Samurai Rising

Child exile. Teenage runaway. Military genius. Immortal hero. His story is legend.

Yoshitsune had little going for him. Exiled to a monastery, he had no money, no allies, and no martial training. He wasn't big or strong or good-looking. His only assets were brains, ambition, and a dream. But childhood dreams can change history.

This is a story of insane courage and daring feats, bitter rivalry and fatal love. Based on one of the great works of Japanese history and literature, Samurai Rising takes a clear-eyed, very modern look at the way of the samurai—and at the man who became the most famous samurai of all.

"So. Friggin'. Awesome."
    —Betsy Bird, A Fuse #8 Production's Newbery/Caldecott 2017: Spring Prediction Edition

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Author Pamela S. Turner discusses re-creating Yoshitsune's World

It's not easy to reach more than eight hundred years into the past—and into a different culture—to write the story of a person's life. Which sources are the most reliable? How much did the tale change between the happening and the telling? Can the bare bones of fact be used to flesh out the character of a person who died long ago?

One of my two major sources is The Tale of the Heike, as translated by Helen McCullough and Royall Tyler. Historian Paul Varley calls the Heike "the finest of the war tales; indeed, it is among the supreme masterpieces of Japanese prose literature."

The other major source is the Azuma kagami (Mirror of Eastern Japan), a semi-official history of the early years of the Kamakura shogunate. Historians believe it was compiled in the latter half of the thirteenth century from court diaries, family records, temple documents, and early versions of the Heike. It is considered the most valuable single source on the origins of Yoritomo's warrior government. I have used Minoru Shinoda's translation, which covers the period 1180 to 1185, and have relied on Hiroaki Sato for translations of later entries mentioning Yoshitsune.

It is difficult to know how much events depicted in The Tale of the Heike, the Azuma kagami, and other sources were altered or exaggerated to fit the dramatic needs or political agendas of their authors. As scholar and translator Marisa Chalitpatanangune writes, "Although the main events and personages of the [war chronicles] are historical, short fictional elaborations and anecdotes are often incorporated into an account, revealing traces of an oral storytelling tradition."

So how can we know if any individual description or anecdote in the source material is accurate? The short answer is we can't. To be confident of the accuracy of an account, a historian wants multiple records of the event, all recorded shortly after the event by unbiased eyewitnesses. Unfortunately, few historical events eight hundred years in the past can meet this gold standard. We don't know what sort of eyewitness testimony was available to the compilers of the Heike and the Azuma kagami. And in any case, we must remember that these long-dead authors were writing according to the standards of their own time and culture, not those of twenty-first-century historians. We are forced to make our own judgments about which descriptions and anecdotes are most likely true and which might be invention or elaboration.

Yet there are ways of separating the more probable from the less probable. Historians have noted that some of the information we have about Yoshitsune (for example, his physical description as small, google-eyed, and buck-toothed) runs counter to what we would expect for a heroic figure, even though he is clearly one of the Heike's heroes. The same can be said for some of the most intriguing anecdotes about him: asking his men for advice, losing his bow at Yashima, jumping to another boat at Dan-no-Ura. If the Heike described Yoshitsune as a giant among men, broad-shouldered and handsome, a warrior who killed hundreds in a single battle (and so on), we could reasonably dismiss such description as gross exaggerations. It's much harder to dismiss descriptions and anecdotes that run counter to the heroic ideal. These sorts of things are less likely to be invented.

I have used dialogue from the Heike, the Azuma kagami, and other sources sparingly. In some cases I have included dialogue because it is the obvious thing someone would say in a situation, and in other cases because the dialogue highlights personality traits that are supported by that person's known actions. Sometimes, however, I have included dialogue in a scene for its historical interest. For example, the Azuma kagami notes the death of Kiyomori's nephew Atsumori at Ichi-no-Tani, but the Heike gives us a very detailed description of his final moments. Can we be certain that he died exactly the way the Heike claims? Can we be certain that before his death Atsumori and his killer had the conversation described in the Heike? No and no: we can never be certain. But what the Heike shows us, without a doubt, is how Atsumori has been remembered. And that is also a part of Japanese history.

I have provided extensive documentation of my source material and the choices I made in telling Yoshitsune's story. Please see the chapter notes for more detail.

In addition to the The Tale of the Heike, the Azuma kagami, and other sources from Japan's early medieval period, I have drawn from the works of historians, scholars, and translators who specialize in this period in Japanese history. William Wayne Farris, Sen Soshitsu Professor of Traditional Japanese Culture and History at the University of Hawai'i, kindly reviewed this manuscript prior to publication and I am very grateful for his invaluable expertise and advice.

Of course, nothing can quite compare with visiting the places where events actually took place. Although I lived in Japan for six years during the 1990s and had already visited some of the spots associated with Yoshitsune, I made a special trip to Japan in September 2012. I climbed the steep steps of Karama Temple, watched horseback archery at Yoritomo's shrine in Kamakura, drank tea alongside the Uji Bridge, hiked the steep hills of Ichi-no-Tani, walked the beaches of Yashima, and dangled my feet in the cold waters of Dan-no-Ura. In Kyoto I strolled down the avenue where Yoshitsune lived, and in Hiraizumi I stood on the ridge where he died.

Only a few structures in Japan have survived the centuries that separate us from Yoshitsune. He might still recognize the beautiful Phoenix Hall beside the Uji River and the radiant Hall of Gold of Hiraizumi. Time, fire, earthquakes, and war have swept away virtually everything else.

Oddly, the bodies of the last rulers of Hiraizumi survived. The mummified remains of Hidehira and Hidehira's father were placed beneath the altar of the Hall of Gold, and a mummified head was stowed in a wooden box next to Hidehira's body. Modern researchers have identified the head as belonging to Yasuhira, the foster brother who betrayed Yoshitsune. The round black lacquer box that held Yasuhira's remains is on display in the museum next to the Hall of Gold. It probably closely resembles the tub that held Yoshitsune's head.

What does linger in places like Kurama, Dan-no-Ura, and Hiraizumi is something timeless: the smallness one feels under a great cedar tree, a cold sea breeze biting the cheek, wind rushing through trees. I hope I have been able to communicate within this book a small measure of what Yoshitsune himself experienced.

That is the "how" of creating this book; the "why" is more convoluted. While living in Japan I first read The Tale of the Heike and fell in love with the story the way I had fallen in love with the tales of King Arthur when I was a teen. Learning that Yoshitsune was a prominent historical figure impressed me all the more.

More than a decade later I found myself looking for a fun way to spend time with my son Connor. I suggested that we try kendo (Japanese swordsmanship). Kendo led me back to Yoshitsune and The Tale of the Heike. I hope I have done some justice to the memory of Japan's most famous samurai and to the great heritage of Japan's martial arts.

Some argue that over the centuries Yoshitsune's story has been cut and buffed and polished, like a fine diamond, to make it appear brighter, more sparkling, more satisfying than it was in reality. I think the opposite is true. What remains after eight hundred years is only the ghost of Yoshitsune. His reality was surely more intriguing, nuanced, and heartbreaking than anything we can imagine or re-create. What we have, in this or any other form, is nothing more than the fossilized remains of an impossibly complex human experience.

     From the Author's Notes in Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner


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Pamela S. Turner is the author of several award-winning books for young readers, including Life on Earth—and Beyond: An Astrobiologist's Quest, Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog, and the ALA Notable Children's Book and Orbis Pictus Honor Book The Frog Scientist. Pamela first encountered Minamoto Yoshitsune's story while living in Japan. She now lives in Oakland, California, where she is a black-belt practitioner of kendo, the way of the sword.
Visit Pam online.

While in college Gareth Hinds made artwork inspired by legends about Yoshitsune. He was therefore thrilled to return to twelfth-century Japan in Samurai Rising, this time illustrating Yoshitsune's real-life adventures. Gareth is a third-degree black belt in aikido and the award-winning creator of graphic-novel adaptations of Macbeth, Beowulf, The Odyssey, and other classics. He lives in Washington, DC.
Visit Gareth online.