Japan’s greatest warlord… a woman?

Strap in, this is gonna get weird.

One of the most celebrated figures in Japanese history is Uesugi Kenshin, known as the Dragon of Echigo. He was a daimyo (feudal lord) loved for his idealism and feared for his skill in battle. He was so skilled with war that some of his contemporaries considered him an avatar of Bishamonten, god of war.

He was also, according to a contemporary Japanese historian, a woman.

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way: said historian, Yagiri Tomeo, is kind of a nut. He’s posited any number of bizarre conspiracy theories that have been discredited, but when it comes to Uesugi, he brings forth some evidence which… is not as easily dismissed.

Firstly, a possible rationale for a female Kenshin living as a man: because the leader of the clan had to be a man, or the shogun could divide up their lands and give them away. So now that we have motivation out of the way, the evidence:

  • Kenshin had severe stomach cramps on a monthly basis, around the 10th of the month. He actually scheduled his military campaigns around this.
  • Kenshin’s cause of death is recorded as a form of uterine cancer. By a doctor who made virtually no mistakes in the rest of the book that it’s written in.
  • Kenshin died around the 10th of March.
  • When the Uesugi were forced to relocate, they repeatedly took Kenshin’s remains with them, and refused to tell even the shogun where he was interred. This rules out DNA testing.
  • Kenshin’s personal tastes and appearance were consistently described in feminine terms, which, given the extreme subtleties of Japanese, is actually a bigger deal than it might seem.
  • Kenshin was the only man allowed by the shogun to wander among his harem.
  • Kenshin never married and never had children (although he did adopt).

So we have a lot of intriguing coincidences. But the evidence is hardly conclusive — if for no other reason than that Kenshin had three older brothers, thus obviating any need for his parents to present a daughter as a son. Given the records of the time, it would be very hard to hide Kenshin’s birth sex, or rewrite it later. I consider the possibility so extremely remote that I feel safe keeping this writeup to male pronouns.

If you’d like to look deeper into the “Kenshin was a woman” theory, this forum thread is a good place to start. (thanks to Sarah Rice for sending this in!)


Bonus aside!

Kenshin’s main rival, Takeda Shingen, had his own intriguing female connection: he had in his employ noblewoman (and potential future Rejected Princess) Mochizuki Chiyome, who recruited orphans and prostitutes into an all-woman ninja army. At its height, this 2-300 woman force was one of the best intelligence-gathering operations in Asia. It is my personal theory (I have no evidence to support it other than my personal observation) that Chiyome was an inspiration for Princess Mononoke‘s Lady Eboshi.


It’d make sense if you’d seen the movie.

Intriguing stuff all around!



17 Responses to “Japan’s greatest warlord… a woman?”

  1. RobinGoodfellow

    Veeeeeery interesting!
    Also, PLEASE tell us more about Mochizuke Chiyome. She does sound similar to Lady Eboshi (a-although hopefully without the whole ‘raping the natural world’ thing….)

  2. Hobbit

    I read the Wikipedia page on Kenshin. Seems that he and Shingen were not only rivals but each saw the other as his worthiest foe, and even exchanged gifts. Kenshin wept at Shingen’s death. If Kenshin was actually a lady….

    I would read the hell out of that fanfic. And watch the hell out of that movie.

  3. Andy The Nerd

    We shouldn’t overlook the possibility that he was intersex: assigned and raised male, due to visible external characteristics, but still capable of having periods and uterine cancer.

  4. Jason Porath

    Someone actually noted that on Tumblr, and it certainly makes more sense than any other explanation I’ve heard!

  5. Akujunkan

    Maybe I’m being thick, but what does dying around the 10th of March have to do with anything?

  6. Jason Porath

    If he had a period that occurred every month around the 10th, and he died of uterine cancer, the fact that he died on March 10th could indicate that his period was exacerbated by the cancer and was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Basically links the “uterine cancer” and “period” theories.

  7. Amelie

    It seems reasonable, and reminds me of the Swedish queen Christina. Her midwives declared that a boy was born and a salute for a prince was fired. Later they had to retract that to the king…

  8. Roisin

    I think it might be a stretch but what if Uesugi Kenshin was actually a hermaphrodite? It would make those things stated make a bit more sense, but would still explain the whole He’s a man thing.

  9. Dave W

    But period doesn’t always come around the same time each month. It’s roughly 4 weeks give or take a few days.

  10. Akujunkan

    Ah. I guess that seems like the obvious connection, but I’d sort of dismissed it as being too far fetched. Admittedly I don’t know a lot about cancer, but I do think it would be unlikely that a period would kill you (although I can tell you sometimes they sure make me feel like I want to). For one thing, most people don’t get uterine cancer until they are older, and then a symptom of it would be irregular bleeding. So by the time he’d have developed cancer that 10th of the month schedule would probably be shot all to hell. I’ve never heard that people with uterine cancer are in danger of bleeding out…doesn’t cancer kill you by spreading until it’s affected too many of your organs? What do I know. None of this skepticism is any way a criticism. I am totally fascinated by Uesugi Kenshin now.

  11. Jason Porath

    Yeah, I have no idea.

    On a side note: I love your username. It was one of those words I randomly learned in my Japanese studies that stuck in my brain for years. I was able to use it once in a sentence in the entire time I lived there. I may have stood up and cheered for myself directly afterwards.

  12. Claire B Goodbody

    Many women’s are 28 days. Many are not. Some might be exactly on the 10th. Who can say?

  13. Claire B Goodbody

    It would be so much easier if we could do away with female, male tropes.

  14. San Yu Tigris Lai

    Not only that, but Japan at the time uses the Chinese-esque lunisolar calendar (slightly amended), with months about 29 days long – not very different from the 28 days in four weeks.

  15. Danygalw

    What if… he was a guy… and also maybe trans?

  16. jj

    yeah i don’t believe that theory, uterus cancer is far more complicated than what written here. The harem thing abit weirder but cosidering some of the more outlandish rumor in japan history (The theory that Mitsuhide betrayed nobunaga cause while staying at Azuchi Castle, Tokugawa Ieyasu complained about the
    food he was served. Nobunaga responded by throwing Mitsuhide’s priceless
    dinnerware into the garden pond, which again rather petty when there were far more important reasons) So unless there hard evidence i’m taking this with a grain of salt. It more likely he was either a intersex or a hermaphrodite.

  17. jj

    It would make more sense (The trans thing) he could also be an intersex.