Monk-soldier during the period of the Gempei war (1180–1185) and devoted companion of Ushiwakamaru/Yoshitsune. Benkei was born to the daughter of a blacksmith near ShingΔ. His mother ate iron and may have been a descendant of
Dπjπ-hπshi. His father was either a yamabushi or a priest, or perhaps the thunder deity. Benkei’s mother was pregnant in a miraculous manner for three years and three months. He was born with a full head of hair that reached his knees and a full set of teeth.

In his grandfather’s smithy he hammered the anvil into the ground and collected firewood by the treeload. In his youth he was called Oniwaka (Young demon) for his pranks and ferocity. On one occasion when challenged, he held aloft a large rock to crush his challenger: The rock can still be seen today. Because of his wildness and perhaps his huge appetite, he was made a novice at Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei (thus his familiar surname—Musashibπ, or “Priest Musashi”), where he studied to be a yamabushi. Eventually he became a sπhei, one of the monk-soldiers of the temple. Originally a position for less intelligent and devout monks, the sπhei had become threats to order in the capital by the eleventh century.

Benkei was eight feet tall and had the strength of a hundred men. Annoyed by the monks of Miidera (traditional rivals of Enryakuji) on the shores of Lake Biwa east of Hiei and the capital, he carried away the massive bell of Miidera temple and placed it at his own monastery on Mt. Hiei, overlooking
the capital from the northeast. When the bell refused to toll, only uttering “I want to return to Miidera” when struck, the hero gave it a kick that rolled it down the mountain and back to the gates of Miidera. His price for returning the bell (he agreed to return it only after the intercession of his abbot) was a satisfactory meal.
His depredation emptied the temple’s larder and cellar. The cauldron from which he ate can still be seen in Miidera today: He was not, apparently, a dainty eater, and the marks of Benkei’s teeth are on the cauldron still.

As a sπhei he needed weapons and armor, and his way of equipping himself was as eccentric as the rest of his life. For weapons he carried, in addition to his sword, a quiver of tools: masakari (broad ax); kumade (rake), nagihama (sickle- weapon), hizuchi (wooden mallet), nokogiri (saw), tetsubπ (iron staff), and sasumata (half-moon spear). These were the weapons of the common man, not the bred warrior, and Benkei is often known as “Nanadogu Benkei” (Benkei of the Seven Tools). He also ordered himself a special suit of armor to fit his gigantic frame. The armorer told him it would take one thousand swords to make the suit, and these he vowed to collect. For this purpose he stationed himself at one end of the Gπju Bridge in Kyoto, challenging all comers to surrender their swords or fight. He was on the point of adding the last sword to the collection when he challenged a young boy, Ushiwakamaru, and was promptly defeated. Benkei then became the young man’s devoted retainer.

Benkei’s devotion to his master—whose full name became Minamoto-no- Yoshitsune—was extreme. He is epitomized as both a loyal retainer and as wild genius tamed by craft. In the most famous episode attributed to him, he helped
his disguised master pass for a low-ranking monk by beating him at a barrier at Ataka (in modern Ishikawa prefecture) guarded by men loyal to Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, Yoshitsune’s brother and nemesis. The conflict between the respect for a lord and the need to humiliate the lord and save his life became an enduring theme in Japanese literature and art. One charming story attributed to him has it that while writing a draft of a letter Yoshitsune wanted to send to his brother, Benkei was disturbed by the sound of crickets. Furious, he shouted out loud “Silence!” and since then, the environs of the Manpukuji temple in Koshigoe (near Kamakura) have been free of the sound of the insects. Benkei was finally killed defending his master’s castle against Yoritomo’s forces.

Benkei is usually depicted wearing black armor under a priest’s coif. He is thus often known by his priestly name, Musashibπ Benkei. In some depictions he wears the hexagonal pillbox hat of the yamabushi and is seen carrying his seven implements on his back. And he is just as often shown following a youthful, almost childish looking Ushiwakamaru. Benkei is barely mentioned in the Heike Monogatari, one of the main sources about the Gempei war and its aftermath.

His life is more extensively documented (and possibly fabricated) in the Gikeiki (translated by McCullough as Yoshitsune [1966]), written two centuries later. The popular appeal of this figure was so strong that whatever his origins, his stature grew to that of one of the best-known Japanese mythical heroic figures.

References and further reading:

  • Brandon, James R., and Tamako Niwa, adapters. 1966. Kabuki Plays. New York: S. French.
  • Kitagawa, Hiroshi, and Bruce T.Tsuchida, trans. 1977. The Tale of Heike (Heike Monogatari). Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.
  • McCullough, Helen Craig, trans. 1988. The Tale of the Heike. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • ———. 1966. Yoshitsune: A Fifteenth-Century Japanese Chronicle (Gikeiki). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Ouwehand, Cornelius. 1964. Namazu-e and Their Themes: An Interpretative Approach to Some Aspects of Japanese Religion. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill.
  • Sieffert, Rene. 1995. Histoire de Benkei. Paris: P.O.F.


Handbook of Japanese Mythology written by Michael Ashkenazi – Copyright © 2003 by Michael Ashkenazi