It is impossible to appreciate the importance of the Battle of Yozenawa without knowing the greatest of its heroes, Maeda Kaeji. In truth, Kaeji was the heir to the Maeda clan, but not much was expected of him in childhood. For it seems that Kaeji was an irresponsible young man, more prone to fights and womanizing than the important role of being a nobie in the Sengoku period.
Fifth Regent Maeda Kaeji, one of the greatest warriors of the Sengoku period
Kaeji’s exploits became well known even before he attained adulthood. His romance with many women were also well-known, but there was none who enamored him more than the Lady Akechi Mariko. At one time, the Lord of Ryukyu, Chikuzabe Korusho (later Admiral of Japan), saw the Lady Mariko and wanted to make her his mistress.
He sent a small contingent men to kidnap her from her father’s domain in Mino, but Kaeji who was passing by stopped them.
The twenty samurais saw that he was alone and said, “How dare you block us? We are the cream of the Lord Korusho’s samurais? Do you think you can even defeat us?”
But Kaeji looked at them in disdain and said, “How can the noble Lord Korusho stoop to such lowly deeds? As far as I’m concerned, you are no more than a bunch of brigands claiming to serve him.”
The samurais were angry, but their true mission was to kidnap the Lady Mariko and not to fight with the unruly young noble, so some of them surrounded him and fought. But Kaeji was more than a match for any of them, for he hath been trained by the famous ronin Harada Kuruzami, originally one of Takeda Shingen’s 24 disgraced generals.
Some of these samurais managed to capture Lady Mariko, took her on a fast ship, and were returning back to Ryukyu. Suddenly, they realized that their sail was cut. Lo and behold, it was Kaeji!! Somehow, he hath managed to steal into the ship. The samurais fought with him, but were again defeated. He forced the remaining sailors to bring him back to Mino where he returned Lady Mariko to her father.
It was clear that despite his cavalier lifestyle, the Lady Mariko hath fallen in love with him, and he said unto her father Akechi Jinsai, “One day, I will marry your daughter.”
Whereupon Jinsai replied, “Would you do so without my consent? As Lord Korusho hath attempted.”
But Kaeji confidently replied, “You shall consent,” and then he left without need to explain.
Many years later, the Maeda clan surrendered to the Oda Shogunate. Kaeji was one of the most celebrated generals and a young one at that. The Lord Shogun Nobunaga granted Lady Mariko’s hand to Kaeji. Needless to say, …Jinsai consented.
After the death of his father, Kaeji succeeded to the daimyoate of Maeda, while Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his rival for the hand of Lady Mariko, became Shogun of Japan. At first, Hideyoshi resented him, but Kaeji was indispensible to his campaign in Korea. Was it not the brave Kaeji who defeated the Chinese general Cheng Yin in the Battle of Pyongyang?
Therefore, when Hideyoshi was about to die, he promoted Maeda Kaeji to Fifth Regent. Sure, it was still junior to all the other regents, but for a minor daimyo of the Maeda clan to attain such status was not normal.
Now, there was another troubled young man in the Sengoku period, and he was the illegitimate son of Tokugawa Ieayasue by a minor mistress. Originally, his name was Ieyomi, but Hideyoshi hath adopted this young man. Though he was the Shogun’s adopted son, the servants despised him and did not treat him with due respect.
Ieyomi was angered and murdered the servant in cold blood. After that, no one dared to challenge him. Not only was Ieyomi the adopted son of a Shogun, but he was also a great warrior.
One day, he heard the beautiful song sung by Kaeji’s wife and was eager to take Lady Mariko back to his court, when he was stopped by Kaeji. Some of Kaeji’s retainers said unto him, “You will leave the Regent’s wife here, and we will not find fault with you.”
But the haughty Ieyomi replied, “Am I to fear some perfumed Regent of my Father? I shall take that which I have the ability to take.”
Whereupon, Kaeji appeared before him in person and said, “How dare you compare with the perfumed nobles of your father’s court? I am my own man. I was fighting by the Shogun’s side before you learned how to hold a sword, little boy.”
Now, Ieyomi did not like being called a little boy, so he charged at Kaeji but was defeated twice. In the end, he acknowledged Kaeji as a senior, and both of them came to enjoy the songs of Lady Mariko.
Another story that added to Kaeji’s fame was his thunderous horse known as the Matsukaze, or “winds in the pine”, for the wild stallion was bred of the best horses, but he was wild and ill-tempered. No warrior could tame his unruly spirit. One day, the Lord Shogun Hideyoshi was about to kill the horse, when Kaeji asked him to give him the chance. And so Kaeji was able to tame Matsukaze, which eventually became his horse. It was said that Kaeji was as wild as Matsukaze himself, and so they were kindred spirits. Kaeji was never seen in a fight without this great steed.
Many years hath passed, and by then, Ieayasue hath declared himself Shogun. Though Ieyomi hated his true father, he was compelled to fight on his behalf. In the great duel at He-hizea Pine Groves, Kaeji defeated Ieyomi thrice before slaying him. Such was his great nobility and sadness at slaying his own disciple.
Now, Kaeji was the greatest swordsman in Japan, both in terms of strength and agility, and Ieayasue would have loved to have him serve him, but this could not be. For Kaeji was a best friend of Fourth Regent Uesungi Nagamasa, who was now enemy of Ieayasue.
Nevertheless, Ieayasue hoped that Kaeji would be spared if he did not intervene, and so he sent a messenger to tell Kaeji as much. That messenger was none other than the disgraced and deposed Third Regent Mori Homatsu, who at one time was more senior than Kaeji himself.
But Kaeji looked at Homatsu in disdain and said, “It behooves me to see that the great Lord Mori Homatsu of Nagasaki is no more than one of the Tokugawa lapdogs, but let Ieayasue know this that Maeda Kaeji fears no more, Regent, Shogun, or not.”
Whereupon, Homatsu said, “You will pay for your arrogance, Kaeji. Is my example not enough yet?”
To this statement, Kaeji replied, “Perhaps, I will pay for this with my life, but certainly, I will not pay with it with my dignity as you have, my Lord.”
With these words, Kaeji rode on Matsukaze with just five thousand men and the famed warrior Rokuro to the city of Echido, where the Uesungi capital was located. Rokuro was honored to ride with Kaeji for in Japan, Kaeji was the only man alive who could match him in swordplay.
But before, Kaeji could reach Echido, he realized the city hath been occupied by Tokugawa forces. Now, only a small contingent of 15,000 men led by the former Fourth Regent Uesungi Nagamasa, son of Kenshin (the God of War), met him at Yozenawa. Here, they would make their last stand against the greatest army in Japanese history.