had once openly reproved him for cowardice, seized the opportunity to poison Yoritomo’s mind against his younger brother; he suggested that Yoshitsune’s aim was to supplant Yoritomo in supreme authority. Sad to say, Yoritomo believed this wicked slander. Therefore, when Yoshitsune, covered with glory and honour, returned from the wars, bringing with him, as prisoners of war, Munemori, the Taira chieftain, and his son (Kiyomori was now dead), he found that Yoritomo had erected a barrier near Koshigoe, just outside Kamakura. Here he sent a guard to receive the prisoners, but on the ground that Yoshitsune was guilty of treachery, Yoritomo refused him admittance into Kamakura. In vain did Yoshitsune protest against the unjust accusation; in vain did he write a touching letter avowing his unaltered love and devotion to Yoritomo; in vain did he recount all the hardships endured on the campaigns which the young and chivalrous general had undertaken at the command of his brother. He was not believed, and ingratitude was the only reward he received for devotion to his brother’s cause. At this crisis Yoshitsune found himself banished and every part of Japan rendered unsafe for his residence, for Yoritomo ordered him to be arrested. When this time of trouble came, Benkei was indefatigable in his efforts to guard Yoshitsune’s person from danger. He followed him in his flight and exile and never left his master’s side.
Yoshitsune now returned to Kyoto for a time. Soon after he arrived there Yoritomo sent a man named Tosabo to compass his death. This man, like Benkei, had formerly been a bonze, and he gave out that he had come to visit the temples of the capital.
Tosabo knew very well what a shrewd and clever warrior Yoshitsune was, and he doubted his own ability to cope with the task he had undertaken. He therefore decided that he would wait until Yoshitsune was completely off his guard, and then make a sudden attack upon the house where he was staying. He told his followers of his plan and secretly prepared for the raid.
Yoshitsune soon learned of Tosabo’s coming, for the people of Kyoto and its neighbourhood, where he had lived as a boy, were devoted to him. The young general, knowing that Tosabo was in Yoritomo’s service, regarded him with suspicion. He told Benkei of his fears, and Benkei at once volunteered to go and summon Tosabo to the house and question him.
Yoshitsune agreed to the plan, and Benkei immediately set off for Tosabo’s house.
“Now, Tosabo,” said he, “my Lord Yoshitsune desires to see you, so you are to come back with me at once!” Benkei’s manner was so fierce and determined that Tosabo felt alarmed and he therefore pretended to be ill; but Benkei was not to be balked in that stupid way, and shouting: “If you are not quick, I’ll seize you and take you whether you will or not!” he grabbed Tosabo by his girdle and lifted him up as if he had been a child, tucked him under one arm, and, mounting his horse, carried him off.
There were several of Tosabo’s retainers present at the interview, but they were all trembling with fear and did not dare to put forth a hand to help their master.
Benkei thus conducted Tosabo into the presence of Yoshitsune by force, and both master and vassal began to examine him strictly; but Tosabo was such an audacious rascal that, notwithstanding the fact that he had actually come from Yoritomo, hired as an assassin, he refused to confess anything. With great humility he feigned surprise at being suspected of entertaining designs against Yoshitsune’s life, saying that he was but a poor bonze in Yoritomo’s service, and as Yoshitsune was his master’s brother, he (Tosabo) regarded him as his lord also. Nothing else but a religious fast and retreat had called him to Kyoto!
Now Yoshitsune and Benkei had no actual proof of his guilt, so they allowed Tosabo to go free, first making him sign a document declaring that he was not a hired assassin. In truth neither of them believed the crafty man, but thought him too despicable an enemy to fear, and made up their minds that, if he and his gang planned a night assault, the party could be easily repulsed and put to flight. Tosabo on his part congratulated himself on his cleverness, returned home, armed his men, and made an attack on Yoshitsune’s residence.
Yoshitsune that night, thinking that at any rate for some time he was quite safe from attack, made merry with all his men. Drinking amber-coloured wine they sat up late, and when at last the young general retired to rest, having drunk much he slept a deep sleep. His beautiful young wife Shizuka, who accompanied him in all his wanderings, fearing she knew not what, that night alone kept watch beside her lord’s couch. She was the first to hear the approach of Tosabo and his soldiers. Vainly she tried to rouse Yoshitsune; she called him, she shook him, but all in vain,—he slept on. Shizuka was frantic. She heard the enemy at the gate trying to batter it down. Suddenly the thought struck her, as if by inspiration, that the most thrilling call to arms to a warrior must be the sound of his armour. She rushed to the box in the hall, and heavy as it was for her slender strength, she lifted out the armour. She dragged it quickly into the room. Then over Yoshitsune’s head she waved it to and fro. “Clang-clang,” sounded the armour, “clang—clang.” Up sprang the warrior, seized the suit of armour, and with Shizuka’s help dressed himself for battle. All this took place without a single word. Benkei and the rest of his soldiers soon joined him and the enemy were put to flight. Tosabo managed to escape and hide himself in the mountains of Kurama, near Kyoto, but he was caught and put to death at last.
To have been able to thwart and punish the assassins from Kamakura was a source of great satisfaction to Yoshitsune and his men; but when the story reached Yoritomo he was very wroth, and issued another decree entirely disowning Yoshitsune and declaring him an enemy to the state.
Yoshitsune felt that Yoritomo was acting most unjustly towards him, for he knew himself to be entirely blameless of plotting against Yoritomo’s supremacy; but as it was useless to contend against his elder brother, who as Shogun was the military ruler of Japan, he decided to leave Kyoto and escape to some other place. He therefore planned to cross from the province of Settsu to Saikoku in a ship; but when they reached Dan-no-Ura, where Yoshitsune had finally conquered and all but terminated the Taira clan, the fine weather they had hitherto experienced suddenly changed, the sky became overcast with black clouds, rain began to fall in torrents, the wind began to blow, and gradually the waves rose higher and higher, and shipwreck became imminent. As the darkness deepened about them, though they could see nothing, over the water there came weird sounds of the din of battle, the rushing of ships through the sea, the shouting and trampling of men, the whizzing of arrows in the air; all around them as the ship sped on, the tumult of the fight grew louder, till Yoshitsune felt that he was living again through that awful and never-to-be-forgotten battle.
Then from amid the rolling waves, which every moment threatened to engulf the boat, arose pale, ghastly forms whose wan faces were terrible to see. Clad in blood-stained, battle-torn armour and ravaged with gaping wounds, these warrior ghosts raised threatening hands, as if to stop the progress of the boat, while meanings of despair and hollow sobs and shrieks burst from the spectre army. Among the foremost figures was one who brandished a huge halberd, and as he approached, he addressed Yoshitsune, saying: “Aha! Revenge! Revenge! Behold in me the ghost of Taira-no-Tomomori, general of the Taira clan, ruthlessly destroyed by you! Long have I waited here for you and now I will slay you all, for not until then will the slaughtered Taira rest in their watery graves.”
Through the tossing, whirling waters, with the wind shrieking round them, and a weird blue phosphoric light making everything visible, the phantom host drew nearer and nearer to the boat. But Yoshitsune did not seem to be in the least alarmed. As dauntless as ever, he stood up in the prow and faced the ghosts of the men whom he had slain in that terrible battle, and flashing forth his keen blade, said: “So you are the spirits of the Taira clan, are you? And you have risen from the ocean-bed to haunt us, and to impede our progress, and to inflict evil upon us? Have you forgotten how I drove you before me as dust before the wind when you were alive? It is a pity you have not profited by past experiences! I should have thought that you would have had no wish to see me again!”
With these words he was about to brandish his sword and attack the spectres, but Benkei, the wise and faithful Benkei, stepped up to his young master and stayed his hand, saying: “Not so, my lord. Swords are useless against ghosts. It is not wise to anger these poor earth-bound phantoms. The best way of dealing with them is to pacify them, so that they may find peace and go to their own place.”
Yoshitsune yielded to Benkei and allowed himself to be put aside. Then Benkei, who, you will remember, had formerly been a Buddhist priest, drew out a small rosary which he always carried with him, and telling his beads, and rubbing his hands together, palm to palm, began to recite prayers earnestly and reverently in a loud voice. The sacred words appointed by the Buddhist Church fell like a benediction upon the angry spirits, the wailing and the howling and the tumult of the phantom conflict ceased, and the wraiths gradually vanished into the sea from whence they had arisen; the storm ceased, and the weather cleared and became as fine and peaceful as it was before, and the travellers soon reached the land in safety.
Across the mountains Yoshitsune now fled, and after endless adventures and hairbreadth escapes, he determined to seek the help of his old friend and partisan, the General Hidehira, in the province of Oshu. On the way thither they came to a guard-house at Ataka, in Kaga Province. This guard-house was one of the principal frontier stations at which in those feudal times all travellers had to give an account of themselves. Yoritomo had by this time issued a proclamation ordering the arrest of Yoshitsune, so the young general and Benkei and the handful of faithful men still left to him disguised themselves as wandering priests, wearing loose caps on their heads, carrying wallets on their backs, and grasping pilgrim staves in their hands. Yoshitsune himself was disguised as a goriki, or coolie, attendant on the priests. They travelled slowly until they came to the barrier, consulting together as to how they should pass it, for they heard that the sentries suspected every one and were examining passers-by very strictly. Only the previous day three mendicants had been killed, owing to the suspicion of the guards having been excited.
All Yoshitsune’s followers, among whom were many brave, loyal, though headstrong young fellows, wanted to storm the guard-house and cut their way through the soldiers, but Benkei was strongly opposed to this and said: “No, no, that will never do! A quarrel would cost some of our lives, and we have few enough as it is. Leave the matter to me to manage and I’ll get you through.”
No one ever gainsaid Benkei, when he spoke with authority like that, for they all knew what a mountain of strength and resource he was in time of need. So Benkei, as ever, had his way. He disguised Yoshitsune in the dress of a servant (goriki), and gave him a deep broad-brimmed hat of bamboo to wear, and made him tuck up his robe into his belt; then, advancing in front of the others, he leisurely approached the guard-house, and with an air of the utmost unconcern and nonchalance said: “We are mendicant priests who are travelling throughout the various provinces for the purpose of soliciting subscriptions for the rebuilding of the shrine of the Great Buddha at the Todaiji Temple, in Nara. We ask permission to pass the barrier.”
Now the captain of the guard was a very clever man and a strict observer of rules, and he would not let Benkei pass without questioning him thoroughly.
“Well, as you say you are visiting the various provinces soliciting subscriptions for the purpose of rebuilding the Shrine of the Great Buddha, it is possible that I may allow you to pass, but you must show me positive proof of the truth of your story,” said the captain of the guard.
Benkei was staggered for a moment when he heard these words. What should he do? But he was a quick-witted man, and without betraying any sign of being taken by surprise, he answered with composure: “Very good, then, I will read you my commission written by the High Priest himself in the first pages of the subscription-book.”
With these words, speculating upon the ignorance of the guard, with great dignity he drew out a scroll, and pressing it with reverence to his forehead, began to improvise and read out an imaginary letter from the High Priest of the Todaiji Temple for the rebuilding of a shrine for the Daibutsu, at Nara. At the first mention of the name of the priest, so famous and so highly revered throughout the country, the captain of the guard, it is said, fell respectfully upon his knees and listened, face bent to the earth in humble awe, to the contents of the letter. So well did Benkei play his part that the sentry was convinced of the genuine character of the commission and said: “I am satisfied. There is no reason to detain you. You may pass!”
Benkei was overjoyed, and thought that at length all difficulties had been overcome. At the head of the fugitive band, with Yoshitsune disguised as an attendant in the rear, he was moving forward to pass through the barrier when the captain suddenly darted forward and stopped Yoshitsune, saying in a loud voice: “Wait a moment, you coolie! Wait a moment!”
“We are discovered,” thought Benkei; and even he, dauntless and cool in the face of all danger hitherto, felt his heart beating violently in the intense excitement of this momentous crisis.
But it was no time for hesitation, and recognizing that the whole situation hung upon that very moment, Benkei, with his usual pluck and daring, pulled himself together and coolly asked: “Have you anything to say to this coolie whom you have stopped?”
“Of course I have, and that is why I have stopped him,” replied the sentry.
“And may I ask what your business with him is?” inquired Benkei.
“This coolie,” answered the captain, “is said by my soldiers to resemble Lord Yoshitsune, and I stopped him so that I might examine him.”
“What!” shouted Benkei, pretending to be overcome with laughter at the idea, “this coolie resembles Lord Yoshitsune? Ha! ha! ha! Oh, this is indeed too comical for anything! I wondered why you arrested him, but never thought of his being stopped for such an absurd reason. But as a matter of fact he has been mistaken for Lord Yoshitsune over and over again by several people, and you are by no means the only one who has had his suspicions aroused. You see the fellow is handsome and has a very white skin like an aristocrat, and that’s all the good there is about him, but on that account I have had an immense amount of trouble with him.”
Then Benkei turned to Yoshitsune, saying: “Wretched creature! it is all your fault that we come under suspicion all the time. You shuffle along in such a cowardly manner and put on such strange airs that people naturally suspect you. In future be more careful, and walk along like a man and not in such a mincing way, you fool!”
Thus Benkei feigned to lose his temper, and after scolding Yoshitsune roughly, finally lifted his staff and gave him several blows across the back, telling him to fall upon his knees and not presume to remain standing in the presence of the guard.
The captain of the guard had been watching this scene for some moments, and when he saw Benkei start in and thrash Yoshitsune, his doubts were completely allayed; for he thought that if the apparent servant were really Yoshitsune and the mendicant priest the latter’s retainer, the vassal would never dare to assault his master in this fashion. “Ah! it was my fault and carelessness. Evidently it was an entire mistake on our part to think this coolie was Lord Yoshitsune, and it is not the poor fellow’s fault, so pray do not beat him any more! Continue your journey at once and take him with you.”
Benkei’s trick thus succeeded completely. The captain reentered the guard-house and the young lord and his vassals passed at last unhindered through the strictly guarded gate, saved as ever by the quick-wittedness of Benkei. Now some say that the captain of the guard was not deceived; that he knew that the disguised priests and attendant were Yoshitsune and his party, but his whole sympathy was with the hunted hero and his brave few and he allowed them to pass. For a samurai must ever show mercy and sympathy, especially to his fellows and to those in distress. The strict examination he insisted upon was a farce he played to satisfy the authorities at Kamakura.
Yoshitsune and his followers were filled with admiration at the wisdom of Benkei, and great were the praise and thanks they rendered him on this occasion; but Benkei, full of reverence and devotion to his master, never ceased to deplore the necessity which drove him to beat his own lord and apologized with great humility. Whenever the story was told, he would shed tears of sorrow and declare that he would rather have been beaten to death himself than have been obliged by circumstances to strike Yoshitsune.
Thus once by force of arms he put to flight the would-be assassins of Yoshitsune at Kyoto; by reciting Buddhist prayers he laid the ghosts of the Taira warriors in the sea at Dan-no-Ura; and by sheer wit and sagacity he brought his party across the dangerous frontier; and at length he managed to arrive safely with his beloved master at the Oshu residence of the famous General Hidehira.
He now thought that all troubles were over; but unfortunately this story soon reached Kamakura City, and Yoritomo, furious at Yoshitsune’s daring, despatched a large army to chastise him.
At this time Yoshitsune’s camp was pitched beside the river Koromo, and the army from Kamakura, swarming up in countless thousands on the opposite bank, discharged volley after volley of arrows at the brave but ill-fated band. Yoshitsune’s handful of men were entirely unable to face the overwhelming numbers, and fled in confusion, seeking shelter in the neighbouring woods and valleys or hiding themselves in the mountains. But Benkei, despising flight, refused to budge, and stood without moving while showers of arrows fell like rain around him. At length the enemy saw that Benkei stood immovable with his seven weapons on his back, grasping his great halberd in both hands. Wondering at the sight, they drew near for the purpose of solving the mystery. As they approached, the giant still remained standing; not an eyelid flinched, as his eyes, wide open, glared fiercely at the soldiers. No wonder that the giant did not stir, for arrows were sticking all over his body like quills on a porcupine, and it was evident that he had died standing with his face to the enemy.
This story is known far and wide throughout Japan, and you can imagine what a brave sturdy warrior he must have been to have died in this way, fighting to the last.
Another story tells how the enemy came up to the wonderful figure of Benkei and found it to be but a straw dummy, and that by this device Benkei gained time for his beloved lord, with whom he escaped into the North, leaving their enemies far behind. Such is the story of Benkei, and the story does not end here; for tradition relates with much circumstance, as traditions always do, that Benkei’s master became the conqueror of Northern Asia, known to after ages as the famous Genghis Khan.
The Story of Benkei – Warriors of Old Japan and Other Stories