The Standing Death of Benkei


Henry Horne, Staff Reporter

There once was a great samurai warrior named Benkei. He saw two rich men  with 1000 bows and 1000 horses, and he wanted to show he was better than them. He went out to collect 1000 swords. He walked the streets of Kyoto, Japan (one of the largest Japanese cities at the time) looking for arrogant samurai warriors to challenge to a duel, and if he won these duels, he would take their swords as a prize. 

The day came when he had defeated 999 samurai and had almost completed his goal. On his way to a local shrine he heard music, and he turned to see a small man playing a flute. He saw that he had an exquisite, gilded sword on his hip, so he challenged the small man to a duel. Not wishing to battle in front of the shrine as it would disrespect the deity, they decided to go to a nearby bridge and begin the duel, but, to Benkei’s astonishment, the man beat him. Benkei was ashamed to be bested by someone as he thought he was the best. Instead of taking Benkei’s sword or his life, the small man asked Benkei to become his retainer (bodyguard and servant). He revealed that he was the renowned warrior Yoshitsune, so Benkei agreed. Yoshitsune had earned the title of great warrior through his military successes. From a young age, he had been regarded as a military genius, and he proved his success many times over. 

For many years, he was Yoshitsune’s retainer. Benkei fought by Yoshitsune’s side, and he aided Yoshitsune with whatever he needed. Throughout this time, Benkei and Yoshitsune developed a close relationship and became the best of friends. Then, the Gempei War began, and Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother, who sent many men to kill him. They surrounded and trapped Yoshitsune in his castle. Yoshitsune and Benkei went to the inner courtyard of the castle, where Yoshitsune made one final request; for Benkei to fend off the army long enough for him to commit seppuku (ritualized suicide). He wanted to do this so that he could die with honor by his own sword. Since Benkei was a loyal friend as well as a retainer, he agreed. 

Benkei took a position on a small bridge that led to the island where Yoshitsune was. As wave after wave of enemy samurai came at him, he slayed all of them. He was motivated by the power of friendship. They could not break through, so they decided to line up their archers and shoot him with many arrows. He continued to fight, albeit, more and more slowly. He thought about Yoshitsune and kept fighting as hard as he could. Eventually, he stopped moving, but he never fell. When the attacking army finally approached him, they found Benkei dead. He died standing as if to defy death itself, fulfilling his master’s final wish. 

This would come to be known as “The Standing Death of Benkei.” This story has been passed down orally, so there are many different interpretations of it. This is my version of it, and it’s the version that makes the most sense to me. This story is important to me not just because it is a cool story, but also because it shows that even if you don’t achieve your goal, it can still improve your life in unforeseen ways. In the story, Benkei does not achieve his goal of getting 1,000 swords, but he makes a lifelong friend instead. He also learns humility through being beaten when he thought himself unbeatable. He loved his friend and retainer so much that he died a painful death by many arrows, so his friend could die with honor. I would argue that this put his life on a better path.