Introduction to Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura


Historical Basis for Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura


The Genji and Heike clans waged decades of civil war during the twelfth century. The family names of the clans were Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike). The Heike enjoyed dominance until late in the century when the Genji, led by the brilliant, young general, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-89), routed the Heike: first in a series of land battles and then at the great sea battle of Dannoura in 1185. Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-99), fearful of the popularity of his younger brother, declared Yoshitsune an outlaw. Yoshitsune’s flight became the subject of many tales and plays which were crowned by the masterpiece Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), first written as a jôruri (puppet) play in 1747 and so popular that it was adapted into kabuki within weeks.


Yoshitsune, a play in 5 acts in the jidamono (history play) style, was written by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shôraku, and Namiki Sôsuke in 1747. The same playwrights were also responsible for Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami, 1746, and Kanadehon Chûshingura, 1748, which together with Yoshitsune constitute the golden period of writing for jôruri. The most commonly produced scenes are Act 2’s “Fushimi Inari Shrine” and “Daimotsu Beach,” Act 3’s “The Death of Kokingo” and “The Sushi Shop,” and Act 4’s “Michiyuki” and “Kawatsura Hôgen’s Mansion.” Yoshitsune plays only an incidental role in the play. Three Heike generals, Taira no Tomomori, Taira no Koremori, and Taira no Noritsune, occupy the major roles. The playwrights, ignoring the fact that all of the Heike generals had perished at Dannoura, created the major plot around the desire of the generals, disguised as commoners, and supporting clan members for vengeance on Yoshitsune, the embodiment of their humiliation. The secondary plot concerns the ruthlessness of the hunt by Yoritomo (who does not appear in the play) for Yoshitsune and his immediate circle. Yoshitsune’s lover, Shizuka, and the supernatural fox figure prominently in this plot.


Before the play Yoshitsune sends false heads of the Heike generals to Yoritomo, which arouses suspicion. Also, Yoshitsune receives a drum called Hatsune from the powerful retired emperor who has described it as a symbol of the relationship between Yoshitsune and Yoritomo; should Yoshitsune beat the drum he will lead a rebellion against Yoritomo to redress his own mistreatment. Yoshitsune refuses to beat the drum.


Principal Characters and Allegiances


(Bold Font marks the name by which the character is popularly known.)


Genji Clan (and allies).

Minamoto no Yoshitsune, victorious Genji general in the Heike-Genji wars; younger brother of Yoritomo

Kyô no Kimi, wife


Benkei, retainer

Tadanobu, retainer

Fox,a magical fox who adopts the appearance of Tadanobu


Heike Clan (Generals believed to have died during the decisive sea battle at Dannoura).

Ginpei (= Taira no Tomomori), shipping agent at the Tokaiya; in reality, Tomomori, a Heike general who supposedly died at Dannoura

Oryû, posing as his wife, in reality, Tsubone, wet nurse to Antoku

Oyasu, posing as daughter of Ginpei and Oryû, in reality, the child emperor Antoku

Sagami Gorô, retainer

Kakuhan (= Taira no Noritsune), Zen master on Mt. Yoshino; in reality, the Heike general, Noritsune, who supposedly died at Dannoura

Yasuke (= Taira no Koremori), in disguise as apprentice to Yazaemon in the sushi shop; in reality, Koremori, a Heike general believed to have perished during the Heike-Genji wars; father of Rokudai; wife: Naishi

Kokingo, retainer of Koremori


Heike Clan (supporter).

Yazaemon, master of the sushi shop

Gonta, ne’er-do-well son


Yoritomo (who does not appear in the play).

Kajiwara Kagetoki, retainer

Kawagoe no Shigeyori, councilor; father of Kyô no Kimi, Yoshitsune’s wife


Act 1. Yoshitsune’s Mansion


Shigeyori, Yoritomo’s envoy, visits Yoshitsune’s mansion to request an explanation regarding the false heads and to judge Yoshitsune’s loyalty to Yoritomo. Yoshitsune explains that his act was in the interest of national stability, denies thoughts of insurrection, and avoids the issue of the status of his wife, Kyô no Kimi, the adopted daughter of a Heike supporter. Shigeyori confesses that he is her real father and offers to commit suicide for keeping the relationship secret, but Kyô no Kimi stabs herself instead. In accordance with Kyô no Kimi’s instrcutions, Shigeyori beheads her as a display of loyalty to Yoritomo. A band of Yoritomo’s soldiers attack the mansion and are defeated single-handedly by Benkei, Yoshitsune’s retainer. Shigeyori urges leniency for the soldiers but Benkei recklessly cuts off their heads and proceeds to play with them in a barrel as if washing potatoes.


Act 2. Fushimi Inari Shrine; The Tokaiya; and Daimotsu Beach


Act 2 links the plot concerning Yoshitsune with that of the Heike general, Tomomori. At Fushimi Inari (Fox) Shrine, Yoshitsune thrashes Benkei for the recklessness that has forced Yoshitsune to flee Yoritomo. He then forgives Benkei and they set off for Daimotsu Bay to board ship for exile in Kyushu. Yoshitsune forbids Shizuka to join the group, gives her the drum, and has her bound to a tree to prevent her from following. A villain taunts her and seizes the drum. One of Yoshitsune’s retainers, Tadanobu, wearing red and white makeup, which indicates his true identity as a magical fox, rescues both. His secret motive is to stay close to the drum, which is made from the hides of his parents. Yoshitsune witnesses the actions of Fox-Tadanobu, rewards him with his own armor, and entrusts Shizuka to his protection. Shizuka beats the drum as they exit along the hanamichi (walkway [through the audience]) and Fox-Tadanobu reveals his fox nature by his actions.


At the Tokaiya shipping office/inn in the port of Daimotsu, Yoshitsune hires a ship from Gimpei. In reality, Ginpei is the Heike general, Tomomori, resolved to kill Yoshitsune. His wife, Oryû, is Tsubone, wetnurse to the child emperor, Antoku, and his young daughter, Oyasu, is the emperor himself. Sagami Gorô, a retainer of the Heike clan, arrives and demands to hire a ship and vows vengeance on Yoshitsune. Ginpei defends Yoshitsune and evicts Sagami, thus winning Yoshitsune’s trust. Ginpei advises Yoshitsune to sail immediately and informs Oryû that he and his followers plan to attack Yoshitsune’s party at sea during the imminent storm. If the plan miscarries, his boat’s lights will be extinguished as a signal to kill the emperor. Oryû watches the battle from Daimotsu Beach and, when the lights go out, boards a boat to sail to deep water in order to drown the emperor and herself. Yoshitsune intercepts and, as the group returns to shore, observes a bloodied Tomomori enter and defeat a band of Yoshitsune’s retainers. After some persuasion, Tomomori entrusts the emperor to Yoshitsune’s guardianship and then commits suicide in most spectacular fashion. He climbs the hill on a promontory, ties a huge anchor to his body, throws the anchor into the sea and, wrenched in afterward, somersaults backwards.


Act 3. Kokingo’s Death; and The Sushi Shop


Act 3 is the story of the Heike general, Koremori, with Scene 1 set at Shimoichi Village. Wakaba no Naishi, his wife, accompanied by her young son, Rokudai, and the faithful retainer, Kokingo, is searching for Koremori. The group rests in the village and encounters the villainous Gonta. Gonta secretly switches packs with Kokingo, later makes the error known, and then claims that twenty gold coins are missing from his pack. Not wishing to attract attention, Naishi orders Kokingo to pay Gonta that sum. In a subsequent pursuit into a bamboo grove by Genji constables, Kokingo becomes separated from Naishi and Rokudai, and is killed in spectacular fashion. The constables lasso the defiant Kokingo from many directions, raise him high, and then stab him repeatedly. Yazaemon, the owner of a sushi shop in a nearby village, is harboring Koremori disguised as Yasuke, his young apprentice. He comes upon the body of Kokingo and decapitates it, to present the head to the authorities as that of Koremori. Yazaemon is also the father of Gonta, whom he believes to be a good-for-nothing.


In Scene 2, at the sushi shop, three sushi buckets stand in a row on stage. Gonta spies Yazaemon returning and hides some money stolen from his mother in one of the buckets. Yazaemon enters and stows the head in another bucket. In the evening Naishi and Rokudai enter and are joyously reunited with Yasuke-Koremori. Gonta overhears, mistakenly takes the bucket with the head, and rushes off to claim a reward from the authorities. Kajiwara Kagetoki, a retainer of Yoritomo, arrives with a group of soldiers and demands Koremori’s head from Yazaemon, whom he suspects of harboring the fugitive. As Yazaemon is about to open the bucket containing the money, Gonta appears dragging two prisoners, their faces obscured by gags, who he claims are Naishi and Rokudai. He also offers Kokingo’s head as that of Koremori. Kajiwara rewards him with a precious robe and leaves. Yazaemon promptly stabs Gonta, appalled at his apparent treachery. In a modori (reversal) scene, Gonta discloses that Yazaemon’s example of loyalty to the Heike clan has inspired him to change character. He has substituted his own wife and child for Koremori’s. When the robe is unfolded, Buddhist garments and a rosary tumble out indicating that Kajiwara was not duped. In fact, Yoritomo was obliged to Koremori’s father. Gonta dies vindicated.


Act 4. Michiyuki; and The Fox


Act 4 moves back to the story of Shizuka and the fox, including only a brief episode involving another Heike general, Noritsune. Scene 1, set amid the cherry blossoms, is often performed as an independent dance piece. Shizuka and the Fox-Tadanobu set out on a michiyuki (journey) to rejoin Yoshitsune in his hideout on Mt. Yoshino. Fox-Tadanobu comforts the disheartened Shizuka by teaching her a folk dance concerning the Battle of Dannoura. The genuine Tadanobu arrives and Shizuka is perplexed until she hits on a way to discover which is the fox. She asks both Tadanobus to hide and then strikes the drum. The fox cannot resist the call of the drum and his costume transforms to that of a white fox. He performs numerous acrobatic tricks, magically appears and reappears through stage traps, and adopts the voice and gestures of a fox. Fox-Tadanobu confesses his filial loyalty to the drum and is rewarded with it by Yoshitsune. Soldiers led by Noritsune, formerly disguised as the Zen master, Kakuhan, attack. Fox-Tadanobu bewitches the attackers by flying through the air, and reconciles Noritsune with Yoshitsune by demonstrating that Yoshitsune has kept the emperor alive.


In Conclusion


The play is renowned for several highlights: Tomomori’s suicide into the sea, Gonta’s change of heart, and the Fox-Tadanobu special effects and transformation.


Recommended Internet Sites and Reading

Internet Sites

Benkei and the Moon over Daimotsu Bay (ukiyo-e)


Tomomori’s Ghost appears at Daimotsu Bay (ukiyo-e)



See part 4: “Michiyuki Hatsune no Tabi,” (“Mt. Yoshino”), ukiyo-e and description of the michiyuki.


Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Tadanobu and Shizuka)


Shizuka’s Love Dance

(Photograph sequence with audio of the dance)

This Japanese dance recounts the ancient tales of Shizuka Gozen — the sad parting with her lover Minamoto no Yoshitsune at Mt. Yoshino, her journey to Kamakura, and her dance at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine performed at the request of Minamoto no Yoritomo. Despite her captivity, Shizuka continues to long for her lover Yoshitsune and prays for the safety of her beloved, incurring the displeasure of Yoritomo in this dance.


Translation and Analysis


Jones Jr., Stanleigh H. (Trans. and Ed.). Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

To the Yoshitsune senbon zakura contents

Last revised January 2, 2001