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Benkei by Kikuchi Yosai
Benkei with Yoshitsune

Saitō Musashibō Benkei (西塔武蔵坊弁慶 ?, 1155–1189), popularly called Benkei, was a Japanese warrior monk (sōhei) who served Minamoto no Yoshitsune. He is commonly depicted as a man of great strength and loyalty, and a popular subject of Japanese folklore. His life has been embellished and distorted by kabuki and Noh drama, so that truth cannot be distinguished from legend.



Stories about Benkei's birth vary considerably. One tells how his father was the head of a temple shrine who had raped his mother, the daughter of a blacksmith. Another sees him as the offspring of a temple god. Many give him the attributes of a demon, a monster child with wild hair and long teeth. In his youth Benkei may have been called Oniwaka (鬼若 ?)—"demon/ogre child", and there are many famous Ukiyo-e works themed on 'Oniwakamaru' and his adventures.

He joined the cloister at an early age and travelled widely among the monasteries of Japan. During this period, the Buddhist monasteries of Japan were important centres of administration and culture, but also military powers in their own right. Like many other monks, Benkei was probably trained in the use of the naginata. At the age of seventeen, he was said to have been over two metres (or 6.6 feet) tall. At this point he left the Buddhist monastery and became a yamabushi, a sect of mountain monks, who were recognised by their black caps. Japanese prints often show Benkei wearing this cap.

Benkei is said to have posted himself at Gōjō Bridge in Kyoto, where he deprived every passing swordsman of his weapon, eventually collecting 999 swords. On his 1000th duel, Benkei was defeated by Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a son of the warlord Minamoto no Yoshitomo. Henceforth, he became a retainer of Yoshitsune and fought with him in the Genpei War against the Taira clan.[1] Yoshitsune is credited with most of the Minamoto clan's successes against the Taira, especially the final naval battle of Dannoura. After their ultimate triumph, however, Yoshitsune's elder brother Minamoto no Yoritomo turned against him.

During the two year ordeal that followed, Benkei accompanied Yoshitsune as an outlaw. In the end they were encircled in the castle of Koromogawa no tate. As Yoshitsune retired to the inner keep of the castle to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) on his own, Benkei fought on at the bridge in front of the main gate to protect Yoshitsune. It is said that the soldiers were afraid to traverse the bridge to confront him, and all that did met swift death at the hands of the gigantic man. Long after the battle should have been over, the soldiers noticed that the arrow-riddled, wound-covered Benkei was standing still. When the soldiers dared to cross the bridge and look more closely, the giant fell to the ground, having been dead in a standing position for some time before that. This is known as the "Standing Death of Benkei" (弁慶の立往生, Benkei no Tachi Ōjō).

It is Benkei's loyalty and honour which makes him most attractive in Japanese folklore. One kabuki play places Benkei in a moral dilemma, caught between lying and protecting his lord in order to cross a bridge. The critical moment of the drama is its climax, where the monk realises his situation and vows to do what he must. In another play, Benkei even slays his own child to save the daughter of a lord. In the kabuki play Kanjinchō, filmed by Akira Kurosawa as The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, Benkei must beat his own master (disguised as a porter) in order to avoid breaking his disguise.

In the media

The Tale of Benkei was serialized in the first three issues of the short-lived British comic book series Tornado in 1979.

Japanese pro wrestler Kensuke Sasaki wrestled under the name Benkei Sasaki, while in Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, in 1989.

Benkei is playable character in Koei's Warriors Orochi Z, a Japanese exclusive game for the PlayStation 3.[2]

Benkei was featured as the bridge-keeper in Zazen Town in the Nintendo 64 game Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon. His appearance as a large, brutish man with a staff parallels the engraving by Kikuchi Yosai. His name appears among several other references to legendary Japanese figures including most prominently Sasuke and Goemon.

The third pilot of the original Getter team was Tomoe Musashi, and his successor after his death was Kuruma Benkei. Both are characterized as loyal, steadfast friends with preternatural toughness and endurance (Musashi's introductory battle in the manga showcases him maintaining his consciousness when even the ridiculously strong Ryouma and Hayato pass out from the electrical energy coursing through the machine, and Benkei is introduced in the TV show as sleeping through an intense spinning machine for an extended period of time at speeds that would be fatal to most.) The two characters are combined for a more direct tribute in the character of Musashibou Benkei in the OAV New Getter Robo, who is also a monk.

In the video game Okami, Benkei is first seen on a bridge (which is also called the Gōjō Bridge) wear his trademark black cap, fishing for his 1000th sword. In this case, it was a legendary fish known as the "Living Sword" (a fish which has a sword-like appearance, named the Cutlass Fish). He prevents the protagonist (a wolf avatar of the Shinto sun god, Okami Amaterasu) from crossing the bridge until he catches it. In order to pass him, Amaterasu must buy the fishing rod called Blinding Snow (which he couldn't afford himself, for 5000 Yen) from the Tool Merchant for him. After giving him the rod, Amaterasu must uses her Celestial Brush powers to help Benkei catch fish (the player has limited control over Benkei during this portion of the game, mainly holding the rod & pulling in the hooked fish). After he catches the legendary fish (with Amaterasu's help), he claims to realize how foolish his obsession with swords is & decides fishing is a much worthier pursuit (apparently having givin up his passion for swordfighting in favor of his newfound love of fishing). He can later be found fishing on a nearby dock.

He is a playable character in the video game, Genji: Dawn of the Samurai, and the sequel Genji: Days of the Blade, where he is portrayed as a large club-wielding warrior monk, and a faithful companion to the main character, Yoshitsune.

He also appears in the collectible card game, Yu-Gi-Oh!, as a DARK-type Warrior monster by the name of "Armed Samurai - Ben Kei". The monster's special effect allows it to attack one additional time for each card equipped to it. The original Japanese version of the card depicted a warrior monk pierced with many arrows, referencing Benkei's famous death. The arrows were removed for the international release, ostensibly for being too graphic.

A highly fictionalized version of Benkei is the central character of the Shike saga of novels written by Robert Shea. In the novels, his name is Jebu, a warrior monk from the order of Zinja. The books detail his life from age 17 to his meeting with Yoshitsune, right through to the Mongol Invasions of Japan.

The manga "Air Gear" features a team of characters with the names Benkei and Yoshitsune


  1. ^ Kitagawa, Hiroshi et al. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, pp. 535, 540, 654, 656, 669.
  2. ^


  • Ribner, Susan, Richard Chin and Melanie Gaines Arwin. (1978). The Martial Arts. New York: Harper & Row. 10-ISBN 0-0602-4999-4; 13-ISBN 978-0-0602-4999-1.
  • Kitagawa, Hiroshi and Bruce T. Tsuchida. (1975). The Tale of the Heike. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. ISBN 0-86008-189-3.
  • Yoshikawa, Eiji. (1956). The Heike Story: A Modern Translation of the Classic Tale of Love and War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ASIN B0007BR0W8 (cloth).
    • _____. (1981). The Heike Story: A Modern Translation of the Classic Tale of Love and War. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing. 10-ISBN 0-8048-1376-0; 13-ISBN 978-0048-1376-1 (paper).
    • _____. (2002). The Heike Story: A Modern Translation of the Classic Tale of Love and War. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing. 10-ISBN 0-8048-3318-4; 13-ISBN 978-0-8048-3318-9 (paper).
  • (Japanese) _____. (1989) Yoshikawa Eiji Rekishi Jidai Bunko (Eiji Yoshikawa's Historical Fiction), Vols. 47–62 Shin Heike monogatari (新家物語). Tokyo: Kodansha. 10-ISBN 4-0619-6577-8; 13-ISBN 978-4-0619-6577-5.

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