A study of the most popular historical heroes in Japanese literature, on television, and on the stage shows three types: the hero who fails while striving toward some noble ideal, the rags-to-riches hero, and the hero who abandons conventionality to become a lone crusader. In fact, the Japanese hero is a composite of all three types.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune
The typical heroic failure is Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Younger brother of the late-12th-century warrior-statesman Minamoto no Yoritomo, Yoshitsune joined with Yoritomo to inaugurate a new era in Japanese history. However, He was later caught up in political intrigues and driven out when he incurred his brothers distrust by accepting appointment as imperial police commissioner without Yoritomo‘s approval. Pursued by Yoritomo, Yoshitsune fled to the Touhoku region, where he died. Yet he remains a popular tragic hero, and stories later arose that he had escaped to Mongolia and reemerged as Genghis Khan.
Other heroes in failure are Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen,both of whom sought to unite the country and end its prolonged civil wars, and Sakamoto Ryouma who was an activist in the Meiji Restoration.
Hideyoshi and leyasu
Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s is a rags-to-riches story of his rise from humble birth to ruler of the entire country in the late-16thcentury warring states period. Born to a low-ranking family, he became a retainer to Oda Nobunaga and quickly unified the country by dint of his bravery and intelligence. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who succeeded Hideyoshi as ruler of Japan, was born to a higher class but consequently spent 12 years in hostage captivity before gaining the freedom to make his bid for power. As the founder of the Tokugawa dynasty which ruled for over 250 years of peace, Ieyasu practiced a single-minded patience which continues to earn the respect of today’s captains of industry.
The prototype crusader for justice, Tokugawa Mitsukuni (as known as Mito Komon) was a grandson of Ieyasu and a wise fief ruler. After retirement, the story goes, he and two faithful retainers dressed poorly and wandered the land seeking to right social wrongs. In the story, the dangers that they meet in trying to vanquish entrenched evil are often overcome by having Mito Komon reveal his true identity at the crucial point and cow the evil doers into submission. Thus the story is at once a tale of the common man’s fight against the abuse of authority and an invocation of authority to rectify such abuses. These heroes’ enduring popularity rests the common dream that anyone might himself be such a hero or the descendant of a hero.